The globalisation of inequality

As the divorce between power and politics grows starker, populists are on the rise across the world

Apr 06, 2018

By Fr Myron Pereira SJ
“Those who cannot change their minds won’t change anything,” said George Bernard Shaw. Unlike the ancient world where stability was a value sought and cherished, our contemporary world is characterised by change.

In the personal lives of families, the unthinkable has now become commonplace: marriages break up, people remarry, often more than once. Families have also grown smaller, tighter, more unpredictable. Domestic life has changed irreversibly.

At the wider social level, people are on the move everywhere: the young to study in distant colleges, older people to migrate in search of employment.

The massive displacement of different groups — refugees — has become yet another phenomenon of our age, creating both unrest and hostility, as well as compassion and hospitality.

The tourist, the migrant worker and the refugee are all signs of our time.

What has caused the most unrest is the dissolution of the social contract by which industrial capitalism and labour gave birth to the welfare state.

In other words, the inequalities created by the free-market economy were corrected by governments through a redistributive system of taxation, geared to protect universal social rights. Foremost among these were public health, subsidised education and universal employment, accessible to most and beneficial to all.

All this seems to be an age which has passed. Everywhere social spending is being reduced. All governments are in a haste to privatise and commercialise what was earlier subsidised, and austerity measures are imposed in many countries.

These hurt ordinary citizens most, even while the rich get tax breaks and record surplus profits.

Secondly, the divorce between power and politics grows starker every day. Financial power now is global and resides with the banks and monetary systems, not with governments. In fact, most elected representatives can do very little, beside promoting themselves.

Politics has become a relic of the nation states that continue to fight among themselves, and identity politics (“religion and race define power”) has become the key to understanding contemporary conflicts.

Look at the world today: Europe is in turmoil over accepting refugees, “people not like us who do not share our beliefs”. Sunni-Shia conflicts splatter West Asia, while in South Asia the turmoil is Hindu-Muslim, Buddhist-Hindu, Buddhist-Muslim, Uighur Muslim-Han Chinese.

Increasingly the world faces the globalisation of inequality. The giant corporations seek the cheapest labour to lower their costs of production; they have industrialised the poorer countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa, and have deindustrialised many parts of America and Europe.

Unemployment is increasing — and with it, lowering of wages, reduction of purchasing power and worsening of social conditions.

The tensions in our societies can be directly related to the unrealistic demands for more and more production to generate even more and more waste. But in a finite world, uncontrolled growth is the premise of the cancer cell.

We need to change. We need to see humankind as only a part of the vast sentient and thinking organism which is this universe, not as its centre.

We are right to be impatient with how our governments function, but any proposal for social change must be based on an economy of conservation, not of waste. Environmental degradation hurts us all but hurts the poor the most.

A changed economy must be at the service of all — to develop the abilities of every citizen, to enable them to enjoy a decent standard of living with full political participation. -- (used with permission)

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