Economics #2: The Many Angles to the Inequality – Conflict Debate

Aditi Kumar

M. A. Economics, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras

Karl Marx’s theory postulates that the foundations of every society are made of the economic relations, between the owner and the means of factors of production. All revolution and change that can affect society at large begins in this economic base. From this framework of analysis, economic inequality could lead to conflict, i.e. economic inequality that leads to marginalization and consequent antagonization of a class will lead to conflict.

It is a fact that the world is growing more and more unequal in terms of income distribution by the year. As a report by the World Resources Institute details, “The poorest 20 percent of the world’s population now claims just 1.1 percent of global income, while the richest 20 percent claims 86 percent. Between 1960 and 1994, the ratio of the income of the richest 20 percent to the poorest 20 percent increased from 30:1 to 78:1.”[1]

What are the links between this growing inequality and conflict? I believe that the answer isn’t a simple regression equation or a coefficient of correlation. The links are entrenched in the workings of a political economy, with all its social complexities. Therefore, the point to be made is not that inequality leads to conflict. In fact, it may well be that sometimes inequality does not lead to a revolt, organised or otherwise. Is there then, a threshold level of inequality beyond which all hell breaks loose? Or are the levels of inequality irrelevant, and the characteristics of inequality more pertinent? What is the definition of economic inequality anyway? Is it limited to income inequality? Or does it broadly include the set of opportunities accessible to a class too? Are there specific conditions under which economic inequality leads to dissent and unrest? If this is the case, why is inequality tolerated by the more unequal class at all? Perhaps they’re being suppressed, or they’re too conditioned. There are many interesting questions that this debate throws up. And it certainly more than challenges any simplistic explanation.


[1] http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8373

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About Negotiating Conflict

The Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras is organising its second academic conference in the month of September, 2012 under the overarching theme of ‘Negotiating Conflict’. The two day conference will have a session each on Economics, English Studies and Development Studies offering an array of lectures, panel discussions by the leading thinkers and paper presentations by students. For queries, please mail at: negotiatingconflict2012@gmail.com.
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