Understanding the politics of inequality
23 February 2015
By Sam Hickey, Sophie King and Sarah Hunt
History has much to tell us about the politics of inequality, but the moral of the story depends upon the lens through which we choose to interpret its lessons. The recent DLP conference on this theme raised many of the questions that ESID is attempting to address, as well as demanding some considered defence of the ‘political settlements plus’ framework that constitutes our analytical lens for understanding the politics of inclusion.
Through which theoretical lens should we be seeking to understand the politics of inequality?
There was little disagreement among contributors at the DLP conference that the politics of inequality should be understood through a social justice lens. Frances Stewart’s opening address showed that social justice thinking offered the most coherent philosophical framework for thinking about the politics of inequality, not least as it enables us to place our concerns over inequality in the broader context of what kind of ‘good society’ we value. Thinking in terms of social justice demands that we consider the political arrangements required to secure good societies, and also that we confront the trade-offs that this involves, most notably between the sometimes competing priorities of challenging inequality whilst protecting freedom.
A key sticking point raised by ESID research director Sam Hickey was how to reconcile this normative philosophical framework with the much more ‘realist’ perspective of political settlements analysis that a number of conference participants were engaging with in their work. There is an obvious case for thinking about the politics of inequality from a political settlements perspective, a key tenet of which is that socio-economic inequalities will harden as a result of the elite capture of institutions that systematically occurs within clientelistic settlements and ‘closed access’ orders. This institutionalisation of elite privilege, which theorists like North, Wallis and Weingast hold to be key to maintaining stability, can be very difficult to challenge, and this has encouraged some to advocate for a more modest, less transformative approach to development that involves ‘going with the grain’ of existing power relations. This creates a tension, not only at a philosophical and theoretical level, but also in terms of development policy and practice: how to square a desire to support progressive causes with this more cautious and potentially inequality-promoting approach?
Some at the conference suggested that political settlements analysis did not necessarily contradict a social justice perspective, and could be used to identify openings for supporting progressive change. For example, some participants were using political settlements analysis as a means by which to navigate the complexities of vertical, horizontal or spatial inequalities within developing countries and the politics of redistribution. ESID’s conceptual approach attempts to move political settlements analysis forward for these purposes through research into the politics of social provisioning, social protection and spatial inequality, or the ways in which successive political settlements shape the redistribution of extractive industry rents. Rather than moral philosophy or a purely pragmatic ‘working with the grain’ approach; the ESID framework draws on critical political theory and critical feminism to integrate considerations of transnational actors, resources and ideational flow, and agency, especially from non-state actors within the structural and institutional accounts that have taken centre-stage in recent debates.
What strategies and solutions should we be working towards?
Much discussion of what this means for policy and practice resonated closely with emerging findings from ESID research into the politics of women’s inclusion and influence – particularly in relation to contentious policy issues such as domestic violence. Throughout the day the power of global norms to become diffused and shape political realities emerged as a critical lever for more inclusive development. Sarah Hunt’s work on political settlements in Central America makes clear, however, that diffusion is neither automatic nor guaranteed: rather it will depend on contingent political dynamics. Significantly, global norms shape not only elite decisions and interactions, but also the societies they must engage with.
The importance of marginalised groups forming coalitions and movements and then being ready to exploit moments of crisis or ‘critical junctures’ was another prominent theme throughout the conference and has come through across each of ESID’s country cases: Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. So too has the need for political analysis (and those seeking to use it for progressive ends) to engage with the informal incentive structures and interests underlying formal institutional arrangements.
During her illuminating opening presentation, Frances Stewart suggested that changing the politics of inequality and distribution will require getting people to think about ‘the other’ in a different way. This has been critical within the gender equality movements that ESID researchers have been tracing – framing men as protectors rather than perpetrators, and domestic violence as a constraint on household economic development rather than a question of ethical judgement have been key to attitudinal change.
However, efforts to ‘go with the grain’ can be a risky strategy for those seeking to promote social justice. ESID research led by Sohela Nazneen reveals that women’s movements promoting legislation against domestic violence tend to frame their policy messages within acceptable discourses around ‘family values’ and protective versions of masculinity, rather than women’s rights, in order to avoid antagonising powerful opponents and even gain their support. Although this does help secure policy change, it can also lead to more critical concerns being omitted (e.g. around marital rape and female control over assets), and legislation so compromised that it lacks the coherence required for enforcement.
The challenge of how to reconcile the concepts and strategies required to understand and navigate political settlements, on the one hand, with the wider notion and pursuit of social justice, on the other, remains open. Efforts to reconcile the two, we argue, can usefully start from recognising that both political settlements theory and more radical theories of social justice take power relations to be their central focus. It is in adopting a relational perspective, rather than one driven by a concern with institutions or resources per se, that the intractable problems of inequality and the politics required to challenge them comes more clearly into view.