The intellectual case against extreme inequality has been won. But ensuring inequality is reduced requires a rebuilding of collective power.
“I have discovered the secret,” wrote Nelson Mandela, “that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” This is how it has been for those working to fight inequality. It is right to be proud of the hill that has been climbed on the intellectual and economic debate: it was once seen as dangerously radical to identify inequality as a problem, but now even the IMF agrees, and every country has signed up to tackling it as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Yet this victory in the intellectual and economic debate has only revealed more hills to climb. Let us of course take a moment to celebrate how far we have come, but let us not linger, or retread that same hill, but move on to the next. And the next hill is the hill of power, one that we will need to climb through activism, organizing and alliance-building.
Landmark studies by economists like Thomas Piketty have done a huge service to the world by highlighting the ever increasing dangerous gap between the richest and the rest. But they have not sufficiently focused attention on the way in which inequality is reproduced, and how it can be effectively countered. Civil society activists bear witness every day to how inequalities interact with each other, in ways that feminists have identified as intersectionality and double or triple oppression, and to how the problem of inequality is ultimately a problem of the reproduction of power. Civil society experience also shows that we have reason to hope, and that people's mobilisation can enable the power shift needed to enable more equal societies which are safer, happier, more prosperous and more sustainable. The powerful will not on their own correct a system that they believe works for them. But increasingly we are seeing active civil society building power from below and joining hands with each other.
The Mahila Adhikar Manch (MAM), for example, a grassroots women's movement in Nepal, has brought together 50000 members and spread over 30 districts within a decade. MAM started as a community and district level women forums both in Tarai (plains) and hilly districts. They organised several local level campaigns on violence against women issues, and after 5-6 years' of grassroots actions, community leaders from over 15 district came together for two days' deliberations and formed their National Secretariat. Since then, MAM has grown to this stage as a membership-based mass organization.
Young people in Gambia successfully mobilized in the Gambia Has Decided movement that forced the country’s dictator to stand down.
The Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa mobilized students against the unaffordable costs of higher education and showed that the government could be taken on through people power.
All these movements and many more have joined together across issues, organisations and borders as part of the international #fightinequality alliance, building collective power.
Social movements are showing what is possible through the claiming of political space by oppressed people to confront unjust power relationships. As well as analyzing problems, these movements have also collectively developed opportunities to build their strengths and transform unjust power structures. And, most inspiringly, these movements are connecting with each other, as part of a people powered movement to fight inequality. This gathering of movements to plan how to challenge inequality is happening across the world. They show what can be done, even in the face of entrenched historical and social inequality, to assert, and work towards, societies where everyone is important.
The current rigged global game that sees the rich getting richer, poor becoming poorer, and our ecology degrading, is hurting us all. Another, more equal, world is possible. Indeed, the intellectual case against extreme inequality has been won. But ensuring inequality is reduced requires a rebuilding of collective power.
Ben Phillips, co-founder, #fightinequality alliance