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Inequality Disorder

You can see it glistening in colours red, white and blue, smell its choking fumes through the fogs of ambition and greed and mac-taste its convenient food; fast and furious, no time to waste, to pause, to question and wonder. Market fundamentalism pervades all areas of contemporary civilization, has saturated every corner of the world, and created what Pope Francis recently described as the “Globalisation of Indifference”, a world in which “we have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business” [The Guardian]. This extreme model of capitalism places profit, not people at the centre of everything. The wellbeing of human beings has become secondary to the aim of maximizing returns no matter the costs, human or environmental, remorselessly pursued by corporate governments and their multi-national bedmates.

One of the major “trends of globalization” is what P. Sainath calls “corporate globalism”. Today’s world is “marked by the collapse of restraint on corporate power, in every continent.” This is borne out by the fact that over half of “the world’s 100 wealthiest bodies are corporations” [Global Issues]. Organizations with enormous political influence who own media groups, essential utilities – water, electricity and gas, telephone and Internet companies – and control transportation systems. They are the major donors to political campaigns, they finance development projects and fund think tanks, they are the mining giants clearing indigenous people from ancestral land in search of minerals; and are the driving force behind the commodification of everything and everyone everywhere. They jangle the corporate politicians in their silk-lined pockets, influence policy and determine elections.

Inequality and Social Disorder

A river of destructive consequences flows from market fundamentalism: Inequality and the “Globalization of Indifference” are two of the more prominent, inter-related poisonous effects of the economic model that has served the bank accounts of a tiny minority well, failed the rest and polluted the planet. It sets people in constant competition, encourages greed and selfishness, fuelling division and conflict.

Income and wealth inequality are thought to be greater today than at any time in history, and in spite of the growth rhetoric from certain commercial corners of the world, the poor are poorer than ever. Noam Chomsky relates a study by Action for Children, which concludes that “the gap between rich and poor [in Britain] is as wide today as it was in Victorian times,” and in some ways worse. “A million and a half families cannot provide their children with the diet fed to a similar child living in a Bethnal Green [London] Workhouse in 1876.” The chasm is wider than ever and the pace of disparity is quickening: under market fundamentalism “inequality has grown faster in the last 15 years than in the past 50” [P. Sainath], condemning hundreds of millions of people to a life of crippling poverty, exploitation and suffering and causing deep-seated social division and separation. It is a system that works against the underlying unity of humanity and generates tremendous tensions and resentment. Noam Chomsky reports that a recent study by the Pew Foundation on “the greatest source of tension and conflict in American life”, found that for the first time ever, “concern over income inequality was way at the top [of the list].” This shift in collective awareness, he notes, is “a tribute to the Occupy movement, which put this strikingly critical fact of modern life on the agenda.”
America leads the industrialised rich world on every measure of inequality, followed by their 53rd state, Israel, and main international ally, Britain. At the other, more equal and just end of the income/wealth spectrum of developed nations, we find Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In these countries where the level of inequality is considerably lower, Richard Wilkinson (Emeritus Professor of Public Health, University of Nottingham) found there is less crime and far fewer murders. Children have a better life, people live longer; there are fewer mentally ill, drug and alcohol dependents. Literacy levels are higher; obesity numbers are lower; there are fewer teenage pregnancies; prison numbers are much lower (America is “off the scale” here too), and community life is stronger and more vibrant. In their detailed investigation Professor Wilkinson’s team discovered that, perhaps unsurprisingly, trust is related to equality. In America a mere 15% confessed to trusting others, whilst in more equal countries (on average) 60% of the population trust their fellow citizens. Lack of trust fuels divisions, strengthening suspicions of the ‘other’ on the opposite side of the economic tracks, which aggravates social tensions and fuels criminality. Gated communities, with private security patrols, armed guards and alarm systems, (which randomly go off and are universally ignored), result from such division and distrust.

Inequality is a major cause of poverty and creates the marginalised majority who have little or no influence on social policy or political decisions designed to maintain and strengthen existing divisions and reinforce concentrated power. Disempowered and ignored, this ocean of men, women and children suffer the indignity of what the Brazilian educationalist and philosopher, Paolo Freire calls “dehumanization”. They are the tens of millions of children living in rural India without sanitation; the families of five or six in Ethiopia who share a bed, have no access to decent health care, clean running water or electricity, whose children are forced to walk 20 km a day to attend poorly equipped schools without so much as a chair or desk. Or the 50 million plus in America living below the poverty line, who have no health care insurance, whilst the three leading pharmaceutical companies earn collective profits of $27,000 million (2010 figures); or the tea pickers in Assam, India earning US $1 a day forced to sell their daughters for $50 to an ‘agent’ offering a city job, only to traffic the child into the commercial sex industry and years of misery and abuse.

With poverty goes vulnerability and exploitation: the “dehumanization” of the oppressed at the hands of the oppressors.

Health and Poverty

One of the starkest effects of this worldwide social injustice is the lack of adequate healthcare (although it is enshrined as a fundamental human right in the much ignored Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Poverty is “the world’s biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering” [World Health Organisation (WHO)]. It is the main reason “why babies are not vaccinated, why clean water and sanitation are not provided, why curative drugs and other treatments are unavailable and why mothers die in childbirth,” and is the “underlying cause of reduced life expectancy, handicap, disability and starvation.” Poverty is the major contributor to mental illness, the cause of “stress, suicide, family disintegration and substance abuse.”

