A New View of Global Inequalities

Looking ahead to her March 29 lecture, “Global Inequalities: Reflections on Economic Citizenship,” Manuela Boatcă, professor of sociology at Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, responds to questions from Ena Selimovic, a PhD student in comparative literature.

Ena Selimovic: Tell us about your latest book, Global Inequalities Beyond Occidentalism.

Manuela Boatcă: My book proposes a theoretical framework for understanding how inequalities are reproduced under global capitalism. It examines what happens if we transfer classical approaches to inequality, such as those elaborated by Marx and Weber, to a 21st-century global context. In particular, it shows how the Western standpoint informing much theory building from sociology’s classics up to present-day approaches to inequality has led to a systematic neglect of the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism. Ultimately, the book intends to reveal the extent to which the mainstream analysis of social inequalities relies, first, on an overgeneralization of the Western European historical experience, and, second, on the erasure of non-Western, non-European and non-white experiences from sociological theory building. I refer to these as the twin fallacies of Occidentalism.

Ena Selimovic: How do you use the concept of Occidentalism?

Manuela Boatcă: Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil coined the concept of Occidentalism to refer to the positive self-image that Western European colonial powers crafted in the first two centuries after the colonial expansion in the Americas, before the rise of Orientalism as one of several discourses about the West’s Others. I use the concept in order to draw attention to the fact that Occidentalism is not a mere synonym for Eurocentrism, since it emerged as an essentially pan-Western discourse that constructed and downgraded both European and non-European Others to the extent that their “Western-ness” had become questionable in a given historical and geopolitical context, i.e., that they allegedly did not measure up — economically, culturally, politically — to prevailing Western standards.

Ena Selimovic: What brought you to work on this topic?

Manuela Boatcă: For one thing, the fact that, to the mainstream media, global inequality is news. As recently as the end of 2012, The Economist was still questioning whether inequality needed to be tackled at all, since globalization and technical innovation had allegedly narrowed inequality globally. On the other hand, to most academics in the global North, global inequalities are new. As an unprecedented rise in income inequalities started to occur in rich countries such as the United States and Great Britain, global inequalities suddenly became a hot topic for sociologists and economists. Yet inequalities have been the result of global and transregional processes for more than five centuries. At least since the European expansion into the Americas, intercontinental migration, the Atlantic slave trade, and the unequal economic exchange between Europe and its colonies have provided global entanglements that decisively shaped the inequality structures of both the former colonizing as well as the former colonized regions. It was, however, only when the rise in income inequality rendered the United States more unequal than much of Latin America that debates on global inequalities became prominent in Western academia.

“Global Inequalities: Reflections on Economic Citizenship”
Manuela Boatcă, Albert-Ludwigs-University, Freiburg, Germany
Tuesday, March 29, 6 pm
Washington University, Duncker Hall, Hurst Lounge (Room 201)
Click here for more information

Ena Selimovic: Can you talk about your method? I am especially struck by the scale of your focus.

Manuela Boatcă: My method is relational. It does not depart from the characteristics of certain countries, regions or sub-regions, but focuses on the relationships between them, most of which have historically been either asymmetrical or downright power relations.

Ena Selimovic: You do comparative work with Latin America and Eastern Europe. What would you say is the relation between these two regions?

Manuela Boatcă: Both regions have held peripheral economic positions for most of their history within the modern world system and have gone on to semiperipheral status (some economic and political control over other parts of the system) at different times and for different reasons. These structural similarities in political and economic terms have prompted very fruitful and highly similar debates on development, dependency and social change, which are almost never discussed together, but should be. One could say that both have served as laboratories of development and modernity in both theoretical and empirical terms for most of their history.  

Ena Selimovic: This project presumably requires a great knowledge of languages as well. How many languages do you speak? What languages do you write in? I am particularly interested in this question knowing that you will be visiting the graduate seminar, “Introduction to Comparative Literature,” taught by Anca Parvulescu. How would you explain to comparative literature students or international and area studies students the need to learn so-called “foreign languages”?

Manuela Boatcă: I speak seven languages, but have so far mainly written in German and English, a few times in Spanish and very rarely in Romanian. I think that reading texts in the original is crucial for understanding distinct, national academic styles that otherwise get literally lost in translation. But reading original texts and comparing them with the translation in at least one other language also, and more importantly, allows for a critical reflection of the context of the emergence of the texts, which is central to locating them historically and politically.

Ena Selimovic: Looking ahead to your talk on Tuesday, could you tell us more about the concept of “economic citizenship”?

Manuela Boatcă: Citizenship by investment, or economic citizenship, is a type of facilitated naturalization procedure with a clear economic rationale. States confer citizenship to very wealthy individuals in exchange for an investment in the countries’ government bonds, real estate or most important branches of industry, and use the income as an alternative development strategy or as a means of managing global financial crisis. Economic citizenship has first been implemented in Caribbean states seeking sources of economic development after independence. Economic citizenship programs spreading throughout the South and Eastern Europe after the 2008 financial crisis primarily — and explicitly — target Chinese and Russian investors.

Ena Selimovic: How do you see your focus on economic citizenship contributing to ongoing debates on immigration and the refugee crisis?

Manuela Boatcă: For labor migrants, inherited citizenship and lengthy naturalization procedures are legally (re)enforced as the only legitimate options. In this context, most European states today refuse non-European, non-Western or non-white migrants’ claims to citizenship, denounce or block illegalized migrant paths to residence and, increasingly, restrict the rights and the duration of refugees’ presence on their territory. This double standard illustrates the reasons for increasing global inequalities today and testifies to the continuities of colonially charged racial and ethnic exclusions in the history of modernity more generally.