‘85 billionaires have the same wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population’
This week, Oxfam commenced a campaign on global inequality and wealth called ‘Even it up’. The levels of wealth and inequality that the report presents us with reflect two somewhat novel phenomena: firstly the sustained enrichment of a small number of capitalists who have invested and speculated their way upwards since the free market ‘revolution’ of the early 1980s; secondly our increasing tendency to see ourselves globally which in this case means in relation to the world’s extremely wealthy and a mass of global poor.
For Oxfam, the message is clearly to show as strikingly as possible how inequality damages development because it means that there are great mountains of wealth retained by a tiny percentage who by any sensible measure do not need it. Precisely how massive wealth and continued mass poverty interact is not clear in the report which relies principally on a moral motivation: a sense of shock or unease of such extreme global cohabitations of well-being and suffering.
One can easily enough generate scenarios within which the wealth of the super-rich could be put to better use. Imagine a terrible new virus bursting out during an elite Bildeberg Club meeting which tragically killed the world’s richest eighty people. Imagine then that the G8 governments made a decision to appropriate the total wealth held by the recently deceased, deciding to allocate the money to the poorest people in the world. It is a simple and crude thought experiment but there is clearly an obvious and compelling case to reallocate the money gained from liquidating this $1,900,000,000 (making it into spendable cash) and then allocating it to the savings accounts, microcredit, health care, education, water provision, labour intensive work projects etc. that would make extremely poor people’s lives better and also make them better equipped to flourish. Surely, that is what the bereaved families of the super-rich would want?
It is effectively a bankrupt argument to defend current global patterns of wealth in light of current levels of mass poverty. There are three laughable defences: one boils down to ‘it’s mine’, one to ‘I earned it’, and finally try ‘my wealth helps others’. Try your hardest and see how far you get. If you find yourself getting anywhere, you are probably starting to resemble Eric Cartman.
If there is little in the way of legitimate defence, it is a testament to the power of the super rich that the mainstream political agendas barely address the immense wealth of this tiny percentage and when politicians of mainstream media do, it is with aching trepidation. I do not believe in conspiracies in which media moguls, financial kingpins and heads of state collude to agree ideological smokescreens. But it would be naïve in the extreme to imagine that the immense power wielded by the one per cent (who are not celebrities and politicians but owners of companies, property, and finance… in other words capitalists) does not strongly shape government agendas, especially when there is a range of unique ways that the global elite have to do so: lobbying, funding parties, a global circuit of high-level meetings (social and summit), the control of corporate media to name the most prominent. Plainly put, if money is power the one per cent can defend their wealth by exercising power in all sorts of ways.
How to make sense of it all?
So, how can we challenge extreme global wealth? What are the counter-arguments to ‘it’s mine, I earned it, and my wealth is socially beneficial’? What kinds of political movements oppose the super-wealthy? In the UK, what can one do if one believes that radical measures are needed to address increasing levels of increasingly exclusive enrichment in the midst of persistent extreme poverty?
This is a difficult question. And, I think the Oxfam report – and a lot of other reports and statistics from social-democratic and socialist researchers – has both the effect of making people feel the anger and discomfort at understanding that the world is a remarkably unequal place, but also a sense of powerlessness. After all, a political issue on such a grand scale easily makes people feel small, and connections between action and outcome are very difficult to make.
There is, I think, a problem with the politics of representation of extreme global inequality. Historically, political systems based in massive organised inequality have been based in fatalistic, religious, and hierarchical ideologies. The highpoint of Roman slavery in the Mediterranean had that characteristic (based in the religious status of the Roman male citizen as paterfamilias if you’re interested) as did the various kinds of landlordism and serfdom that we now call European feudalism (admixtures of lineage, Christianity, and hierarchy). Both of these systems (as we call them now) were characteristically based in powerful forms of dominance based in inheritability and religion – a dominance that allowed oligarchies to preside opulently over mass poverty and suffering, deploying considerable material power (monetary and military) to keep it that way for as long as possible. Some economists such as Thomas Picketty warn that if currently wealth patterns continue we will visit a world with similar kinds of inequality to European feudalism. I wonder if we are not already entering into a kind of political relation that is already worryingly similar.
