Inequality is always political

Received: December 7, 2018

Acceptance: August 29, 2019


This reflection on the proposal of Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz regarding the consequences and responses of subaltern groups to inequality - which explores migration, violence, religiosity and collective action - values that it places the discussion on social inequality in Latin America. Reygadas proposes several reflections on the relationship of social actions with inequality. He points out that social disparities are not enough to explain the answers on which Pérez Sáinz focuses. That it is necessary to conceive that the reproduction of persistent inequalities occurs in the long term, while social action has a short-term impact and, in addition, transformations are required in other links of this chain of reproduction. Finally, he qualifies Pérez Sáinz's emphasis on the distribution of basic markets (land, labor and capital), since from Reygadas's perspective, the locus of inequality is also found in redistribution, through progressive fiscal structures, in the economy and politics, markets, society and public institutions, as well as in material distribution and symbolic configurations.

Keywords: , , , , ,

Inequality Is Always Political

This reflection on Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz's proposal regarding secondary groups' inequality-related consequences and responses –which delves into migration, violence, religiosity and collective action– advocates re-centering discussions of Latin American social inequalities. Reygadas proposes a number of reflections on the relationship between social actions and inequality. He asserts that social disparities are not sufficient to explain the responses Pérez Sáinz has emphasized. We must understand that persistent inequality-reproduction occurs over the long-term whereas social actions exert short-term impacts and additionally require transformations in other links along the reproduction chain. Ultimately the essay nuances Pérez Sáinz's emphasis on basic-market (land, labor and capital) distribution; from Reygadas's perspective, the locus of inequality also lies in re-distribution, through progressive tax structures, in the economy and in public policy, in markets, society and public institutions and, not least of all, in material distribution and symbolic configurations.

Keywords: Social inequality, power, politics / policy, social action, distribution and redistribution.

Lhe inequality is inevitably a political issue. As Gerhard Lenski (1969) has said, social inequalities are intertwined with power relations.1 Asymmetries in power relations constitute an essential component of social inequality and are a critical key to understanding inequality between genders, ethnicities and other social groups. Two authors who have been the pillars of many modern theories on inequality, Karl Marx and Max Weber, explain social differences based on political factors: Marx speaks of the relations of production between capitalists and workers, which are mediated by power, and Weber introduces the ideas of monopolies and social closures, which also imply the exercise of power (Marx, 1974; Weber, 1996). In a more contemporary register, two Nobel laureates in economics have introduced dimensions of power in the study of economic inequalities: Amartya Sen speaks of poverty in terms of people's differential capacities and Joseph Stiglitz mentions information asymmetries as one of the crucial aspects that explain the results of the markets (Sen, 1999; Stiglitz, 2002).

The distribution of advantages and disadvantages in a society is the subject of constant disputes about who gets what. Wealth are produced in a social way (at least the vast majority of them), but they are susceptible to private appropriation, so there are constant tensions and negotiations around what portion of the wealth corresponds to each of the agents, and that is frequent conflict of interest. This contrast, together with social heterogeneity and cultural diversity, leads to very different interpretations of what is the fairest distribution of wealth. "Property is theft," Proudhon said in the century xix (Proudhon, 1993: 13), while for many others it is perfectly legitimate (Nozick, 1974). All distribution of resources has an essentially disputed character. There are contrasting views on any distribution; what for some is a fair appropriation for others is an abusive expropriation. The portion of the social wealth that each one obtains can be questioned by others; It is always the result of negotiations, struggles, agreements or exchanges that express power relations and different interpretations of reality.

The inescapable overlap between social asymmetries and power relations is highlighted in the article by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz "Inequalities and the re-politicization of the social in Latin America", which is published in this issue of Encartes. Pérez Sainz points out that since the eighties neoliberalism tried to avoid the link between the wealth of a few and the misery of the majority, avoided reflection on inequalities and emphasized poverty as if it were a technical problem, Leaving aside the political and relational nature of social inequalities: “in understanding the deficiencies, all references to power and conflict were evacuated. In this way, the social question in the region was de-politicized for several decades ”(Pérez Sáinz, in this issue). However, this attempt to bury the political dimension was unsuccessful, because the exacerbation of inequalities, the persistence of poverty and the emergence of new inequalities in the neoliberal period has caused the political character of the social question to reappear in the region, perhaps stronger than ever.

Juan Pablo Pérez Sainz has made enormous contributions to understanding social inequalities in Latin America. His extensive book Mercados y bárbaros. La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina (2014) is one of the strongest inquiries about the factors that explain why the region has been the most unequal in the world for several centuries. In this and other works (Pérez Sáinz, 2012; Pérez Sáinz y Mora, 2009) he has proposed to analyze the dynamics of power

that operate in the land, capital and labor markets as the source of the greatest inequalities. Contrary to liberal approaches that prioritize income inequalities between individuals, he has insisted on studying the relationships between social classes, groups, and categorical pairs (gender, racial, ethnic, territorial, etc.). The combination of this sociological approach with historical exploration has allowed him to scrutinize the evolution of inequality in Latin America in various periods, and, in particular, to understand the contemporary situation.

