Any of the first names that the media reported as having Covid were those of the rich and powerful, from movie stars to political leaders. Be ye ever so high, the virus is above thee – or so it seemed.
Now we understand that this perception, that came in part because at first only the wealthy and well-connected were getting tested, was misleading. The data is now crystal clear: Covid risk maps on to inequality, and Covid is a great unequaliser – in health, and in wealth.
But just as the initial “optimistic” take about Covid – that it would equalize us – got it wrong, so too the now pervasive “pessimistic” take – that the huge costs of the crisis leave us simply unable to act boldly – also gets it wrong.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, when we look at when it was that countries have embarked on the boldest steps to tackle inequality, it has not been when their coffers were most full, but when they were in the midst of, or emerging from, crises. As Covid has worsened inequality, it has also helped to expose it and to demonstrate its harm.
We have witnessed, in ever starker view, the inverse relationship between the concentration of wealth and social contribution. We have watched key workers without proper protections hold our society together, while elites looked after themselves, increasing their wealth by hundreds of billions. We have seen the immorality and unsustainability of systems in which our right to life is shaped by our bank balance.
The acute crisis of the present moment has revealed the deeper crisis of our age. Public opinion surveys, and media coverage have shown that many inequality-reducing policies previously deemed “radical” are now garnering widespread support. The opportunity to properly address inequality is now.
The point is not that the crisis “will” lead to action to tackle inequality, only that it helps generate a “could”. If social structures are like hard metal, crises are like heat that makes them molten: longstanding rules and norms can be reshaped, but in which ways they are reshaped depends on how hard they refashioned and from what direction.
If you’re stirred by the idea of emerging from this crisis into a more equal world, and you’re wondering who it is who can ensure that we do, history provides a very clear answer: you.
For my forthcoming book, How to Fight Inequality, I reviewed when progress had been made in tackling inequality. What I found was that if there is one generalizable lesson of social change it seems to be this: no one saves others, people standing together is how they liberate themselves.
It can be slow and it’s always complicated and it sometimes fails – but it’s the only way it works. The structure will not change from the top. As young activists expressed it to me: ‘There is no justice, just us.’ That can sound quite down, but it turns out that ‘just us’ – organized – is powerful.
Looking at history can help guide us. Crises are important, but what matters most is how we seize them. Three vital elements for stand out for success in the fight against inequality: we need to overcome deference; build power together, and create a new story.
All successful movements against inequality have faced hostility from the powerful, and therefore have depended on people’s willingness to get into trouble. The landless workers who successfully demanded access to land in Latin America, the Civil Rights movement in the US, and the trade unionists who won the welfare state in Europe, were all treated as threats to be squashed before they were recognized for prompting needed change.
Governments have not acted with the determination needed to tackle inequality without a push from the rest of us, and have consistently resisted that push at first. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who worked with movements for women’s rights, civil rights, migrant rights and the environment across the twentieth century, summed up her key lesson as ‘be a nuisance where it counts’.
Today’s heroes are yesterday’s troublemakers, and those who will define tomorrow will not be those whom the establishment embraces today.
Victories against inequality were rooted too in mass organizing – the change in each case was collective, never individual – because winning the battle against inequality has required power, which for ordinary people is only ever collective. The Montgomery bus boycott is sometimes told as if it was only a story of Rosa Parks sitting down and Martin Luther King speaking. But it was planned, and trained for. Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired!
And as Dr King himself pointed out, ‘I neither started the protest nor suggested it.’ Two years before Rosa Parks was arrested, the Women’s Political Leadership Council, a group of African-American activists, had been preparing for a bus boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association, set up after the arrest, had to maintain the boycott for 381 days. And they had to resource it from the community.
Activists printed thousands of flyers to get the message out and got hundreds of volunteers to help organize. Black churches across the city served as centres of organizing. People who didn’t even use the bus helped by providing people lifts in their cars. Postal service workers helped work out the routes that the carpools should take. Taxi operators agreed to reduce rates.
The organizers of the boycott had to hold huge numbers of meetings. They had to fend off legal challenges – and violent attacks. But, because of the joined-up organization uniting faith groups, women’s groups, labour unions and others, holding together even under strain, they won. As civil rights leader Diane Nash noted, ‘It took many thousands of people to make the changes that we made, people whose names we’ll never know.’
Victories against inequality have also depended on the stories that people have developed, the pictures they painted of a more equal world. In Britain in the early twentieth century, suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s water colours of women cotton mill and pottery workers highlighted their struggle for dignified working conditions.
In the 1940s, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, coined the phrase ‘welfare state’. Progress in tackling inequality in African and Asian countries after independence was also rooted in a narrative of the meaning of independence and of national destiny. Political independence was not seen as the end but as the first stage: achieving greater equality was core to honouring those who had made a sacrifice for freedom, and core to fulfilling the national destiny.
Citizens in newly independent countries were clear that the role of the new governments was to reshape society by tackling inequality. When later the era of adjustment came, tackling inequality was excised from many countries’ mainstream narratives of nationhood, where once it had been inseparable. Activist musicians and writers are organising now to ensure that the story is retold.
Looking back, we can observe how victories against inequality did not just ‘happen’, and were not just ‘given’, but were won, by ordinary people who were challenging, organized, and painted a picture of the world that could be. We have won before, we can win again.
Covid has exacerbated that feeling that we are not in control of events, that things are all just going on around us, that we are always and only objects, never subjects. But the Covid crisis has also meant that changes that had once seemed impossible have now been shown to be plausible.
The hardened structures are molten again. We can shape what happens – not alone, but with each other. Now, too, we must make our own history.
Ben Phillips is the author of ‘How to Fight Inequality’, due to be released in September. He is also an advisor to the United Nations, governments and civil society organisations, and was Campaigns Director for Oxfam and for ActionAid, and co-founded the Fight Inequality Alliance.