The one per cent seem to be entirely removed from any form of political accountability, indeed from any political community. Their wealth and income are extremely mobile: managed by accountants and advisors to evade tax, maximise ‘profits’ (that is, unearned incomes on assets), and move wealth and income when threats or opportunities arise. ‘One per cent’ nationality is increasingly purchased or split according to residence requirements. The super rich reside in gated estates so securitised that they are, geopolitically speaking, fiefdoms: walled, guarded by armed men, stuffed full of electronic alarms and sensors. Apart from the ‘philanthrocapitalists’ such as Bill Gates, these people are largely unknown. Indeed, calling them ‘the one per cent’ reinforces an air of mystique, an almost metaphysical rendering, far from the caricatures of cigar-smoking fat cats that adorned the righteous anger of left-wing parties in Europe after the Second World War when one could vote for a party that would promise to impose a 90% tax rate on the highest earnings bracket. When the rich are brought close, made familiar, connected to concrete political institutions that can effectively control them, then the prospects for a political movement to do so will be greater.
Contrastingly, consider the categorisation ‘the global poor’. When one sees poverty and inequality globally, it is easy to be overwhelmed. But, the ‘global poor’ is a construction that allows mainly Western publics to identify and discuss diverse and complex forms of poverty and toil embodied in a usually rather vague, distant, and racialised individual. The global poor: ‘black’, farming, perhaps children… you get the picture. They don’t really exist as a social group. And, poverty is not a social identity, it is a label. Poor people perceive themselves and their social condition in culturally rich ways, and they most likely see their condition not as global but as determinedly local. Indeed, immobility and constraint are common ways to characterise lives in which survival is the main thing. The mobility of the poor is displacement and dispossession. The abstract global poor suffer and we feel that this should not be so, but we have no real idea of who those people are or why they are so poor, and so their suffering is distant.
The flipside of outrageous distant wealth is outrageous distant poverty, and this is framed in ways that are difficult to translate into something like a political ideology or justice narrative connected to political action. And if ordinary people in the UK or other wealthy countries’ relations to the global poor is difficult, the relation between the super rich and the super poor is – beyond the obvious obscenity of juxtaposition – also politically difficult.
What to do?
One response is to appeal to the super-rich to be nicer, to help the poor, to be philanthropic. This is not the place to consider this approach because it is based on an acceptance – perhaps even celebration – of extreme wealth on the weak condition that the super-rich behave like good ‘global citizens’.
Oxfam itself offers sensible answers to global inequality: progressive tax reform, free basic public services, gender equality, better pay for the poorest… but none of these calls are especially novel. Many of them have been discussed and advocated within development circles for fifty years. What is lacking in these laudable demands is a sense of political agency. Perhaps now more than ever, these demands seem rather difficult to translate into what one might call situated political argument, that is political argument connected convincingly to political agencies with capacity and motivation.
This is partly a result of the framing I outlined above: a distant global wealthy at the apex of massive and diverse corporations, and a global poor in their smallholdings, also distant, one-dimensional, and suffering. But it also a result of Oxfam’s own choices as to how they propose action. This is because Oxfam – and in fairness almost all of the large charities and development campaigners – ‘call on world leaders’ (or words to that effect) to address this massive global issue out of altruism or enlightened self-interest. As if they just needed a nudge to solve the problem. It has been the case since the Make Poverty History campaign in 2004 that development campaigning has been primarily based in an appeal to world leaders, by which is meant the heads of states of the world’s largest twenty economies.
There is so little evidence that governments of large economies consider ‘global poverty’ (that is, distant poverty) a pressing political issue that it takes a tenacity bordering on the heroic to keep campaigning through ‘asks’ addressed to leaders during summits. ‘Global leadership’ is littered with undelivered promises of minimal resources, delays, and politicking. The increasing association of global leadership with celebrity advocates and ‘philanthrocapitalists’ simply reaffirms a messianic elitism within globally dominant development discourses. Bill Gates’s rise to prominence as an advocate for the global poor almost exactly coincides with him re-attaining his spot as the world’s most wealthy individual.
Surely, we must leave this vulgar circus of faux religious politics behind: its narcissistic gestures (We can do this! We can save them!), its Biblically sweeping statements (An end to hunger! Make poverty history!) , its barely-hidden charitable virtues (We can be generous! We need more aid for them!). It demonstrably does not work and it is politically alienating. It produces a political disempowerment within which ordinary people struggle to understand the mechanisms that allocate wealth and poverty, their connections to the ‘distant poor’, or their possibilities to exercise meaningful political agency if, in some sense, the norm to ‘achieve a more just world’ appeals to them. In order to move beyond the current impasse, we need to understand ‘global poverty’ differently, and we need to look more closely at the politics of development campaigning. These will be parts two and three of this blog.