Sometimes, the best way to avoid doing something is to pretend that you agree. Let’s say that you are a political leader, or a corporate leader, who rather likes things as they are. You see that there is huge public concern about rising inequality, and that demands for a redistribution of power and wealth from the 1% to the rest have suddenly again become mainstream. What to do? If you reject those demands, you risk your legitimacy, perhaps even your position. But if you act on them, you face what you perceive to be personal loss, and perhaps too you fear that the plutocrats who have backed you would see to it that you fall. The best way forward, for the cynical leader, or the scared one, or the dull one, is to agree that you must act and and then do nothing meaningful about it. Gandhi said about those in power: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Perhaps he should have said: “Then they tell you that you have won, and then, only if you keep pushing, can you really win.”
This is where we have got to in the fight against inequality. We have won the debate and shown that inequality is bad for everyone, and why more equal societies are safer, more prosperous, more cohesive, and happier. We have won the struggle to get leaders to commit to act on it. But we face now the contradiction that every world leader has promised to act on inequality and yet only a handful of them are doing anything about it. Where to go from here?
Firstly, we citizens need to insist that governments take the specific actions that are needed to tackle inequality. In ActionAid’s new report, The Price of Privilege: Extreme Wealth, Unaccountable Power, and the Fight for Equality, we set out some of the policies needed to reduce inequality. These include investing in public services, redistributing land, making use of public investment, closing tax loopholes, instituting real living wages, strengthening trade unions and strengthening bank regulation. But we go further too, given the extent of the inequality crisis we are in and the need to shift power away from the 1% and towards the rest of the population. Thus we propose:
- Institute a wealth tax.
- Recognise, redistribute and reduce women’s unpaid care burden.
- Increase corporate democracy — implement structural shifts towards employee control of companies.
- Institute a maximum wage that is proportional to the wage paid to the most junior workers in a company.
- Limit private finance for political parties and political campaigns.
The point this makes it that is now time to go beyond asking leaders if they will reduce inequality; instead we need to ask leaders whether, given their solemn commitment to reduce inequality, they will implement named, specific, and sometimes politically difficult policies which are key to reducing it. We need to let them know that they will be judged by their actions.
But we need also to go beyond merely asking leaders at all. We need to build people’s power to pressure leaders to act. An imbalance of power can never be solved merely by asking those in power to hand it over. That has literally never worked. Every one of the most important progressive social changes have been won from below, not given from on high. Just look, for example, at all those new heroes who will now grace US bank notes, in celebration of the end of slavery, the achievement of civil rights, and votes for women: Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King. All of them were activist trouble-makers who the establishment of the time tried to crush. Remember how came about the end of colonialism, the end of Apartheid, the development of welfare states, LGBT rights, the decision to “Drop the Debt”. Recall how came about free education in Kenya, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India, and free HIV medicines in South Africa. All from struggle. All from building up powerful, grassroots mobilisation and strength. Policy papers and lobby meetings alone won’t, can’t, deliver the extent of change we need. We need to build power from below.
That’s why at ActionAid we’ve helped communities in Cambodia and Tanzania to mobilise against land grabs, why we’re supporting movements of freed bonded labourers in India, why we support the tax justice coalition in Zambia, why we support movements of indigenous people taking on the mining corporations in Australia. That’s why we’ve helped to mobilise 3.8 million people in Uganda who have signed a petition to stop politicians exempting themselves from tax. 3.8 million! That’s why we’ve convened allies internationally to mobilise to fight inequality, as no organisation can win this fight on its own. These are not separate streams of activity but a part of a collective effort to show the powerful that the people will not stand for the continued concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. Not all of our work has been this transformative, and where we have made the most difference has always been through supporting national movements, never by ourselves. We are on a learning journey on this. But one thing is clear. Though all of us in civil society are still remarkably civil, a big chunk of us are coming to accept, painfully, that inequality is not a polite theoretical debate or standard-issue lobby demand. It’s a struggle between those who cling onto privilege and those extraordinary ordinary people working to prize the chance of a good society from their iron grip. Our role is to facilitate the process of people getting organised, and to help support people who though resolutely non-violent face batons and bullets from the power-wealth nexus of the vicious and avaricious.
It’s nice, really nice, that the other side has announced that they agree with our call to tackle inequality. It’s a moment to savour and celebrate. But it’s not enough. You can’t eat a commitment.
Both from governments and from civil society organisations, we need no longer ask them if they agree. We’ve won on words. We need to win now on action.