The overwhelming majority in the world live and die under the repressive shadow of poverty and inequity. They are oppressed, abused and exploited in varying degrees depending on the nation of birth, by the 1% or less who have accrued obscene levels of wealth and with it power and political influence. This tiny coterie of men (they are almost all men), suffer from what is perhaps the greatest vice of privilege: complacency. The ‘I’m all right Jack’ syndrome of cynicism and crippling selfishness, which allows 12.2 million children under the age of 5 to die every year in the developing world, “most of them from causes, which could be prevented for just a few US cents per child” [WHO]. These innocent children “die largely because of world indifference.” As a great teacher has said, “throughout the world there are men, women and little children who have not even the essentials to stay alive; they crowd the cities of many of the poorest countries in the world. This crime fills Me with shame. My brothers, how can you watch these people die before your eyes and call yourselves men?”

The “globalisation of indifference” is killing these children; they die for no other reason than being born into poverty and therefore denied the essentials to survive – food and clean water, proper sanitation and health care. And this in a world of plenty, a world overflowing with resources, where there is no need for anybody, not a single child to go hungry, or to be impoverished. All that is required is that the resources of the Earth be shared equitably throughout the world. It is a common-sense idea so simple as to be dismissed by those who abhor simplicity.

Growth Feeding Inequality

The highest levels of inequality worldwide (developed and developing nations) are to be found throughout Latin America: “there are 7 million more hungry people, 30 million more illiterate people, 10 million more families without homes, 40 million more unemployed persons than there were 20 years ago. There are 240 million human beings in Latin America without the necessities of life, and this when the region is richer and more stable than ever, according to the way the world sees it” [Juan de Dias Parra, head of the Latin American Association for Human Rights in Third World Traveler]. The economic model adopted throughout Latin America and the developing world is one aggressively promoted by the financiers and benefactors of development, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is a model that concentrates economic growth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population – the already wealthy – and sets conditions of market access for western corporations on the look out for upwardly mobile consumers. A fact true in Sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia, where state owned corporations together with those in political power and (government subsidized) multi-nationals are the primary beneficiaries of economic development and so-called market liberalization (which usually entails handing out sweeteners to corporate man and withdrawing state support for the poor) within the national economy.

The development model sits within the broader economic ideology of market fundamentalism, which is building a world divided as never before. As Noam Chomsky says: “If you compare the percentage of world income held by the richest 20% and the poorest 20%, the gap has dramatically increased over the past thirty years. Comparing rich countries to poor countries, it’s about doubled. Comparing rich people to poor people within countries, it’s increased far more and is much sharper. That’s the consequence of a particular kind of growth,” which directs the lion’s share to the already comfortable and proclaims that ‘trickle down’ economics (a system which the 3.5 billion living on less than $2.50 a day will testify, has failed totally), a mythical place where the rich fill to overflowing and allow their leftovers to fall to the ‘poor’, will raise all ships.

Take India, a nation often cited as the golden child of development. Twenty years of economic growth, open markets, de-regulation and an access all areas business visa to foreign corporations, and yet the United Nations places India 136th out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index. Factor in inequality, including gender inequality, and the country plummets further down the table. With almost 500 million people living in poverty (on less than 50 US cents a day), India has more poor than all of Sub Saharan Africa combined; child malnutrition at 48% is the highest in the world, and despite two decades of growth, is only 1% less than it was in 1991. Due to crippling debt and government neglect, smallholder farmers are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of two per hour, and an armed conflict rages throughout the north east and central forests of the country, not to mention the violent occupation of the disputed region of Kashmir. After twenty years of development, the nation is divided in a multitude of ways: social, gender, racial, religious and of course economic. The 100 richest Indians are said to own wealth equivalent to 25 per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP = 1.84 trillion US dollars in 2012) and, where the richest man in the country, Mukesh Ambani (Chairman of Reliance Industries), takes home 18 million USD a year, while two-thirds of the population (around 900 million people) live on less than 2 dollars a day [World Bank]. Is this just, sane even? With such colossal levels of inequality and social injustice there will never be harmony, trust and peace – in India or for the world.

Sane Step

Capitalism blended liberally with the seeds of social justice and fundamental human rights (shelter, food, health care and education) – let’s suggest a 40/60 split – would be a sane step towards much needed economic reform and a more humane model that places the needs and well-being of the people at its heart. But the extreme type of unrestrained market capitalism that allows children in their millions to die of starvation whilst food rots in storehouses, condemns women – in their millions – to lives of servitude and slavery, and men – in their millions – to live undignified, hopeless lives totally devoid of creativity, has been allowed to poison all areas of life, including education and health care. It is sold to the world as the only logical practical economic model and the ugly sisters of competition and separation are relentlessly promoted in all areas of life.

There is however a change of heart sweeping the world, a new consciousness of synthesis, tolerance and cooperation is sighted: the people, the oppressed 99.9% have had enough. Change from a divisive system that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few whilst oppressing billions to an alternative, just model based on equity, social justice and freedom is the need of the time and the rightful cry of millions protesting around the world.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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