I’ve recently been to Cape Town, for work. It is impossible for someone like me to visit South Africa without asking “What am I doing with my privileges?” (see previous post). The scale of abject poverty would be overwhelming in itself, but in Cape Town it is paired with unapologetic displays of eye-watering, heavily-guarded wealth. To my eyes, Cape Town is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with our current world, even if I’m told that Johannesburg is worse.
Also recently, I’ve read a delightful book: Darwin and the Barnacle, by Rebecca Stott. This little gem tells the story of what Darwin was up to, before writing the Origins, but after conceiving the idea of evolution by natural selection. Turns out he dedicated about 8 years of his life to the classification of barnacles (Cirripedia). Why? Because he was a clever chap, and, in my own interpretation, he wanted to achieve two primary objectives. First, he needed to establish himself as a highly respected zoologist – he knew very well that a solid reputation was necessary to ensure his big idea would get a fair hearing. Second, he wanted to see how his idea on the origin of species would influence the meticulous work of classification.
It is impossible, for me, to read this book without noticing how much privilege Darwin enjoyed, but at the same time, one cannot possibly miss how well he used it.
The picture of Darwin that Stott paints is that of a wealthy individual who could spend all his time on something as unproductive as cataloguing barnacles. He earned a living by investing on land and stocks, after receiving an education at his family’s expense. Moreover, his work was dependent on a world-wide network of fellow zoologists, most of whom shared a similar lifestyle. Naturally, this network was possible only because of the postal system, which in turn was kept together by the systematic exploitation on which colonial empires were built. If that wasn’t enough, the first chapters of the book also provide an insight on the cultural milieu in which Darwin conceived his idea. Besides famous predecessors like Lamarck, Stott mentions Darwin’s university teachers and peers, their own influences, and so forth. All white men (most likely), all wealthy enough to pursue intellectual endeavours which afforded little or no obvious economic returns, spanning for generations. In other words, it is impossible to read “Darwin and the barnacle” without gaining an insight on how much privilege and inequality have been necessary to allow one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the history of humanity. Take away Darwin’s privileges, the global system of inequality on which the British Empire was built (along with the other colonial powers) and Darwin would not have been able to do all the groundwork which secured his standing and thus ensured his ground-breaking book could not pass unnoticed. Take away the similar privilege of the countless thinkers who influenced him, and you’ll feel safe to bet that Darwin could not have conceived the idea of Natural Selection at all.
What this tells us (Stott’s writing is good enough to let you feel it in your bones) is that, in the world as it was organised back then, inequality enabled discovery and (scientific/technological) progress. I have little doubt the argument can stretch back for countless centuries, so I’ll leave it to my readers to look into their preferred breakthrough and see if privilege and inequality played an enabling part.
The result is as distasteful as obvious. Intellectual progress requires time to think. Time to collect and exchange ideas, time for debate, time spent studying, collecting or generating evidence, and so forth. Crucially, it requires time to develop gargantuan numbers of new ideas, most of which will turn out to be inadequate (we can remember Lamarck, to remain within the topic), but will nevertheless enable further improvements. Making mistakes (and lots of them!) is how we learn most of the important lessons. Ground-breaking thinking requires to be able to safely make mistakes, without risking too much of one’s livelihood, at least. None of the above can be done in significant amounts if everyone has to invest most of their time actively earning a living. If we move into the present world, people like me can spend a lot of time doing just that, but it is undeniable that I enjoy an amount of privilege that could probably make Darwin himself green with envy. Most people in academia are paid to study the stuff they love, how can you beat that?
In short: if we want progress, we need some privilege and inequality. Ugh.
Not nice, but not groundbreaking either. We all knew it already, right? Perhaps, but I get the feeling that we are happy to ignore this shared knowledge. First of all, most of us feel that we’ve earned our current standing. I know I do. However, this feeling is wrong, but not just a little wrong: it is positively delusional, as summarised in this comic strip, by Toby Morris (this is required reading!).
Moreover, inequality is increasingly prominent in public discourse: scholars and commentators agree that inequality is growing in uncontrollable and dangerous ways. However, I fear that the situation is frequently discussed superficially. Reading the news, I get the impression that inequality is treated as somewhat inevitable. It is indeed inevitable, but its shape and effects aren’t. If we could start to collectively question the otherwise invisible neoliberal assumptions that underpin most of our society, I am pretty sure that we would find better ways to manage, or even exploit, the inevitable inequality that comes with complex social organisations. There are, in the public discourse, some voices who are able to challenge said assumptions, but again, most of them seem to forget a couple of details. On one hand, all of the public voices who are able to challenge the established order are able to do so because of the privileges that such order confers them. On the other, most of these voices tend to work on the assumption that inequality is bad and should be eliminated. Too bad that such a vision doesn’t work. It is indefensible. Take an idealised society, where everyone is equal. How does it look? It doesn’t, that’s how. It is not possible. Not even hunter-gatherers have perfectly flat societies. Elders have privileges, good looks confer unearned status, and so forth. If a society allows specialisation, and specialisation is required in every technology-based society, different specialisations will confer different opportunities. These differences will propagate along kinship and relational networks (if I know about computers, my kids would probably grow up familiar with computers, etc.). Thus, no social organisation can be based on absolute equality: organising entails unequal distribution of opportunities.
