INEQ Interview with Göran Therborn

Göran Therborn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and former co-director of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences in Uppsala. His groundbreaking research has tackled a wide range of issues from different dimensions of social inequality, family-sex-gender relations, and cities and power to theoretical issues of contemporary radical social th

Paradoxical trajectories of inequalities – and the great pandemic unequalizer

INEQ interviewed Professor Therborn in the spring of 2019 in Helsinki after a keynote address in the inaugural workshop of the initiative. Our initial questions (March 29, 2019) focused on an assessment of the key dimensions of inequality Therborn described in his book The Killing Fields of Inequality. The interview concludes with an additional comment on the 2020 covid-19 pandemic and its effects on inequalities (June 3, 2020).

Q: Six years after writing the The Killing Fields of Inequality (2013)[1], how do you now see the world and the global developments of the things you wrote about?

GT: Inequality certainly has not improved or declined. I think one of the most worrying recent developments has been the increase in vital inequality, and the shortening of lives of poor people in the United States and also the UK. The decline has been significant enough to affect even the average life expectancy that is going down. In Sweden, it has not been that strong yet, but there have been some clear stagnation of average life expectancy and in certain peripheral areas of Sweden, there has been quite a dramatic decline of life expectancy, particularly with women. With respect to existential inequality, the #MeToo and the American Black Lives Matter movements have highlighted the increased salience of sexual harassment, of privatised racism and so on.

Certainly, with respect to resources, the new database on top incomes in the world, first put up by Thomas Piketty and Tony Atkinson and now broadened to the World Income Database[2], has shown us that the global distribution of income is more unequal than previous data indicated. Some of the positive changes that took place in Latin America in the first decade of this century have been much smaller than previous survey-based data has showed. Overall, the situation of inequality in the world has in most respects aggravated, although it is true that the life and health expectancy in the Third World has continued to improve. In some countries of which we have data available, there have also been some examples where national health inequality and life expectancy have improved.

On the whole, the world has gotten more unequal since that book. One might also add that there has belatedly arisen a more widespread academic concern with inequality. Centres for inequality studies or inequality initiatives are being developed in all parts of the world. So, in terms of scholarship and investigation of inequality, progress is certainly being made.

Q: Your book ended with a call for thinking about the role of the middle class as one of the decisive arenas where questions of inequality can be thought of and maybe also struggled for. How do you see the recent developments in the political landscape in relation to this and the question about the middle – both in terms of resource inequality and middle ground in politics – that would be one of the key issues about representative democracy and its ability to tackle these kinds of things?

GT: We should distinguish very sharply between the middle class and the middle ground in politics because they are two different things. But they are of course both relevant, so you are right in raising the question. With respect to the middle class, I think the record of the last years is complex and uneven.

In South America, which in the first decade of the 21st century was a forerunner in trying to tackle huge existing inequalities, the middle classes have certainly turned around to support inegalitarian governments and inegalitarian politics, most dramatically in Brazil but also in Argentina and Chile. On the other hand, at the other end of Latin America, in Mexico, we see the opposite, where a significant part of the Mexican middle classes supported the landslide of an egalitarian presidential candidate.

In Arabic countries and India, I think the possibilities of an alliance of at least a part of the middle class and the popular classes have been hemmed in, which we saw in Delhi in the elections of 2014 and 2015. A large part of the Indian middle classes, who vote less than the popular classes if at all, have turned right to the Hindu liberal nationalist party.

In the United States, it is difficult to say. A good part of the middle classes is suddenly pretty unhappy with Trump and Trumpism. On the other hand, it is notable that the Californian middle classes, to take one significant but not fully representative example, are very little concerned with inequalities and are more preoccupied with individual rights and so on. So, it is a mixed picture. I do not think there has been any decisive turns in either direction.

In any case, the middle classes continue to constitute a central political battlefield. In Sweden, for instance, I still think there is a potential, an egalitarian potential that has not been tapped. But there is the interesting fact that the majority of the so-called middle class in Sweden are trade union organised wage earners or salary earners, and some of the white-collar unions are openly critical of the right-wing liberal policies with regard to education, healthcare and so on. So, also there the middle classes remain a pivot or a political orientation.

Now, with regard to the political middle ground, I think that has weakened overall. Clearly, the mainstream’s complacent neoliberal consensus, which was there in the 1990s and in the beginning of the 21st century, has been fragmented and challenged both from forces on the left and forces on the right. It is notable. There is quite a scare in this centrist middle ground field for challenges from both the left and the right.

The hope some people had that Macron in France would represent a vindication of a liberal centre has not collapsed, but Macron has turned out to be much more to the right than many of his supporters and admirers had hoped. Also, he has been severely challenged by a remarkable and remarkably tenacious social movement. So, clearly Macronism, and as far as I can see there is no equivalent to it in any other country in Europe, has not reversed this tendency for the neoliberal consensus to break up.

Q: One of the things that you talked about in the book is the paradox, or diverging trajectories, between some of the existential markers of inequality, and on the other hand, the resources and the vital dimensions. How do you see this today? Does this mean that questions of existential inequality are somehow disconnected from these two other dimensions? Are the questions and debates about identity, the right of self-expression, and so on less directly attached to the more material dimensions?

GT: If we look at racism and patriarchy historically, they derived their strength and force from being embedded in the mode of production. Plantation slavery in the United States is one example, and patriarchal agriculture, a worldwide phenomenon, another example. What began during the industrial era was a loosening of the link between the economy and existential inequality with respect to race, sex and gender. It never went very far, but there was a notable loosening of that, which happened when the industries in the north of the United States received a significant black workforce. It started after World War I and again after World War II. We also saw it in the last decade of apartheid in South Africa, where the previously rigid colour bar in the mines and in South African industry eroded because of industrial expansion and the capital’s need for a larger labour force.

