The New Politics of Inequality at the World Economic Forum (again)

Christine Lagarde, the IMF and the World Economic Forum

Christine Lagarde has once again used the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week to highlight her quest to refocus the International Monetary Fund on the task of reducing inequality.  Mme Lagarde has repeatedly made such statements at the WEF and I’ve covered these on this blog before.

Speaking at a Bloomberg sponsored event on the ‘squeezed and angry’ middle classes throughout the world, she reminded the audience that she had warned of the destabilising political effect that inequality might have.  With the rise of populist political movements now very much in evidence she was once again making the same warning.


Christine Lagarde Speaking at the World Economic Forum this week

I have previously noted the IMF’s interest in inequality under Lagarde and went to meet some of the people in the Fund responsible for the research published in 2013 and 2014 to ask them about it.  I concluded then that the concern was genuine but that this was motivated in the main by a concern to prevent political destabilisation rather than an egalitarian ethical standpoint. To be clear here – this is not a critique of the individuals; they appeared to have a very developed ethical commitment to equality, but an organisational one.  It seemed to me then that what had enabled their work on inequality (which had been around for a long time) was the stance of the IMF’s Managing Director (Mme Lagarde and Dominique Strauss-Kahn before her) but also the context of increasing political instability.  I called this the ‘New Global Politics of Inequality from above’.

The struggle for reform

This week Lagarde commented on her own struggles to turnaround the IMF to focus on inequality.  It is worth reading this at length:

“[back in 2013/14] we were demonstrating that excessive inequalities were putting a brake on sustainable growth… I got a strong backlash from economists in particular saying that it was not really any of their business to worry about these things, including in my own institution, which has now been very much converted to the importance of inequality and studying it and providing policies in response to that… we now have a very opportune time to put in place policies that we know will help…”

So to summarise this and the tenor of the Davos debate:

  • Mme Lagarde recognises that inequality is a problem;
  • Davos stakeholders and policy makers should worry about this because it is bad for growth and creates political instability;
  • she has tried, against resistance, to change the IMF and to lead the G20 with some success, to focus more on putting in place policies to reduce inequality.


For those with an ethical or just pragmatic concern to reduce inequality some important questions arise from this. These are about how much the Davos set (such as international organisations like the IMF, multinationals, the G20, policy makers and leading NGOs) have genuinely taken action to reduce inequality as a result of this kind of analysis.

So, is the IMF really trying to reduce inequality?

I can’t answer for all of these different organisations, but recent research I undertook with Dr Paul White, did focus on the extent to which the IMF has changed. We undertook our analysis in several stages.

First, we looked at high level pronouncements and reports from the Fund on the subject of inequality.  Speeches from Lagarde herself and several important research and policy documents do indeed have a strong focus on reducing inequality.  They map out both the case for reducing inequality  and identify a series of evidence based conclusions about precisely which sorts of policies might increase or reduce inequality in different types of country.

Next, we took that list of policies: that is the policies that the Fund itself says will reduce inequality.  Rather than evaluating ourselves whether these policies would reduce inequality, we took that at face value and looked for evidence that these policies were being promoted by the Fund when it works with member states.

Few international organisations have as direct a channel of influence on their member states as the IMF.  This comes mainly in two forms.  The IMF regularly provides advice and recommendation to all members (nearly all countries in the world).  While these recommendations are not mandatory, they do carry some weight because capital markets may view this advice as sensible and therefore access to funding for government programmes may be affected if governments ignore it.  For governments who borrow from the Fund, this advice obviously has much stronger leverage; it is often part of the conditions that the Fund attaches to receiving financial support.

The next step was to look at the operational guidance that IMF staff work under when producing advice to member states.  We wanted to see the extent to which the policies the Fund says reduce inequality are present in that guidance.  There have been several changes to this guidance recently and at a headline level concerns with sustaining growth and reducing inequality appeared to have triggered those changes.  Evidence then of Mme Lagarde’s reform programme.

But when we looked at the actual detail of the changes to the operational guidance and the various supporting documents, it was difficult to discern the emphasis on reducing inequality.  It seemed that whatever message had come from the top about this, got lost somewhere in the technocratic process of re-drafting the operational guidance.

Finally, we looked at recent IMF documents providing advice to member states.  We looked only at recommendations produced after the new operational guidelines were in place.  We were specifically looking for recommendations which echoed those in the Fund’s own lists of policies which might reduce inequality.  We also searched the documents for any mention of concerns with inequality, income distribution and the like.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found very little evidence of any of this.

So it seems that while there may be an attempt to reform the IMF to focus on reducing inequality, this has not yet fully percolated through the organisation to operational practice.  We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised.  Reform takes time after all.

Rhetoric and practice

There are several possible explanations for the lack of change.

Perhaps it is an ‘organised hypocrisy’ or ‘legitimation strategy’: high level pronouncements on socio-economic and gender inequality are a veil for the real business of the Fund, which is unconcerned with these sometimes negative consequences of promoting growth and global market integration.

Alternatively, perhaps it merely represents institutional stickiness: reform takes time and not enough time has passed.  If either of these explanations is adequate, research like that undertaken by Paul and I, as well as others (Best, Broome, Kentikelenis et al., Weaver, Gronau and Schmidtke etc) help to keep the pressure on and support the reform efforts of committed leaders like Lagarde.


I am not yet in a position to be definitive on this, but I suspect something of both these explanations, placed in a broader analysis of the role of international organisations in the expanding global economy, is the real answer.  But to stand up that conclusion, more research is necessary.

Where to from here?

For me the next phase in my research on the IMF is to continue to audit policy documents to see whether there is any identifiable change in practice.  I also intend to enquire with Fund staff, and perhaps Christine Lagarde herself, as to what they think explains the apparent dissonance between high level policy and practice.

Whatever the outcome of this research, it is important that those involved in highlighting the issue of global inequality, continue to keep the pressure on, to hold the powerful to account.  That includes the IMF, Mme Lagarde and all those present at the Word Economic Forum this week of course.

‘We have to be better than that’. Dark Times in UK politics

In this post, Dr Sophia Price, Head of Politics and Applied Global Ethics, at Leeds Beckett reacts to the politics of fear and resentment in the UK and the violent murder of the Rt Hon Jo Cox MP.

These are dark times in British Politics. The mind-numbingly horrific murder of MP Jo Cox yesterday on the streets of West Yorkshire should make us all stop and look at what we’ve become.

While the terrible and violent manner of her death is shocking and awful, that we have witnessed such violence is not wholly unexpected. There has been a deliberate stirring of racial hatred in the name of a political project, something so graphically demonstrated by UKIP’s latest poster campaign that was unveiled yesterday. It depicts a long line of refugees,  foregrounded by the statement ‘Breaking Point’.


Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 11.27.42

Nigel Farage in front of a UKIP/Leave Campaign Poster

The demonization of immigrants and refugees in the name of political gain has been a noted recent element of British politics.  This sort of trend was met in the past by resistance from those to the left of right wing xenophobia. Since Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 the playing of the ‘race card’ in British politics has been something that has been widely criticised and recognised as divisive and dangerous. In reaction to Powell’s speech Tony Benn said:

“The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen. If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene racialist propaganda … the forces of hatred will mark up their first success and mobilise their first offensive.”

The brutal murder of a left wing MP who spoke up for and defended the rights of immigrants is a marker in that offensive.  A woman described by her colleague as someone who believed that a better world is possible, one without hatred and racism.  She appeared to believe that the purpose of politics was to lead public opinion in pursuit of that better world, rather than stoke up fear and resentment of others for structural problems that they did not recreate.

That Jo Cox spoke up and stood against the forces of hatred is a mark of the woman that she was. For the rest of us the question hangs in the air.

What we have seen in UK politics recently is an extraordinary realignment of positions in the politics of race. Some elements of the notionally progressive sections of British politics have engaged in a Faustian pact, willing to have their positions allied to those of racists and xenophobes in the hope this will deliver the political result that they believe will justify that alliance.

In the interests of that pact, their opposition to the ‘filthy and obscene racialist propaganda’ has not been loud enough. Take for example Labour MP Kate Hoey, describing immigration as a ‘curse’:

“Outside London and the big cities, this abundant supply of cheap labour is not necessarily a guaranteed boon. It can be a curse – driving down wages, taking jobs from the locals, as well as putting pressure on schools and health services”.

