A published version of this article can be seen here at the Morning Star (7th May, 2021)
Amidst the ‘worst crisis since the Second World War’ the rich get richer from everyone else’s hard work, whilst the poorest are left to suffer
Forty years of neoliberal plunder has rendered Britain one of the most unequal countries in the industrialised world. Across income, wealth and regional inequities, the situation is dire.
As the disparity rips apart the fabric of our society, the rich continue to insist that they deserve their disproportionate lot – that they are ‘hardworking’ and ‘specially-talented wealth creators’.
Of course, this is a fallacy. For the most part, the rich don’t create their wealth; they steal it – or, to put it technically, they accumulate it via extraction (in the form of rents and the exploitation of other people’s labour) and favourable government treatment (such as generous tax arrangements).
They also tend to hoard their wealth. It’s estimated that the rich have as much as $36 trillion stashed in offshore tax havens. According to the IMF, it costs governments globally between $500-600 billion in lost revenue each year (the UK, unsurprisingly, is the world’s leading enabler of this global plunder).
Inheritance is another key source of accumulation, as Thomas Piketty famously showed. Put simply, the rich pass their wealth down to their children who end up getting ‘something for nothing’ (exactly what the rich claim the poor shouldn’t get).
But it’s not just wealth that’s stolen and hoarded; it’s income, too. According to the World Inequality Database, over the past forty years, 28% of all new income from global GDP growth has gone to the richest 1%, all of who are millionaires. This means that a quarter of all labour rendered has gone to making the rich richer.
In the UK specifically, since the 1980s, the labour share of national income has shrunk from around 65% to 55% (by some estimates it’s now lower). And between 2008 and 2017, despite GDP growing by nearly 10%, average real wages fell further in the UK than in any other advanced G20 country, while the income of the 1% continued to grow.
Of course, anyone who has ever worked a shitty job for long hours and terrible pay knows exactly what’s going on here: they are being swindled. Not only are they being robbed of the surplus value they produce, but their pay has been dwindling relative to the richest for decades.
By now, most people understand that the system is rigged. The pandemic perfectly exposed this when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in one day alone, added £10 billion to his bank balance, while the rest of the world’s billionaires saw their wealth rise 27.5% (£7.9trn) between April and July of 2020 (it’s still rising).
Contrast this with the dismal wages of millions of ‘key workers’ (many of them worked to the point of exhaustion) who literally kept the lights on and saved millions of lives during the pandemic, and the criminality of the system is plain to see.
If wealth were the inevitable result of hard work, then every key worker would now be a millionaire. But they are not, and as millions struggle to make ends meet, the rich continue to prosper at the expense of everyone else.
It’s hard to fathom the injustice of it all when considering that, at the same time, homelessness, rough sleeping and hunger are rife in the UK. We live in the world’s sixth richest country, yet there are more than 14.5 million people living in poverty (that’s over 22% of the population) and over four million of them are children.
Even before the pandemic the UK boasted these figures, not to mention the worst health trends in Western Europe, with life expectancy for the poorest, elderly and newborn declining for the first time in 100 years. The pandemic is set to exacerbate all of this.
Yet onwards our government marches without any discussion of the kinds of radical redistributive measures that would save hundreds of thousands of lives in the short term – and millions in the long run – from utter despair and premature death.
What morality is this? It took the ‘worst crisis since the Second World War’ for the government to reach into its pockets. But even then it wasn’t to protect the poorest; it was merely to prop up the corrupt system that impoverishes them.
We know this because, at virtually every juncture throughout the pandemic, the government has either refused or has been reluctant to support the poorest and most vulnerable.
By contrast it has gifted billions of pounds in coronavirus contracts to its richest friends (often unlawfully) in what is shaping up to be an enormous transfer of power and wealth from the public to the private sector.
History, it would seem, is repeating itself. When criminally reckless bankers destroyed the global economy in 2007, plunging millions of people into absolute catastrophe, the poorest were made to pay through brutal austerity.
The ‘lost decade’ that followed – in which average wages stagnated for the longest period since the Napoleonic wars – was sickeningly juxtaposed by skyrocketing wealth for the richest and, on average, £120 a week higher pay (not including bonuses) for the banking sector that caused the crisis.
The burden, as we know, was placed not on the broadest shoulders that would’ve been able to carry it, but on the weakest that simply couldn’t. The effects were devastating. It’s been estimated that around 130,000 preventable deaths occurred as a result of that decision.
Today, something similar is happening. At the time of writing, over 150,000 preventable deaths have occurred as a result of the government’s criminally negligent response to the pandemic (according to some lawyers, there is a plausible charge of ‘gross negligence manslaughter’).
And once again, the burden is falling disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable, while the rich continue to plunder and hoard the wealth produced by everyone else.
A morally serious government would currently be enacting radical wealth redistribution of the kind we saw in 1945. But of course, this is not a morally serous government; it is a profoundly immoral and criminal government that is itself entrenched with – and funded by – the rich.