Inequality: When the Masters Propel us Further into Class Conflict

This article was published at on 20 January 2017. See here.

Aristotle once explained that if wealth ever became too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute that wealth.

This week, Oxfam released its annual briefing paper on the state of inequality in the world. The conclusions are as per usual: inequality continues to skyrocket (eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world) while the incomes of the world’s poorest remain either stagnant or have decreased. The reasons (again, as per usual) include a blend of crony capitalism, tax dodging and corporate/financial lobbying of governments for favourable treatment. And, of course, the entire process is driven by the innate necessity of capitalist organisations and their managers to maximise profits, no matter what the negative effects on populations and planet.

It brings to mind the eighteenth century dictum of Adam Smith, the man regarded as the father of modern economics. He wrote: ‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’ (The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Books I – III). Exploring the unequal economic relationship between Britain and its colonies, he observed how the ‘merchants and manufacturers’ (not the ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ being exploited) were the ‘principle architects’ of the system and thus ensured their interests were ‘most peculiarly attended to’, however ‘grievous’ the effects on others (Books IV – V).

While many aspects of life have obviously improved since Smith was writing, it warrants stressing that despite a brief period of rising economic equality in the post-war period (known affectionately as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’), we’ve now reverted back to levels of inequality resembling the pre-WWI era (I’ve written about this reversion here). As the Oxfam report stresses: ‘we are living in the age of the super-rich, a second ‘gilded age’ in which a glittering surface masks social problems and corruption’. So what can we expect in the future? Quite worryingly, the answer is probably a lot more social and political disorder.

Brexit and Trump – more of same

It’s worth remembering that this  ‘glittering surface’ masking the reality that Oxfam refers to is exactly what led to Brexit and Trump last year. To be more specific, the populations of two of the most advanced nations were sick of mainstream political and public figures, themselves economically secure and thus largely removed from the struggles of everyday folk, who were incessantly sprinkling glitter over the obvious injustices being committed and telling people over and again that everything was going to be okay, when it wasn’t. Why, Oxfam asks, should populations trust those who’ve delivered them ‘wage stagnation, insecure jobs and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots?’. In this context, Trump and Brexit are perfectly understandable reactions to a flawed and elitist system.

But aside from the frightening reality of opportunistic, ego-driven individuals like Trump and Farage now being at the forefront of mainstream politics, an equally frightening consideration is what the popular reaction of the genuinely sincere and downtrodden Brexit and Trump voters will be once they realise they were duped by what was merely a different shade of glitter. Certainly, Trump’s appointment of Adam Smith’s modern-day ‘merchants and manufacturers’ – that is, bankers and billionaires – to his administration betrays the obvious fact that, as Bloomberg news put it, ‘Wall Street wins again’. Inequality will most certainly continue to rise under Trump and glitter will continue to be sprinkled, only this time it’ll fall from Trump Tower instead of the White House.

Then there’s Theresa May, the captain of the Farage-built Brexit ship. This self-styled merchant of UK business has set sail (or should I say sale) to make the UK the most ‘passionate, consistent and convincing global advocate of free trade’. Her International Trade Secretary even cited Adam Smith in his speech to back up his post-Brexit economic plans (he of course omitted the ‘vile maxim’). The problem here is that there are virtually no examples in the historical record where so-called ‘free trade’ policies (which aren’t actually free and have little to do with trade) have contributed to significant economic development, stability and income growth – especially not in the poorer countries. As a briefing paper published by Global Justice in November 2016 put it: the ‘extreme version of free trade’ that Theresa May’s government is pursuing has ‘deeply worrying implications for the battle against poverty, inequality, climate change and war’.

To conclude, it’s worth recalling here the observations of Aristotle way back in the 4th-century BC. In his classic work Politics, he explained how in a meaningful democracy the sovereignty resides with the public, and if the wealth and resources in that democracy ever become too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute the wealth and property of the rich in a more egalitarian fashion. He regarded such expropriation as unjust and argued that in order to avoid it and preserve democracy it would be necessary to eliminate poverty by establishing what in modern terms we call a welfare system: taxes would be collected and distributed to sustain relative equality and help with the acquisition of property for those struggling to attain it. Such provisions, Aristotle concluded, would be the only way to ensure the ‘support of the populous’ for elected leaders.

Indeed, as we continue to see inequality rise over the coming years, we should be under no illusion that the already fragile support for our elected leaders will correspondingly dwindle. As this happens, it will become increasingly likely that populations will find themselves ever more compelled to demonstrate their ‘numerical superiority’ over their vile masters. As history shows, greater inequality is a surefire recipe for further and more intense class conflict.