World inequality, disorder and indifference

Inequality worldcloud

By Graham Peebles

Market fundamentalism pervades all areas of contemporary civilisation and created what Pope Francis recently described as the “globalization of Indifference. It is a world in which we have become used to the suffering of others.

This extreme model of capitalism places profit, not people, at the centre of everything. The wellbeing of human beings has become secondary to the aim of maximizing returns, no matter the costs, whether human or environmental.

One of the major “trends of globalization” is what P. Sainath calls “corporate globalism”. Today’s world is “marked by the collapse of restraint on corporate power, in every continent”.

This is borne out by the fact that over half of “the world’s 100 wealthiest bodies are corporations”, organizations with enormous political influence which own media groups, essential utilities and transport systems. They are the major donors to political campaigns, they finance development projects and fund think tank;  they are the mining giants clearing indigenous people from ancestral land in search of minerals; and they are the driving force behind the commodification of everything and everyone. They jangle the corporate politicians in their silk-lined pockets, influence policy and determine elections.

Inequality and social disorder

A river of destructive consequences flows from market fundamentalism. Inequality and the globalization of indifference are two of the more prominent, inter-related poisonous effects of the economic model that has served the bank accounts of a tiny minority well, failed the rest and polluted the planet. It sets people in constant competition, encourages greed and selfishness,  and fuels division and conflict.

Income and wealth inequality are thought to be greater today than at any time in history, and in spite of the growth rhetoric from certain commercial corners of the world, the poor are poorer than ever.

Noam Chomsky relates a study by Action for Children, which concludes that “the gap between rich and poor [in Britain] is as wide today as it was in Victorian times”, and in some ways worse. “A million and a half families cannot provide their children with the diet fed to a similar child living in a Bethnal Green [London] Workhouse in 1876.” The chasm is wider than ever and the pace of disparity is quickening: under market fundamentalism “inequality has grown faster in the last 15 years than in the past 50”, according to P. Sainath.

A recent study by the Pew Foundation on “the greatest source of tension and conflict in American life” found that, for the first time ever, “concern over income inequality was way at the top [of the list]”. This shift in collective awareness, Chomky says, is “a tribute to the Occupy movement, which put this strikingly critical fact of modern life on the agenda”.

America leads the industrialized rich world on every measure of inequality, followed by its 53rd state, Israel, and main international ally, Britain. At the other, more equal and just end of the income/wealth spectrum of developed nations we find Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In these countries, where the level of inequality is considerably lower, Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor of Public Health, University of Nottingham, found there is less crime and far fewer murders. Children have a better life, people live longer; there are fewer mentally ill, drug and alcohol dependents. Literacy levels are higher; obesity numbers are lower, there are fewer teenage pregnancies, prison numbers are much lower (America is “off the scale” here too), and community life is stronger and more vibrant.

In its detailed investigation, Professor Wilkinson’s team discovered that, perhaps unsurprisingly, trust is related to equality. In America a mere 15 per cent confessed to trusting others, while in more equal countries on average 60 per cent of the population trust their fellow citizens. Lack of trust fuels divisions and strengthens suspicions of the “other” on the opposite side of the economic tracks, which aggravates social tensions and fuels criminality. Gated communities, with private security patrols, armed guards and alarm systems result from such division and distrust.

Inequality is a major cause of poverty and creates the marginalized majority which has little or no influence on social policy or political decisions designed to maintain and strengthen existing divisions and reinforce concentrated power. Disempowered and ignored, this ocean of men, women and children suffer the indignity of what the Brazilian educationalist and philosopher Paolo Freire calls “dehumanization”. They are the tens of millions of children living in rural India without sanitation; the families of five or six in Ethiopia who share a bed, have no access to decent healthcare, clean running water or electricity, whose children are forced to walk 20 kilometres a day to attend poorly equipped schools without so much as a chair or desk. Or the 50 million plus in America living below the poverty line, who have no healthcare insurance, while the three leading pharmaceutical companies earn collective profits of 27,000 million US dollars (2010 figures), or the tea pickers in Assam, India, earning 1 dollar a day and forced to sell their daughters for 50 dollars to an “agent” offering a city job, only to traffic the child into the commercial sex industry and years of misery and abuse.

With poverty goes vulnerability and exploitation: the “dehumanization” of the oppressed at the hands of the oppressors.

