That Oxfam’s revelations on wealth fail to shock shows just how far we’ve fallen, writes RABBIL SIKDAR
EVEN as we are no longer shocked by it, the latest Oxfam figures on inequality still feel shocking. The richest 62 individuals in the world now own as much as half of humanity. Last year that number was 86, so wealth is being consolidated into ever-fewer hands. You could fit the owners of half the world’s wealth into a plane without a sweat — maybe even a coach.
What a world this is where the unfair, unjust and unequal status quo has convinced people that it is born of economic rationality. Yet calling for a more even distribution of wealth, so not everything is hoarded in the pockets of a few dozen people, is deemed a wish for economic chaos and travesty.
We are heading towards another financial crash. This extremely lopsided balance of wealth, ensured by a collapsing financial system constantly resuscitated and propped up by public money, cannot sustain itself. The free-market politics, eight years after it nearly drove itself over the cliff, is veering in the same direction this time.
Growing inequality has been fuelled by increasing globalisation; as wealth has shifted freely across borders, laws on regulating excess wealth have not emerged. There has not been anything to tackle the way in which corporations wield power and threaten the economic sovereignty of nations. The richest have been dodging tax on an industrial scale for a long time, untouched and unchallenged. It’s not a threat to freedom to go after that wealth but in fact a defence of it: countries who collect their tax revenues have the economic freedom to lay out their own policies. Similarly, individuals who are not impoverished in unequal societies also have the freedom to spend and live.
The absence of fair wages, forcing workers to rely on welfare payments or extra jobs to pay bills, has deepened inequality. People are working longer hours just to make ends meet. We work to live, not live to work. Neoliberal policies aim to draw every bead of sweat possible from people without a moment’s rest.
In the US, low wages have caused the near destruction of the middle class. Similarly, in Britain they have had a toxic effect on government expenditure as well as poverty rates. Families deprived of decent earnings struggle to pay energy bills and purchase food; some have to make the awful choice between staying warm or eating. Some parents go hungry so their children can eat.
And this is the developed world we are talking about. In the developing world, the crisis is on an unimaginable scale. Access to medicine, clean water, electricity, food, shelter and education is denied. Much of Africa, Asia, the Middl -East and South America is locked in a complex tangle of political corruption, civil wars and tyranny, legacies often of past imperialism, the effects of which still haven’t worn off.
When charities such as Oxfam present these problems, they come to be regarded as the solution. People “just need to donate more.” The philanthropic wealthy are the key to success. And yet Clement Attlee said: “Charity is a gold, grey and loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole them out on a whim.” Fundraising and donations are simply bandages that cover up the wound but do nothing to heal it. Addressing the problem as a lack of individual empathy and compassion rather than the failing of an economic system is ultimately misleading and deceitful. No matter how much Bill Gates donates and invests, it won’t mean a thing if he doesn’t pay his taxes.
From a moral perspective, foodbanks are both amazing and terrible. It’s amazing that there are people in the community who care enough to help the hungry. It’s terrible and humiliating that people must beg for scraps from their neighbours. In Britain, this awful reality is made worse by the fact that most of those visiting foodbanks are employed. In fact, so are most in poverty.
Poverty and inequality are inflicted by growing corporate power and an absence of government intervention in the lives of people. Where the state steps back from wages, jobs, healthcare, education, electricity and water, the lives of people will inevitably worsen. Living standards will dip considerably. And no amount of charity will ever fix that.
At the moment we have to address the basic issues facing the world: workers need fair wages, wherever they are.
Jeremy Corbyn was right to say that businesses not paying living wages should not be giving dividends. If you are setting up a business, your first priority should not be a profit unto yourself but whether you can successfully run it with a well-paid workforce. That should be a non-negotiable demand governments make of corporations. Ultimately, power and accountability rests with people, not giant businesses.
Tax-dodging has had a hugely detrimental effect. Consider in Britain the plight of the NHS, the failure to build homes and the decline of state schools. Then consider the amount of tax dodged by giant corporations and the banks. Consider that lack of regulation on the banks created a financial mess rescued only by trillions in public money. And now these same banks that inflicted austerity with their actions are dodging taxes while ordinary working-class and middle-class families struggle to pay rents or buy homes and watch the NHS, the public asset that ties us all together, slowly crumble into dust.
The threat of climate change and the role capitalism has played in that needs to be tackled. Deforestation, air-polluting factories, oil refineries and subsidies of fossil fuel companies have greatly harmed the world. It’s led to catastrophes and pushes civilisation as a whole towards a huge looming disaster. In Britain, floods occur now with increasing regularity, making the government’s cuts to flood defences seem even more ludicrous. Investing in renewable energy to cut carbon emissions and try to bring calm instead of calamity to the environment is only beneficial for all across the world.
At the moment, the results of climate change have hurt only the poorest. Countries like Bangladesh stand at the risk of being completely submerged in water. Droughts in Syria arguably fuelled the civil war that has caused the greatest refugee crisis of our time. Across the world, climate change leaves its mark.
Across the world, the free market leaves its mark too. It’s time we did something about it.