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Globalisation, inequality, injustice and protest

By Ken Macnab - posted Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Globalisation, inequality, injustice and protest are inextricably linked, and 2011 was the year when these links were manifested most publicly and widely. The effects of globalisation as a set of economic policies have exacerbated existing injustices and created new ones, and generated powerful social, economic, political and cultural tensions.

Inequalities of all sorts have sharpened, not just in relation to material standards of living, but also in access to decent education, life choices, health, happiness and human rights. At the core of all the public protests, demonstrations, resistance movements and uprisings which characterised 2011 lay an awareness of and opposition to injustice and inequality.

The concept of 'justice' has a long history, and has always been seen as a virtue of both individuals and institutions. Plato defined it in his Republic (380BC) as both the most essential individual human virtue and the bond which held society together in a harmonious whole. Conversely, 'injustice' is the lack of or opposition to justice on both the individual and collective levels, including humanity as a whole. Essentially, injustice means 'gross unfairness'. Synonyms for injustice frequently carry a negative prefix: unfairness, inequity, unlawfulness, inhumanity, maltreatment, inequality, malpractice, misuse, and so on.


Like violence, injustice can be generated by personal relationships, institutional procedures, structural frameworks, and cultural discrimination. Hypocrisy and corruption in all walks of life are potent creators of injustice. The ways in which the components of the criminal justice systems work – political bias and vested interest inputs, laws, police, courts and punishments - can generate both justice and injustice. Violations of individual and collective human rights are always injustices. As are grossly unequal treatment and rewards in the workplace, both as individuals and as participants in national and global economic systems.

Unmerited inequality, created by structurally imposed discrimination, is one of the most keenly felt injustices. Such unjust inequality lies at the core of modern economic practice, which treats people as factors of production to be bought and sold as commodities rather than as human beings with inalienable rights. On trips to Iceland in the 1870s, William Morris, the creative English revolutionary socialist, fell in love with its strange, ever-changing landscape, scene of the great sagas he would imitate, and its traditions of craftsmanship. But he also learnt there a fundamental political axiom, that 'the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes'.

Economic inequality, often quantified as 'wealth and income differences', has a clear impact on life opportunities and outcomes. President Barack Obama has called it 'the defining issue of our time'. In their book titled The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better(2009), epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compared eleven significant indices of health and social development in 23 of the world's richest nations and in the individual US states. They concluded that in terms of physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, violence, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, community trust, teenage pregnancies and child well-being, outcomes for the overwhelming majority of people were significantly worse in more unequal rich countries and states.

The significance of such studies is strengthened because they reveal patterns across the type of economy that is proliferating worldwide. The idea of a unified world is an old one, which spread rapidly after the First and Second World Wars. But the humanitarian ideals of the League of Nations Covenant (1919), the UN Charter (1945) and Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and many other Agreements and Conventions were accompanied by global economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (1945), the World Bank (1945) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT 1948), later becoming the World Trade Organisation (WTO 1995).

These and other global economic organisations have promoted the economic interests and policies of the victors of both the Second War and the Cold War. Accompanying them has been the creation of the myth of universal benefits from globalisation, by people such as Marshall McLuhan, who popularised the term Global Village (1962), and Theodore Levitt, a Harvard Business School marketing economist, who from the early 1980s promoted the benefits of 'globalisation'.

However, despite all the boasts about the benefits of the increasingly global relationships of culture, ideas, communications, languages and peoples, they are primarily the servants of economic globalisation. This is essentially the ideology of unregulated self-interest, facilitated by reduced international barriers and regulations, dominated by the free marketing of finance, goods and services. It is the latest packaging of capitalism, which has had many champions and slogans: the 'market forces' of classical orthodox political economy (Smith, Malthus and Ricardo), 'laissez-faire' and 'free trade' (Cobden, Bright and the Manchester School), social Darwinism, imperialism, economic liberalism, 'trickle down economics' (Thatcher and Reagan), triumphant 'liberal democracy' (Fukiyama) and 'economic rationalism'.


But the supposedly self-evident axioms of globalisation are actually self-serving platitudes. Because it serves their interests well, in the last few decades globalisation has been embraced by the leaders and elites of an increasing number of nations, such as South Africa, Russia, Mexico, India, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea. A Swiss Economic Institute even puts out the KOF Index of Globalization, which measures and ranks 'the economic, social and political dimensions of globalization.' But there is increasing evidence that globalization delivers its benefits inequitably, and that the gap between the rich and poor is widening everywhere.

The plethora of statistics documenting these trends can only be sampled briefly here. According to the World Top Incomes Database from the Paris School of Economics, between 1980 and 2008 the share of total household income in the United States accruing to the top 1% rose from 10% to 21%, and that of the top 10% rose from 34.6% to 48.2%. To quote Saul Eslake: 'Put simply, the top 10 per cent of Americans control almost half the country's household wealth.' In the same period, the average real incomes of the bottom 90% rose by just 2%.

All other indicators, such as gross incomes, taxation percentages, stocks and shares value, and property ownership, indicate vast and widening inequalities, particularly since the Global Financial Crisis. Statistics for other countries, such as Britain, Sweden, India, Australia, even China, though moderated in some cases by progressive taxation rates, welfare redistributions and other transfer systems, show the same growth of inequality and the same deleterious consequences.

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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