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Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?

Zygmunt Baumann, born in 1925, is a Polish sociologist. Since 1971, he has resided in England after being driven out of Poland by an anti-semitic campaign, engineered by the Communist government he had previously supported.
Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?
By Zymunt Baulmann, 1/28/2013

Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and one of Europe's foremost sociologists. He is author of 'Liquid Modernity' (Polity 2000) and many other books on contemporary society.

A most recent study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adult humans alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the total world wealth. The bottom half of the world adult population owned 1% of global wealth...
The stubborn persistence of poverty on a planet in the throes of economic-growth fundamentalism is enough to make thoughtful people to pause and reflect on the direct as much as the collateral casualties of that redistribution of wealth. The deepening abyss separating the poor and prospect-less from the well off, sanguine, self-confident and boisterous - an abyss of the depth already exceeding the ability of any but the most muscular and the least scrupulous hikers to climb - is an obvious reason to be gravely concerned. As the authors of the quoted article warn, the prime victim of deepening inequality will be democracy - as increasingly scarce, rare and inaccessible paraphernalia of survival and acceptable life become the object of a cut-throat rivalry (and perhaps wars) between the provided-for and the left-unaided needy.
One of the basic moral justifications for free market economics, namely that the pursuit of individual profit also provides the best mechanism for the pursuit of common good, has been thereby cast in doubt and all but belied. In the two decades preceding the start of the latest financial crisis, across the great bulk of OECD nations the real household incomes for the top 10 per cent grew much faster than for the poorest 10 per cent. In some countries, real incomes of those at the bottom have actually fallen. Income disparities have therefore widened markedly...
The International Labor Organization estimates that 3 billion people are now living below the poverty line, set at US$2 per day. John Galbraith, in the preface to the Human Development Report of the United Nations in 1998, documented that 20% of the world's population cornered 86% of all goods and services produced worldwide, while the poorest 20% of them consumed only 1.3%; whereas today, after nearly 15 years, these figures have gone from bad to worse: the richest 20% of the population consumes 90% of the goods produced, while the poorest 20% consumes 1%. It is also estimated that 40% of the world's wealth is owned by 1% of the world population, while the 20 richest people in the world have resources equal to those of the billion poorest people...
This is how Joseph Stiglitz sums up the revelations brought up by the dramatic aftermath of the two or three arguably most prosperous decades-in-a-row in history of capitalism that preceded the 2007 credit collapse, and of the depression that followed: inequality has always been justified on the grounds that those at the top contributed more to the economy, performing the role of "job creators" - but "then came 2008 and 2009, and you saw these guys who brought the economy to the brink of ruin walking off with hundreds of millions of dollars." Most obviously, you couldn't this time justify the rewards in terms of their beneficiaries' contribution to society; what the latter contributed was not new jobs, but the lengthening lines of "redundant people" (as the jobless are now dubbed - not without sound reasons). In his latest book The Price of Inequality (WW Norton & Company 2012), Stiglitz concludes that the US has become a country "in which the rich live in gated communities, send their children to expensive schools and have access to first-rate medical care. Meanwhile, the rest live in a world marked by insecurity, at best mediocre education and in effect rationed health care." This is a picture of two worlds - with few if any interfaces or meeting points between them...
joseph glynn
Great article. To end inequality I believe we need to take back and share the earth via land taxation and end private bankers monopoly of the power to issue and allocate credit money.
The collusion of two great private monopolies, the monopoly of land and the monopoly of banking/credit dictated history for the past 6,000 years, crashed the global economy and devastated our future prospects. Sadly, we are restoring their discredited elevated status, sustaining our enslavement and postponing the demolition required to establish the public interest banking institutions, effective land value taxation and social credit essential for sustainable development and collective resilience. The invisible hand is that of a pickpocket; not the hand of labour or the producer or provider but of the banker, the landlord and their increasingly demanding gamekeepers.
The sheer scale of the inequality confirmed by the studies cited is outrageous and its continued escalation cannot but precipitate political instability and widespread revolt. One would, in the interests of humankind hope so. In the absence of leadership it is evidently necessary and unavoidable.Land is the bulk of all wealth and we need to share it via land value taxation and credit, which is social in origin and by nature must be issued and allocated democratically and not by bankers amongst croney gamblers, speculators and rent-seekers.
Jeffrey Andreoni (@Bezdomnatio
"the central lesson of the last 30 years is that an economic model that allows the richest members of society to accumulate a larger and larger share of the cake will eventually self-destruct."
Accumulation is a form of blockage in our "liquid" society. Blockage allows accumulation to happen. This blockage could be of a stream, a road, a network, a revenue stream; whatever it is, it's a form of illegitimate tollbooth which is blocking progress. The only accumlation that should be allowed to occur is the accumulation of energy, feelings, thoughts. Everything else should be released and allowed to flow naturally.
Goodbye future?
By Stephen Holmes 3/22/2013  http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2012-11-21-holmes-en.html