Capitalism, of course, in contrast to subsistence or family agriculture, has never really been based on patriarchy. There was a strong historical correlation between the bourgeois family and property and capital. Joseph Schumpeter[3] regarded the erosion of the patriarchal family as a threat to the survival of capitalism. But that was really wrong. And that is something we can see now flourishing. So, in a sense, the disconnection between economic power and existential issues of recognition and respect is really one of the few encouraging signs in the last 40-50 years.

However, there is certainly an anti-feminist backlash in various parts of the world, and a new racism surging in the wake of immigration. On the whole, I would say that we should remember the enormous positive changes with regard to racism and sexism that took part in the last third of the 20th century that have not been completely reversed. On the contrary, they continue, although, as I said in my answer to your first question, they should not be idealised because we have seen that sexism and racism are still very much alive.

Q: Is there a risk that the progress in terms of existential and identity-level equality questions might be functioning as a compensating narrative for other kinds of inequalities getting worse at the same time? Is this not, precisely, the neoliberal storyline: that there is a freedom to choose who you are while structural inequalities still exist and are sharpened?

GT: Yes, and we have this interesting development in feminism, for example, that is a kind of variety of the old Stalinist slogan of ‘socialism in one country’. Now it is feminism in one class, where there is an enormous preoccupation with and pride in the increasing number of women as board members of corporations, and in the military. However, what is going on, of course, is a deeper and stronger class stratification of women, because more women are engaged in the labour force, and they are engaged in the labour force in different classes and different positions.

We have this phenomenon in Sweden, and I know also exists in Denmark, of the re-emergence of a servant class of cleaners and household assistants, or whatever they are called, that is usually also an ethnically marked servant class. They are usually immigrant women. This is something that could lay the basis for a new kind of racism because it would relink or reconnect ethnicity with subordinate economic positions.

Q: How do you see the link between your grand narrative of increasing inequality related to neoliberalism and globalisation, and the rise and persistent emergence of various kinds of populist movements? There is an argument sees this as a partly legitimate reaction to the growing inequalities, and it grows from the existential dimension, in a sense, of being left out.

GT: Yes, economically they are left out. Overall, I think that that argument is correct. We should all be aware that the notion of populism is a very nebulous one and it is usually used in a pejorative sense. What it actually refers to are various kinds of, right and left, protest movements against neoliberalism and the neoliberal consensus. It is clearly connected to the uneven economic and social development.

The so-called populist movements have their strengths in the economic and social periphery. That is very clearly the case in Sweden, France and the United States. The tragic thing of course is that this resentment against being left out, excluded, or the experience of relative impoverishment is taking a xenophobic colour in many cases.

I think this kind of xenophobia has some similarities with classical popular antisemitism, in Russia in particular, that was very much a protest movement against the social order and against an experience of exploitation and humiliation, but turned into ethnic scapegoating. That is not, of course, quite a spontaneous movement. It is something that has been nourished and stoked by xenophobic leaders of the right wing, or so-called populist movements.

These movements or parties are clearly manifestations of a discontent with, a resentment of, and a protest against the growing resource inequalities and the growing economic, socioeconomic and geographical gap in the developed countries.

Q: When you think about the 2020 global pandemic, how do you see that in connection to the three different aspects or dimensions of your model? (June 3, 2020)

GT: First of all, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the class structuration of inequalities. The upper middle class is working safely from home and drawing their normal salary, while their children are pursuing their studies online. The servant classes feeding and caring for them and their parents are taking the main risks of contagion. The bulk of the working class, unemployed or furloughed, with some, often-delayed temporary compensation, have an uncertain post-pandemic future. The employees by hour, often working in elderly warehousing, have to take whatever risk there is in order to earn a living. The day labourers and street vendors of the Third world, who lost their livelihood in lockdowns, are depending on charity, public or private, for survival. Above them all, the big owners of capital escaped to their second or third homes, or as in Santiago de Chile, helicoptered out of locked-down cities to their beach houses, drawing their rents and planning post-pandemic investments.

The still bewildering paths of the virus underlines the irreducibility of vital to resource inequality. Think of the contrasts in infections and deaths between Portugal and Spain, Greece and Italy, Poland and Germany, or Slovakia and Austria. The variable political economy of health also provides a contribution.

Sweden’s much worse performance compared to other Nordic countries’ is clearly due in large part to the larger privatization and de-regulation of elderly health care that has led to doing a bad job in private nursing homes. Also, for a long time, nobody has taken responsibility of preparations towards having protective gear, contact-tracking, test kits, respirators, medicines accompanying diseases, or even isolation of the highly vulnerable people in elderly care. In other words, there has been enthusiastic adoption of just-in-time industrial management of social services, meaning no stocks and reserves.

Finally, all signs and investigations so far, point to increasing inequalities, globally as well as nationally, because of the pandemic. This includes an exacerbation of existential inequalities, tensions, and conflicts, both because of uneven contagion, and because of political stoking of fears and desires for exclusion through border and boundary closures and the rhetoric of hostility to Others.

The pandemic is a “Great Unequalizer”.



[1] Therborn, Göran (2013). The Killing Fields of Inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Previously The World Top Incomes Database (2011-2015), renamed The World Inequality Database in 2015 (The World Inequality Lab, Paris School of Economics)

[3] Schumpeter, Joseph A. (2009). Can Capitalism Survive?: Creative Destruction and the Future of the Global Economy. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought.