Manufactured Inequality

Zygmunt Bauman, Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?

Polity, 100pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780745671086

reviewed by Nathaniel Barron

The Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is famous for having (among other things) sewn a noted parchment to the inside of his suit jacket. The emblazoned note served to remind Pascal of a personal, highly charged event of religious revelation - the so-called la nuit de feu (‘Night of Fire’) - whereby a luminous clarity momentarily possessed the Frenchman. ‘From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve,’ Pascal said of the night, ‘Fire!’ And yet the embers of such a glowing lucidity had to char the parchment lest they waned in the abyss of Pascal's own forgetfulness.

What, though, does all this have to do with Zygmunt Bauman's latest book, where we find the veteran sociologist courting the question: Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? There is a striking, albeit somewhat loose, parallel between the motivations of Pascal's eccentric ‘reminder’ and of the critical exposition we are offered through Bauman's short tractate on human inequality. Both concern a lucid disclosure which each thinker strongly feels must not be hastily forgotten. What’s more, both noted parchments ask for the recollection of what is already known. Bauman’s strength, this is to say, is in his motivation to conjure up the all too obviously hidden.

Here, in the form of a pocket-sized book Bauman presents a quasi-Pascalian note of an egalitarian thrust. Bauman asks us to see inequality in wealth for what it in essence is and for what we already know it to be: a sheer Rasputin manipulation. If the notion that human inequality is natural is not true - as Bauman definitely thinks - it is certainly a most happy fiction for the rich, and is, as Bauman argues, the festering ground upon which inequality thrives.

But just how unequal are we today? Just how successful has the naturalisation of inequality been? The ever-widening gap in wealth separating the world's richest from the world's poorest is appalling and is, as Bauman suggests, ‘an obvious reason to be gravely concerned.’ Sleeping slumbers are briefly terminated once Bauman begins intensely foregrounding for our sleepy eyes a world of rampant and extreme human inequality. The sociologist paints our historical horizon as it is: more people than ever (3 billion) living below the poverty line (set at $2 per day); the richest 1 per cent of the world's population being ‘almost 2,000 times richer than the bottom 50 per cent’; 20 per cent of the world's population consuming ‘90 per cent of the goods produced, while the poorest 20 per cent consumes 1 per cent.’ Such disturbing truths are plucked from an infinite stream, so much so that one cannot help but ask if the porous limits of human inequality is the permanent place in which we now dwell.

Bauman moves on, putting these figures of wealth inequality under scrutiny by asking why we put up with the ‘tacit and latent assumptions’ driving their extreme movements. A good example of such assumptions is close to home here in 'Austerity Britain'. Our government's Department for Work and Pensions - in the figure of MP Iain Duncan Smith - claims that the poor (and that means poor children too, apparently) are naturally poor or are so by fault of their own doing, rather than because of what Bauman calls the ‘logic and momentum’ of inequality as such. This logic of inequality tells a familiar story. A UK family unable to pay its household phone bill, for instance, is charged around £15 for its poverty, while a family with substantial capital is given discounted prices because it has substantial capital: a self-perpetuating cycle if ever there was one. This is of course not confined to the UK; the global picture merely magnifies this trend. And yet despite attempts at naturalising the logic of inequality, emulation of the weft and wane of summer and autumn, winter and spring is never quite fully achieved.

Indeed, akin to the impulse of Pascal's note, Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? ought to char the pocket of any self-professed egalitarian; for such self-professions always have the potential to become obscure without flashing instances reminding one that the social idiomatic of extreme inequality is far from natural. While the regularity and intensity of inequality's reproduction congeals into a second nature we should nonetheless be attuned to its production as such. Here lies Bauman's greatest merit: simply calling a spade a spade. He is straight down the line condemning crass pretensions that condone inequality with nonchalant pronouncements of ‘it's natural.’ At a time when calls for equality echo out from where there is but little, Bauman's strength is his unwavering assertion that any form of elitism fails to heed the social condition of its own possibility. That condition is manufactured inequality, manufactured ‘naturalness.’ We ought not to forget it.
Nathaniel Barron is a freelance writer based in London.