Born-Again Equality

Joanne Meyerowitz – 

moyn post

Sam Moyn’s Not Enough gives us a sweeping account of more than two centuries of the political quest for economic equality.  His history locates early calls among the Jacobins who demanded fair distribution during the French Revolution.  It moves through the nineteenth-century era of economic liberalism in Europe, when hopes for economic equality languished and human rights referred to individual liberties, and picks up in the early twentieth century when welfare states revived the quest for equality with an accompanying language of “social rights.”  Then for a brief moment in the mid-1970s, the push for equality turned global as an imagined “welfare world” with international distributive justice.  All of which collapsed in our current neoliberal era of the past 40 or so years with its more limited vision of human rights ascendant and its stunning disparities in wealth. Moyn contrasts equality with its paler cousin sufficiency.  In recent decades, he argues, the uninspiring goal of sufficiency—a bare minimum for the impoverished—has shunted aside the quest for a more robust equality.

Moyn’s a master of nuance—he’s an impressively talented qualifier—and the abbreviated plot line I just tracked erases his subtlety entirely.  (Apologies for that.)  Suffice it to say for now that Moyn shows us moments of exceptional promise in the past, all the while acknowledging the massive blindspots of earlier historical actors.  He notes repeatedly that the early welfare state redistributions were built on gender, racial, and imperial hierarchies that excluded most people from their material benefits.  His book could be (and in some ways is) a history of a world we have lost, but it’s also an impassioned call for the just world we have not yet had.

Much of the book (three of the seven chapters) focuses on the 1970s as a turning point.  For Moyn, the high point of the decade came in 1974, when nations of the global South joined together and called, through a UN declaration, for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).  The NIEO borrowed from dependency theory to expose how the global market was rigged to benefit the wealthier nations and keep the poorer ones subordinate.  It had a number of planks aimed at restructuring the global economy, including stabilized prices for commodities from the global South, debt relief, and regulation of the predations of multinational corporations.  The goal was not so much material equality among nations (the NIEO did not call for a ceiling on inequality), but it did ask to level the playing field with hopes of extending, as Moyn says, the kind of economic regulation seen in welfare states to the entire globe.  In his history of equality versus sufficiency, Moyn positions the NIEO in opposition to the “basic needs” movement of the same decade.  The basic needs movement called for lifting the floor, that is for ending extreme poverty by ensuring that everyone had at least a minimum of food, clean water, shelter, education, and health care.  Moyn sees the basic needs movement as a sad retreat from redistribution and equality, a kind of dumbing down of aspirations, and an attempt to derail the structural changes in the market demanded by the NIEO.  And to a certain extent I agree.

But I’d also argue that the antipoverty basic needs movement was not quite as lame as Moyn suggests. It came in multiple variants, and many of its most ardent advocates tried to combine it with proposals for structural change in and regulation of the global economy, pushing for changing the rules of the market and also for meeting basic needs. They included northern socialists, such as Michael Harrington in the U.S. and Willy Brandt in West Germany; vocal global South socialist supporters of the NIEO, such as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Michael Manley in Jamaica; left-leaning development economists at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, the International Labour Organization, and the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex; and also some key liberals in mainstream institutions, such as the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq (a central figure in Moyn’s book) and the influential British popularizer Barbara Ward.  In the second half of the 1970s, they all called for structural changes in the global market and for programs that addressed the so-called poorest of the poor.

In the late 70s, one interesting area of convergence, in which socialists, social democrats, and left-leaning liberals—in the South and the North—agreed, was captured in the phrase “transfer of resources”: a transfer of capital and technology from the wealthier to the poorer nations. As the idea of “transfer of resources” was developed in the NIEO and in basic needs programs, it expanded well beyond traditional foreign assistance , which was a kind of paltry, selective, self-serving transfer of resources with a tangle of strings attached. In its late 70s iteration, “transfer of resources” called for redistribution (sometimes as reparations) via a system of progressive automatic international taxation.  The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal (and a few others) had called for such an international tax earlier, but the idea took off in the late 1970s.  Ideas for what might be taxed included military expenditures, arms exports, revenues from harvesting sea-bed minerals, international trade, and international travel.

Moyn positions the late 1970s as a moment of decline, with the rise of a human rights movement that accommodated (even if it didn’t cause) the rise of neoliberalism and with limp proposals to end poverty without addressing inequality.  But I’d argue that the 1970s were years when the radicalism of the 1960s reached into the mainstream international institutions and nudged them to the left.  I want us to remember the international 1970s, including the late 70s, as years when socialism, anti-colonialism, global redistribution, anti-poverty, racial justice, and gender equality were all on the table, even in some of the halls of power.  It’s easy to say now, with hindsight, that growing debt in the global South, Pinochet’s coup in Chile, and Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in the UK portended the neoliberal era.  But that wasn’t clear, as Moyn acknowledges, in the late 1970s.  Those events had not yet diluted the optimism that fueled the advocates of an international tax.  In the U.S., for example, it wasn’t obvious that Ronald Reagan would win the presidency in 1980 and upend the proposals, limited as they still were, that addressed global inequality, redistribution, and poverty.

And few of us would have predicted that Donald Trump would upend the age of Obama, limited as it was.  I have a better sense now of how it must have felt in 1980 to all the folks who were still imagining that moves toward redistribution were at least remotely possible.  Take Willy Brandt, for example, the democratic socialist former chancellor of West Germany.  In 1977, he agreed to lead a new major international commission on economic development, and he insisted that the majority of the commissioners come from the global South.  The commission report—a book titled North-South—called for structural changes in the global market, basic needs programs to end poverty, and an automatic international tax to transfer resources from North to South.  But the report wasn’t published until 1980.  At least in the U.S., it landed with a thud.  How could Brandt and his commissioners have known, as they wrote their report in the late 1970s, that 1980 would be too late?

We could, of course, ask the same question about Moyn’s book.  In the age of neoliberalism and Trumpery, has it come too late?  Let’s hope not.  Moyn’s book reminds us that ideas once animated can be reanimated, in new form, in a more propitious day.  Not Enough is an important book, then, not least because we need to remember, in our current predicament, moments in the past, including the 1970s, when aspirations for equality and the end of global poverty loomed larger, promised more, and seemed remotely possible.  We might, Moyn suggests, breathe life into those aspirations and revive them once again.

Joanne Meyerowitz is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History & American Studies at Yale University. 

Visit our Not Enough Symposium page to read all the posts in this series.