After researching for several years about the causes of inequality, Pérez Sáinz looks back at its consequences and the responses to it. The article "Inequalities and the re-politicization of the social in Latin America" is consistent with the thesis that inequalities are always political. Therefore, in the first instance, it describes four disempowerment processes that have caused an increase in social disparities in Latin America in recent decades: the precariousness of salaried work, the exclusion of smallholders from globalization, the fragility of the processes of individualization for subaltern sectors and the fact that the processing of differences (ethnic, gender) continues to produce inequalities, despite the fact that recognition policies have been put in place. His analysis confirms that the changes in the correlation of forces between the dominant classes and the subaltern sectors in the context of globalization have given rise to new inequalities and the persistence of old inequities. But the newest part of the text (and therefore the most risky) is when it leaves the familiar terrain of the causes of disparities and seeks to understand various actions of subordinate groups as responses to inequality. First, locate an output response, which would be migration. Second, it describes a response full of contradictions, which is that of violence. In the third instance, he comments on a magical answer, which would be that of religiosity. Finally, it addresses a collective action response, which is that of social movements. He points out the limitations and contradictions of the first three answers, while in the social movements he sees a more promising alternative, because they criticize the inferiorization of the popular sectors and question the causes of inequality.

I consider that the article manages to show that the popular sectors do not passively experience inequality and marginalization, that they participate in individual and collective searches to face the disadvantages of exclusion. Undoubtedly, the deepening of inequality affects the increase in internal and transnational migration, the intensification of violence, the new religiosities and the proliferation of social movements in the region. However, it is necessary to reflect more carefully on the articulations between social actions and inequality.

On the one hand, the popular responses that Pérez Sáinz describes have to do with inequality, but also with many other processes; inequality is just one of many factors that must be taken into account to understand these responses. In addition, it must be remembered that only in some cases have they proposed to reduce inequality, the vast majority have had other goals: to seek new life opportunities, reduce poverty, explore fast routes to enrichment, increase employment, improve personal situation or family, obtain a means of subsistence, promote an economic or social policy, oppose it, defend certain rights, process existential and family crises, and so on. In reality, very few actions explicitly aim to reduce inequality. Social disparities are a factor that must be considered to understand migration, religious conversions, violence and social movements, but they are not sufficient to fully explain these phenomena. I do not mean that Pérez Sáinz intends to reduce the explanation of these processes to inequality, at no time does he affirm that, but it is worth making this point, because those of us who have studied inequality for several years often tend to overestimate its incidence.

Even more complex is the question of the impact of popular responses on inequality. The relationship between social action and inequality is complex and indirect, because inequality is an aggregate phenomenon and is more closely related to long and medium duration, while social action is specific, located in space and in the immediate event. Inequality is the result in the medium and long term of innumerable actions, mediated by policies, structures, interactions, relationship systems, processes, institutions and cultural frameworks. Inequality is not at the margin of agency and action, on the contrary, it is a product of them, but not of the action of an individual, a group or a government at a given moment, but of the set of practices of multiple agents for prolonged periods. The net equality or inequality effects of an individual or collective action or a government program may be very different from what was expected, many factors are involved, and there are unforeseen consequences.

The long duration of inequality is more evident if the deepest aspects of social disparities are taken into account, for example habitus, asymmetric interaction patterns, skills inequalities, asymmetries in infrastructure, education, and cultural capital. and in social capital. Inequality is reproduced through long chains of devices that involve both structures and institutions that are sedimented in the course of the history of a society, as well as individual and group capacities and endowments that are acquired throughout a lifetime. A lasting modification of the levels and types of inequality in a society is unthinkable without a transformation of the deeper structures and power relations that organize the distribution of capacities and the means of access to resources. These structures can change, but only through the conjunction of many factors, over relatively long periods of time.

It is not easy to identify the impact that certain social processes will have on increasing or reducing inequality. The same social movements may have little impact on the social structure, as indicated by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz himself:

Of the four responses [social mobilization] is, without a doubt, the one that most radically proposes overcoming social marginalization because, precisely, it directly challenges the causes that generate it. But its achievements are conditioned by the asymmetry of conflict. Precisely because of its questioning nature of the prevailing order, it has to confront powerful actors who try to neutralize this type of social movements through isolation, repression or co-option (Pérez Sáinz, in this issue).

From this perspective, the paradox of Latin America pointed out by Adelman and Hershberg is perhaps not so surprising, which is that this region continues to be highly unequal in the distribution of income, despite the greater recognition of indigenous peoples and indigenous peoples. the Afro-descendant population and has been the scene of powerful social movements (Adelman and Hershberg, 2007). Social mobilization has the potential for transformation, but it is not enough to produce positive effects in reducing inequalities. In other words, the greater participation of the excluded and the critique of marginalization are not enough to reverse the inequality of centuries; transformations are needed in other links in the chain of reproduction of persistent inequalities.

