AQ: Australian Quarterly

Redefining Inequality: It's the Inequity of Social Trust, not 'the Economy, Stupid'

When viewed as systemic rather than materialistic, the question then becomes how to interpret the effects of inequality as symptoms of unfair systems – systems that generate antisocial distrust and undermine social cohesion. The issue is that inequalities may offer multiple symptoms of social destruction, but the contribution these make to feelings of distrust and other emotional reactions, become causal. Ergo, material redistribution, in itself, will not necessarily undo harm, because it is unlikely to restore trustworthiness, but may be part of solutions.

This shift will be a clear rejection of the effects of the current dominant globalised market of material growth, and the seeking of more localised, protective forms of governance.

Deconstructing inequality is not easy. Its materialist version offers a popular and convenient shorthand description for most current political ills. Yet, extending its meaning is essential, if we are to seriously analyse the many current political problems facing most western-style democracies.

We need to question why there is a surprising consensus across a wide variety of institutions, the media, and other – even radical – groupings, that material inequality is, in itself, somehow primarily responsible for political divides and distrust in many western democratic countries. It is blamed for voters’ growing rejection of centrist parties for failing to act on behalf of 'ordinary people', preferring to support elites in pursuits of global economic growth. The disillusioned coalesce into populist movements, both progressive and regressive. These may also be undermining the perceived trustworthiness of the necessary complex long-term democratic processes needed to ensure representative governance and more civil societies.

Recognisers of the possible damage of increasing economic inequalities include the IMF and World Bank and Davos meetings, which all discuss the issues of political and social instabilities. However, most of those above have touted and defended globalised market forces, so are still reluctant to explore, let alone recognise, the failures of their globalised market modes, and so are resistant to the need to do more than some minor economic redistribution to fix it.

Therefore it behoves us to alert those still attached to

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