As the most visible outbreak of the sub-prime mortgage crisis took hold and the unthinkable bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers was declared in October 2008, so the finger-pointing began. And it did not take long to identify those responsible: greedy bankers, corrupt intermediaries, complacent rating agencies, and senseless regulators. It was but a financial saga: a speculative bubble disconnected from the “real economy” and fuelled by circuitous dealings, asymmetric information, and deregulation before bursting and producing immeasurable “collateral damage” [1].

None of the above information is incorrect, but an analysis which puts the blame for the largest global crisis in the last 80 years down to failures and embezzlements within the financial sector alone remains largely inadequate. Once emotions had allayed and worst fears had passed, economists convincingly tried to show the extent to which none of this would have been possible without increasing inequalities and, more specifically, without an ensuing stagnation of average incomes (particularly American incomes)[2].

It was, in fact, the pressure to maintain a constant standard of living with a relatively lower salary that opened the floodgates for credit applications. Deregulation did the rest. But deregulation would not have been able to do its damage without this initial stagnation of salaries.

This observation and the parallel trend of soaring top-salaries have placed the issue of economic inequalities at the heart of public debate, which for three decades had been dominated by neoliberal hegemony. Even the traditional champions of the fight against inequality had a tendency to rather focus their energy on the fight against poverty: why did economic inequality matter when – in absolute terms – the standard of living of the most deprived people in society increased?

Following the same logic, the majority of governmental parties – some in more, some in less euphemistic tones – echoed the sentiments of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: “Greed is good”[3]. Peter Mandelson was no less explicit in his view of New Labour: “New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich – as long as they pay their taxes”.

Where do the Greens stand?

To use the categories forged by Nancy Fraser, we must acknowledge that since they were founded, ecological parties have fought more strongly against inequalities in terms of their “recognition” rather than their “redistribution”. This fight in favour of recognition (of different minorities or minority groups including women, people from an immigrant background, homosexuals, etc.) is both integral to the Greens identity and has been a driving force since their arrival on the scene of institutional politics. They have an impressive track record in this area: within the space of just a few years, laws and mentalities have evolved at an astonishing rate in many countries.

Why did economic inequality matter when – in absolute terms – the standard of living of the most deprived people in society increased?

The overall track record when it comes to economic inequalities and therefore the concept of “redistribution” is considerably less noble (even though this can only be attributed to the Greens very marginally). In fact, the birth of the different Green parties has essentially coincided with the rise in economic inequalities which they have been irrevocably committed to reducing (at least in industrialised societies) under the pressure of labour movements and the integration of this pressure into post-war social agreements.

Even though the green’s connection to economic inequalities is a complex, multifaceted and contentious one, to limit ourselves to this tale of struggle for recognition and blindness to redistribution, is to demonstrate historical and geographical short-sightedness.

Historically, the battles waged by greens and trade unions actually stemmed from common roots which were much older than one might think given the emergence of political movements and Green parties in the aftermath of 1968. The first labour struggles irrevocably revisited socio-economic aspects (salary, working hours, etc.) and environmental aspects in a broader sense (the products used, the report as a tool, etc.), as discussed by Alain Lipietz. This entanglement is still apparent in a number of emerging countries today. The social struggle is inevitably one to improve basic (material) conditions, or at the very least, to preserve respect for standards of living. Joan Martinez Alier proposes a number of examples which are both astonishing and convincing in his masterful publication:The Environmentalism of the Poor.

If this privileged connection with the labour movement may appear somewhat foreign to the Greens in Western Europe today, this is evidently due both to the specific evolution of representative bodies for the working class, and also to the changes brought about by the transition to a post-industrial economy. But perhaps there is another reason. We greens will not allow ourselves to be brainwashed by the boat metaphor.

The prevailing definitions of the concept of the environment generally tend to turn it into a universal entity which is both objective and immune from social differentiations. We would therefore all be in the same boat when it comes to dealing with damage to our environment such as radioactive fallouts or global warming. Thus, echoing the sentiments of German sociologist Ulrich Beck: are social science researchers designating this global, systemic and undifferentiated risk as the new impassable horizon of our contemporary societies? According to Beck, there would no longer remain important territorial borders or social barriers. However, this would mean forgetting —rather too quickly— that environmental damage is far from limited to these global risks and that in light of trends such as atmospheric or noise pollution, the metaphor of everyone being on the same boat is less appropriate than that of a medley of cruise liners and old “tub” boats. The movements fighting for climate justice also serve as a useful reminder that when it comes to climate change, the global risk, the historical (and current) responsibilities, as well as other risks, are very unequally distributed

Tthe environmental dimension should now be added to the social, economic, ethnic, and gender inequalities traditionally studied and measured.

The ecological perspective on matters of inequality cannot ignore this new dimension (new from a scientific perspective, not in its actual existence): the environmental dimension should now be added to the social, economic, ethnic, and gender inequalities traditionally studied and measured (both in terms of environmental damage caused and that endured). The integration of this dimension also sheds light on other dimensions: indeed, the cases studied attest to the fact that environmental inequalities go beyond and intensify social and economic inequalities, amongst others.

Towards a new theory of justice

Bringing the issue of inequalities back to the fore, however, still lacks theoretical support. Although the observations of Sapir and Rajan, as well as those of Wilkinson and Pickett do clearly point out the crucial impact of inequalities on stability; well-being; and the sustainability of societies; public policies continue to be guided, whether implicitly or explicitly, by the Rawls Maximin Criterion and his blindness to inequalities. If empirical observations are very much still active today and contradictions are found, we are largely devoid of an intellectual organisation which could give meaning to these and reconstruct a Theory of Justice by centrally integrating inequalities (in all dimensions) and the structural effects of these.

At a time when the pillars on which socio-economic models have been built, both since the post-war period and since the transition towards neoliberalism, are collapsing in quick succession, an overhaul of the Theory of Justice on the basis of environmental issues and the new limits imposed by these, is one of the most urgent and important challenges today.

This task – both intellectually stimulating and politically necessary – will undoubtedly present one of the most important challenges for the Greens in the years to come. And it will, incidentally, be a condition for electoral success.


[1] This article benefited from invaluable ideas and advice, offered by Aurélie Maréchal.

[2] Also see Jacques Sapir, « Un an après » in « Actualités de la Recherche en histoire visuelle », available under; Raguram Rajan, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, Princeton Press, 2010.

[3] Or to quote the famous words of François Guizot declared in 1840 « Enrichissez-vous » [enrich yourselves].

Equality and Sustainability
Equality and Sustainability

Can an economy and society really be sustainable without being equal? And do inequalities within and between Member States threaten the future of the EU?

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.