Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The "subjective impact" of inequality

In discussing post-1949 China in her classic States and Social Revolutions (1979), T. Skocpol quotes (on p.274) a passage from a 1975 article by Martin K. Whyte on how post-revolutionary China addressed the issue of inequality.  The Chinese regime, according to Whyte, aimed not so much to eliminate income and other inequalities as to "mute [their] consequences."  In this 40-year-old article, Whyte wrote:
People in high positions in China are viewed as entitled to certain kinds of differential rewards and authority, but at the same time flaunting authority or engaging in conspicuous consumption is tabooed. There is thus a concerted effort to blunt the subjective impact which existing inequalities might have on the initiative and dedication of the have-nots in whose name the revolution was fought.
The notion of the subjective impact of inequalities clearly relates to inequality's tendency, in some cases, to undermine the social bases of self-respect (as discussed in the comment thread attached to this post).  My impression is that conspicuous consumption is no longer especially discouraged in China; some might consider that one of the acceptable prices to pay for having escaped the more destructive aspects of Maoism, but it's interesting that, 40 years ago at any rate, Chinese policy was apparently very conscious of what Whyte labeled the subjective impact of inequality.  

Though Skocpol thought China was different from post-revolutionary France and Russia in this respect, I'm not so sure.  The addressing of pretty much everyone as "citizen" after 1789, to take one example, might have been one way in which the new French republic tried to, quoting Whyte in this different context, "mute the consequences" of the inequalities that remained after the Revolution. Just a stray thought...


Anonymous said...

Apparently, the first socialists avoided talk of 'equality' because it was associated with the social leveling of the French Revolution and the Terror.

LFC said...

Been a while since I looked at the early 19th-cent. socialists, but sounds more or less right.