The revolution won’t happen because the revolutionary leader does not appreciate being tricked into becoming a revolutionary leader. So, once he has the choice between taking control of the system (the engine), rather than reorganize the whole social structure (the train) in a more fair manner, or blowing up the whole train, kill a big chunk of humanity’s last survivors, and maybe doom the rest to freeze to death, he picks the latter, of course.

The premise of the movies is not all that different from other dystopian, post-apocalyptic films: ecological disaster (here, global warming and a cure for it that turns out to be just as bad as it), mass death humanity. The few survivors live on a train whose engine technology allows it to run forever on a worldwide track (one circuit = one year). The train is highly stratified and functional: each car corresponds to one layer of stratification or one specific function, with the tail being the “urban”, overcrowded ghetto and the front of the train the luxury areas, with the engine at the very head.

The social structure very much resembles the setting of In Time or Panem, with the more peripheral areas being the poorest of having the least prestigious functions (making the protein blocks that feel the tail cars — if you thought Soylent Green was bad… —  where cannibalism was practiced before), prison, military (with enforcement of the segregation system). The semi-peripheral areas are higher in prestige and living conditions (hydroponics, schools, meat lockers, aquarium), inhabited by what looks like the middle class. And the core area get the luxury accommodations where the wealthiest denizens live in leisure and indolence, and depravity.

The engine is populated by one person, Wilford, the corporate leader who built the train and its track system, who lives alone and whose job it is to keep the entire system working in a sustainable fashion, which includes manufacturing rebellions from the tail that will allow for some culling of the population, and keep the tail in line with the right balance of fear. It’s like the old AGIL system in action.

This is also an totalitarian system marked by repression and deprivation (even though it’s not clear what the tail people contribute to the entire system, except for children, which they have in large numbers). The inequalities are extreme and the tension is always high in the tail.

The premise and the context are actually interesting (if not entirely original) but the main characters are so completely absurd that they ruined the movie, in my not-so-humble opinion, especially Curtis Everett, the rebellion leader played by Chris Evans. As I noted above, what drives his ultimate decision is not the improvement of the well-being of the tail people or more drastic changes in the system, but rather his ego. He is ticked off at the realization that he was manipulated from the get-go into getting the latest rebellion started. Moreover, Curtis is supposed to be a reluctant leader, rejecting the label over and over, even though he gives the orders and decides on everything the rebels do.

So, when offered the opportunity to control the engine, he prefers to blow up the entire train, based on the shaky view of an imprisoned security specialist who thinks the temperatures are rising (even though a punishment for the criminal elements in the tail cars is to have a limb exposed to the cold for a few minutes, and then amputate the frozen limb). Even if that were true, a warming would probably take decade, most of the earth’s population is dead, no infrastructure works anymore, and no one has grown food is 18 years, so the whole “let’s leave the train and go live outside” makes no sense whatsoever.

So, again, I liked the premise, but the plot, oy.

Göran Therborn published The Killing Fields of Inequality as what looks like an expanded version of a 2009 article on the same subject. And contrary to Picketty’s massive economic volume, Therborn’s book is short and sweet even though it covers some of the same territory. However, Therborn’s book focuses more on theoretical conceptualizations of inequality as well as its social consequences.

This is visible right off the bat in the way Therborn defines inequality:

“Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life-chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.” (1)

This is, I think, one of the most powerful statement of what equality truly is, beyond the relatively simplistic (and always contentious, nevertheless) economic indicators that do not capture the multi-layered nature of the impact, and mixing of cause and consequence, of inequality. But it is precisely this multi-layered nature that necessitates a more nuanced and inclusive approach to examining inequality, which is what Therborn focuses on:

  1. a multi-dimensional conceptualization of inequality;
  2. within a historical and global context;
  3. produced through a variety of mechanisms;
  4. and often countered by equalization mechanisms (which Therborn argues for).

The simple idea is that inequality is produced by a variety of mechanisms and is therefore not inevitable (like some weird atmospheric event) and certainly not desirable considering the social devastation it produces (which reproduces it at the same time). As such, equalization mechanisms are needed and available.

So, first of all, inequality means exclusion which comes in two forms:

Two main doors of social exclusion

Out of these, Therborn notes three different effects (click on the image for larger view):

The mechanisms through whichinequality tears society apart

To summarize:

“The social space for human development is carved up and restricted, above all for the disadvantaged, of course, but not only for them. Secondly, the inequality of ownership of, control of or access to economic resources means that what has been produced in a given society can easily be dissipated by the privileged few. Thirdly, inequality of economic resources and their political deployment has negated the nineteenth-century liberal fears of democracy: that citizens’ power would encroach upon private property. Instead, big property owners have, most of the time in most countries, been able to dictate what is ‘sound economic policy’.” (22)

The greater the inequality, the more of all three effects we will observe.