Of course, Hoey is right that immigration is an issue that impacts on the working class and the poorest communities. Support for Powell in 1968 came from workers and trade unionist who staged strikes and marches against his sacking from the shadow cabinet after his evocation of the Tiber ‘flowing with much blood’. But care is needed in how these issues are addressed.

The answer is not a retreat into violent and hateful ‘Little Englanders’, pointing the finger at and blaming the most vulnerable and precarious in our societies.  The problems facing poor communities and many immigrants alike are structural inequalities between and within nations; immigration is the result rather than cause of these inequalities.

Put simply; we have to be better than that.  Jo Cox’s legacy has to be to remind us of the importance of this.


Dr Sophia Price teaches modules on international relations, gender and European politics at Leeds Beckett.  Her recent research focuses on EU external relations, the relationship between trade liberalisation and poverty in African, Caribbean and Pacific states and micro-finance and gender in West Africa.  Her most recent paper is published in the Journal of Modern African Studies, and available here.

Saving World Market Society from Itself? The World Economic Forum and the New Global Politics of Inequality

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland. The annual conference has a long history of bringing leading individuals from the worlds of business, government and academia together. Following criticism and protest in the 1990s and early 2000s, the annual meeting has also been opened up to ‘civil society’ and webcasts now enable the interested public to peek into the proceedings of the once very secretive meeting.

The WEF prides itself on being an ‘agenda setter’ and bringing the ‘international community’ together to tackle common global problems. This international community is broadly conceived and now takes in key multinationals, international NGOs, international organisations and the leaders and senior politicians of leading states, as well as senior academics from across the social and natural sciences. To illustrate this point, the Co-Chairs of this year’s meeting included Winnie Byanyima (Executive Director of Oxfam International), Jim Yong Kim (Director of the World Bank) and Eric Schmidt (Chief Exec of Google). Many hundreds of participants from these sectors will be present at the meeting and contribute to the discussions.

The conference theme this year is ‘the New Global Context’ and is underpinned by four pillars. These include the challenges associated with maintaining global cooperation in the context of geo-political shift and ‘decentred globalism’; the challenge posed by slow growth and the need to make this more sustainable and resilient; the promises and challenges of new technology; and social instability.

Davos Programme

Davos Programme

Something of a ‘pinch of salt’ is needed when decoding some of this: it suits the forum organisers to present significant systemic challenges as requiring imminent attention, because that suggests a stronger purpose for the forum. However, the agenda does highlight some significant risks facing the global system, and which it has a track record of outlining, particularly in its Global Risks Report, the tenth annual iteration of which was published last week.

Risk management has become a hot topic among international organisations in recent years. In my paper due to be presented at the International Studies Association annual convention in New Orleans in a few weeks time, I take a look at the role of international organisations in managing systemic risk in the international system, in the context of academic debates about the emergence of a world society.

Global Risks Report 2015

Global Risks Report 2015

In the paper, I argue that a world society is emergent, but this is better understood as a ‘world market society’ (WMS) in which the process of world market integration is ‘ecologically dominant’ (to borrow a phrase from Bob Jessop) over other aspects of it, such as increased social connectivity, the development of shared cosmopolitan identities and the extension of democracy and human rights.

I also argue that if a WMS is emergent,  it also has some important institutional promoters – these being supra-national institutions such as the World Economic Forum, but also inter-governmental organisations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These organisations have a long track record in promoting world market integration. But the same organisations are also now increasingly engaged in identifying risks to the continued process of world market integration and attempting to manage these.

For the many activists and critics who have traditionally viewed these organisations negatively (for e.g. the anti-globalisation movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Occupy protestors and the like), this can be superficially confusing. For one of the major themes in work put out by the WEF, the OECD and the IMF over recent years has been to lament the world wide rise in inequality and its now widely recognised negative impacts on growth, social stability and the vulnerability of the financial system.

My paper charts the various research and strategy reports put out by these organisations over the last few years which make these arguments. It also reports on interviews undertaken with senior figures at the OECD and IMF in the last few months about their work on inequality. The tenor of these interviews was that these high profile reports on inequality should be taken at face value; they represent a serious concern with the growth of inequality.

So how can the apparent serious interest of these organisations in containing and/or reducing inequality be reconciled with their commitment to the process of world market integration ? Afterall world market integration is a principal factor in the increase in inequality in the first place.

