Such injustice might be tolerated were it not for the fact that this wealth is achieved through mechanisms that deny access to viable economic opportunities to millions, and create a fragile economic environment which leaves the majority chronically insecure.
Progress towards a more just and inclusive society requires fundamental changes to the tax, finance and monetary systems. The traditional Keynesian remedies of the anti-free market left, while they may soften the impact of economic exclusion for some people, do not address the underlying causes of economic injustice. Only deep structural change can do this. But this belief remains firmly at the margin of political and economic discourse. The question is: how do we make the marginal mainstream?
Mushrooms – keep 'em in the dark and feed them crap...
There are several obstacles to such progress, each of which conspires to render democratic institutions useless as agents of change, and each of which has to be overcome. They include: a failure of education; the shortcomings of the political system; the failings of academic economics; and the disproportionate power of vested interests, especially the mass media.
Since education was made accessible to the masses – in theory a good thing – it's purpose has been to 'socialise' people: to teach them certain life skills, but not encourage them to think too deeply about society and its inherent injustices, or to trace those injustices back to avoidable problems with the economic system. Some people manage to survive this process of benevolent brainwashing relatively unscathed, but most become pliant citizens, accepting of the current order.
If things are going to change, then more people need to question the current order and challenge the assumptions that sustain it. This capacity is not simply a question of education or 'intelligence'. Look at the number of people in positions of power and influence who studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. One of the greatest universities in the world churns out defenders of the status quo like a conveyor belt; exceptionally bright they may, but where is the moral intelligence? Where is the social conscience, or the sense of responsibility to wider society that you might expect from people who have enjoyed such privilege?
Don't Rock the Boat
Even among people who survive the socialisation process with their capacity for independent thought intact, and who subsequently set out to put the world to rights, the party political system provides infertile ground. In order to get ahead, you must get along. This invariably means toeing the party line and accepting the prevailing ideology.
The discipline of economics suffers a similar problem. It is difficult to ascend the greasy pole of academia in any subject without telling your supervisors exactly what they want to hear; but economics is a closed shop. Remarkably, mavericks do sometimes attain influential positions in key establishments or multilateral institutions, but none has so far succeeded in overturning the key assumptions of neo-classical economics which prevent the discipline offering practical solutions to the pressing problems of the real world.
And as if all this wasn't enough, there is the immensely powerful lobby for the vested interests of the business world, most of which is not about business at all, but about giving further license to an over-financialised economy geared primarily to the appropriation of unearned wealth by a minority. Nowhere is this lobby more powerful than on the pages of the tabloid newspapers, and increasingly, and very worryingly, in the neutered newscasts of the BBC.
Corporatised Democracy Delivers Tyranny
But even if we succeed in addressing these obstacles to a properly functioning democracy, there is still a serious problem. After three decades of economic globalisation, democratic politics is lagging way behind. We may all have notional power through the ballot box at election time, but the economy now operates at the level of the entire planet. National politicians have no power over the economy unless they act in concert, and there is no democratic mechanism in place to force them to do so in the interests of the majority. The Simultaneous Policy Initiative (an idea to which I shall return in a subsequent piece) offers a glimmer of hope in respect of tackling this huge democratic deficit, but there is still much work to be done.
Structural change directed at curtailing unearned wealth is not about taking revenge on the rich, it is about acknowledging the economic causal links between unearned wealth at the top and mass, inescapable poverty, at the bottom. If you doubt that things are really that bad for the economically disenfranchised, or that their numbers are exaggerated, consider this fact: 40 per cent of the word's people still don't have a proper place to go to the toilet. Given our remarkable capacity to generate wealth through technology, human ingenuity and entrepreneurship, it is deplorable that so many people are still forced to live in such conditions.
Grasping the Ever-growing Nettle
At the end of Whoops, his excellent book on the 2008 financial crisis, John Lanchester concludes that we have already missed the opportunity presented by the current crisis to implement the requisite institutional reforms. He reckons it will take an even deeper crisis, one he believes to be just around the corner, before we will finally say enough is enough. I think he's right, but surely it would be better to act now, and so avoid the catastrophic social consequences of another meltdown. One thing is certain: only one section of the population will be insulated from its effects: the tiny minority of human beings who currently call the economic shots, and who, despite the worst economic conditions for nearly a century, continue to enjoy the exclusive benefits of unearned wealth.
"Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so." Bertrand Russell