Sliding back to a Victorian age

By Roberto Savio *

SAN SALVADOR. Sep (IPS) A recent report by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics has recently called attention to the fact that, at the present rate of inequality, by the year 2025, the United Kingdom will have returned to the unequal society of the end of the 19th century. In other words, we are going back to the times of Queen Victoria!

In 2010, the incomes of the chief executives of the 100 largest companies in the U.K. increased by 49 percent, while the average pay rise was just 2.7 percent. According to a European Banking Authority report, in 2010 and 2011, 2,436 U.K. bankers earned more than one million euro per year, against 162 in France and 36 in the Netherlands. Nearly 50 percent of the funding of Britains Conservative Party comes from the financial sector. No wonder that British Prime Minister David Cameron is obliged to choose the City over Europe.

The world trend is exactly the same. In China, there are 1.3 million millionaires. In its last report, Forbes the magazine for the rich happily informs its readers that the 2013 Forbes Billionaires list now boasts 1,426 names – including 122 in China – with an aggregate net worth of 5.4 trillion dollars, up from 4.6 trillion dollars. “We found 210 new ten-figure fortunes,” it says.

What this means is that the combined wealth of the Forbes billionaires is now larger than the U.S. budget, which is 3.8 trillion dollars for this year actually, it overtook the U.S budget three years ago. And if we take just the ten billionaires at the top of the Forbes list, together they hold an amount of 451.5 billion dollars.

In other words, we could fill a 300-seat plane with the 300 richest persons in the world, yet their wealth exceeds the combined wealth of three billion people: nearly half of humankind.

Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stigliz have written extensively on how social injustice halts development and creates economic crisis, and Krugman has documented how it was an increase in inequality which accompanied the crises of 1929 and 2008. In the 1930s, huge steps were taken to tackle inequality and vested interest.

In today’s world, this should be our main reflection (a reflection not being made by U.S. President Barack Obama). We should not forget that in the era of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx was writing about the exploitation of children in British mines.

In 1848, Europe was shaken by a series of social convulsions caused by the extreme exploitation of workers by the capitals born out the industrial revolution. After their repression, trade unions were created, and a progressive political movement was born.

Marx gave a scientific framework to an ongoing wave. And, when the (unsuccessful) Russian revolution in 1905 was followed by the successful Soviet revolution of 1917, a threat to capitalism was established.

During the period between the two world wars, efforts were made everywhere to avoid taking the path of Russia. Trade unions became legal and part of the establishment, the Left entered parliament, and there were a number of initiatives to accommodate the demands of the people. No right-wing party in power ever tried to scale down social conquests, at most it slowed them down.

The Second World War dramatically changed the global scenario, sowing the seeds of the Cold War. After the setting up of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1944 as guardians of a global monetary system, the United Nations was established in 1945 in the name of world governance.

The values for world governance had a very strong social context, also contained in national constitutions: social justice, equality, participation, workers rights, human rights, advancement of women, education for all, and the list continue. But, let us pause for a second: would it be possible today to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the present charter of the United Nations? And have the U.S. committed to paying 25 percent of the costs?

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a new world was created. Capitalism, not the West, was the winner. And globalisation understood as total freedom for capital and investments (not for goods and people) would bring wealth through the trickle-down theory.

Here I have bowed to modern journalisms principle to say in a few words what should be argued in a much lengthier and better documented analysis. But so much has been published on fiscal paradises and tax evasion that, hopefully, no statistics are needed here suffice it to recall that fiscal paradises host 32 trillion dollars.

The American Banking Association has recognised that it spent 800 million dollars last year lobbying against the Dodd-Frank financial reform law (DoddFrank Wall Street Reform & Consumer Protection Act) passed more than three years ago.

The law, passed at the height of the bank crisis, triggered a broad consensus on the need to regulate, but that is now gone. The financial system has adopted the Asian proverb: When there is a strong storm, lie down and wait until it goes away. So now, after three years, of the 398 rules under the Dodd-Frank law, 240 (60 percent) have not yet been implemented.

President Obama has called for a speedy conclusion. But, until now, Obama has only met once with the regulators and that was in mid-2011.

So the real question is: in a vastly unjust society, does democracy work? Or does it become just a formal mechanism to accommodate those inside the system, and ignore the excluded? Do those 300 sitting in the plane of extreme wealth have the same view of the world as the 3 billion poor left on the ground? And if not, does their view of the world counts as much as that of the 300 people on the plane?

Because we know well that in Victorian times people were not equal in that kind of democracy … and we all know how much blood and suffering it took to bring the world to the period of expansion aiming at social harmony that we had until 1989. But have you heard this kind of questioning among the Obamas, the Merkels, the Camerons, the Rajoys or anyone else, on this return to the past?

Without forgetting the case of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian billionaire who created and funded his own party, served as Prime Minister for the best part of 20 years, was found guilty of fraud against the state and now holds the government of Italy in the balance. He is part of todays democracy but is this real democracy?

* Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.

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