The Left in Europe and the United States has recently undertaken a decisive shift leftwards by waging a war on wealth inequality. This move is based on a grave diagnostic error, Albena Azmanova argues in her new book Capitalism on Edge. Economic insecurity, not inequality, is afflicting the 99 per cent. This creates an opportunity for the Left to place the fight for economic stability at the centre of its social agenda, instead of resurrecting the growth-and-redistribution formula that has proven so toxic for the environment. What follows is excerpted from Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020).
Given all the destitution that the recent economic crisis has created, calls for equality seem to be somewhat petty and falling short of the mark. The accumulation of obscene wealth is a curious phenomenon and the juxtaposition of vast wealth and poverty is offensive, but the real injustice is that of poverty, not inequality. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt remarks in Inequality (2015), our preoccupation with inequality is out of place. We should instead be concerned with poverty: the poor suffer because they don’t have enough, not because others have more and some far too much. We are therefore morally obligated not to achieve equality or reduce inequality, but to eliminate poverty.
Are our current concerns with growing material inequality perhaps a sign that the whole ethos of capitalist democracies has shifted considerably from the original rejection of social privilege to an open endorsement of the value of equal wealth? Or is the language of equality expressing an entirely different concern?
The changing nature of capitalism gives us reasons to read into these recent calls a concern that goes beyond inequality – a concern with a new form of social injustice – massive precarity, that is being mistakenly politicized in the easily available, familiar terms of inequality.
Since at least the turn of the new century, we have inhabited a political economy marked by three peculiarities. First, the economy does not produce enough jobs: from well before the 2008 economic meltdown until a decade after it, western societies experienced jobless growth due to the automation of work and job outsourcing to areas with cheaper labour. Second, labour market liberalization has reduced the security of employment – the so-called uberization of jobs. Thus, even when it is available, employment is no longer a reliable source of livelihood. This rather recent development has increased economic insecurity to unprecedented levels and afflicted almost all sectors of the economy, cutting across the capital-labour divide. The situation is aggravated by a third feature: public authority has been cutting social spending and thinning out the social safety net, a practice that predates the 2008 meltdown, but has intensified under post-crisis pressures to balance national budgets. Overall, this has engendered unprecedented economic uncertainty. The social question of our time is not growing inequality; it is the massification of precarity.