By Paul Foot
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Born Unfree and Unequal

This article is over 19 years, 4 months old
Capitalism's claim of promoting democracy is continually undermined by the growing gap between rich and poor.
Issue 273

In his speech in the House of Commons debate on war with Iraq, Tony Blair allowed himself a rather rambling excursion into what he saw as the basic reasons for the conflict. Perhaps unwittingly slapping down those of his ministerial colleagues who had likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler, he accepted that comparisons with the 1930s were not very relevant. The real battle, he said, is not between relatively rich countries, as it was then. Instead, the battle now is between civilised democracies like Britain and the United States and rogue regimes that could get control of weapons of mass destruction.

This analysis conveniently avoids the real reason for the world crisis–the growing division between rich and poor, between those who have enough money so that they enjoy democracy and those who have hardly any money, food or water, and therefore can’t.

Increase in inequality

This is an ancient and familiar division. In the age of Bush and Blair, it has grown almost out of recognition. Both leaders and both governments are hellbent on increasing it. Examples are so obtrusive and frequent that it is almost embarrassing to repeat them. A report earlier this year by the American Federal Reserve estimated that in the early Clinton years, 1992-98, the ‘net worth’ of the richest 10 percent in the United States stayed fairly steady at 13 times more than the poorest 20 percent. Between 1998 to 2001 the gap shot up to 22.4 times more, and is still rising. Jared Bernstein of the normally sober Economic Policy Institute was shocked. He warned, ‘I think the increase in inequality that’s evident in this report is really pretty alarming. It should really alert those who are thinking about implementing aggressive tax policies.’ Perhaps he was thinking of President George W Bush, who responded to the alert by cutting taxes on dividends paid by a handful of the American rich who he represents.

In Britain the gap is equally horrific, though less dramatically documented. Everyone knows about the poor–nine and a half million homes that can’t afford proper heating, eight million people who can’t afford one or more essential household items like fridges, telephones and carpets, four million who can’t afford fresh fruit and vegetables. The rich are more comfortably protected from statistics–the National Office of Statistics keeps no figures for the richest 1 percent, but everyone accepts that under Blair and Brown the rich and super-rich have sailed off into the stratosphere leaving those impoverished millions in the gutter.

Nor is it quite accurate to moan about the divisions between rich and poor countries. Of course, the statistics of that division are shocking, and of course the rich countries gang together in the G8 to make sure the division continues. But the divisions persist, sometimes even more horrifically, in those poor countries too. The World Wealth Report by the US banker Merrill Lynch in 2000 charted the rapid increase in millionaires all over the world, but found the rise sharpest in Asia, a continent made up mainly of desperately poor people.

These divisions are a far clearer guide to the world crisis than the rise in terrorism or rogue regimes. Indeed, they explain both. The fact that rogue regimes can continue to dominate their people, or that terrorism seems so attractive to so many of the dispossessed, flows directly from the divisions of wealth and property all over the world. The yawning and ever increasing gap between the wealthy and the masses is the central flaw in the capitalist economic system to which all the world’s leaders, including the rogue regimes, subscribe. Any policy that does not seek to solve that problem is bound to fail. Any war, and particularly an expensive war like the one in Iraq, can only widen those divisions and therefore make things worse.

Some people still argue that these divisions can best be healed by the democratic process that obtains in Europe and the US. In the old days of the last century an influential group of people called social democrats argued that with the votes of the masses behind them they could, in their words, achieve a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’. That was the British Labour Party’s official policy in 1973, 1974 (twice) and even (with the word ‘irreversible’ tactfully left out) in 1979. Such a promise is almost unthinkable today. The Labour Party, like the Democratic Party in the US, is now a plaything of the rich. The government’s policies are manacled to the priorities of the rich. The rich have, quite literally, bought their way into the government as firmly as have their corporate colleagues in the US.

One result of this abandonment of social democracy has been the decline in democracy itself. If the policies of the competing parties are the same, if Democrat is really the same as Republican and Labour the same as Tory, then what’s the point in voting? The poor, the workers and the dispossessed lose their champions and, quite logically, abstain from voting. A great wailing went up when less than 60 percent of those eligible used their votes in the 2001 general election, but that has been the situation in the US for as long as anyone can remember. If electoral politics gets taken over by the rich, used by the rich for their corruptions and their power games, why should the poor and the workers give credibility to that process with their votes?

One sad result of this sad process has been the decline of socialist ideas. Many Labour supporters conclude from the long series of Labour failures that the original central inspiration of Labour–socialism–was flawed. Exactly the opposite is the case. The central ideas of socialism are reinforced every day by the continuing disaster of capitalist society. The unimaginable corruptions of private enterprise in recent years–Enron, WorldCom, Ahold, Railtrack, Equitable Life, hedge funds, split investment ‘trusts’, the collapse of private pension funds–are all contemporary proof of the case for public enterprise, for a planned economy in place of one cast adrift in a sea of stockmarket chaos.

Controlled from below

The growing gap between rich and poor is the clearest possible proof of the need for equality–for a society where people whatever their abilities earn roughly the same. And the hierarchical nature of control and power under capitalism–every discrimination, every arbitrary sacking and arrogant abuse of workers by corporate bullies–shouts out for a society controlled from below, a genuine democracy whose institutions are firmly and irrevocably fixed among the masses. The meteoric decline of social democracy in the last three decades leads many people to believe that such a democracy is idealistic, unobtainable. But the truth is that every time the masses stir themselves for reform, they automatically throw up organisations far more democratic than anything experienced or patronised by parliaments.

The notion of a representative democracy controlled from below where the representatives are not only elected but can be instantly recalled by the represented, and where the representatives not only promote policies but carry them out, is as relevant today as it was when it was first put into practice by the Paris Commune 132 years ago. The only certainty about such a democracy is that by its nature it cannot possibly be introduced by fawning parliaments such as the one at Westminster, still less by the lobbyists’ plaything on Capitol Hill in Washington. It can only come from a movement from below.

Such a movement is much more easy to understand today than even a year ago. The vast movement against war in Iraq–by far the biggest such movement I have seen even in my long lifetime–shows how many people can and will act when they see their governments acting irresponsibly. Many of those millions of people who have demonstrated against the war feel just as strongly about the way the world and its politics are run by corporations, for profit, for the rich, by exploiting the workers and the poor. They are shocked by the constant examples of capitalist waste, of money and wealth spent on frivolity rather than on meeting the needs of a world pining in pain. A recent meeting of the G8 countries agreed to spend a sum of money on the poor that was only just equivalent to the cost of organising G8 conferences!

If the mighty human energy unleashed to contest the war can be directed to organise for socialism and against capitalism, if the power of the people who do the work can be organised against those who profit from it, a real prospect opens up for a new and genuine socialist democracy which can truly liberate the world not just from dictators and weapons of mass destruction but from those who profit from both.

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