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Thursday, September 21, 2023

What’s really driving inequality?


 It’s on the lips of everyone from the NGOs to the UN to the Davos set, and rightly so. Oxfam’s recent unearthing of the fact that the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion is truly shocking to anyone with a conscience. Unfortunately, none of them is prepared to seriously tackle the mother of all causes: perpetual economic growth. In fact, they are all slaves to it. 


It’s not difficult to pinpoint some of the more visible structures and decisions that have led to this situation. Depending on your politics, you could credibly argue we have been on this path since the creeping start of capitalism during the industrial revolution, all the way through to the latest dramatic rise following the deregulation frenzies of the 1980s. Any way you look at it, though, behind today’s particularly egregious situation is a host of decisions or structures, including tax havens, corporate exceptionalism under the law (think “too big to fail” to see the sharp end of that trend); the flooding of politics with money, particularly in the US; and trade rules heavily rigged in favour of those with the most money and lawyers. 


And supporting it all is the creation known as the hyper-consumer, whose compassion is dulled and whose competitive instincts are permanently primed thanks to ubiquitous demands to buy, buy, buy and then continuous glorification of the idea that happiness is what you own. What else is the $1 trillion advertising industry for? Taken all together, the global economy is essentially now a wealth extraction system; ruthlessly efficient at drawing financial and resource wealth away from the majority of people and piling it up in the bank accounts of the 1%.


The reasons for all this are, of course, many and complex. But stand far enough back and it’s also quite simple. Essentially it boils down to the fact that the corporate capitalist system is governed by incentives and rewards that are unable to directly register anything but economic value. The system is deaf, dumb and blind to climate destruction and mass human suffering. It would be like asking a human being to hear dog whistles. In other words, by just doing what it does, left to obey its own logic, the economic system will grow until it destroys itself, and causes immeasurable damage to the biosphere in the process.


 It will consume resources until there are none left. It will grind over humanity, causing and excusing human rights abuses on whatever scale is necessary for it to keep growing, even until all the energy of humanity is exhausted and the system collapses. It is, at this stage, far bigger than any government or corporation. It is, to all intents and purposes, a living force. It’s not alive in any traditional sense, of course, but it is undoubtedly possessed of an energy beyond our control. Unless the logic driving it is changed, the future is pretty much set in stone. 

Complaining about the system can be quite therapeutic but we must also be able to isolate strategic weak points and offer positive alternatives. So here is an example of how the logic of perpetual economic growth is powering one more hidden but strategically critical drivers of inequality, and what can be done about it. 


The World Bank’s mission is to “[E]nd poverty within a generation and boost shared prosperity.” They had their PR problems a few years ago when their infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes were shown to create more harm than good, but since then they have had a fundamental re-think, right? Wrong. The problem is, because they can’t see, or don’t know how to begin to counteract the toxic logic of “growth at all costs”, they’re peddling essentially the same snake oil today. 


Through a system called the Doing Business rankings, the bank uses its considerably financial and political power to force developing countries to make it as easy as possible for land to be grabbed by foreign corporations or local elites. It works by awarding points to countries when they act in favor of the “ease of doing business” and then publishing how countries rank against each other annually in a report they are very proud to claim, “has served as an incomparable catalyst for business reform initiatives”. 


In other words, policies that service the needs of intensive, large-scale international business are rewarded and ones judged to stand in its way are punished. For example, the fewer regulations there are on the purchase of land, the higher the rating, with maximum points being awarded to countries with total freedom of purchase. More modest corporate taxation gets some reward; most points are awarded for zero corporate taxation. Countries are even punished for offering their workers minimum wages. It is the neoliberal blueprint for economic development: low corporate taxation, low worker wages and protection, maximum privitisation and minimal standards of environmental protection. Everything, in other words, to maximise wealth extraction and concentration.


You might well ask why a supposed development agency favours large corporate interests so blatantly. The reason is simple. The World Bank is controlled by rich governments and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, it believes that what’s good for growing corporations – most of which are from rich countries – is good for the world. In perfect harmony with the G8, the bank behaves as if corporations’ ability to maximise profit and shareholder value is at the root of all prosperity, not just the prosperity of the rich, and is therefore more important than supporting the smallholder farmers who are currently feeding 70% of the world; more important that ensuring industrial activity doesn’t contribute to climate change; and more important than letting democratic countries set their own economic policy. 


In a world where farmers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples are facing increasingly harsh conditions, and where the richest 85 individuals have the same wealth and the poorest 3.5 billion people combined, it is unconscionable that an organisation that is supposed to help increase everyone’s wellbeing uses its power to support the already rich at the expense of the majority. 


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