Truthout | News Analysis
Jan 1, 2016 – We are nearing 2016, the year when the richest 1 percent of humanity will own more than the rest of the world, according to projections made by the nongovernmental organization Oxfam.
This is up from the 1 percent owning 44 percent of the world’s wealth in 2010 and 48 percent in 2014. If current trends continue, the 1 percent will own 54 percent by 2020.
The top 80 billionaires were worth $1.9 trillion in 2014, an amount equal to the bottom 50 percent. These 80 billionaires saw a 50 percent rise in their wealth in just four years, from 2010 to 2014, during which time the poorest 50 percent saw a drop in their wealth. In other words, there has been a huge transfer of wealth in a very short period of time from the poorest half of humanity to the richest 80 individuals on the planet.
What should we do in the face of these escalating worldwide inequalities? In his worldwide bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty argued for a global tax on capital and redistribution through progressive tax reform. The book has gained traction globally perhaps because its prescriptions converge with the reformist agenda of a rising number of transnational elites and intelligentsia, who have become concerned that the turmoil sparked by such egregious inequalities may destabilize global capitalism and threaten their control. Like Piketty, they have been calling for mildly redistributive measures, such as increased taxes on corporations and the rich, a more progressive income tax, the reintroduction of social welfare programs and a "green capitalism."
This reformist approach to global inequality, however, is entirely inadequate because it bypasses the questions of power and of corporate control over the planet’s productive resources that are at the very heart of global capitalism and its crisis. Any resolution to this crisis requires a radical redistribution of wealth and power downward to the poor majority of humanity. Social justice requires a measure of transnational social governance over the global production and financial system as a necessary first step in this radical redistribution, which in turn must be linked to the transformation of class and property relations.
Seen in this perspective, the elites’ reformist approach has more to do with averting such a transformation than with resolving the plight of the poor majority. The power relations that are at stake become clear by exploring what accounts for social inequalities under capitalism.
Causes of Rising Inequality
What accounts for escalating worldwide inequalities that have so alarmed transnational elites? As Marx analyzed in Capital, there is something going on in the capitalist system itself beyond sets of government policies that generates inequalities. Simply put, capitalists own the means of producing wealth, and therefore appropriate as profits as much as possible of the wealth that society collectively produces. Capitalism produces social inequalities as a consequence of its own internal workings.
But such inequalities end up undermining the stability of the system, since the mass of working people cannot purchase the wealth that pours out of the capitalist economy to the extent that capitalists and the well-off retain more and more of total income relative to that which goes to labor. If capitalists cannot actually sell (or "unload") the products of their plantations, factories and offices, then they cannot make a profit.
This is what in critical political economy constitutes the underlying internal contradiction of capitalism, or the overaccumulation problem. Left unchecked, expanding social polarization results in crisis – in recessions and depressions, such as the 1930s Great Depression or the 2008 Great Recession. Worse still, it engenders great social upheavals, political conflicts, wars and even revolutions – precisely the kinds of conflicts and chaos we are witnessing in the world today.
In the view of the reformers, however, it is not the capitalist system itself, but its particular institutional organization that is to blame for inequalities. They believe it can be offset by increased taxes, social welfare programs and other reformist measures.
The Class Warfare of the Transnational Capitalist Class
The sharp escalation in inequalities coincides with capitalist globalization from the 1970s and on. The high rates of inequality registered in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and that reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had diminished somewhat in the heartlands of world capitalism in the wake of two world wars and the Great Depression. Inequalities in the rich countries were diminished in part thanks to colonialism and imperialism, which resulted in the transfer of surplus wealth from the periphery to the metropolitan centers of world capitalism and made possible the rise of a "labor aristocracy" in these centers.
What became known as the "Fordist-Keynesian" social order that took shape in the 30 years following World War II involved high growth rates, a rise in living standards for substantial sectors of the working class and a decrease in inequalities in the developed core of world capitalism.
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Truthout, May 17, 2015
On April 19, 2014, I sat down with author, journalist and professor Christian Parenti in Chicago. His work, which is wide-ranging and essential, explores some of the most powerful and brutal forces in our society: war, capitalism, prisons, policing and climate change. In this interview, we discussed ideology, climate change, Marxism, activism, the state, militarism, violence and the future. This is the first of a two-part interview.
Vincent Emanuele for Truthout: I’d like to begin by revisiting your 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Right around the time Tropic of Chaos was published, Syria was experiencing record drought and massive livestock and crop losses. The connections between neoliberalism, climate change and Cold War-era militarism, for you, were on full display. However, you’re clear in noting that climate change exacerbates pre-existing crises. In other words, climate change is not necessarily the driver of crises in Syria, or Afghanistan, for example. You call this process the "catastrophic convergence." Can you talk about these various themes in the context of the last four years since Tropic of Chaos was published?