No conceptual work would be complete with some distinction and clarification although I do not find his conceptualization of the difference between difference and inequality persuasive:

Difference Inequality
Assumed or given Socially constructed
No commonality assumed Assumed commonality
No violation of norm of equality Violation of norm of equality
Difference can coexist with inequality

I have to say that I am not really convinced by this. Differences can be as socially constructed as inequalities and these inequalities can be constructing through othering, that is, by denying any commonality with the class of people being stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Similarly, inequality is often based on some imposed norm of essential inequality (gender, for instance) whether that supposed essence is assumed to be religion, tradition, or nature.

How much equality do we need? Here, Therborn invokes Amartya Sen’s capability approach to punt: inequalities prevent billions of people from full human development. Therefore, the focus should be on increasing capability for all and reducing social bads.

The bulk of Therborn’s conceptual work goes to delineating the different types of inequalities (click on the image for a larger view):

Three kinds of inequalityAccording to Therborn, while the mechanisms of vital and resource inequalities have been amply studied, the social sciences have yet to give existential inequality the attention it deserves. On the one hand, I disagree: Therborn refers to sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. and those have been extensively studied. On the other hand, yes, there have been discussions within the social sciences regarding identity politics as existential inequality, so conceived, goes back to issues of privileges and disadvantages.

Resource inequality refers not just to economic matters but also education, all forms of cultural inequality, inequalities in symbolic and social capital, as well as inequalities of power.

Needless to say, the distinction is conceptual. There is no question that these different forms of inequalities overlap and influence each other, and have impacts on one another.

How are inequalities produced and maintained?

“Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation / distribution.” (55)

Therborn identifies four such distributive actions, each involving both individual actions (what Therborn call ‘direct agency’) and systemic dynamics (click on the image for a larger view):

--Types of distributive action--I numbered these actions because Therborn see them as a cumulative continuum, with distanciation at one polar end, and exploitation at the other polar end of the continuum. Each layer adds more inequalities to the system, with exploitation (which includes slavery as extreme form) as the most unequal.

However, each one of these distributive actions can be countered by an equalizing mechanism:

--Types of equality mechanisms--

I numbered them to refer them to their respective distributive action (and like the distributive actions, these mechanisms can be individual or collective).

So, this is the basic conceptual apparatus that Therborn deploys to then get to the historical and empirical aspects of inequality, that is, match the concepts to the data. Note that the apparatus is more descriptive than predictive.

I have to say that this is where the book gets a bit tedious mostly because of the too-limited use of some data vizualization. It is really useless to read paragraphs and paragraphs of data. I wish these empirical sections had been better visualized. I think Therborn is going to lose a lot of non-specialist readers on that aspect alone even though it is a book that should get a wider audience than academic types.

That being said, Therborn reviews the data based on his inequality three-part apparatus. Regarding vital inequalities:

“For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarization, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalized, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies – to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise – than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” (82-3)

Regarding existential inequalities:

“Even though blatant, institutionalized existential inequality, such as racism, sexism and ruthless developmentalism or ‘civilizing’ zeal, have been eroded, existential inequality is still permeating contemporary societies.


There are also current social tendencies driving new forms of existential inequality: de-industrialization outsourcing, immigration of the poor, and labour market marginalizations. Such tendencies are now directed against an ‘underclass’ of people marginalized or excluded from the labour market, the second generation of industrial immigrants, poor single mothers, the children of de-industrialized workers. In Britain, they have been given a new pejorative identity as the ‘chavs’ (Jones 2011). In a US conservative bestseller portrait, they are a new ‘lower class’, unmarried, lazy, dishonest and godless (Murray 2012). Class is here returning as an existential put-down.” (88-9)

[Note: I totally resent that Therborn cites Murray repeatedly, just positing him as a conservative rather than an awful racist who should have been banned for academic status ever since the publication of the giant pile of horse manure that is The Bell Curve.]

And as for resource inequalities, the story is well-known: deindustrialization, rise of financial capitalism, globalization and the rise of transnational forces able to undermine the social safety nets. On education, Therborn, I think Therborn engages in too much generalizing (for instance, that private systems are better at the primary and secondary levels). One cannot, on the one hand, deplore the persistence of educational gaps and not see the impact of private systems on such persistence.

As for power,

“Within nations, social movements, collective associations and wide-franchised elections – democratization, in short – have brought about a major equalization of political resources, once monopolized by monarchs and other despots. But, as with economic resources, political equalization has been stopped or reversed recently, by de-unionization, political party erosion, and general social dissolution of the popular classes. A difference from what has happened to economic resources, which are ever more concentrated, has been the rise of electronic social media and their possibilities of self-generated mass communication.” (99)

I think the jury is still out on that one. There may be a crisis of legitimation, but yesterday’s European Parliamentary elections show that the reaction is not one of demand for more democracy. Quite the opposite.