The answer lies in ‘risk management’, and by understanding risk in a dynamic way. As Paul Cammack  argues, risk management to these organisations is about seeing risk as both positive and negative. Risks are positive when they are about pro-market behaviour – rewarding investments in skills or product development. Risks are negative when they corrupt market behaviour.

WDR 2014 Risk & Opportunity.  The cover image for this report was in bad taste given it was published only days after the Lampedussa boat sinking.

WDR 2014 Risk & Opportunity. The cover image for this report was in bad taste given it was published only days after the Lampedussa boat sinking.

In this sense prominent negative risks are climate change or natural disasters because they undermine confidence in market-based risk taking and lead to market failure. As if to reinforce Cammack’s point, the World Bank’s annual World Development Report in 2014 was titled Risk and Opportunity and much of it was focused on how to incentivise positive risk and contain negative risk.

Inequality can be understood in this way too. Inequality is seen by these organisations as positive when it leads to disproportionate rewards for some, and therefore incentivises market-based risk. However, there is a level of inequality when the costs of negative risks outweigh these positive ones. This is the case where inequality leads to social and political instability or undermines trust in political institutions and the status quo of uneven wealth and power distribution.

To cite an example from a recent OECD report, it is also negative when it undermines market based risk taking: for instance when unequal societies mean that the poor do not invest in their skills development for future reward, because they cannot forgo today’s consumption, or they see the potential benefits as too uncertain. Clearly, in the judgement of those responding to the WEF’s Global Risk survey in recent years, and the OECD and IMF, inequality has risen to a level when these negative risks are now outweighing the positive ones.

The argument underpinning my paper is then that the new concern among international organisations with inequality – what might be termed a ’New Global Politics of Inequality’ – is just one example of their role in managing the risks associated with world market integration. It is a genuine concern, but it is not necessarily progressive. Rather it should be seen as a feature of these organisations attempting to save World Market Society from its own in-built crisis pressures.

None of this is to question the individual motivations of some of the committed people that I spoke to about their work on inequality inside these organisations. Many of them were genuinely committed and from a progressive desire for a more equal distribution of power and resources. They reported long-standing commitments and work in the area of inequality which stretched far beyond the recent organisational support for it. However, what seemed clear was that their work and ideas were allowed to come to the fore, and given organisational prominence, precisely because the context had changed. From an organisational standpoint, inequality had moved between the categories of positive and negative risk.

Occupy Poster, courtesy of Rayna Daine, Occupy Together.

Occupy Poster, courtesy of Rayna Daine, Occupy Together.

There are many reasons why this shift in organisational perspective occurred. On the one hand protest and activism was significant. The Occupy movement, resistance in Southern Europe to the imposition of austerity and the Arab Spring were all major triggers for shifting organisational agendas. So too is the increasing uncertainty among international organisations about their leadership and facilitation of the international community in a world of geo-political power shift from the US and ‘West’ to a multi-polar world. Dealing with inequality and social fragmentation as well as the impacts of this on consumer demand and environmental problems like resource depletion and climate change, in the context of reduced leadership capacity worries these organisations greatly. Watching the webcasts of discussions at Davos reaffirms this conclusion substantively.

A final question relates to the role of advocacy in this context. A future avenue for my research, and one currently being explored in our Global Inequalities research group by doctoral researcher Priyan Senevirantne, is what role leading NGOs are playing in this process?

Oxfam has been one of the loudest critics of increasing inequality, and no doubt has been influential in putting the issue on the agenda of the institutions of world market society. Oxfam’s critique is that WMS is skewed toward the very rich. Its analysis is far more radical than that of the IMF or OECD because it clearly suggests that there is something inherently wrong with the WMS itself.

However, by engaging with the WEF process as an insider, surely Oxfam risks becoming a part of the WMS: that is part of the very problem it is seeking to address. Priyan’s research suggests that many international NGOs – not necessarily Oxfam – are indeed becoming central elements of the very system that they were established to change. Other excellent research even suggests that protest itself is becoming a commercial proposition and stripped of its radical and system-changing objectives. A natural extension of my ISA paper would then be to explore the way in which Oxfam and other similar organisations engage with the institutions of the WMS and the effect that this has on the radicalism and progressiveness of their objectives. Watch this space.

