Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Time of Violence

A major theme of my new book is inequality.  No socialist am I, however I believe that inequality is a driver of instability and conflict.

E.H. Carr, who is strangely characterized as both the author of the textbook of realism, The Twenty Years' Crisis, and a leftist, spoke to this in his work.  He wrote, "The inequality which threatened a world upheaval was not inequality between individuals, nor inequality between classes, but inequality between nations."  On the last page, he concluded, "The more we subsidize unproductive industries for political reasons, the more the provision of a rational employment supplants maximum profit as an aim of economic policy, the more we recognize the need of sacrificing economic advantage for social ends, the less difficult will it seem to realize that these social ends cannot be limited by a national frontier..."  Yet, the national welfare state, or the lip service paid to it, does delimit these social ends at a national frontier.  Thus, we have extremely sharp gradients of inequality across borders, leading to a great degree of insecurity and instability.  Here, I am not arguing for global communism, but only making an observation.

At the same time, inequality is growing within nations at a significant rate.  These trends, combined, yield a growing feeling of insecurity, political polarization, and violence.  This was noted by Hector Abad Gomez, a Colombian doctor and human rights activist, in the last article he penned before militants assassinated him in 1987.   “We are living in a time of violence.  A violence born of the feeling of inequality.  We could do away with violence if the world’s riches, including science, technology and morality – those great human creations – were distributed more evenly across the Earth.  This is the singular challenge facing all of humanity today.”[1]

Consider the following, summarized from a recent OECD paper.

From the mid-1980s to the late 2000s, while income grew in OECD countries by an average of 1.7 percent per year, countries’ top earners’ incomes grew faster than those at the bottom of the economic ladder, leading to growing inequality.  On average in OECD countries, the top 10 percent of the population earns 9 times that of the bottom tenth.  Israel, Turkey, and the U.S. have a 14 to 1 ratio, while in Chile and Mexico, the inequality is 27 to 1.  This inequality can be measured by a statistic called the Gini coefficient, where a zero means perfect equality and 1 means that one individual earns all the nation’s income.  This coefficient increased in 17 of 22 OECD countries during the period in question.  Interestingly, some of the more equal countries, such as Finland, Sweden, and Germany, recorded the largest jumps in inequality, meaning that the level of inequality is converging between the 0.25 and 0.35 levels.[2]

[2] “Growing Income Inequality in OECD Countries:  What Drives It and How Can Policy Tackle It?” OECD Forum on Tackling Inequality, (Paris, May 2, 2011),, (accessed May 4, 2011), 5-6.

[1] Hector Abad Gomez, “De Donde Proviene La Violenca,” El Mundo, (Medellin, Colombia: August 26, 1987).


  1. Peter:

    Your blogpost only confirmed my heretofore latent suspicion that you are a raging socialist and/or communist. (I kid, I kid.)

    The 20 Years' Crisis is sadly one of those books I really should have read and never have - not even an excerpt. I'm not sure a theory of international conflict, let alone a theory of international politics, can rest upon such an attenuated, or at least abbreviated, causal chain. I recognize that is an incomplete or unfair criticism, as undoubtedly Edward Hallett Carr, Jr. expounds at greater length and greater detail.

    Be that as it may, theories that I consider viable explanations can incorporate economic or power asymmetries (the reason for the war was the growing power of Athens and the fear this caused in Sparta). I read your "Survival" article and you cited, among others, Gourevith - who has written on and of theories of international politics based on domestic politics (and the reverse - the "second image" reversed). More generally, perhaps, I think the notion that great power politics, with which I associate Carr, is dampened by the causality put forth seems somewhat - to be technical - flaky. To get to the heart of the paragraph, the welfare state and economic equality result in an increasing propensity to avoid war and cooperate instead (am I getting the argument correctly?) would seem both conceptually and empirically flawed (although, with respect to the latter, maybe I'm wrong - I haven't done the empirical work). I'm willing to accept, and often like, second image-level theories of conflict causes. This just seems, once more, undertheorized: compare with two good explanations of international conflict, Snyder's "Myths of Empire" or Walt's "Revolution and War."* What are the subsidiary causal mechanisms at play? What institutions matter, e.g., legislatures, interest groups, etc.?


