Inequality in the 21st century

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Image: Gerd Altmann/Wikimedia Commons

There has been a battle -- most apparent since the French Revolution -- between the conservers of hierarchical power and the advocates of equality. Over the past two centuries the egalitarians, in the developed countries, have been winning the struggle. We have seen, despite many reversals, much greater equality amongst classes, genders, and ethnicities, in North America and Western Europe, of recent centuries than in previous historical periods. In relation to an individual life, 200 years is far too long for society to finally acknowledge the equality of different groups of people. Yet in relation to the history of humanity, a few centuries is a sentence in a vast epic. Increased equality has of course partially emerged because elites have needed healthy, productive workers and soldiers and therefore have had to educate and care for as many members of the population as possible. The Global North's exploitation of other regions of the world has also provided the resources to support greater internal egalitarianism. Yet hierarchy has resurged again, threatening to reverse the internal gains made by the affluent countries.

The consolidation of hierarchy -- following Rousseau's insight in A Discourse on Inequality -- depended on the creation of private property. Hunter-gatherer societies had less inequality because they had little property. The Agricultural Revolution produced property of land, animals, plants, and tools and therefore rigid, tiered societies emerged in which a small group controlled most wealth and power. Historically the most important form of property was land, and thus political battles were fought over its possession. Control of space consolidated a rigid division between a noble class and a commoner class. In the 19th century a new form of inequality based on the ownership of machines and factories produced an economic division between bourgeoisie and proletariat, and a corresponding political conflict between capitalists and socialists. The 21st-century mode of property-based inequality may be oriented by data, that is, between those who own it versus those who do not.

Our age's disruptive technological innovations have brought a rise in the importance of the ownership of information. This is not the first time that the accumulation of data was significant, and governments have always wanted to gather knowledge about their citizens. But for the first time, according to Yuval Noah Harari's 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, corporations now own a tremendous amount of psychological information. The data of today is remarkably internal, in contrast to the typical physical externals sought in the past such as one's date of birth, height, colour of eyes, income, and citizenship. Our most prominent contemporary data merchants, like Google, Facebook, or Baidu, can find out who we spend time with, what food we like to eat, what goods we purchase, and what places we want to visit. This information opens the door to new forms of social control, manipulation, and marginalization.

How do we resist the development of an information-oriented hierarchy? How do we resist the merchants of data? Harari himself does not carry a phone, he meditates for two hours a day, and goes on a 60-day Vipassana meditation retreat every year. He has constructed long periods of time where he is not online. He has stated that he does this in order to maintain mental clarity but the fringe benefit of this regime is that he is personally providing owners of information with less data while also making himself less dependent on their products. This is a productive set of individual tactics, but the collective fight against inequality will also require broader social and political strategies: advocacy for the collectivization of data, for the legal guarantee of privacy, for scientific innovations which protect us from mental and emotional colonization, and for a culture that embeds technology within a broader set of social and spiritual goals.

Thomas Ponniah, PhD, is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, and the co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books 2003), and co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela (Harvard University Press 2011). 

Image: Gerd Altmann/Wikimedia Commons

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