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New Left Review 103, January-February 2017


Göran Therborn

DYNAMICS OF INEQUALITY

Inequality is a modern notion. Differences in wealth, power and status—between rich and poor, men and women, young and old—are ancient, of course. The great salvationist religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam—adumbrated notions of the equality of human souls, which could sometimes develop into an egalitarianism rooted in this world, rather than the next: the celebrated defence of America’s native population by the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, for example, or the anti-slave trade campaign of Anglo-Saxon abolitionists. It supplied an inspiration for popular uprisings, from the German Peasant War of the 1520s to the great Taiping and Tonghak rebellions in nineteenth-century China and Korea. A Biblical extrapolation—‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’—was popular in many European languages. But the modern, secular concept of equality was forged in the course of the struggle waged by Europe’s bourgeoisie against the ruling aristocracy—a struggle in which the official Church and its high clergy, of whatever variant of Christianity, opted for the latter, and later paid the price in the unique secularization of most of Europe.

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