Christian Parenti: Syria is a prime example. There has been a terrible drought there, which coincided with austerity measures imposed by the Assad government cutting aid to Sunni farmers. Many of them were forced to leave the land, partly due to drought, partly due to the lack of support to properly deal with the drought. Then, they arrive in cities, and there’s more austerity taking place. This is experienced as oppression by the Alawite elite against an increasingly impoverished Sunni proletariat who’ve been thrown off their land.
This situation then explodes as religious conflict, which is really the fusion of environmental crises with neoliberal economic policies. Of course, the violent spark to all of this is the fact that the entire region is flooded with weapons. Some of these weapons are from the Cold War, and some of those guns are from recent US militarism in the region. There were a lot of vets of the anti-US struggle in Iraq who are Syrian – Mujahideen veterans who went to Iraq and came back to Syria and started to fight. There were Syrians who were selling guns to Iraqi underground groups. These groups were buying their guns back, and re-importing them to Syria. My friend David Enders has reported on this really well.
So, it’s a perfect example of this catastrophic convergence: The landscape is littered with guns, hammered socially by increasingly market-fundamentalist politics, and at the same time, natural systems are beginning to buckle and break as climate change starts to accelerate. Part of what’s fueling the sectarian conflict in Iraq has to do with this convergence. There’s a very serious lack of water in southern Iraq, partly because Turkey has been taking more water than they should, but there’s also a decline in precipitation, misuse of water resources, etc. In the Shia heartland, life is tough. These young farmers get pulled into the struggle against the Sunni, with militias or within the Iraqi Army. That’s a better deal than trying to struggle on an increasingly decimated farm. But it’s hard to research a lot of this. The violence is so intense that it makes reporting on these issues virtually impossible. Those are some examples that immediately come to mind.
As you’re responding, I’m thinking of Yemen. Really, your book has forced me to constantly examine the underlying environmental context when thinking about conflicts, wars and violence. Yet, this dynamic is left out of the narrative in the mainstream media, and even in many alternative outlets.
People have been reporting on Sanaa’s water crisis for several years. Yemen’s environmental crises is partly fueling the current conflict. Similarly, Boko Haram is capitalizing on and partly produced by environmental crises in northern Nigeria. Large parts of the West African Sahel – meaning the wide arid belt at the bottom edge of the Sahara desert – have been experiencing all sorts of natural precipitation fluctuations; too much rain, too little, at the wrong times. This, plus rising temperatures, has led to increased climate migration, urbanization, poverty, and – surprise, surprise! – political desperation. These chaotic weather patterns are linked to climate change.
Along with environmental crisis, Boko Haram is the byproduct of the brutality of the Nigerian security forces, which have targeted Northern Nigerian Muslims with wide, undisciplined, sometimes almost indiscriminate terror campaigns. Add to that the total corruption of the Nigerian oil state and its inability and unwillingness to redistribute wealth and resources to marginalized populations, and it’s a perfect storm. And out of this drama comes that nightmare we call Boko Haram.
To answer your initial question, what’s new since publishing the book? Seems like more of the same is spreading. But, to be perfectly honest, I find it profoundly depressing to think about this stuff all the time. My research has moved on to other questions.
You focus a lot on the Global South in Tropic of Chaos, but you briefly mention the Global North as well. However, you mention that this catastrophic convergence is experienced in a much different way depending on where one is located. Can you explain these differences?
Climate violence in the Global North looks like counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations abroad, and xenophobic border policing and anti-immigrant repression at home. As we’re speaking, the US has battleships off the coast of Yemen, supporting the Saudi air offensive. Climate violence looks like the special operations base that was in Yemen before US forces were run out a few weeks ago. That base was there partly because of the instability caused by the growing climate crisis that is fueled by US militarism and neoliberalism. The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.
Similarly, anti-immigrant detention and policing increasingly have a climate angle. Migration is rarely described in terms of its root causes. What is it that drives people off the land and forces them to migrate north? War, environmental crisis, and neoliberal economic restructuring that, by opening markets and removing state supports to popular classes, have destroyed rural economies, peasant livelihoods, all over the world. Much of Latin America, particular Mexico and Central America, have been experiencing the chaotic weather associated with climate change, extreme droughts punctuated by flooding. People are forced by all these factors to seek a better life abroad.
The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.
Greeting them upon arrival in the Global North – be that Texas or Sicily – are the ideology and infrastructure of xenophobia and militarized policing. The right, both in Europe and the US, uses racist, fear-mongering, anti-immigrant rhetoric to great effect in mobilizing their constituencies. Remember, the right needs emotionally charged electoral spectacle, because their real agenda is the upward redistribution of wealth from the working classes to the rich. But right-wing politicians cannot run on that platform: there aren’t enough rich people. So, the right must appeal to the real fears of regular people, but they pander to these fears using fake issues. Thus in the right-wing imaginary, it’s not the erosion of social democracy and the rise of deregulated, deindustrialized, hyper-privatized, financialized, boom and bust, neoliberal capitalism that has fucked the common person. No, it is foreigners and immigrants. Unfortunately, this rhetoric works with many.