A thought on inequality

The fact that we live side by side, and yet some live in squalor and cannot afford some of the basic services and material goods while others lead disgustingly excessive lives, is immoral and should be criminal. One cannot attribute this to the hard work and ingenuity of some and the laziness of others. There is a disconnect between the value of hard work  as measured by human toil and spiritual effort of work, and the value rewarded in monetary terms to differing skills and positions. To take the example of the U.S., the wealthiest 1%  owns 50% of all wealth  – in no scenario can that 1% have worked and toiled up to 50 times harder than another person – it is humanly impossible, so we must presume they are unnaturally and unfairly advantaged, that they extract rent. Actually, research shows they do.The economic logic that leads us to this inequality is beyond being reflective of differing skills and efforts, beyond a system designed to provide profit incentive and concomitant efficiency gains: it is flawed and does not reflect the natural order.

Hard work and striving should have its reward, we do need motivated leaders and some are happy to ‘labour’, but then the reward should be limited when it harms other people’s right to have a fulfilling life, and when it harms the environment and degrades the natural resource base for future generations.

Politically we tend to view economic possibilities quite simplistically, it’s either capitalism or communism, but there are many shades in between and even lying further out from these two.

Currently, we operate under an obscene version of the Keynesian capitalism we practised before the 1970’s, dubbed neoliberal capitalism. Represented globally by the WTO, IMF and other international finance and trade organisations, this capitalism-on-steroids rejects regulation in the financial and other sectors, encourages wholesale privatisation, and ‘free’ trade, and as a result allows corporations to run roughshod over people and planet.

It does this all in the name of  ‘economic efficiency’ and ‘market growth’, with the promise of  ‘trickle down’ and ‘job creation’, economic-speak that ignores the social and ecological ‘externalities’ produced as a result. Yes, economies are growing, but the profits and ownership of this growth have for thirty years steadily gone to a smaller and wealthier section of the population, while climate change and other ecological problems have resulted in plummeting biodiversity amidst a 6th mass extinction on planet Earth.

This version of capitalism ignores the idea that we need practical and common-sense rules to function harmoniously as a society, based along lines of sustainability, equality, and fair reward for work.

By removing regulations, restrictions and trade barriers, they have ignored the divide between developed and developing economies (wealthier countries having achieved their wealth through protectionist measures) and they prioritise economic trade over social well-being and ecological integrity. They make the false statement that this economic trade is in order to establish social well-being, but for decades it has been a carrot on a stick as IMF lending criteria and policies have plundered, looted and bankrupted third world countries, as we celebrated their citizens’ catching of crumbs off the table. It ignores the concept of limits, using a logic that pushes aside ecological boundaries and presumes technology will overcome these boundaries. As such, the model runs on infinite growth, much in the same way cancer does.

Under this banner of market efficiency as panacea to all ills, this viral strain of capitalism has given free reign to capital in any arena, to be used by the greedy to seek and consolidate power for themselves. In some countries, most notably the US, it has co-opted corporate media and government, and in thus doing pulled the wool over the eyes of the public. Internationally, it has co-opted whole sovereign governments and interfered with their ‘democratic’ political process.

Capitalism is built on the 19th century idea that every person working selfishly for their own gain will reap the greatest good for all of society. It tells us that selfishness is the way to happiness. This, to me, while it does express the self-interested nature of people that makes up one side  of us as multi-faceted creatures, it ignores basic truths about human nature and societies.

Traditional societies have always had an economic system based on mutual and reciprocal sharing, and social science now tells us that more equitable societies are happier and that as a species we are designed to share. On the other hand, communism tried to downplay the differences between us as individuals, and gives us  a shared sense of fate and unity that is not real but manufactured. It was equally destructive on the environment and prone to power accumulation. How did we ever come up with these systems? What logic did we use and how well did we analyse it and in which fora?

We must let a multitude of disciplines from the humanities, social and natural sciences inform the understanding of how we should construct and modify our future socio-economic systems. Whatever system we have, should reflect our social and ecological realities, and be informed by their needs for harmony and perpetuation.

We have had the experiment of selfishness, and it doesn’t work. It extends imperialism and colonialism, albeit in a subtler, more dangerous form, and it fractures societies, leading to social ills and atmospheres of fear and mistrust. As it attempts to commodify self-worth and the worth of others, and ideas of meaning and satisfaction, it leads us along the pursuit of materialism, an empty and addictive life devoid of true spiritual meaning. It pries us apart as humans who could be living together as caring, concerned communities. It literally and figuratively values the wrong things and doesn’t value the right things. It dehumanises us.

While we have always been willing, even if we never knew it, we are now informed and able enough to unite, and take back power to share rationally and equally. Let’s evolve to be societies that live peacefully, equitably, and in harmony with nature.


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