The World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland this week. The theme is ‘Creating a shared future in a fractured world’. The January event, with some 400 sub-meetings, a third from developing and emerging countries, a fifth women, is a treat for all of us who are interested in social and economic development and change. Professor Klaus Schwab, the WEF founder and chairman, now in his late 70s, is again, as for several decades, bringing together thousands of leaders, shakers and movers, from government, the private sector, academia, civil society, international organizations, and the media. A new book by Schwab et al, ‘Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, was released just as the meeting was about to open.

When I as a young man had moved from the more conservative west coast of Norway, to the more left-oriented East Norway, indeed in the largest city and capital of Oslo, I quickly adopted many of the political ideas that were ‘in’ on the left that time in the early 1970s. Yet, since I was also working in a good job in the semi-private university publishing sector, I also kept my sanity, well, that is, I didn’t drift entirely into the theoretical, socialist camp, or even further to the left, as I might well have done if I had been a full-time student. I stayed moderate, realistic and practical. However, as years have gone by, I have stayed more true to my youthful socialist thoughts, and I have become more convinced of much of the socialist or social-democratic ideology than many of my friends who were more radical as youth, at least in theory, but have drifted to the right as they have grown older. Some of them have become so conservative on many issues, including refugee and other migration issues, that I wonder if they ever were as radical and leftist as we were supposed to be in my social science and general university community that time.

One of the issues we discussed was how to curb capitalism’s ugly tentacles, how to make them share their profits, work for a more inclusive and socially conscious environment and how to make them help the lower classes reap some of the fruits from their labour. Being young, it was essential to us to expand access to education and training. We were keen on promoting social change and greater equality, locally and internationally. Although we were for fast change, most of us wanted that to take place through peaceful and democratic processes, not through militant ways and revolutions. Only some radical socialists and communists further to the left believed in violent change to reach their political goals.

I am sure that many Pakistanis of my age, in their 60s or a bit younger, can relate to what I am saying, both those who were and still are socialists and communists (at heart). It is interesting to recall that Pakistan’s most successful political party over the years, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), founded in 1967, was a democratic socialist party. Some may remember PPP’s original slogan, ‘Roti, Kapra, Makan’ (food, clothes, housing). Today, we live in a time when ideologies are less prominent. PPP and other political parties in Pakistan need to revisit their principles, and from there, develop their visions and practical politics. To be pragmatic and practical is necessary, but there should be some theory behind it all.

My boss at the publishing house, where I worked as a young man, would from time to time challenge me and others, who were more socialist oriented; he used to say he did not believe in revolution, indeed not in violent revolution. He believed in gradual development and improvement. He was probably a typical and solid social democrat, not very conservative. He had himself embraced the capital city, and he had also been given opportunities by the capital, first in a high post in a major bank and then as chief editor in a publishing house. Like many people in the 1960s and 1970s in Scandinavia, the vehicles to success was through higher education, which expanded dramatically that time and was open to everyone, thanks to study loans for people of modest means. Also, people moved from rural areas to the cities, indeed to the capital, where opportunities were more.

Let me underline that I too believe in gradual development. In that way, I was not very different from the boss I had. Those of us who are now reaching retirement age had the luxury of being allowed to experiment and take risks when I was young; today’s youth must envy us. We knew the social welfare state would look after us if we failed, lost jobs, fell ill or messed up in other ways. Those who were just a decade or two older still remembered the immediate post-WWII years when opportunities were fewer and the welfare state was not well established. That time, people could not be reckless. Today, too, it is everyone for himself or herself in a more competitive world.

And then, just as the WEF’s meeting was about to start, Walter Scheidel’s particularly relevant book made headlines. Its title is, ‘The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century’ (2017) and it simply says that little progress is made through peaceful, linear means, yes, the way I and most of us believe that the world becomes a better place for more people is through steady work, based on political goals and visions.

Scheidel says the opposite and he uses empirical, historical data. The publisher, Princeton University Press, summarizes his main points this way: “Ever since humans began to farm, heard livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The ‘Four Horsemen’ of levelling – mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues – have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished. But it casts serious doubts on the prospects for a more equal future.”

Scheidel’s book provides new insights about why inequality is so persistent – and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon. But we have to keep up the good fight. Yet, as a matter of fact, inequality is growing, at least in certain fields; the super-rich get richer, and the poorest even poorer. But then, there is also those in the middle, who may be as many as 60 percent in countries in the West, and they (we) are fairly alright. Thanks to the welfare states, we are not likely to slide back into poverty even if we are inflicted by rain and thunderstorms.

If Scheidel is right, even if only in certain but major ways, then the major focus of this year’s WEF meeting is naive, maybe even slowing down and diverting attention from how to create real change in the ‘fractured world’, as they term it.

Borrowing insight from the socialist and communist thinking, to take from the rich and give to the poor, is only possible if the poor fight for it. Those with riches, wealth, privileges and power will not give away much of it unless they are forced to do so, violently or non-violently. Much of the West’s history in the last 100-150 years proves this. Unless the oppressed fight for their rights themselves, little progress will be made.

 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com