Social inequality: what's work got to do with it?

16 October 2019 - 20:40
  • lecture/debate
  • 21 November, 20.00 hrs., IISH
  • drinks afterwards 

Climate change and growing levels of social inequality have given rise to widespread discomfort with capitalism, that – since the ideological shift in China in the late 1970s – is dominating virtually all parts of the world. The question is, whether there is an alternative to capitalism and, if not, how it should be changed?

Two leading thinkers, one historian (Scheidel) the other an economist (Milanovic), have recently published books that acknowledge the social and environmental problems caused by capitalism. According to them, the economic development since the 18th century, characterized by unprecedented productivity, starting in Western Europe, has transformed the world. Poverty has decreased spectacular and life expectancy and literacy have gone up.

At the same time they point at social discontent and political polarization, due to growing social inequality and rapid climate change. And we could add accelerating dispossessing of peasants in the Global South through ‘landgrabbing’ and the rise to new forms of coerced labour and precarity. In the words of Walter Scheidel, “In both good and bad we have far outpaced the past.” 

Key question of this evening is whether we can indeed ‘improve’ capitalism (Milanovic) and its negative effects on workers and thus counter the downsides of  the ‘great escape’ (Scheidel). 

Branko Milanović and Walter Scheidel, will share their ideas and present their latest books, followed by a panel discussion with dr. Jutta Bolt (Economics, University of Groningen) and prof. dr. Peer Vries (em. Global Economic History, University of Vienna and honorary fellow at the IISG). The evening will be moderated by journalist Hella Hueck

Attendance is free but please send an email to Jacqueline Rutte to to sign up for the event.

public lecture focusing on social inequality

The significance of the organization of work for the distribution of wealth, income and social opportunities.

Although the length of their long term analyses differs, they all aim to explain tipping points in the increase or decrease of social inequality. One element that remains relatively underexplored in these largely economic (and partly demographic) studies, however, is the significance of the organization of work for the distribution of wealth, income and social opportunities.

In economic and economic history approaches to inequality, as far as labour as a factor of production is factored in, it is limited to the quantity (offer) and quality (skills) of labour, with migration as a mediating mechanism to bring labour power where it is most needed. The often unspoken assumption is that workers react to the demand for labour and are rewarded depending on its scarcity. Reality, however, is much more complex, and if we want to better understand large inequalities in the remuneration and valuation of various kinds of work, between periods, regions, sectors and types of work, we need to move beyond basic supply and demand mechanisms.

Jutta Bolt


Peer Vries