Why I wrote How to Fight Inequality, and who I wrote it for
By Ben Phillips
For decades, many governments and corporations would quickly shoo out the door people who came to them to recommend policies to tackle inequality. Such an agenda, they would tell us, was simply out of bounds. When they were being more polite, they told us that we didn’t understand economics. When they were being more blunt, they would tell us we were subversives. Then, just a few short years ago, they started saying the most dangerous words that people in power ever say to people calling for change: ‘Yes,’ they told us, ‘we agree with you.’
Today’s inequalities are recognized as harmful and dangerous by a clean sweep of establishment institutions, and all governments have, in signing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, pledged to reduce inequality. But winning on words has not mean winning on action. Inequalities have continued to worsen. Where to go from here?
The solution, some argue, is to keep generating more evidence of what people in power need to do. And a huge amount has been generated. There have been many excellent books on how inequality has gotten so extreme, why it is harmful, and what kind of policies could help tackle inequality. As the World Social Science Report noted, there was a ‘five-fold increase in studies of inequality and social justice in academic publications’ from 1992 to 2016, a run that has only continued.
In discussions with those academics and policy wonks who propose ‘generating more evidence’ as the answer to tackling inequality, I like to tease them by highlighting what I call the ‘evidence-based paradox’:
(1) We should be evidenced-based in our approaches.
(2) The evidence for transformational change happening because decision-makers are shown evidence is really weak.
(3) if we are truly-evidenced based, we will not depend only on evidence-sharing as a strategy for change.
I looked back at history and investigated what had led to success in beating inequality before, and found that it never came simply because those in power now had better information. Elites have never just been waiting to be better informed by civil society before they voluntarily made things fairer. They have never given justice – it had to be won.
Importantly too, it was not won principally through the brilliance or charisma of the most famous popular leaders, but by ordinary people. The real primary role of those highlighted as great popular leaders has been as expressions of the work of many others. Organizers from countries across the world have all told me variations of this vital lesson: ‘people are often looking for a redeemer, but it is we who will redeem ourselves.’ It can be slow and it’s always complicated and it sometimes fails – but it’s the only way it works.
I have been able to get a close-up view, in countries across the world, of the inspiring organizers taking on inequality. I have learnt most from having been able to directly witness people uniting to fight inequality and some moments of progress, pain and amusement; and from conversations with people who together won the fights against inequality in the past, as we have explored together the trials, tribulations and breakthroughs they experienced, and their reflections on what those mean for today.
We can sometimes feel that things are all going on around us, but by looking at past and present we can see how we can shape them too – not alone, but with each other. Most books on inequality are about what other people ought to do about it – How to Fight Inequality is about what you can do about it, and is written to help you do it as effectively as possible.
Ben Phillips is the author of How to Fight Inequality, available in the Europe from September 18th and in North America from November 13th. He is an advisor to the United Nations, governments and civil society organisations, was Campaigns Director for Oxfam and for ActionAid, and co-founded the Fight Inequality Alliance.