The role of inequality in rebellion and revolt

Inclusive Economy,Poverty & Inequality05 Feb 2013Syed Mansoob Murshed

For conflict abating strategies two policies are important. The first is addressing enduring inequalities in asset ownership, education and health. The second policy issue is promoting growth with redistribution, truly pro-poor growth.

In today’s world, civil war has become the dominant form of warfare. Since the end of the Cold War, external interventions to end civil war have grown, although both the incidence of civil war (the number of countries with a civil war in their territory) and associated battle deaths seem to be on the wane (Gleditsch, 2008). The international security agenda has also shifted its emphasis from averting nuclear holocaust to fixing failed states in developing countries.

Plato, along with his student and disciple Aristotle, attributed tendencies towards internal conflict in the Athens of antiquity to three interacting factors (see, Jacoby, 2008: 10), which still resonate with our modern reality after more than two millennia. They were the inequalities within Athenian society, the incompetence of the Athenian leadership, and the avariciousness of elements within Athenian society. The avariciousness or greed argument has received considerable attention in the past decade, particularly in relation to civil wars in Africa (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004), and especially where there were contestable resources like alluvial (blood) diamonds, such as in Sierra Leone or Angola. Fearon & Laitin (2003) emphasized the importance of weak state capacity (to either suppress or buy off rebellion) as a cause of civil war in developing countries. These statements of the greed and the weak state capacity factors underlying civil war were explicitly dismissive of any form of inequality as a causal factor underlying internal violent conflict. Later, the greed argument was qualified to include the role of poverty (but still not inequality), especially in Africa (Collier, 2007). This is because endemic poverty makes violence a less unattractive livelihood strategy, due to lower economic opportunity costs. This view on the combination of poverty and weak state capacity dominates the conflict-underdevelopment discourse. It should be noted that while a reduction in inequality always lowers poverty, economic growth does not necessarily lower inequality; inequality may increase even when poverty declines through a trickle-down effect.

Discounting the role of inequality in rebellion and revolt goes against the grain. Stewart (2000) coined the expression ‘horizontal’ inequality to describe the inequality between communities defined along ethnic, religious or other identity-based differences as a possible cause of internal conflict. This is plausible as most civil wars have an ethnic dimension delineating the antagonists. Østby (2008) and Cederman, Weidmann & Gleditsch (2011) find support for the contribution of horizontal inequality to conflict in cross sections of countries.

Gurr (1970) emphasized a different type of inequality r – relative deprivation – in fomenting rebellion. This represents the difference between actual outcomes and what individuals feel are their just deserts. Relative deprivation as a source of dissatisfaction becomes more salient when society is making general economic progress (as in Asia), compared to stagnating economies where poverty is ubiquitous (Africa from1980 to 2000). Thus, violent conflict and rebellion can also break out in economically successful countries, when there is economic growth accompanied by rising inequality. Three other forms of inequality are central in contributing to conflict. The first refers to the durable inequalities mentioned by Tilly (1998). These are inequalities bred by the unequal distribution of economic assets, education and health status. They are both notoriously difficult to redress, and even then affirmative action takes a long period to bear fruit. The second type refers to inequality of opportunity (Roemer, 1998) which pertains to discrimination. Certain groups may be systematically disadvantaged in terms of employment or educational opportunities because of their racial or ethnic characteristics, despite being otherwise as well qualified as members of other groups. Finally, we have the economics of identity (Akerlof & Kranton, 2000). Behaviour goes beyond methodological individualism, and group norms dominate individual decisions. For some disadvantaged groups, solidarity with the group can cause individuals to self-organize in order to revolt against a state that persecutes them and their identity group-based practices.

The period since 1980 has been described as the second epoch of economic globalization. Increased international trade has altered the functional distribution of income, increasing the wage premium of the skilled relative to the unskilled (see, Mamoon & Murshed, 2008, as an example of the body of empirical evidence demonstrating this development). Secondly, the race to gain or maintain international competitiveness has led to generalized wage compression, also exacerbating inequality. This can foment rebellion, the more so when stringent economic policies also encourage greater political and social repression. It can also encourage greater competition for jobs or resources between ethnicities resulting in a greater risk of sectarian strife. Finally, the period of globalization has widened the inequality in income between nations (Milanovic, 2011). This also enhances the risk of rebellion, as educated and professional residents in developing countries feel more deprived compared to their counterparts in affluent countries.

Both economic underdevelopment and development can both produce conflict. The former is related to endemic poverty, and the failure to reduce poverty lowering the opportunity cost of violence. This view currently dominates thinking in the development community. Economic growth, however, can also produce dissent if accompanied by growing inequality, despite some decline in absolute poverty. Successful developing countries, like India, with a strong growth record are experiencing a burgeoning of localized revolt, especially along the Maoist or red corridor involving indigenous peoples (tribals in Indian terminology). For conflict abating strategies two policies are important. The first is addressing enduring inequalities (including horizontal inequalities) in asset ownership, education and health. For this a metric of relative deprivation based on the ratios of the share of the richest to the poorest may be more salient. The second policy issue is promoting growth with redistribution, truly pro-poor growth. Ultimately, excessive inequality is an acute form of injustice, and its amelioration is necessary for the positive peace so eloquently argued for by Johan Galtung (1964).

Also see our core article on ‘When do inequalities cause conflict?‘, which is part of our inequality dossier.


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