ONS Productivity Figures Suggest a Different Labour Market Policy is Needed

Data released by the ONS this week show that the UK economy has fallen behind on productivity when compared to competitors like the US, Germany and France.  To those well versed in these statistics, it is old news – they always show that the UK has a productivity gap with these economies. What is new, is that during the 2000s some of that gap narrowed, but since the onset of the current economic crisis in 2008, that gap has again been growing.  The big problem for the UK is that employers in this country have held onto labour in the context of falling output.  Ofcourse, in may ways this is good.  It has helped keep the labour market – employment and unemployment – in a better shape than it would otherwise have been.  The downside of this is that workers have accepted stalled wages and falling standards of living to square that circle.

The implications of this in the longer term, pose significant challenges for labour market policy.  At the Work Employment and Society Conference a week or so ago I gave a paper which argued that the implementation of Active Labour Market Policy across Europe, and particularly in  the UK, was stuck in the early 1990s.  My paper suggested that the way that Public Employment Services manage their activities is excessively focused on discipline and ‘activation’ – forcing the unemployed to apply for any job.  I suggested that instead they should reorient themselves to focusing on the European Commission’s Public Employment Services Strategy which emphasizes the importance of ‘Transitional Labour Markets’.  This approach, following the ideas of Gunter Schmid, suggests that governments should use labour market policy to encourage those who can to apply for work now, while seeking to upskill others and even recognizing that there are points in the lifecycle when employment is not the best option, or that it should be combined with other responsibilities such as caring for children and other relatives.

Such an approach would though need to break with the idea of pushing competitiveness down to the individual level – something I have blogged against here before.  The lessons from my paper and yesterday’s ONS data is that labour market policy needs to change.  This is particularly so in the UK, where the current emphasis on discipline and activation simply provides employers with a ready supply of cheap, sometimes free and state subsidised labour, that they have little or no incentive to retain, train or value.  In that context, if a recovery of output were to emerge, employers could simply employ more cheap labour and avoid the costs of capital and productivity enhancements. The result would be that the UK economy would retain its comparative low skill equilibrium.

In place of this, labour market policy needs to shift away from disciplining the poor and toward a holistic view of what is good for households and good for the economy and society at large.  That will mean working to increase skill levels, combatting poverty (as a right and not an uncertain potential reward for competing for low quality employment), and that economic problems are to be found not just on the supply side of the labour market – but on the demand side too. I’ll be making some of these points at the Public Employment Services Dialogue conference in Brussels in two weeks time.  I hope those assembled will listen.

Performance Management in Public Employment Services (again): Boring? Well not really!

So I’ve spent today presenting to an assembled group of national representatives of Public Employment Services from across Europe.  15 member states and the Commission were present.  I’ve done this before, and most people’s response when I mention it?  Well a yawn to be honest.

So why do I say this is not really boring?  It certainly sounds it.

Ultimately it is interesting because performance management in the delivery of public services more generally, resolves the tension that often exists in high level strategies, political rhetoric and speeches and the like.  Put simply, if you want to see what the real priorities are, you have to dig deeply, engage with detail and work through who is being incentivised (and occasionally discouraged also) from doing what.

Public Employment Services (PES), or Jobcentre Plus in the UK, are illustrative of this.  There has been much furore in the media lately about how the detailed performance management system (outcome payments to private providers) has led to the use of work trials (lamented as ‘slave labour’ by some) and wage incentives to subsidise poor quality employers.  But the agenda of ‘activation’ has been around for a decade or more and driven largely by performance management regimes that communicate messages to individual Jobcentre staff about who they should prioritise among the unemployed and how they should ‘help’ them.

The debate over activation interventions such as work trials and wage incentives is complex andI don’t want to go into that here.  Suffice it to say that it is less simple than either proponents or naysayers would have us believe.  The point I want to make here is that the way in which organisational management structures work is not just a technical issue – it is a political, economic and social issue too.

This was the basis of my presentation today to the participating PES.  Performance management should be seen as a governance process which needs to be inclusive (incorporating social partners and other stakeholders) and integrate a variety of evidence and knowledge, including evaluation results to better inform a discursive and deliberative governance process.

Time will tell whether this message will be heeded but it is essential to socially just and economically sustainable outcomes.  Labour market governance is crucial to the achievement of Europe 2020 strategies (or any alternatives that might emerge from the emphasis on Social Innovation – my preference).  PES performance management will be central to this, and from what PES and Commission officials alike were saying today, suggests that I am not alone in thinking this.