It seems to me that we should not rush to conclusions about the consequences of a certain social action in terms of reducing or increasing inequality. While it is true that some social movements question privileges and demand inclusion, they do not lead to greater equality. Nor can it be ruled out a priori that migration, religious transformations or violence may have equalizing effects. Thomas Piketty points out that the destruction of capital that occurred during the two world wars, coupled with progressive fiscal reforms and the subsequent strengthening of the welfare state, led to a significant reduction in inequalities in several countries (Piketty, 2014). Some migration processes have led to a reduction in inequalities and others have not. Certain religious transformations have contributed to questioning inequalities, while others have reinforced them. This depends not only on the characteristics of each social action or on the ideology of those involved, but on the way in which the overall social structure processes these actions and on the fact that the institutional mechanisms to counteract the actions are consolidated or weakened. inequalities. For example, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 involved a deep questioning of the social disparities inherent to the primary export model and the oligarchic structure that was consolidated at the end of the century. xix and early xx, but it did not translate into an immediate reduction in inequalities. It was not until several decades later that a process of import substitution began, an agrarian reform took place and public institutions of education and health were created that reduced some inequalities in Mexico.

The issue of institutional devices to counteract inequality allows us to discuss another of Pérez Sáinz's central statements about the causes of inequalities. He has insisted that the explanation of inequalities and the key to their reduction must be sought in distribution and not in redistribution, in the functioning of basic markets (for land, labor and capital) and not in disputes on the redistribution of income towards individuals and households. I agree with him that the unequal distribution of land, the polarization and segmentation of labor markets and the scandalous concentration of capital are fundamental questions to explain Latin American inequalities. He is also right that the solution is not in the redistribution of income focused on the poorest households, structural transformations are necessary that generate quality jobs and better life opportunities for the majority of the population. But from there it is not concluded that the problem and the solution are located exclusively in the field of distribution. For example, in some countries that have lower inequality indices than those in Latin America, the primary distribution in the markets is not so different from that in Latin America, the difference is that they have progressive fiscal structures, redistributive mechanisms and more solid social states. . Redistribution is also important.

It seems to me that the locus of production of inequalities is not only found in the configuration of property and employment, but in the entire social structure; it is located both in distribution and redistribution, in economics and politics, in markets as well as in society and political institutions, in material distribution and in symbolic configurations. Similarly, alternatives to reduce inequalities have to be sought in many areas, including distribution and redistribution, involving economic, political and cultural measures.

Pérez Sáinz's article has the virtue of showing the profound economic, social and political consequences that the increase in inequality has had in Latin America. By highlighting the political dimensions of inequality, it de-naturalizes it and allows it to be placed at the center of the discussion. If during the last two decades of the century xx The issue of inequality was conspicuous by its absence in academic analyzes and public debates in the region. So far this century, research on this problem has multiplied and it has been reintroduced into governmental and non-governmental agendas. As Pérez Sáinz says, the social has been re-politicized in Latin America. Fortunately, because inequality is always political and must be discussed.


Adelman, Jeremy y E. Hershberg (2007). “Desigualdades paradójicas: ciencias sociales, sociedad e instituciones en América Latina”, en Working Papers Series, núm. 2. Miami: Universidad de Miami/Observatory on Structures and Institutions of Inequality in Latina America

Campbell, Tom (2002). La justicia. Los principales debates contemporáneos. Barcelona: Gedisa.

Lenski, Gerhard (1969). Poder y privilegio. Teoría de la estratificación social. Buenos Aires: Paidós.

Marx, Carlos (1974) [1867]. El capital. Crítica de la economía política, vol. 1. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nueva York: Basic Books.

Pérez Sáinz, Juan Pablo (ed.) (2012). Sociedades fracturadas. La exclusión social en Centroamérica. San José: flacso.

Pérez Sáinz, Juan Pablo (2014). Mercados y bárbaros. La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina. San José: flacso.

Pérez Sáinz, Juan Pablo y M. Mora (2009). “Excedente económico y persistencia de desigualdades en América Latina”, en Revista Mexicana de Sociología, año 71, núm. 3, pp. 411-451.

Piketty, Thomas (2013). Le capital au xxie siècle. París: Seuil.

Proudhon, Pierre-Josep (1993) [1840]. What is property? An enquiry into the principle of right and of government. Nueva York: Fertig

Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. Nueva York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stiglitz, Joseph (2002). Globalization and its Discontents. Londres: Allen Lane-The Penguin Press.

Tezanos, José Félix (2001). La sociedad dividida. Estructuras de clases y desigualdades en las sociedades tecnológicas. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva.

Weber, Max (1996) [1922]. Economía y sociedad. Ensayo de sociología comprensiva. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Inline Feedbacks
See all comments


ISSN: 2594-2999.

Unless expressly mentioned, all content on this site is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Download legal provisions complete

EncartesVol. 5, No. 10, September 2022-February 2023, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 22, 2022.