Health and poverty

One of the starkest effects of this worldwide social injustice is the lack of adequate healthcare, although it is enshrined as a fundamental human right in the much ignored Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Poverty is “the world’s biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering”, according to the  World Health Organization (WHO). It is the main reason “why babies are not vaccinated, why clean water and sanitation are not provided, why curative drugs and other treatments are unavailable and why mothers die in childbirth”, and is the “underlying cause of reduced life expectancy, handicap, disability and starvation”. Poverty is the major contributor to mental illness, the cause of “stress, suicide, family disintegration and substance abuse”.

The overwhelming majority in the world live and die under the repressive shadow of poverty and inequity. They are oppressed, abused and exploited in varying degrees depending on the nation of birth, by the 1 per cent or less who have accrued obscene levels of wealth and with it power and political influence. This tiny coterie of men (they are almost all men) suffer from what is perhaps the greatest vice of privilege: complacency. The “I’m all right Jack” syndrome of cynicism and crippling selfishness allows 12.2 million children under the age of five to die every year in the developing world, “most of them from causes, which could be prevented for just a few US cents per child”, says the WHO.

Growth feeding inequality

The highest levels of inequality worldwide (in the developed and developing nations) are to be found in Latin America, where

there are 7 million more hungry people, 30 million more illiterate people, 10 million more families without homes, 40 million more unemployed persons than there were 20 years ago. There are 240 million human beings in Latin America without the necessities of life, and this when the region is richer and more stable than ever, according to the way the world sees it”. (Juan de Dias Parra, head of the Latin American Association for Human Rights).

The economic model adopted throughout Latin America and the developing world is one aggressively promoted by the financiers and benefactors of development, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It is a model that concentrates economic growth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population – the already wealthy – and sets conditions of market access for Western corporations on the look out for upwardly mobile consumers.

This model sits within the broader economic ideology of market fundamentalism, which is building a world divided as never before. As Chomsky says:

If you compare the percentage of world income held by the richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent, the gap has dramatically increased over the past 30 years. Comparing rich countries to poor countries, it’s about doubled. Comparing rich people to poor people within countries, it’s increased far more and is much sharper. That’s the consequence of a particular kind of growth.

Take India, a nation often cited as the golden child of development. Twenty years of economic growth, open markets, deregulation and an access-all-areas business visa to foreign corporations, and yet the United Nations places India 136th out of 187 countries in the human development index. Factor in inequality, including gender inequality, and the country plummets further down the table. With almost 500 million people living in poverty (on less than 50 US cents a day), India has more poor than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. At 48 per cent, child malnutrition is the highest in the world and, despite two decades of growth, is only 1 per cent less than it was in 1991.

Due to crippling debt and government neglect, Indian smallholder farmers are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of two per hour, and an armed conflict rages throughout the northeast and central forests of the country, not to mention the violent occupation of the disputed region of Kashmir. After 20 years of development, the nation is divided in a multitude of ways: social, gender, racial, religious and economic. The 100 richest Indians are said to own wealth equivalent to 25 per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP=1.84 trillion US dollars in 2012). The richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani (the chairman of Reliance Industries), takes home 18 million dollars a year, while two thirds of the population (around 900 million people) live on less than 2 dollars a day, according to the World Bank.

With such colossal levels of inequality and social injustice there will never be harmony, trust and peace – in India or the world.

Sane step

Capitalism blended liberally with the seeds of social justice and fundamental human rights (shelter, food, healthcare and education) – let’s suggest a 40/60 split – would be a sane step towards much needed economic reform and a more humane model that places the needs and wellbeing of the people at its heart. But the extreme type of unrestrained market capitalism that allows children in their millions to die of starvation while food rots in storehouses, condemns women – in their millions – to lives of servitude and slavery, and men – in their millions – to live undignified, hopeless lives, totally devoid of creativity, has been allowed to poison all areas of life, including education and healthcare. It is sold to the world as the only logical, practical economic model, and the ugly sisters of competition and separation are relentlessly promoted in all areas of life.

There is, however, a change of heart sweeping the world, a new consciousness of synthesis, tolerance and cooperation is sighted. The people, the oppressed 99.9 per cent, have had enough. Change from a divisive system that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few while oppressing billions to an alternative, just model based on equity, social justice and freedom is the need of the time and the rightful cry of millions protesting around the world.

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