Watch out for my report coming from this process, which I’ll summarise here. But in the meantime, have a look at some of the research that this is all based on:

Nunn, A. (2012). Performance Management in Public Employment Services. PES-2-PES Mutual Learning Programme. Brussels, European Commission.

Nunn, A. and D. Devins (2012). Process Evaluation of the Jobcentre Plus Performance Management Framework Norwhich, HMSO.

Nunn, A. (2010). Performance management and neo-liberal labour market governance: the case of the UK. Reframing Corporate Social Responsibility: Lessons from the Global Financial Crisis. W. e. a. Sun, Emerald.

Nunn, A. and S. Jassi (2010). Jobcentre Plus Jobseeker’s Allowance off-flow rates: Key Management Indicator Post-Implementation Review. Norwich, HMSO.

Nunn, A., T. Bickerstaffe, et al. (2010). International Review of Performance Management Systems in Public Employment Services. Norwich, HMSO.

Nunn, A., S. Johnson, et al. (2007). Working with JOT 18 months on: Qualitative research in former Option 1 Pilot Districts. DWP Research Report 409. Leeds, DWP Corporate Document Services.

Nunn, A. and S. Kelsey (2007). Review of the Adviser Acheivement Tool. DWP Research Report 453. Leeds, DWP Corporate Document Services.

Nunn, A. and Johnson, S. (2007). Job Outcome Target national evaluation. Leeds, Corporate Document Services.

Aspiration nation? Wake up Cameron! The world has changed.

Aspiration nation?  Wake up Cameron, the world has changed.

So David Cameron wants to build an ‘aspiration nation’ ( Ofcourse this belies an obvious contradiction in his espoused commitment to bring about “…a country where it’s not who you know or where you’re from but who you are and where you’re determined to go” and the highly elitist nature of the four man cabal (known in Westminster as the ‘quad’: Cameron himself, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander).  The commitment is in tension too with policies that are widely thought to restrict the opportunities for higher education, and cut public services and welfare relied upon by the poorest, not least its children. Figures repeatedly suggest that his austerity government is leading to greater inequality and child poverty.

Leave aside these glaring issues, however, there is something deeply troubling in the almost universal attraction of our political class to the idea that we should all, and most of all our children, be much more aspirational and ambitious.  On the face of it, this appeal to individual desires for betterment appear to be the political equivalent of ‘motherhood and apple pie’: who could be against it?  I have argued elsewhere though, that much greater care and scrutiny is needed about setting such collective objectives.  Why?

First, and foremost, simply encouraging everyone to strive more for social advantage while explicitly ignoring structural inequality, even if successful in its own terms, would simply lead to greater competition for the same opportunities.  The result would be that more people wanted what they haven’t got.  Put more simply: more people would be more unhappy with their lot in life.  This is hardly a desirable political outcome.

In effect this has already been the result in those societies have most aggressively pursued individualism and the political economy of competitiveness (Cammack 2006).  For example, figures show that the British, living in what is widely regarded as axiomatic of the neo-liberal competition state, are amongst the most unhappy people in Europe (  Not only that, our extreme desire to pass the micro-politics of competitiveness onto our children (witness angst over school admissions; rankings in Pisa test comparisons; school league tables; the highly politicised nature of education policy and the pressing down of a target culture to individual children – get hold of a child’s school report to see what I am talking about) could well be part of the reason our children are also among the most stressed and least happy in Europe (

Ofcourse this argument is open to the refutation that it ignores the structural impact of the collective competition of individuals.  That is: if everyone competes more effectively for places in the existing social hierarchy, opportunities will multiply as a result.  This (mainly economic) argument assumes that individual striving creates more economic growth in the aggregate.  This very claim is the essence of Thatcherite politics and the idea of ‘trickle down’: that increased inequality can be tolerated because of some of the exorbitant benefits accumulated by the very rich will flow down to the rest of us, eventually reaching the poor.

