How do you rate your chances of a good life in this society? You might think that you can do anything in life if you work hard enough, and there’s a good chance that you can (you made it to university after all!) However, have you considered how the structures of our society might enable or constrain your chances? Or those of the people around you? Social structures include norms of culture, gender, race, class, ethnicity, age; policies and legal frameworks; and the operation of big, bureaucratic institutions like the government and corporations, and big systems like global political, financial, and technological systems and networks. We call these things structures because they are quite solid (they persist over time), they work in fairly systematic (structured) ways, and because they ‘structure’ our lives. They constrain what we can do, and they shape who we become.
Take a few examples. In Australia, the way that family, care and work life is structured means that full-time working women on average earn 17.9% (or $284 per week) less than similar men, and the way that indigenous health, education, housing and government support are structured mean that even in 2015, non-indigenous people are likely to live ten years longer than indigenous people. Internationally, the way colonial history and modern global finance are structured mean that the richest 1% of people in the world receive 14% of its income, while the poorest 20% receive 1% of its income. This is not just a failure of government policy. Social structures incorporate social, cultural, political and economic aspects that entrench inequalities over time and space.
The recent best-selling ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ by Thomas Pickety argues that rising inequality both between and within countries is inevitable in modern capitalist society. Labor MP and former Economics Professor Andrew Leigh points out that Australia has certainly seen inequality rising again, after falling in the post-war period, and research released last week by UOW economists shows that inter-generational mobility in Australia is not nearly as good as we thought it was. Inequality and the division between rich and poor seems to be a core structural feature of modern societies and economies – something pointed out by Karl Marx over 150 years ago – and it means that you are likely to prosper more quickly if you are born with resources, and less quickly (or not at all) if you are not.
So how will these social structures affect you? How will they affect others? What can you do as an individual to change them? What can we do together, collectively, to change them? Can we shape the structures of our society to serve us instead of the market, or instead of the entrenched interests of the powers that be?