The word ‘equality’ has for many of the most vocal political movements, particularly those associated with students, recently become something of a reverse-Shibboleth. To pronounce it, to demand it, to invoke the proud legacy of this sublime idea, is to reveal your ignorance. What must instead be demanded is equity; equality is not, it would seem, fair. But regardless of the retroactive imposition of reductive meaning onto a perfectly adequate word, if we respect their redefinition there is one domain in which these movements neglect both equality and equity: wealth disparity.
According to a report published by Oxfam to mark the opening of Davos, the annual gathering of the world’s political and economic élite, just 8 men ‘now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world’. This quote, used as a headline by newspapers which ran the story, is just the tip of the iceberg, with 48 pages of damning statistics and cut-throat analysis. What is clear is that economic inequality is increasing everywhere, and at a rapid rate. It is an open and weeping sore on international society and its political reverberations, including Brexit and the Trump presidency, will only increase in scale.
While it is easy to agree with Winne Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, that the situation is ‘obscene’, it is not so easy to agree with the report’s conclusion that part of the solution involves building a ‘human economy’ that nevertheless retains the incentive to private profit. Essentially, what Oxfam calls for is a return to the mixed, partially planned economies and social-democratic consensus that characterised Western states after the Second World War. What they ignore is the historical context that brought this state of affairs into being. Élites no longer have the spectre of ideologically committed, state-communist societies with truly international reach to terrify them into concessions. Rich countries like Britain no longer have unimpeded access to the resources of physically-held colonies, and so lack the rhetorical justification that social-democracy is a just distribution of the benefits of Empire. The list could go on.
This is not to deny the role, accurately identified, that government has to play in determining the extent of intrasocietal inequality and the necessity for this government to be representative and free from the corruptions of wealth in order to function in the interest of all. But to think that it is possible to reason with the wealthy, to persuade them by means of argumentation that it is in their best interest to surrender a portion of their wealth is mistakenly to buy into the liberal myth that we act rationally under all circumstances. Equally to think that they would tolerate their wealth being interfered with by the governments of ostensibly sovereign states is – after Chile, after Venezuela, after Greece – a delusion.
Instead, the changes that Oxfam desire to see will only come about with the re-establishment of an internationally networked and internationally active political movement founded on those whom the status quo condemns to growing impoverishment; those who have nothing to lose and a world to win. When such a movement takes hold of the machineries of state, there would be no question, in the rich countries at least, of its allowing the wasteful accumulation associated with private profit.
Image: OCHA/Berk Ozkan