  2. PART II

    The second thought that came to mind is that your quote, as well as your journal article, deals with "insecurity and instability" rather than international conflict. That's fine as a value on a/the dependent variable. I'm reminded a bit of Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" (article not book - former good, latter bad) and was "Democracy Just a Moment" (excellent). To be somewhat trite, the conflicts of today and tomorrow may indeed be about internal rather than external conflict, and incorporate "non-traditional" threats conducted by non-state actors (terrorists, gangsters, migration patterns, economic systemic risk, the environment). Yet is Carr talking about this, or is "20 Years'" about great power and international politics strictly construed?

    Third, just as a passing note, a wealth and income distinction, and once more, a parsing of the second image argument - in this case, the spread or distribution of income - might be in order. A country's Gini coefficient might be an overall measure of economic inequality, but I'd argue, first, that it's an aggregate and aggregates can, of course, be misleading; that generic criticism aside, which is admittedly a tepid one, I'd be interested in *perceptions* of inequality. Ninety percent of Americans self-identify as middle-class (a Lake Wobegon phenomenon), even though the US gini coefficient is quite high for an advanced industrialized state. Moreover, a wealth versus income distinction may be called for. Someone whose opinion I respect a lot on such matters told me that wealth is rising in the third world on a scale not seen since the 16th century. I don't know if the notion of slums with satellite dishes is reality or something I've just imagined but never seen in person (minimal third world travel), but it seems plausible, and remarkable.

    Respectfully the to socialist/communist blogger,

    *There's also the work of Kevin Narizny, which I've skimmed, on the political economy of the arms industry (defense spending tends to correlate with the welfare state).

  3. ADTS,
    I don't think that the welfare state can be successful in the long-term in creating equality within a state. What is more, the national welfare state, by definition, sets up discontinuities in welfare across borders. My argument is not so much that the welfare state and equality drive cooperation and peace. My argument is that the failures and flaws of the welfare state contribute to inequality and, critically, draw political attention and discontent to that inequality. These are drivers of both domestic and international instability. Furthermore, the sharp gradients, especially across borders, provides opportunities for arbitrage, or profit more generally. These opportunities fuel conflict over them: drug and human trafficking, labor issues, etc. Not a fully formed argument here, but it is a start.

  4. I think the arbitrage point is a great one, and one I hadn't really considered. The point of contention I'd raise is that *any* regime type - be it laissez-faire or a welfare state - is going to have some degree of inequality. Further, as an aside, I'd note that "the welfare state," to say nothing of "the laissez-faire state," is an ideal-type. In reality, one has to determine what states most approximate each ideal-type. The UK is more of a welfare state than the US but less of one (so far as I understand) than its European peers (the importance of which as an illustrative example: see below). Furthermore, is this the only continuum along which one could construct or place ideal-types? What I am thinking of, really, is the former Soviet Union, which I think of as compromising crony capitalism rather than a laissez-faire state or a welfare state. And of course, that is a political as well as a purely economic classification or designation. To me, many of the problems you cite are, along your line of reasoning, the result of the interaction between states with crony capitalism and laissez-faire states and/or welfare states (or maybe, less free states - crony capitalist states - and more free states - laissez-faire states and welfare states? - to use an entirely political distinction). "Trafficking" occurs between the free world (eg, Western Europe, which has at least some higher values on the welfare state/laissez-faire continuum, eg, the UK) and the crony capitalist world, eg, the FSU. Not a fully formed argument on my part either, and I'm not sure to what extent I'm echoing your argument or advancing a distinct one of my own, but I thought it was worthy of a blog post.