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publicado em:  8 Junho 2010
Social inequality is systemic in nature: interview with Alain Bihr and Roland Pfefferkorn

Alain Bihr is a lecturer in sociology at Franche-Comté University (Besançon) and Roland Pfefferkorn teaches sociology at Strasbourg University. Both have published works on social inequality, including Le système des inégalités, the book on which this interview was based.

Observatory of Inequalities: As you say in your book Le système des inégalités, social inequality is a system in which its different elements (types of inequality) reinforce each other more or less intensely. What can be done to mitigate the cumulative, reproductive effect of this social inequality system?

Alain Bihr/Roland Pfefferkorn: The systemic nature of social inequality clearly demonstrates the limits faced by sectoral policies in the fight against inequality, those that address only one type of inequality and neglect or ignore they way in which the different types of inequality determine and reinforce each other. In order to mitigate this cumulative, reproductive effect, the least that it is necessary to do is to coordinate these different sectoral policies. This is something that has not been done very much, because of the separation and competition between the different ministries or social services. As for radical action against this effect, it must entail the transformation of relations of capitalist production, which constitute the matrix for the inequality system, as we have also shown.

OI: Some indicators on the distribution of income show that Portugal is a more unequal country than France and one of the most unequal in Europe and the OECD countries. Can degrees of inequality be regarded as indicators of (under)development and obstacles to countries? economic development?

AB/RP: Our work was not based on the idea of international comparisons, on one hand because of editorial limitations imposed on us and on the other because of the difficulties of making this type of comparison (such as lack of homogeneity between national statistics). It is important to mention that when these comparisons are made, it is necessary to avoid the same types of mistake made in many studies on social inequality in a particular nation-state, when they reduce the inequality system only to inequality of income. The rankings of nation-states when it comes to social inequality are in themselves quite different if we take as a classification criterion the traditional GDP per inhabitant ratio or, on the contrary, the human development index (IDH) devised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Finally, as this complicates international comparisons even further, the degree of internal inequality in different nation-states also depends on the level of external inequality, on the different states? position in the international division of labour, in the global market and in the rankings of nation-states. But the truth is that the relationship between these two dimensions (the degree of internal and external inequality) has a dual meaning. If the poor position of a nation-state in the world rankings tends to lead to a high level of internal inequality, then conversely this level hinders the national mobilisation necessary for it to go up in the global rankings. However, as a nation-state?s position in the rankings depends on many other factors, there is not necessarily a correlation between the levels of internal and external inequality.

OI: Social inequality exists as such when symbolically legitimised. Do you think that there is a common political and social understanding of the phenomenon in Europe?

AB/RP: Without running great risks, we can conceive of the hypothesis of a community of common references in Europe, where their most current ways of legitimising social inequality merge. This is because these references are part of cultural origins common to Europe (the Graeco-Latin and Judaico-Christian legacy) as ideological systems that were born with the development of capitalism (liberalism and neo-liberalism possibly moderated by social-democrat tradition). This in no way excludes national variants that are dependent on the specific histories of the different European nations. For example, the legitimisations borrowed from old Catholic thought are certainly less fertile in France or the Anglo-Saxon or northern European world than in Mediterranean Europe. But together, all the justifications for social inequality lead back to the typology that we sketched in the introduction to our book.

OI: To what extent can the current international crisis contribute to the discussion of ?the standards for legitimisation of the social order? (Bihr and Pfefferkorn, 2008), more specifically the argument in favour of individualistic naturalism (the ideology of the self-made man) and criticism of the welfare state?

AB/RP: It?s obvious that the recent financial crisis and its repercussions on the "real economy" constitute a blatant denial of neo-liberalism, both from the point of view of ideology and of economic policies. Nonetheless, while the governments that implemented these policies and their ideologies have had to abandon all their triumphalism, none of them have renounced the essential principles. This is due to the fact that neo-liberalism is purely and simply the policy and ideology that corresponds best to the interests of capital in the current phase of transnationalisation. The level of contestation of the political and ideological credit of neo-liberalism in the next few years will depend essentially on the duration, depth and consequences of this crisis and the ability of popular forces to impose a change in the currently still dominant orientations in the management of capitalism in crisis. In this matter, as in so many others, the future is still undecided.

OI: Finally a question of an epistemological nature. Le système des inégalités says that the scientific conceptualisation of social inequality assumes a political view of reality. Does the analytical objectivisation of social inequality necessarily have a subjective idea of justice as a support?

AB/RP: We come from an anti-positivist tradition that refuses to separate the sphere of factual judgements from that of value judgements. We feel that the demand for "axiological neutrality? is not only unachievable but also prejudicial. We believe that a necessary condition for in-depth objectivity is a critical attitude to the social reality that does not allow itself to be fooled by appearances, illusions and legitimisation discourses aimed at masking social inequality or minimising its scope. It is this type of attitude that has allowed us, for example, to perceive the systematic nature of inequality and led us to its demonstration, while the vast majority of social studies, imprisoned by academic positivism, are unaware not only of this characteristic but often also of the mere existence of social inequality. In this area of research, a critical attitude, boosted by the idea of social justice, was the condition that permitted the existence of scientific progress.

Other books published by the authors:

Alain Bihr has recently published La préhistoire du capital, Le devenir-monde du capitalisme, Lausanne, Page Deux, 2006 and La novlangue néolibérale. La rhétorique du fétichisme capitaliste, Lausanne, Page Deux, 2007.

Roland Pfefferkorn has recently published État / Travail / Famille : "conciliation" ou conflit?, Paris, L?Harmattan, Cahiers du Genre, n° 46, 2009 (en collaboration avec H. Hirata et J. Heinen) and Inégalité et rapports sociaux. Rapports de classes, rapports de sexes, Paris, La Dispute, 2007.

They have published togheter some books on inequalities, namely: Déchiffrer les inégalités, Paris, La Découverte, 1999 [1ere édition: 1995] and Hommes-Femmes, quelle égalité? Paris, L?Atelier, 2002.