In January, a disturbing conspiracy began circulating in the newspapers across the world. From Tokyo to Truro the media claimed that a mere 62 individuals had now amassed fortunes greater than the wealth owned by half of the world’s population.
Only, this is no conspiracy. It’s the findings of Oxfam’s latest wealth inequality report, published to coincide with the gathering of the world’s financial and political elites in Davos for the World Economic Forum. The last one, done in 2014 stated 80 individual multibillionaires had the same wealth as half of the world’s population. That number was 388 people in Oxfam’s 2010 report. Well, that has now dropped to 62 people, a decrease of 326 individual billionaires in only 6 years, 3 near the top of the list are all members of the same family: the Waltons, heirs to Walmart, the world’s largest retailer.
“Billionaires with net worth equal to that of some countries, with diamond rings worth more than Britain’s pensions collectively would all seem a bit comedic and eccentric were it not the sad truth”
The truth is, we cannot join them. The current economic system has been carefully geared for the past thirty years to solidifying the wealth and power of a small minority. “Such concentrations of power are a part of human nature, look at the feudal kings of old” you say? Even if that’s true, the level and breadth of such concentration today is incomparably vast. Sixty-two individual people, in a system where money is the noblest aim in life, can control anything and everything. Walmart may be the largest private employer in the world, but they offer some of the worst wages, while the Walton family hoard billions. Would the 1.7m jobs simply vanish were Walmart structured along more cooperative and fairer principles?
Oxfam claims this predicament is constantly exacerbated by government policy. The public investment and corporate tax reforms they, and many other economists, have been calling for since the financial crisis is the opposite of the austerity economics now being implemented by the politicians of the West. Oxfam claimed that the wealth of the world’s poorest half has dropped by 41% since 2000, while the wealth of the richest has risen by £350bn, aggravated by austerity. To add insult to injury, a recent study by Princeton University concluded that America has ceased to be a democracy, instead it’s political system is controlled by a complex network of corporate money and back-door buy-offs; an oligarchy as they have called it.
I’m reminded of the unsettling rant by executive Arthur Jensen at the idealistic Howard Beale in 1976 satire Network: “We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”
So it seems Ned Beatty’s charismatic capitalist Network character is correct, the world is a business. But with left-wing popular movements sweeping Europe (Corbyn’s Labour, Syriza, Podemos) and the even the US (Bernie Sanders), and with environmental calamities almost daily: for how long will it be business as usual?