How to fight inequality – and why that fight needs you

Written by Guest blogger, Ben Phillips Tuesday 08 September 2020
The paradox of inequality is that the more we recognise its existence, the less we seem to do to reduce it. Here’s how we can change that
Hands of different ethnicities on a table

In recent months, we have watched key workers hold our society together, in many cases without proper protections. We have seen the immorality and unsustainability of systems in which our right to life is shaped by our bank balance. In effect, Covid-19 has revealed the deeper crisis of our age: inequality.

Economically, we are seeing extreme concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Politically, governments are loosening their watch over major corporations and big finance. Socially, we are seeing an increasingly divided world become an increasingly angry, intolerant and violent one. And ecologically, inequality is driving the climate to the tipping point. Something needs to change.

You may remember that in the years following the 2008 crash, a growing chorus of people pushed to get the inequality crisis recognised as real, damaging and needing to be tackled. And around 2015, mainstream economists, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD and even the World Economic Forum started to listen. All governments have, in signing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, pledged to reduce inequality. We have, rightly, celebrated these victories.

But winning on words has not translated into action. Inequalities continue to worsen, and the broad thrust of government action to date has been insufficient to address the problem. Securing official consensus has not, on its own, led to inequalities being tackled. We face now the contradiction that every world leader has promised to act on inequality and yet only a handful of them are doing anything about it. Where do we go from here?

While it is clear that some leaders made commitments to tackle inequality without any intention to implement them, it is also the case that even the most well-intentioned leaders need popular pressure. My analysis, that we can’t rely on leaders to bring change for us, has been taken by some to imply a view that all policy-makers are venal and uncaring. But that’s not my experience.

Rather, the point is that having good policy-makers is not enough to shift inequality. There are too many pressures on them from the interests at the top, so they need a countervailing pressure from below. Remember what President Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King: “I know what I have to do, but you have to make me do it.”

We can sometimes feel that things are simply going on around us, or that change has to come from those above us, but we can shape events too – not alone, but with each other. If there’s one general lesson from history, it seems to be this: no one saves others. People can liberate themselves only when they stand together. It can be slow and it’s always complicated and it sometimes fails – but it’s the only way it works.

To get informed about how you can contribute to this ongoing discussion, check out our CMI Race campaign and our Delivering Diversity research which you can use to make positive change in your organisation.

Ben Phillips has combined the roles of NGO director, political adviser, civil society activist and writer. He has lived and worked in four continents and 14 cities. This is a lightly edited extract from his upcoming book, How to fight inequality – and why that fight needs you, published by Polity Press.

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