People may be as equal as the teeth of a comb, but all those different combs!

–The temptation is to see to see, really see, a complex issue like inequality from all its sides: as if in the clear light of day and around which we can walk and examine , close-up and from a distance and all directions. Were that not complicated enough, there is the insistence that what we call our values shine brightly throughout doing so.

We miss much in the inevitable glare. Issues come into view as if herms, partial torsos held upright on thin shafts. What’s left to see ends up marking what’s missing or missed. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and J-J Rousseau’s The Social Contract have a good deal to say about inequality, but part of that is by way of serving as fragments signaling larger unfinished works. So what, you ask? What’s in need of our values more than inequality today?

–None of this would be the problem it is, were it not for how easy it is to mistake a value for different contexts and particularities.

It just isn’t that values are socially constructed. It’s that any smothering paste of statistical or macro-inequality cannot resist the bubbling up and surfacing of all those contingent factors that differentiate inequalities–societal, political, economic, historical, cultural, legal, geographical, governmental, psychological, neurological, technological, religious, and more–these being precisely for complex policy and management on the ground and in practice.

–So what?

The World Bank estimates over 1.5 billion people globally do not have bank accounts, many being the rural poor. Yet having bank accounts ties us into a global infrastructure of financialized capitalism. What, then, is to have more value? The rural poor with bank accounts or not? Integrated even more into global capitalism or not?

There are those who insist this is not a binary value choice. Many with bank accounts also work to change the upper reaches of financial capital. But there are also those aiming for lower-reach specifics: Surely, answers require going down to the case level. Bank accounts work in some instances and even then differently so, while not in others.

Of course, values don’t disappear with specifics, but it is within contexts that fairness, justice and rights become adverbial, i.e., this is what it means to act fairly and rightly–or at best good enough–here and now and not without contestation, even if never everywhere and always. Plus no one, as far as I can make out, believes that inequality must first be reduced in order to reduce cases of hunger—yet inequality receives far more attention in many quarters.

–Insisting on case-by case looks to be weak beer. That is, until you realize the self-harm inflicted when political possibilities are foreclosed by a policy narrative that assumes the world is colonized by capitalisms and their irreducible inequalities.

Where else are we going to find the counternarratives if not in these really-existing cases and their modifications or extensions? There is no need to search out or recast the “not-yet” and the “yes, but” of specific contexts, if the fragments we call “unequal relations” are denied their meaning within and across situations palpably more diverse and contingent than values and capitalisms.

E.H. Carr, the British historian, advised his students that “before you study history, study the historian.” So too with inequality–this being less an argument for biographies of those involved than ethnographies of zones of action in which they and others found and find themselves.

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