Beyond Left and Right: Finding Consensus on Economic Inequality
In this report, we contend that theology can open up new avenues of consensus between political and social positions on issues of inequality. (2021)
Hannah Rich argues that theology has much to offer to help shape a better world in our recovery from Covid–19. 28/01/2021
This week, the great and good of the World Economic Forum are meeting for their annual gathering; this, inevitably, a muted online affair rather than the customary champagne receptions in the Swiss Alps. The agenda of this year’s conference – the ‘Great Reset‘ – focusses on the opportunity to shape a better world in our recovery from Covid–19. The pandemic represents such a rupture in our social and economic fabric that in its wake, we cannot simply ‘go back to normal’. Yet more than ever, it is apparent that this will require a deliberate, conscious vision.
In previous generations, the ‘great reset’ effect of a pandemic was automatic, rather than the result of a concerted policy approach. Walter Schiedel’s hypothesis that violence – be it war, disease or disaster – is ‘The Great Leveller’ is compelling, at least historically. The Black Death, for example, led to a reshaping of the labour market that benefitted those who survived. More recent structural shocks have had similar effects to varying extents. This will not necessarily be the case in the aftermath of Covid–19, however.
This is partly due to the magnitude of the crisis; while the soaring number of Covid deaths is tragic, it is not on the scale of plagues in the Middle Ages, which claimed up to a third of a country’s working–age population. Branko Milanovic argues that, before the Industrial Revolution, positive changes in the patterns of economic inequality were somewhat organic. If disease killed a significant proportion of the labour force, as the bubonic plague did, then real wages rose for those left behind, driven by the increased value of their labour. There were fewer workers because of the death toll, and so those left were worth more by dint of having survived. This was not a policy intervention to raise wages, but a natural economic mechanism triggered by the ‘violence’ of an epidemic.
The reverse may well be true in the current pandemic. Left unchecked, inequality now has the potential to increase further rather than decrease. Research from Oxfam released during this week found that since the pandemic began, the ten richest individuals globally have increased their combined wealth by enough to pay for universal vaccination. The wealth of the world’s billionaires has risen by a quarter. Early indications are that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, both within and between countries.
If Covid–19 is to be a great reset, making the world a more just place and combatting the ecological peril the planet faces, it is clear that that will not happen by chance.
Who is involved in pressing the reset button is therefore critical. Those who gather at Davos represent the global elite, drawn almost exclusively from the wealthiest percentile of the planet’s population, and as such, their efforts to forge a ‘great reset’ have drawn scepticism from some. The individuals who have benefited most in economic terms from the pandemic are over–represented, and that such a conversation should flaunt its invite–only status seems paradoxical at best.
Whilst the World Economic Forum’s own promo video recognises the need to engage its detractors and bring a more diverse group of individuals to the conversation, in an era of mistrust of elites we might do well to look elsewhere altogether. Perhaps this is the opportunity for a great reset not only in our systems, but also in our sources of wisdom.
Christian ethicist and theologian Cynthia Moe–Lobeda writes that,
‘When something new is required of humankind, something new is required of Earth’s longstanding faith traditions, primary sources of moral wisdom and moral courage.’
Often our discussions of the role of faith groups in a crisis are too economistic, conflating their importance with the practical value they demonstrate in food banks and the like. But the cultural and intellectual capital of religious traditions matters even for those who do not share its metaphysical premises. Theology offers a valuable moral and spiritual anchor for a world in crisis.
Catholic social teaching, to take but one example, played a key role in economic recovery after the Second World War, enshrining principles of human dignity, solidarity and social justice in welfare policy. Solidarity in particular is a value some perceive as being lacking in the Davos approach. Perhaps uniquely, the social doctrine expressed in papal encyclicals is equally critical of both left– and right–wing ideologies and thus offers the hope of a non–partisan challenge to unconstrained inequality. In this vein, our current Theos work on inequality, drawing on last year’s Bridging the Gap, seeks to explore and articulate what Christian theology in particular can contribute to the dialogue about economic inequality.
If today’s economy is uniquely susceptible to greater inequality because of the pandemic, it follows that the prevailing ideologies may also be left wanting. Something new is required of us, and theology might well be a good starting point.
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 Walter Schiedel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty–First Century.
 Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for an Age of Globalization.
 Cynthia Moe–Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological–Economic Vocation.
Image: Drop of Light/shutterstock.com
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