So you want to do a masters degree on inequality

January 14, 2019 (1157 words) :: Advice for anyone considering doing a masters degree on the topic of inequality.
Tags: personal, inequality, career-advice

This post is day 14 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today’s blog post is a short one because, once again, I left it until the last minute. (I’ll get better at this, I promise.)

Some of you know that I recently completed a masters degree on inequality at the London School of Economics. It was a one-year program, and I left the program considerably less starry-eyed about academia than when I first applied. I’ve posted all my notes & essays here, but lots of people have reached out asking for more details on the program (and whether I recommend it), so I figured I’d write a little more about my personal impressions.

First of all, if you’re really interested in the topic of inequality, here are some articles I highly recommend on the topic, complete with meta-analysis of the very framing (as the agency-less “inequality” rather than, say, “exploitation” or “class war”):

Some thoughts on the program itself:

For me personally, most of my political education - my leftward drift over the past 2 years - was acquired outside the program. I gained way more out of reading books, going to random events in London, following socialist writers on Twitter, and doing editing (for New Socialist & Notes From Below). The masters program itself played a very minor role in my personal transformation since I moved to London, even though it was by far the most expensive outlay.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend the inequalities program. If you feel like you need a masters degree from LSE, try the political sociology program. Or, if you want a tech focus, try the data & society masters in the Media & Comms department.

But that’s only if you really feel like you need a degree from a prestigious-sounding institution. If you care more about the actual learning process, or meeting cool people, consider other universities, even if they’re lower down in the rankings. Or honestly, skip the academy entirely, and learn through reading + talking to people + organising at your own workplace.

Final tip: if you really want to understand inequality - how it arose, and how it’s maintained - then you need to understand its material causes, and how it’s not an accident or unfortunate byproduct but, instead, a necessary condition of the current system. If you want to understand inequality, you have to understand capitalism, and the best way to understand it is through the lens of Marxist thinkers (Marx himself + people who have built on his work).

Why? Because the very use of the term “inequality” encourages a quintessentially liberal, conflict-averse and ultimately clueless perspective on the matter. Inequality is a “problem” for “us” to “solve”, just like any other social problem.

As if there is a monolithic, universal subject that is evenly concerned with inequality. As if there aren’t people actively trying to perpetuate inequality, because the people who benefit from the system are both incentivised to keep it going and have the resources to ensure that. Inequality is not some sort of depoliticised problem that “we” can solve through philanthrophic foundations and NGOs. In reality, inequality is the primary manifestation of class war, one that is currently being dominated on both material and ideological grounds by the very rich.

The inequality industry today feels like what you’d get if you start with the assumption that the rich are essentially blameless and ultimately good, and merely need to be convinced to throw a little more money at helping the destitute out of the goodness of their hearts. So you look at the effects of inequality, and you conclude that it causes health problems, or prevents poor children from reaching their full potential, or decreases social cohesion. You offer that up as evidence to rich people, waiting for them to exercise their benevolence and start graciously restoring things back to normal.

And so you wait, and wait, and you’ll keep waiting forever. Fuck that sort of conciliatory, near-supplicative framing; it misdiagnoses the source of inequality, and makes for anemic politics. Labour is the source of all value, and any analysis that does not recognise this is already ceding ground to the powerful. You don’t tackle inequality through pleading; you tackle it through class struggle. You tackle inequality by fighting back.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, I swear I will actually give myself time to develop a whole new train of thought.

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