The problem with this though is that we have been at these strategies for 30 years now and inequality has continued to grow and this has permeated more and more into educational attainment too.  Those countries where competitiveness has been most aggressively pursued and pushed down to the individual level have witnessed the greatest increase in inequality and ‘hollowing out’ of their labour market.  As skills levels have risen and more people have moved into what used to be regarded as ‘middle class’ jobs, the quality, pay and status afforded to these jobs has been in decline. Insecurity has proliferated, and in particular at the bottom.  Mobility has fallen, or at least stagnated, as it has become more difficult to progress within our highly polarised labour market.

Greater inequality is associated (even causality is very difficult to prove) with higher levels of criminality, lower levels of human welfare, higher levels of stress and sickness, lower levels of social cohesion and trust (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010)  It is in and of itself a bad thing, and the supposed benefits: better aggregate well being vis-à-vis other countries are at best a mirage on the horizon.

What is more, as the logic of competitiveness, which underpins the commitment to greater aspiration, has become more deeply embedded in our own society we increasingly recognise the problems it creates but frequently can’t see their cause.  Witness the bankers who are so obsessed with achieving exorbitant personal rewards that they were willing to break our entire national economy. Bankers are easy pickings though.  Witness too the hospitals so driven to compete on centrally set targets (set to encourage them to compete) that patient care is compromised or look around your workplace and take note of the divisive effect of competition for bonuses, promotion or the avoidance of redundancy!

The present economic crisis bears witness to the collapsing rationale for a logic of competitiveness in economic terms. It is held up as the solution to Europe’s problems (take a look at the Europe2020 strategy but it can’t perform this role.  We are told by our political leaders that the only way we can defend our standard of living from the spectre of Chinese and Indian competition is to compete.  Moving from manufacturing to services was put forward as the answer, for a while, but it turns out that the Indians and Chinese are just as good at that as us (is that surprising?).  The way out of the crisis suggested by our politicians is to engage in ever more competition between nations, and within them: between people. But competitiveness and aspiration can’t provide the way out of the current crisis for Europe because more competitiveness with China and India means devastating the standard of living and institutions (democracy, welfare, free medical care, health and safety/environmental regulation) that are apparently the justification for pursuing competitiveness in the first place!

This is the politics of desperation.  It is much closer to Hades than Nirvana.  An image of a row of national running machines comes to mind; with the population of each running ever harder to keep up with the rest.  Rather than us all just running faster, shouldn’t we be asking each other what the point of running was in the first place?  This is not a strategy likely to lead to ‘the good life’, whatever that may be.  We need to stop and ask what that good life would look like, and how we might work together to achieve it.

Think of the major challenges facing mankind: containing climate change; helping manage the increase in living standards in east Asia, Latin America and Africa, while protecting existing standards of living and containing the environmental and resource depletion challenges this presents; dealing with disease epidemics in developing countries and entrenched killers in the developed (cancer, heart disease and limiting conditions such as dementia) as well as unpredictable, resilient and emergent disease epidemics (MRSA, Avian Flu).  That is not to mention continuing ‘twentieth century’ problems of democratisation; ethnic, religious and nationalist claims for statehood; absolute poverty and famine.  What links all these problems is that they can’t be dealt with through competition but must instead be broached through cooperation, collective endeavour and a sense of shared purpose.

In this context, our politicians need to ‘wake up, smell the coffee’ and deal with 21st century problems with 21st century solutions.  The problems of our times require us to work collaboratively as never before.  This is true at the micro-level (and ironically what Cameron himself rhetorically appeals to in his (slowly evaporating) support for the ‘Big Society’) just as it is internationally.  If aspiration is to play a part in this, it need to be radically reformatted to refer to an individual’s desire to work with others for collective gain; to value equality rather than winning in a race for unequal outcomes.

For the research underpinning this blog post see:

Nunn, A. (2013). Fostering Social Mobility as a Contribution to Social Cohesion. Strasbourg, Council of Europe.

Nunn, A. (2012). “The Political Economy of Competitiveness and Social Mobility.” British Politics.

Nunn, A. (2008). “Restructuring the English Working Class for Global Competitiveness.” Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness 9.

Nunn, A. (2008). Factors influencing the inter- and intra-class mobility of Jobcentre Plus customers : a case study approach. London, Central Social Research Services.

Other References:

Cammack, P. (2006). “The Politics of Global Competitiveness.” Papers in the Politics of Global Competitiveness 1.

Wilkinson, R. G. and K. Pickett (2010). The spirit level: why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane.