The time of sad passions

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Read the author's "Introduction" to the newly edited book

New inequalities, new angers

The spirit of time makes a pact with sad passions. Under the pretext of getting rid of good-natured behavior and political correctness, one can accuse, denounce, hate the powerful and the weak, the rich or the very poor, the unemployed, foreigners, refugees, intellectuals, specialists. In a slightly more attenuated way, representative democracy is mistrusted, accused of being impotent, corrupt, distant from the people, submissive to the lobbies and kept on a leash by Europe and the international financial system.

Angers and accusations previously considered unworthy now have the right of citizenship. They invade the internet. In a large number of countries, they found political expression in authoritarian nationalisms and populisms. And this trend is increasing, in Britain as well as Sweden, Germany and Greece. The social question, which provided a context for our representations of justice, seems to dissolve into the categories of identity, nationalism and fear.

This essay aims to understand the role of social inequalities in the unfolding of these sad passions. My hypothesis is the following: more than the magnitude of inequalities, it is the transformation of the system of inequalities that explains the anger, resentment and indignation of our times. Inequalities, which before seemed embedded in the social structure, in a system considered unfair, but relatively stable and understandable, are now diversified and individualized. With the decline of industrial societies, they multiply, change their nature, profoundly transforming our experience of them.

The structure of class inequalities is divided into a number of individual trials and intimate sufferings that fill us with anger and make us indignant, having – for the time being – no other political expression than populism.

The perception of inequalities

To clarify these changes, there is no lack of explanations. Most of them show how industrial, national and democratic societies were shaken by the transformations of capitalism, globalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 2008 crisis and terrorism. Governments are powerless in the face of crises and threats. Low-skilled workers are subjected to competition from emerging countries, which have become the factories of the world.

For most analysts, neoliberalism (by the way, with a rather vague definition) appears as the essential cause of these transformations and these concerns. Not only would the neoliberal wave destroy the institutions and actors of industrial society, but it would also impose a new individualism, fracturing collective identities and solidarities, shattering civility and self-control. In short, “it's the crisis” and “before it was better”.

The attention given to the transformation of inequalities should not lead to underestimation of their increase or, more exactly, to the end of the long trend of their reduction, which marked the post-war decades. Everywhere, the richest percentage of the population got rich and reaped most of the growth. While in 1970 the richest 1% received 8% of income in the United States, 7% in Great Britain and 9% in France, in 2017 this share rose to 22% in the United States and 13% in Great Britain. Brittany (remaining flat in France at 9%). Inequalities are aggravated in favor of high incomes, those of capital and very high wages.

They are accentuated even more if we consider the assets. After a long period of decline in the share of equity relative to wages between 1918 and 1980, equity took its revenge: due to weak economic growth, interest on capital and land prices are now growing faster than wages. The very rich have become so rich that they secede,(1) while the majority of the population has the impression of seeing their situation deteriorate.

Although we can consider unemployment as an intolerable inequality, in France, income inequalities grow, without, however, “exploding”. According to INSEE data(2) 2004, the Gini index (which measures the amplitude of inequalities) went from 0,34 in 1970 to 0,28 in 1999 and to 0,31 in 2011. However, between 2003 and 2007, the poorest 10% gained 2,3 .10% of extra wealth, while the richest 42,2% gained 10%. As elsewhere, the growth of very high wages explains this difference and, even more, that of wealth inequalities, given that the richest 47% own 17% of the wealth, and the top cent, 60%. In any case, poverty (defined as 1970% of the average earnings) even receded. Between 2016 and 17,3, the poor population increased from 13,6% to XNUMX%.

For about thirty years, approximately 80% of French people believe that inequalities increase, even in periods when this is not the case. They are perceived as stronger because we have come out of a long period in which it seemed evident that social inequalities would be continuously reduced, even if only as a result of rising living standards. Certainly, a lot of inequalities increase, while some others decrease. Therefore, it would be wrong to establish a mechanical correlation between the magnitude of inequalities and the way individuals perceive them, justify them or are indignant about them.

Suffering “as”

We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: the more or less intense aggravation of inequalities is combined with the exhaustion of a certain system of inequalities formed in industrial societies, that of social classes. Even if social inequalities seem inscribed within the stable order of classes and their conflicts, cleavages (formations of distinct and often opposing social groups) and inequalities today do not stop multiplying, and each individual is, in a way, affected by several among them. Within the vast set that encompasses all those who are neither at the top nor the bottom of the social hierarchy, the cleavages no longer overlap as sharply, as clearly as in the past, when position within the class system seemed to aggregate all the inequalities of a given society. turn.

In this case, it is not a broad middle class – to which most individuals are said to belong, however – but a world divided according to an infinity of criteria and dimensions. A social universe is constituted within which we are more or less unequal depending on the different spheres to which we belong. We are unequal “in terms of”: more or less well-paid wage earner, protected or precarious, graduated or not, young or old, woman or man, living in a dynamic city or in a region in difficulty, in a chic neighborhood or in a popular suburb, single or married, of foreign origin or not, etc. This endless list is not really new.

On the other hand, the multiplication of inequality criteria is relatively little congruent or “integrated” as soon as we move away from the groups that accumulate all the advantages and all the disadvantages. There are a lot of people among the Groseille families and the Le Quesnoy families.(3) By the way, our social vocabulary has more and more difficulties in naming the relevant social sets. To the social classes and strata that predominate in the vocabulary of sociologists, notions are constantly added that reveal new criteria of inequality and new groups: the creative classes and the static, the included and the excluded, the stable and the precarious, the winners and the the losers, the stigmatizing minorities and the stigmatizing majorities, etc.

Furthermore, each of these sets is itself crossed by an infinity of criteria and cleavages, according to which we are more or less equal (or unequal) to others. This representation and this experience of inequalities progressively moved away from those that dominated industrial society, at a time when class position seemed to be associated with a way of life, a destiny and a conscience.

The experience of inequalities

The multiplication of inequalities, added to the fact that each one is confronted with multiple inequalities, profoundly transforms the experience of inequalities. Initially, inequalities are experienced as a singular experience, as an individual challenge, as a questioning of one's own value, a manifestation of contempt and humiliation. Gradually, the inequality of social positions slides towards the suspicion of inequality of individuals, who feel even more responsible for the inequalities that affect them, as they perceive themselves as free and equal persons by right, with the duty to declare it.

It is therefore not surprising that respect is the most seriously claimed moral demand today – not the respect and honor due to rank, but the respect due to equality. As Tocqueville intuited, even when inequalities are reduced, they are increasingly painfully experienced. The multiplication and individualization of inequalities widen the space for comparisons and accentuate the tendency to evaluate oneself as accurately as possible. In fact, in this new system, the “small” inequalities seem much more pertinent than the “big” ones.

The great inequalities, such as the one between most of us and the richest 1%, are less significant and raise fewer questions than the inequalities that distinguish us from those we meet every day. Mainly, the multiplied and individualized inequalities are not part of any “great narrative” capable of giving it meaning, designating its causes and those responsible for it and outlining projects to combat them. Singular and intimate challenges, it is as if they were dissociated from the social and political contexts that explained them, provided reasons to fight together, offered consolation and perspectives.

The distance between these individual trials and collective challenges makes room for resentment, frustrations, sometimes hatred for others, in order to avoid self-contempt. It generates indignations, but, for the time being, these are not transformed into social movements, into political programs, nor into sensible interpretations of social life. The experience of inequalities feeds the parties and movements that, for lack of a better term, we describe as “populist”. These strive to overcome the dispersion of inequalities by opposing the people to the elite, natives to foreigners, and establish a moral economy in which the rejection of others and indignation restore to the unhappy citizen his value and dignity.

*Francois Dubet is professor of sociology at the University of Bordeaux II and director of research at the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Socials (France). Author, among other books, of Les places et les chances (Threshold).


Francois Dubet. The time of sad passions. Translation: Mauro Pinheiro. São Paulo, Vestigio, 2020, 140 pages.

Translator's notes

(1) The idea present here is that the “very rich”, once they consider that the government does not protect their rights and interests, see themselves as having the right to abolish their subservience to that government.

(2) The Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, known by its acronym INSEE (in Portuguese, “National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies”), is the official French body responsible for collecting, analyzing and publishing data and information on country's economy and society.

(3) Allusion to the protagonist families of the film Life is a long quiet river, by Étienne Chatillez, 1988.

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