I used to love the original “Star Trek,” each episode a short course in cultural anthropology. The Enterprise traipsed through outer space, often stumbling across civilizations running on a distorted operating system that oppressed some inhabitants to benefit others. The distortions being colorfully different from our own, they were easy to spot. For instance, one planet made a holy book out of an account of Roaring Twenties organized crime left behind by a prior visitor who’d transgressed the prime directive prohibiting cultural interventions that could influence the development of alien civilizations. In that episode, “A Piece of The Action,” the Iotian body politic was enslaved by mob bosses who used tommy guns to retain control of a terrified populace.
It’s official: we’re all living In Iotia now. In a just-released report entitled “Working for The Few,” Oxfam this week confirmed the colonization of Planet Earth by the forces of Midastan (named after the king whose lust for gold destroyed his life). The 85 wealthiest individuals now own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest (i.e., half of everyone), and little is being done to halt the occupation. A few highlights:
- Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
- The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
- The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
- Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
- The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
- In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems. Instead of moving forward together, people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown.
For those earthlings who live in societies in which the instruments of democracy—accountability, regulation, taxation—still exist, however rusty from disuse, this state of affairs is especially surreal. It’s not so hard to see why the direct beneficiaries of this system have created and perpetuated it; in one of many recent pieces on the polarization of wealth (and therefore influence), Paul Krugman quotes Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
But what about the rest of us? This seizure of our planetary commonwealth has not been accomplished by military troops, but by the careful manufacture of conditions that impersonate consent. In the U.S., these are financial deregulation, rampant self-dealing, and the long, slow marination of politics in corporate money (If you want to understand how, I highly recommend the film Heist: Who Stole The American Dream?). Each and every one of these damaging actions has bee promoted and justified in the name of freedom. I’m tempted to say that the suffering thus caused has been characterized as mere collateral damage, but in truth, it isn’t characterized as damage at all. In the Midastan funhouse world we inhabit, conditioned on the privatization of public problems, the poor are deemed deficient and blamed for their own failure to get rich, and almost everyone pretends it’s not a zero-sum game. But explain it to me, Captain Kirk: if 85 overlords own half the world’s wealth, just exactly how are 3.5 billion of those they exploit going to get rich?
Nurturing a culture that worships wealth and willingly surrenders democracy to its overlords might sound like something new, but reading the Oxfam report made me think of Machiavelli. In The Prince (published 600 years ago next year), he pointed out that colonies are far more efficient than occupying armies:
But in maintaining armed men there in place of colonies one spends much more, having to consume on the garrison all income from the state, so that the acquisition turns into a loss, and many more are exasperated, because the whole state is injured; through the shifting of the garrison up and down all become acquainted with hardship, and all become hostile, and they are enemies who, whilst beaten on their own ground, are yet able to do hurt. For every reason, therefore, such guards are as useless as a colony is useful.
It is cheaper still to colonize minds, spreading ideas of entitlement while using wealth to reshape social arrangements to benefit the colonizers. Read Sam Polk’s recent New York Times essay “For The Love of Money” for an appalling account of the skewed thinking that never has enough and never heeds the consequences for others of that appetite. Read Paul Krugman’s aforementioned concise account of the gentlemen’s agreements that coat our stark economic reality with enough to sugar to enable far too many of us to choke it down. Read Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s piece on a study showing how Cherokee children whose previously impoverished families receive stipends from tribal casino profits are more likely to graduate on time, less likely to break the law or become addicted, and far less likely to face psychiatric problems.
As Krugman, whose exposés of the overlords’ nakedness ring out weekly, writes: “nothing takes a toll on family values like lack of employment opportunities.”
Here in the U.S., a lot of attention has gone to overturning the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision affirming corporate personhood and therefore enabling the kind of financial manipulation of public policies the Oxfam report decries. This is essential in all the ways Move to Amend explains. But the colonizing forces that cast our economy in a “Star Trek” episode had unfolded for a long time before 2010, and nothing short of removing money’s influence from politics and reregulating corporations will stop it. Public Campaign, Common Cause, and other groups are supporting “Fair Elections,” which limit contributions to small donations and public matching. There’s an impressive track record of successful state and local fair elections. The Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 269) was re-introduced in the House of Representatives last week, on MLK Day, perhaps inspired by Dr. King’s great Riverside Church speech of 1967, in which he said that:
[T]he words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
As far as I can see, the only impediment is Congress, per Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But it is not impossible to change that equation. Captain Kirk had to strong-arm the Iotians into changing course, giving them a common enemy to organize against. Here in Midastan, we have only to brush the distortion from our vision to see our common task as Oxfam’s report puts it, halting and remedying the polarization of wealth:
The large and rising concentrations of income and wealth in many countries represent a global threat to stable, inclusive societies for one simple reason: the unbalanced distribution of wealth skews institutions and erodes the social contract between citizens and the state. The checks and balances in place to ensure that the majority of the population are heard tend to weaken. Concentration of income and wealth actually hampers the realization of equal rights and opportunities because it makes political representation harder for disadvantaged groups, to the benefit of affluent groups. It has happened in the past and unless we pay close attention to the worrying trends outlined here, it can happen again.
Bruce Springsteen, “Dream Baby Dream.”