Almost a quarter century has passed since the citizens of central and eastern Europe took to the streets to demand more democracy. Though the memory remains fresh in reunified Berlin, I wonder whether, elsewhere, 1989 and its aftermath are still debated with any real urgency. So much has happened in the last 23 years that, throughout the world, the democratic struggle of central and eastern Europeans seems somehow remote or visible only through a clutter of intervening traumas. I would therefore like to try to rethink some aspects of the disappointments of democracy after communism, in the context of what I think can only be called a global dissatisfaction with democracy today.

Structural problems in conventional democracies are alienating citizens worldwide, writes Stephen Holmes. Political marketing, cross-party compromise and elite withdrawal threaten to rob democracy of its original role as instrument of justice.

Obama may be Commander-in-Chief but he is to a great extent boxed-in and held hostage by the permanent national-security bureaucracies, including the CIA as well as the FBI, and especially by the Pentagon with its deep connections to the multi-billion dollar American arms industry...

The flooding of the labor market by a low-cost Chinese workforce has also reduced the interest of the American and European capitalist class in the health and education of American and European workers. Taken together, the disappearance of the citizen-soldier and the diminished status and clout of the citizen-worker have considerably reduced the leverage which the citizen-voter can bring to bear on society's top decision-makers. This erosion has become a total destruction in the case of Russia, where the hydrocarbon bonanza (sold to foreigners) has liberated the ruling elite from citizen-consumers as well...

But we inhabitants of "well-established democracies" have no reason to feel complacent when observing Russia's system of spoliation and neglect. The movement for the liberation of the rich is a worldwide phenomenon from which no country is totally immune. The high-stakes (mostly American) gamblers in investment banking who almost destroyed the world economy seem to have emancipated themselves from their fellow citizens as completely as Russia's hydrocarbon princes. The idea that periodic elections can make them accountable and responsive to the needs of the public therefore seems chimerical, as does the hope that the post-war social contract, now in tatters, can be restored. Some commentators say that politicians have ceased to pay attention to the poor, and even to visit their neighborhoods, because the poor have stopped voting. But the causality runs more powerfully in the other direction. The poor have stopped voting because they do not possess enough extra-electoral leverage over their rulers to make voting feel worthwhile...

Democratic mechanisms of public accountability, in other words, have been fatally weakened by the decomposition of connective tissue between the rulers and the ruled. This is a massive and global process and cannot be reversed by a few legal or organizational fixes. In a way, liberal democracy arose in the struggle of the many against oppression and exploitation by the few. Once the few abandon oppression and exploitation and withdraw into bubbles of super-prosperity to conceal and enjoy their stolen wealth, the old democratic methods used to defeat oppressors and exploiters may prove to be entirely or mostly useless.

Globalization weakens democracy not only by making it more difficult for states to tax the rich. It also fosters waves of immigration which democracy is ill-suited to confront. When elections do not allow citizens to control politicians, as Ivan Krastev has argued, voters stop voting their rational interests and start voting their irrational passions...

The ability of democracy to fill society with a sense of future possibility is one of its most precious side-effects. Perhaps this is what still makes us democrats, despite all the deep and deepening reasons we, along with our post-communist neighbors, have for being dissatisfied with contemporary democracy as a system allegedly designed to subject high-living rulers to some measure of control by the ruled.

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