Therborn shows that progress on vital inequalities is still inadequate, even in some developed countries. At the same time, again, in developed countries, there has been considerable progress on existential inequality (gay rights, for instance), but I would argue that this has been at the expenses of resource inequalities. In other words, the power elite has figured out that they could keep on beating up on unions and the poor, as long as there was some (cost-free) progress on identity politics matters, there would be no class-based social movements to demand changes.

So where does this leave us:

“Violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis – strong storms have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies. However, there has also been a fourth kind of egalitarian moment. Under certain circumstances, far-reaching peaceful social reform has been possible. This is obviously the experience most relevant to the current world.” (155)

And by fourth moment, Therborn mean “les trente glorieuses” (the post-WWII period until the 1980s) and the current political movement in Latin America.

When it comes to reducing inequalities, Therborn argues that this will require forces of equalization and that these can be divided in two: forces of demand (for equality) and forces of supply (those social actors who can actually deliver equalization) based on their motivations.

So, regarding these forces of demand, exit the labor movement and the working class, enter identify-based movements and what Therborn solidaristic individualism:

“Solidaristic individualism – ‘I want to choose my own lifestyle, but I am concerned about the possibilities of others to make their choice’ – is a vital force of equality. It provided the vibrant, albeit unsustainable, dynamic of the Occupy movements (see, further, Castells 2012; Mason 2012).” (162)

I think he is absolutely right on that.

What of the forces of supply, then?

“Equality derives basically from demand. But as social equality is a social force of cohesion, of combat as well as of development, it has its forces of supply, driven first of all by fear. There is the fear of the unequals, of their anger and their possible protests and rebellion. Secondly, there is the fear of the external enemy, the fear of not being up to the lethal capacity of the latter. Thirdly, there is the fear of backwardness, and projects of inclusive national development. While fear is a basic source of equalization measures by the powerful and privileged, it is not the only one. Ruling elites and/or their staff are not always fully absorbed by their own privileges and greed. They are not necessarily incapable of comprehensive visions and far-sighted strategic calculations – occasionally even of empathy with their subjects.” (163)

Again, here, I would argue that the elites have been able to continue the pursuit of resource inequalities by trading it for existential equalization.

For the future, Therborn sees three potential battlefields (and they are all institutional and systemic: family, capitalism, and nation as all three are essential in producing inequalities. There has been a lot of progress on the family front, not just with the redefinition of family in and of itself (and the progressive acceptance of multiple family forms) but also with respect to children’s rights. Ultimately, that battlefield is about individual rights to form families of one’s choice. When it comes to capitalism, though, Therborn goes back rights tied to labor and against precarization. Finally, the national battlefield goes to rights of citizens:

“Asserting the rights of citizens means, first of all, a vigorous defence of democracy, of people’s right to self-determination. Citizens have a right to assert their collective will regarding their economy and their environment over any private capital interests, or any anonymous global aggregation of, e.g., financial markets. The ongoing 2008 crisis, caused by an absence of any civic control over the opulent little world of reckless speculators and high-stake casino-gamblers, acted out more in Europe than in America, is the costliest defeat of the North Atlantic democracies since the German crash of 1931–3.” (173)

Therborn argues that these battlefields might not be primarily in developed countries but outside of the Global North. But he also thinks that certain factors will lead to fighting for equalization:

  1. the obvious cost of misery that is visible to all;
  2. the crisis of legitimation for the elite after they destroyed the economy;
  3. equality is good for society.

I am not so sure about #1, the rise of the Tea Party, and fascist parties all over Europe are precisely movements that are based on a complete lack of compassion for underdogs and victims of all forms of inequalities. They are based on resentment and hatred. That’s an extra obstacle that Therborn does not consider.

Yes, the elites have been somewhat discredited but the challenges have been limited: a threat of protest at commencement speech, the short-lived Occupy movement and Arab Spring movements. None of the contestation has led to any systemic change.

Yes, equality is good for society and there is ample data to prove it, but the dominant discourse is not that idea at all, and especially considering, again, my response to #1.

So, this is a book very much worth reading and important. I don’t agree with all of it. The conceptual apparatus is worth exploring and using. The diagnosis is sound, but the prescriptions, I think, are a bit too optimistic.

Nevertheless, I think this is required reading for all sociologists.

And while you’re at it, also go read Kathleen Geier’s review.

A while back, Dave Mayeda posted a great series of posts applying sociological theories of deviance to the TV show The Wire. So, I just thought I’d list them all here so you can all go read them as they were really great.