Book Review: The Return of Inequality: Social Change and the Weight of the Past by Mike Savage

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In The return of inequalities: social change and the weight of the past, mike savage explores how inequality has emerged as a pressing cause of concern over the past decade, offering an ambitious interdisciplinary re-theorizing of inequality and bringing historical understanding to the table. Its deeply contextual approach, theoretical breadth and historical awareness make this hugely generative book a major contribution to understanding inequality today, writes Jo Littler.

The return of inequalities: social change and the weight of the past. Mike Savage. Harvard University Press. 2021.

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Mike Savage’s new book is long and heavy, as befits its subject: the return of inequality as a problem to be understood in all its contemporary grotesque complexities. Savage is probably best known for his work on social and class stratification, including the BBC collaboration The Great British Class Inquiry and the Pelican book Social class at 21st Century, as well as for his work on the sociology of culture and the history of social methods. His new book assumes that inequality is once again a major topic of public and academic concern. Unlike at the start of this century, he argues, when public discourse was saturated with ideas that we were, by and large, moving towards a progressive future via social liberalism, technological globalization and economic growth based on knowledge, today the harsh and inevitable realities of economic and social inequality, democratic collapse and the climate crisis have defined a new tenor, a new normal. The social sciences can no longer take refuge in the comforting illusion that we exist in an era of reflexive modernization at the end of history.

The introduction explains how inequality has become a concern over the past decade. There has been a ‘telescope ride’: a growing sense that the rich, rather than the poor, may need to come under scrutiny, and may in fact be the main social problem, as evidenced at the both the Occupy movement and the rise of “elite studies” in sociology. Today, he argues, inequality bothers the rich even more: elites cannot use wealth to guarantee their own security in a world they can “no longer predict or control”. He underlines the general public success of books on inequalities, and in particular that of Thomas Piketty Capital in the 21st century (which he is fascinated with). The book tackles the problems of the social sciences: their compartmentalised nature, rigid disciplinary boundaries, the fetishization of big data devoid of social and historical context. Inequality “has imposed itself precisely as the anomaly that troubles conventional models of the social sciences”.

The return of inequalities therefore sets out to provide an ambitious interdisciplinary re-theorizing of inequalities and, in particular, to bring historical understanding to the table. He argues that the accumulated “weight of the past” has surfaced in a myriad of contexts, from Black Lives Matter to right-wing nationalism to #MeToo. Savage’s undergraduate degree was in history, and the book strives to emphasize both that sociology is “not fundamentally different from history or geography” in its scope and that the interweaving of humanities and social sciences is crucial and necessary. Appropriately, each chapter takes as its starting point a particular graph, image or table – from the Gini coefficient, to Pierre Bourdieu’s spatial map of distinction, to a photograph of Rhodes Must Fall – and uses it to launch its exploration into another facet. of inequality. There is an ongoing engagement with the power of the visual.

Two ladders, one higher, one shorter

Photo by Biao Xie on Unsplash

The return of inequalities is divided into three parts. The first considers established theories of inequality; the second analyzes its different dimensions; the third weighs what needs to be done. The first part is where Savage is by far on the safest ground. Its three chapters revolve respectively around the works of Piketty, Bourdieu and Karl Marx, but go far beyond. They look like instant seminar room classics, providing beautifully lucid analytical insights into the various techniques and historical traditions used to measure economic inequality, cultural and social capital, and wealth accumulation.

This final section places wealth rather than mere income inequality squarely in the picture of today’s rentier-driven, asset-based economy. Savage writes how, in most “developed” nations, “50% of the wealth is now inherited.” Because we are now returning to a world with higher stocks of capital, “the weight of the past is returning, and with it comes the resurgence of elitism, clientelism, discrimination, and the entrenchment of inherited privilege.”

The second part of the book is the longest and is more experimental than the first. Its six chapters cover different dimensions of inequality (imperialism and the nation-state; body, “race”, class and gender; cities and space; the changing dynamics of data and knowledge ). The key argument is that inequality tendencies are associated with the formation of elites among competing world powers, which they trace through the formation of nation states as well as past and present imperial projects.

Along the way, this section argues against identity politics and instead argues for an approach that examines how the “visceral inequalities” of the body become deeper as relative social inequalities diminish while historical inequalities remain unaddressed. He criticizes the post-war liberal vision of social mobility, of its expectations of the evaporation of inequalities “under the burning sun of opulence driven by economic growth”. He analyzes the shifting inequalities of cities, arguing that they are now less modernist and dynamic than receptacles for sedimented capital. And he explains how the widespread practice of “de-reading” and the rise of shorter digital attention spans have been exploited by elite corporate wealth.

The third part suggests what should be done. Politics alone cannot do this, argues Savage, at a time when politics is reverting to 19th-century parameters: characterized not so much by divisions left and right as by “intra-elite axes, often organized around religious or geographical divides”. ‘. In such a context – within the fraying fabric of nation-states and resurgent nationalism – calls for “efficient and competent management” are themselves part of the political problem. Instead, Savage offers us a five-point plan: revive radicalism; decentralize economic growth; consider capital; redistribute wealth; and cultivate a “sustainable nationalism”.

The return of inequalities is an extremely generative book. Its deeply contextual approach, theoretical breadth and historical awareness make a major contribution to understanding inequality today. It is excellent to think with. Inevitably, there are issues that require much deeper discussion. For example, gender is well considered as part of the “visceral inequalities” section, but overall plays a relatively minor role. The book would benefit from including the work of more female sociologists who have written on this topic (such as Sylvia Walby’s book Globalization and inequalities) and more on global gender inequalities. Similarly, the environmental crisis and sustainability are rightly emphasized at the beginning and end of the book, but this could use much more development and emphasis throughout.

I also have some problems with the prescriptions of the last chapter (while finding them good overall). The book advocates ‘sustainable nationalism’ while rejecting nationalismation (on the grounds that it is authoritarian) and cosmopolitanism. This is problematic, both because cosmopolitanism has a more multifaceted history than Savage acknowledges, and because any consideration of a sustainable nation-state must surely be accompanied by overt commitments to cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. , to avoid all the obviously dangers of exclusion that the nation-state brings. Moreover, explicitly rejecting any form of nationalization as a political strategy is an ideological relic of the very era of neoliberal Third Way politics that Savage criticizes (at a time when the NHS must urgently re-engage in nationalization and where ownership of broadband and power is collectivized). would solve many of the problems the book identifies). More engagement with pre-existing suggested solutions, both academic (like Andrew Sayer’s book Why we can’t pay the rich) and the work of think tanks and NGOs, would also be useful at the end of the book.

Such quibbles are partly the product of different perspectives, positions, and generations; our entry points on the question of inequalities are not the same. For example, I was part of a generation of social theorists participating in European Social Forums in the 2000s where inequality was already very much on the agenda (despite the best efforts of many social theories). We all have different geographic and generational perspectives due to where and how we have been immersed in the conjuncture. What makes this book so good is how it situates the inequalities of the present by rigorously extending existing theories, imaginatively joining so many historical dots, and capably expanding this difficult and necessary conversation. At the same time, there is clearly a lot of work to be done.

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Jo LittlerCity, University of London
Jo Littler is Professor of Social Analysis and Cultural Policy in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London.

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