The Political Consequences of Global Inequality within and between Regions of the World

December 9, 1999

Paper presented at the Carnegie Council on December 09, 1999. To access the full paper see the PDF.


Over the past quarter-century, in most of the world, liberal democracy has flourished and the status of women has improved.  Yet, during the same period income inequality among occupational classes and among different regions of the world has increased more rapidly than in any period about which we have reliable knowledge. What accounts for this difference?

One clue to this contemporary puzzle may be found in the recurrent roles that egalitarian social movements have played in each of the globalizing transitions between industrial eras that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution.

This paper proposes two hypotheses:

1. Egalitarian social movements have played a role in the emergence of each new industrial era by advancing and promoting the resocialization of some of the social relations that had been marketized in the later phases of the waning industrial era. In doing so, the movements have helped powerful social forces temporarily resolve conflicts that are inherent to industrial capitalism. That conflict resolution, in turn, has encouraged the kinds of investment that are essential to the emergence of the new industrial era. Arguably, women's movements and democracy movements have played that role in the current transition from "the Automobile Age" to "the Information Age."

2. The political opportunities available to social movements during those periods that are conducive to some resocialization have been influenced by the nature of the conflicts in the later stages of the waning industrial era. Egalitarian movements involved at the center of conflicts in the waning industrial era rarely contribute to the resocialization that marks the beginning of the new industrial era. Thus, for example, the relative failure of third world movements and of international labor movements in the 1980s and 1990s can be linked to their centrality to the conflicts of the 1970s.

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