CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s work to tackle inequality from the ground up and discusses the prospects of a United Nations (UN) tax convention with Jenny Ricks, Global Convenor of Fight Inequality Alliance.
Fight Inequality Alliance is a growing global coalition bringing together a wide range of social movements, grassroots and community-based organisations, civil society organisations, trade unions, artists and individual activists organising and mobilising from the ground up to find and push for solutions for the structural causes of inequality in order to rebalance power and wealth in our societies.
Is there a global consensus that inequality is wrong and needs to be addressed?
In recent years there has been quite a consensus that inequality has reached new extremes and is damaging for everybody in society as well as for the environment. We are at a time when it’s not just people on the frontlines who are most affected by inequality saying it’s wrong and grotesque and it needs to change, but even organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are saying it’s a problem. The Pope is saying it’s a problem. Governments have signed up to reducing inequality through one of the Sustainable Development Goals.
There is this broad consensus on the surface: it seems like everybody thinks concentration of power and wealth at the top of societies has gone too far and the gap is too extreme and affects people’s daily lives and livelihoods as a matter of life and death. And not only that: it also corrodes democracies. When oligarchs control the media, buy elections, crack down on human rights defenders and civic space and trash the environment, it affects everybody.
But underneath that superficial consensus, I think there’s still deep disagreement about what fighting inequality really means. We at the Fight Inequality Alliance are interested in dismantling the systems of oppression that drive inequality, including neoliberalism, patriarchy, racism and the legacy of colonialism. These are the deep structural roots of the inequalities that are the reason billions of people struggled to survive under a global pandemic while the richest people in the world continued to have a great time. So we have an agenda of transformation of the nature of our economies and our societies, and not just tinkering with the status quo, making minor tweaks to stop people rioting.
How can structural inequality be tackled?
When we started forming the Fight Inequality Alliance, we were clear that the problem was not a matter of lack of policy solutions. We know what the policy solutions are to fight inequality, such as the measures needed to tackle climate change, the redistributive tax policies needed or the policies required to ensure decent work.
The problem was that the overwhelming concentration of power and wealth at the top wasn’t matched by a countervailing force from below. The richest and most powerful are organised and well-funded. They are pursuing their interests and their greed aggressively and successfully. What we have is people power. But across civil society and beyond, groups were very fragmented, very siloed and focused on their individual agendas and absorbed by the issues their constituencies most need them to respond to. There was not enough connection across struggles.
0rganising around inequality is a good way for people to understand how their struggles are interconnected: underneath the day-to-day struggles there are common roots, and therefore there are also common solutions to be fought for. That’s where we saw our role lay, and also in shifting the narratives we have about inequality. We need to change what we envisage as being necessary and possible in our societies, and build power behind the alternative visions we are striving for. When we are limited by what popular narratives deem as natural or normal, such as the false idea that billionaires are hardworking geniuses so deserve unlimited wealth, it limits our energies and our organising capacities for structural change.
People at the grassroots know their problems and their solutions. Inequality isn’t an issue for economists and technocrats to solve: it is primarily a fight that needs to be fought by people. And the voices of people living at the sharp end of these inequalities needs to be heard. They are the real experts in this struggle. So people power is the biggest weapon that we bring to the fight. Governments and international institutions want to take these debates to the technical arenas of policy-making bodies and conference hall settings, wrapping them in technical language that intentionally makes them inaccessible to most people. Many issues that require structural changes, and certainly inequality, are seen as things to be measured, reported on and talked about in economic circles.
But inequality is a human tragedy, not a technical matter. It is about power. And solutions need to be owned by the people whose lives are most affected by it. We need to shift the balance of power, in our societies and in the global arena, not wrangle over the wording of a technical paper discussed behind closed doors, and that’s done by organising on a large scale. This people power is the major weapon we bring to the fight against inequality.
Why is taxation important in the struggle against inequality?
Fighting inequality requires us to redistribute power and wealth, and taxation is a major redistribution tool.
Over the last decade or two civil society has done a lot of work to try and challenge the fact that the richest people and the biggest corporations across the world are not paying their fair share of tax. The economic model is exploitative, unjust and unsustainable, based on resource extraction, primarily from the global south, abusive labour practices, underpaid workers and great environmental damage.
But everyone can relate to this issue nationally too – when it comes to national or local budgets, governments often increase indirect taxes such as value-added tax, which is the most regressive kind of tax because it applies to anything people buy, including essentials, instead of taxing rich people or multinationals more, and they have set up whole global industry and schemes to avoid and evade tax on a massive scale.
Redistribution is happening as we speak, but it is based on extracting from the poorest and distributing towards the wealthiest people in the world – billionaires, corporate shareholders and the like. That is what we are fighting to reverse, at a local level as well as globally.
How could a UN convention on taxation help?
The current level of wealth concentration is so grotesque that it requires solutions and action at all levels. We need to fight on the local front where people are struggling while we push for systemic change in places like the UN. The discussion of global tax rules feels quite distant from the day-to-day struggles that most people, within our alliance and beyond, are campaigning for. But decisions made about them have repercussions for those struggles.
Rules on taxation have so far been set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organisation with 38 member states – a rich countries’ club. How can decisions over global taxation rules that affect everybody sit anywhere but the UN, which for all its faults and failings is the only multilateral body where every state has a seat at the table?
Even so, as we have seen with climate negotiations, there is a huge power struggle that needs to be fought at the UN. It will still be a titanic struggle to get the kind of global tax rules we want. But if global tax rules are made within the OECD, the majority of the world doesn’t even stand a chance. Asking rich countries to please behave better is not going to yield the kind of transformation we want.
So in November 2022 we saw a first positive step as the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for more inclusive and effective international tax cooperation and urging member states to kick off negotiations on a global tax treaty. The resolution echoed a call made by the Group of 77 (G77), the largest bloc of developing countries in the UN, as well as the Africa Group, and gave the UN a mandate to monitor, evaluate and determine global tax rules and support the establishment of a global tax body.
A global tax convention would put global south states on an equal footing with global north states, so the proposal faced pushback. Global power dynamics were clearly at play. This was to be expected: this is bound to be a long-term process, and an open-ended one. There is no guarantee it will result in the strong global framework that we need. But it’s still a fight worth fighting, and the UN is the right arena for it, simply because there’s no other space to have these negotiations. Where else could the G77 or the Africa Group renegotiate global tax rules?
How are you campaigning in the light of the resolution?
We are not directly campaigning for the UN Tax Convention as much as we are trying to bring people into this agenda in a different way. We’ve been campaigning a lot on taxing the rich and abolishing billionaires, which is a more appealing way to present the issue and mobilise people around it. We can’t imagine hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street for the UN Tax Convention at this point. So instead we’ve been organising around the need to tax the rich, domestically and globally, both individuals and corporations.
This call has a lot of popular resonance because people find it easier to link it to their primary struggles, for jobs, healthcare spending, better public services or basic income, or against austerity measures, regressive tax rises or subsidy cuts. It’s become part of the campaigns of a lot more movements across the world through our organising over the last few years. This has been the way into the tax agenda for a lot of grassroots movements in the global south. It has potential to bring people’s attention to the broader tax justice agenda. You can’t start by holding a community meeting about the UN Tax Convention. You need to start from the daily inequalities people are facing.
Get in touch with Fight Inequality Alliance through its website or Facebook page, and follow @jenny_ricks and @FightInequality on Twitter.