Trust in politicians is at an all-time low ...when inequality is at an all time high

The riots and demonstrations in Cairo in 2011, and the similar breakdown in public order in Kiev last month, were both fuelled by popular resentment at corruption.

Mar 27, 2014

The riots and demonstrations in Cairo in 2011, and the similar breakdown in public order in Kiev last month, were both fuelled by popular resentment at corruption. The manipulation of the economy for the benefit of the rich had gone beyond the public’s capacity to tolerate it. The unearned luxury of the super-wealthy, a group known in Ukraine as the oligarchy, had become an unbearable affront not just to the hard work – and sometimes hardship – of the common people, but to their sense of justice. Extreme inequality damaged social cohesion and stability, a situation which various groups were eager to exploit – the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, neo-Nazi groups in the Ukraine.

In sophisticated Western democracies like Britain, there are lightning conductors and safety valves which can discharge some of this resentment before it explodes. But inequality in Britain has grown and is still growing, as two reports this week underline. An Oxfam report, A Tale of Two Britains, had the headline statement that the five richest families in Britain now own more than the bottom 20 per cent. The Equality Trust think tank, in a report called The Cost of Inequality found that the 100 richest people had more money than the bottom 30 per cent. These figures are not quite commensurate. But they do suggest a graph of wealth distribution which gets steeper the further along it you go.

Does inequality matter, as long as everyone has enough to eat? It does; along with the concentration of wealth goes the concentration of power. That power is used – ever so cleverly, ever so discreetly – to protect the elite from anything which might threaten its continued ascendancy. As the many sense that the political and economic system is being played with to the advantage of the few, trust in the system declines. We may be sure it is no coincidence that trust in British politicians and political institutions is at an all-time low precisely when inequality is at an all-time high.

Trust in politics is in inverse proportion to the sense of injustice and unfairness felt by the mass of people. As these and other reports on inequality make clear, there is a price to be paid in mental and physical health, in longevity, in wellbeing and in many other factors. There is direct damage to the economy itself, which The Cost of Inequality estimates at £39 billion annually.

What happens as trust falls? People stop participating in the political process, as the falling membership figures for the traditional political parties demonstrate. They do not take politicians seriously. With the loss of leadership goes a loss of vision. People stop reading newspapers, which is also happening. Voting figures fall, ditto. New parties appear to take advantage of the disillusionment. Scapegoating occurs, whether of Brussels or of immigrants (or both), or of the poor, disabled and vulnerable. What might be called the “social glue” holding communities together begins to come unstuck, which many people felt was one of the underlying reason for the 2011 urban riots in Britain. With less sense of community, institutions that depend on it, especially local voluntary organisations including religious congregations, experience slow but steady wastage. With less sense of solidarity there is less compassion for the poor and weak. Selfishness becomes the new orthodoxy. And people do start to go hungry.

What vested interests always aim for is to capture the regulatory instruments that might otherwise be used to clip their wings, and no group is better placed to do this than the super-rich. Million-pound bonuses have become the norm among business executives, though I have never heard anyone suggest to them that the bonus system is gravely antisocial. This isn’t just about “greed.” Economists say that the reason most people are not better off – they themselves say they expect to become worse off – is precisely because the new wealth the economy creates is being siphoned off by the few. To question this situation, for instance as Pope Francis has done, is to be branded economically illiterate – if the critic wants to be polite – or a Marxist, as he was. It may once have been true, as Adam Smith predicted, that wealth would “trickle down” from the rich to the less well off. But as the Pope recently pointed out, evidence suggests this no longer happens. London is unlikely to go the way of Cairo in 2011 or Kiev in 2014, though the urban riots were unpleasant enough. But the questions remain – is it better to be caught up in the slow death of a civilisation, or its sudden collapse? And in either case, how do we reverse it? --The Tablet

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