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New Left Review I/189, September-October 1991


Giovanni Arrighi

World Income Inequalities and the Future of Socialism

The thesis of this article is that the great political upheavals of our days—from Eastern Europe and the ussr to the Middle East—originate in a radical transformation of the social structure of the world-economy combined with a persistent, indeed deepening, income inequality among the regions and political jurisdictions into which the world-economy is divided. [*] This article is a revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the Sixth Conference on the Future of Socialism: Socialism and Economy organized by the Fundacion Sistema, Sevilla, 14–16 December 1990. I would like to thank Terence K. Hopkins, Mark Selden and Beverly Silver for their comments on an earlier version. The radical transformation I am referring to began shortly after the end of the Second World War. It gained momentum in the 1960s, and tapered off in the late 1970s and 1980s. As succinctly put by Eric Hobsbawm, ‘the period from 1950 to 1975. . .saw the most spectacular, rapid, far-reaching, profound, and worldwide social change in global history. . .[This] is the first period in which the peasantry became a minority, not merely in industrial developed countries, in several of which it had remained very strong, but even in Third World countries.’ [1] Eric Hobsbawm, Comment in ‘Reflecting on Labor in the West since Haymarket: A Roundtable Discussion’, in J.B. Jenz and J.C. MacManus, eds., The Newberry Papers in Family and Community History, vol. 86, no. 2, 1986, p. 13. The change in question has cut across the great West–East and North–South divides and has been primarily the result of purposive actions aimed at narrowing the gaps that circa 1950 separated the wealth of the peoples situated on the privileged side of the two divides (the West/North) from the relative or absolute deprivation of the peoples situated on the underprivileged sides (the East and the South). The most important of these purposive actions was the pursuit of economic development by governments. By internalizing within their domains one or another of the features of the wealthier countries, such as industrialization and urbanization, governments hoped to capture the secret of their success and thus catch up with their wealth and power. Also important as a complement or as a substitute of governmental actions were actions undertaken by private organizations and individuals—most notably, the migration of labour, of capital and of entrepreneurial resources across state boundaries.

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