Inequality is not the problem

income inequality (mSeattle flickr)

Photo by mSeattle on Flickr

Now that inequality has caught everyone’s attention (if you missed it, catch up here of hier), perhaps we can start thinking about social class again, as well.

Obviously, the kind of class society that once was, has disappeared. It is possible to escape poverty and it is possible for affluent people to become poor. Class is not about static categories based on income, degrees or job titles. Rather, class should be seen in terms of the relations between broadly defined socioeconomic categories. As Imogen Tyler demonstrates in her book Revolting Subjects, class is about the process of social classification. Class is the result of how people classify and how people are being classified, as well as struggles for de-classification. The fact that categories are fluid and temporary does not mean that they do not exist or affect people’s lives.

Socioeconomic inequality is problematic because we tend to evaluate people based on their economic value. Class has a lot to do with socioeconomic status. But there’s more: what ‘class’ adds to inequality is that it links socioeconomic status with moral worth. Classification is not a neutral business. People are placed in a moral hierarchy that ranks ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of living, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people (for ‘choosing’ those ways of living).

What I worry about is that increasing socioeconomic inequality translates into a steeper moral ranking. One only needs to look at recent social policies to see how ‘we’ evaluate people who depend on benefits. In the Netherlands (that egalitarian and tolerant society), people face benefit sanctions for not trying hard enough to get a job (in times of rising unemployment) or for not dressing appropriately on job interviews.

Notwithstanding Piketty’s warning that we’re heading for 19th-century inequality, we do not live in an age in which we all know that wealth is determined by birth. Instead, we tell others and ourselves that opportunities in life are equally accessible. Your ability to capitalize on opportunities lies in your own hands. You and you alone are responsible for the course of your life. Class is dead. All you have to do is make the right choices and apply yourself. Our meritocratic system is considered fair: rewards go to those who are good at things.

Unfortunately, not all expertise is considered equally important or worthy. In our society we decided to measure worth by economic standards. The problem of growing class inequality is that it widens and deepens the gap between between those who do ‘valuable’ things and those who don’t, between those who are worth something and those who are worth nothing. Who cares about people who are ‘worthless’?

The problem of socioeconomic inequality can (and should) be solved by redistributive measures, as Piketty (and others) suggests. However, those solutions will only be a solution for class inequality when we stop linking economic value with moral evaluations.

What do you think?

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