It is November 8th, 2019, and I am presenting some of our very first research findings from ‘An Intellectual History of Global Inequality, 1960-2015’ at The Society for U.S. Intellectual History annual conference, this year taking place in the amazing historical surroundings of The New School, Greenwich Village, in New York City. In a panel on ‘Concepts for a ‘Post-Industrial’ Society’, I presented a first paper with some preliminary findings on the conceptual history of global inequality, drawing upon an empirical base of various searches on the term ‘global inequality’ in the Web of Science, Google-Ngram, LexisNexis, and more (with excellent help from our research assistant, Oliver). A few words on what the paper was about!
The conceptual history of global inequality is a history of how ‘global inequality’ was made in the 1970s—(invented if you will)—and remade in the 21st century. It is a history of shifting semantics of inequality, as well as a history of shifting concepts of what the ‘the world’ is, and of what, exactly, is unequal to what, within that world. The word ‘global inequality’ first saw the light of the day as a product of agricultural planners grappling with how to integrate the political and social question of redistribution into a world model of food access. When it emerged, the new was not that people took notice of an unequal world. Indeed, the concern with inequality in the world had been an ongoing concern in the postwar era, fueled by as diverse factors as new national income accounts, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, decolonization, the birth of development, and more. No, what was new in the 1970s was that historical actors started using the term ‘global’, using various kinds of systems analysis to conceptualize the world as one, interconnected system. Back then, global inequality mainly referred to world inequalities between rich and poor nations, between the Third World and the West. It was a discussion that pivoted around semantics such as ‘center’ versus ‘periphery’, and discussions of a widening—or closing—gap between the rich and the poor world. It was about uneven power relations between rich and poor countries, about a malfunctioning international economic and political system, as well as about gross inequities in development and access to a large variety of goods—including food.
In the late 1970s, more academic activities popped up around the term ‘global inequality’ (such as the first ever conference on ‘global inequality’ and the first book volume), but the word did not really gain much traction in the next decade – the 1980s. In the 1980s, possible connected to the rise of neoliberalism, it seems that discussions of an unequal world were to some degree sidelined by focusing instead upon poverty. In fact, the concept first really witnessed a surge around the turn to the 21st century. Today, several factors contribute to the new robustness of the concept: the renewed interest in inequality after the 2008 WFC, the coming into being of new data sets, an improved research infrastructure for inequality researchers, and a sharper definition of the term.
What happened during that large series of conceptual transformations peaking in the 1970s and in the 2010s was the making and re-making of ‘global inequality’. Revisiting this story allows us to appreciate how these two concepts of global inequality differ: where the 1970s concept was one of unequal power relations as well as access to resources between rich and poor nations of the world, our current concept refers to a world of individuals, Gini-coefficients, and the poor versus a ‘global elite’. Revisiting the making and re-making of global inequality may allow us to recapture and remember some of the lost semantics of other languages on our unequal world—and shed some light on why those languages may have dried up as the ‘Third World’ itself went its different ways.