We are not living in an age of austerity. We are living in an age of brutal inequality. Millions struggle to feed themselves and their families – even in Europe. But the men who caused the financial crisis are better off now than they were the day before the crash. Five years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the firm’s former bosses are back running Wall Street. Amazon, apparently, can’t afford to pay tax where it makes its profits, can’t afford to let its workers take too many toilet breaks, but can afford for its boss to buy the newspapers that might have criticised it. We are back to the “bauble economy”.
The 300 richest people have the same wealth as the 3 billion poorest. Zambia has become a middle income country, but the number of poor people in Zambia has increased. Russia, China and India have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. 5% of Indians own 50% of the country’s wealth. In the US, President Obama has acknowledged, “nearly all income gains of past 10 years flowed to the top 1%. This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.” In the UK, inequality is set to grow faster than it did in the 1980s.
There are so many reasons why rising inequality is a bad thing that it’s hard to know where to start. One reason, as Andy Sumner has demonstrated, is that “we find in our number-crunching that poverty can only be ended if inequality falls.” Another is that healthy, liveable societies depend on government action to limit inequality: “In physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries,” note Wilkinson and Pickett. It is also a question of voice, and power. In the words of Harry Belafonte, “The concentration of money in the hands of a small group is the most dangerous thing that happened to civilization”. Or as Jeff Sachs has noted: “Corporations write the rules, pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”
So if inequality is so damaging, and if it’s getting clearer and clearer that we’re in an inequality crisis, why I am optimistic? Because we are talking about it. Because people are saying it’s a problem. Because in a counterpoint to how the neoliberals of the 70s and 80s changed the conversation from community to individualism to break the post-war consensus that had limited inequality, so now the conversation is shifting back to community. People are challenging the idea that “economic shock treatment” cures when it literally kills. They are speaking out against the profit maximisation mantra that corporations should behave in ways which we would call psychopathic in normal human interaction.
When problems are invisibilised they cannot be fixed. It is only when we look eyes wide open and say frankly that our emperors are naked and that we do not want them as our emperors any more, that we have a chance of putting things right.
In short, I am optimistic because it is getting clearer to the majority that unrestrained inequality is bad for us all. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I see change as inevitable, only in the sense that I see it as possible. It is not that now we needn’t campaign against inequality. It’s that now, when we do, we might win.