Once again, this is all obvious to the point of being boring, but it needs to be tackled head-on. Doing so paints the problem of inequality in a different light: our problem is not the existence of inequality. Our problem is twofold, it is about excessive accumulation and misuse. On one side, there simply is too much inequality. On the other, if we don’t accept that privilege can be useful, we can easily fail to reap its potential benefits. As a result, too much privilege goes to waste. That is, I’d argue, the actual problem that we face.
According to Oxfam:
The 1,810 dollar billionaires on the 2016 Forbes list, 89% of whom are men, own $6.5 trillion – as much wealth as the bottom 70% of humanity.
I would guess that roughly 99% of the privileges that such wealth could confer are going to waste. It is quite fair to assume that most of these people spend their days trying to maximise their wealth. After all, in a capitalist society, this is what they are supposed to be doing. [The Forbes’ Billionaires list, used to collect the figures above, makes it perfectly clear: in the link above the list is preceded by the “Today’s Winners & Losers” section, emphasising our inclination of framing such matters in competitive terms.]
Some of these people do spend some of their time trying to facilitate progress, that much is true. But is it enough? Nah – it can’t be: billionaires have disproportionate amounts of power, and very little constraints. At the very least, their concerns will be biased by their own position and cannot possibly be considered to be diverse enough to approximately reflect the needs and desires of humanity as a whole.
If we don’t recognise that privilege is supposed to be useful (for society as a whole, not just the privileged!), we can (and do) encourage people to waste it. We return to Cape Town. What good are enormous mansions used a few weeks per year, for the holidays of some billionaire? None or almost none. What does society gain by building enormous yachts that sail across the world to be used in the week-end (and be reached by private jet)? Close to nothing. Who needs the latest Ferrari? Nobody. What does society gain from the existence of few individuals who have enough spending power to buy entire countries?
I think and hope that this state of affairs is not necessary or inevitable. What facilitates it is a collection of self-serving ideas: that privilege is earned, that the act of earning it guarantees something useful was done in the process, and that therefore privilege can be spent/used without second thoughts.
I disagree. Privilege is usually the result of luck (95%, or thereabout). Moreover, as Darwin’s encounter with barnacles testifies, privilege should be used, not dilapidated. Thus, we get two streams of consequences, and an overarching question.
The question is: when is inequality too much? If some privilege is both inevitable and potentially useful, it follows that there probably exists a Goldilocks zone for inequality. Enough to allow an adequate number of people to take risks, write novels, play music, invest in apparently idle intellectual quests, etc., but not much more than that.
[Note: it would be wrong to assume that such a Goldilocks inequality zone is fixed. It is probably a function of how society is organised and of general availability of resources. It would be equally wrong to assume that such an ideal status always correlates with periods of high cultural or technological advancement. High inequality will generally allow some people to pursue intellectual endeavours; however, the results might be visible even when an unnecessarily high amount of privilege goes to waste.]
Forbes’ figures leave little room for doubt. This article (by David Leonhardt) tells us that it’s getting worse. If there isn’t too much inequality right now (there is, but let’s pretend) and the trend isn’t inverted, there soon will be. Thus, we reach the predictable conclusion that we need to invert the trend. That’s OK, only problem is that we don’t know how to do it. To be fair, we have plenty of reasons to worry that we can’t: the current political developments suggests that we are actually busy electing politicians who are determined to facilitate the rise of inequality (even when they are not directly funded by those who want to protect existing privileges)… If something is to be done, I’d start by NOT electing such people.
What is a little less predictable is what all of this means for you and me. If you are reading this, you have an internet connection and some time to read. Thus, almost without exception, every person reading this article probably has some spare time and some mental energy to invest – I do, clearly… The question is: how are we using our spare resources? Are we allowing our privilege to be wasted? Probably.
Thus, we reconnect with my previous post. I am incredibly lucky. I am trying to use my luck: I have the presumption that I am not bad at thinking, therefore I try to do just that. I think (and write), in my own idiosyncratic way.
Is it enough? Probably not, but at least I’m trying.