How do you feel driving past a sprawl of shacks? Or seeing someone holding up a sign that says: “WILL WORK FOR FOOD”. No, such people are not lazy. They are not stupid. Their conditions are primarily due to generations of economic injustice. The poor and downtrodden are locked out by an unfair society.
If the world was 100 people, 81 people would fall in between hunger and death by starvation. 48 people are “living under threat of harassment or imprisonment”. 24 do not have access to electricity. Just 1 has a college education.
The gulf between rich and poor is tremendous. Let’s look at South Africa first.
South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. It has a Gini coefficient of 0.625 (0 = perfect equality, 1 = total inequality). According to BusinessTech, earning R48,753, per month, after-tax, puts you among the top 1% of earners in South Africa, a country of 58 million people. 10% of South Africans control 86% of all wealth, with a mere 0.01% of the population – just 3500 people – owning and controlling 15% alone. The “richest” 10% take home R7,313 a month. No one that I know personally can survive on that amount – that is not a brag, I am not well off. If you earn R19,000, after-tax – a modest salary – approximately 80% of South Africans earn less than you. For perspective, as of 2018, more than half of South Africans (55.5%) or 30-million people live below the national poverty line of R992 per month. To live at a basic level of dignity, Southern Africa Labor and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) estimates that a household needs to earn at least R7,624.13 per month. Just 9% of South Africans can afford this.
Globally, 1% of people own 44% of the world’s wealth.
The top 500 richest people in the world have added 1.8 trillion dollars to their combined fortunes in 2020. Meanwhile, 150 million additional people have been classified as being in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than ~28 rands per day, encompassing up to 9.4% of the global population.
Surprisingly, not that far behind South Africa, in terms of inequality, is the United States. According to inequality.org: “Inequality has been on the rise across the globe for several decades. […] Among industrial nations, the United States is by far the most top-heavy, with much greater shares of national wealth and income going to the richest 1 percent than any other country.” The U.S.A has a Gini coefficient of 0.480. WorldPopulationReview says: “In 2015, the top 1% of earners in the United States averaged 40 times more income than the bottom 90%. In the U.S., poverty is an increasing issue, with about 33 million workers earn less than $10 per hour, putting a family of four below the poverty level. Many of these low-wage workers have no sick days, pension, or health insurance.”
Since 1989, the top 1 percent’s net worth has skyrocketed by 21 trillion dollars, while the bottom 50 percent’s has plummeted by 900 billion. Watch the staggering accumulation of wealth by America’s richest over the past decade in this video by Forbes.
The Economic Policy Institutes says that the top 1%, in the U.S., saw their wages grow by 160% in the last four decades, while the top 0.1% increased theirs by 345%. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent’s share of wages shrunk by almost 10% in the same period. An objective look at the richest country in the world reveals a bleak reality.
This is not a coincidence. This is the deliberate outcome of a planned social order, of institutionalized theft. Theft is a strong but apt word; think about what neoliberalism does. It steals the rights of everyone – land, water, food, peace, fulfilment, etc. – and puts control of that “wealth” into the hands of a few elites, beyond an escalating cost of living and myriad systemic obstacles. Wealth inequality exacts a monumental toll.
Ganesh Sitaraman writes, “As the rich get richer, wages have been stagnant for workers since the late 1970s. […] Disappointment would be an understatement: the complete wreckage of economic, social, and political life would be more accurate. Rising economic inequality and the creation of monopolistic megacorporations also threaten democracy.”
Neoliberal capitalism has actually made global poverty worse. Jason Hickel writes, “We live in an age where more than 4 billion people – some 60% of the human population – live on less than what is required for meeting basic human needs. This is a ringing indictment of the global economy by any standard.”
Nicole Aschoff says, “Nothing demonstrates the failure of the so-called free market better than the looming climate catastrophe.” Human activity is causing global temperature increases, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, rising sea levels and extreme weather. All these conditions spell doom for the biosphere.
Although, just a handful of corporations contribute (1, 2) almost all of the damage. And it is proven that the rich produce far more waste, pollution and carbon (1, 2, 3). Yet the burden and responsibility are shouldered by all civilians. Wealthy people just buy insulation from the consequences. The West got fat off of burning fossil fuels. Today they lecture the world on sustainability, demanding attention and money for them – the original perpetrators – to implement solutions that earn them even more money. Beware corporate solutions (1, 2, 3, 4).
3.1 million children starve per year. 821 million people – one in nine – go to bed on an empty stomach each night. One in three suffer from some form of malnutrition (1, 2). 6.8 million South Africans endure hunger.
Global debt reached 188 trillion dollars in 2018.
A lack of money, of financial security, causes anguish. Johnstone writes, “You can have anxiety without being poor but you can’t be poor without anxiety. If you want to solve the mental health crisis, start by making sure people have enough money to function.” Suicides and overdoses are often reactions to the dehumanizing conditions experienced under crushing debt.
An estimated 264 million people are affected by depression, 284 million by anxiety; close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder. 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol. One person dies every 40 seconds by suicide.
The toll of neoliberal capitalism on mental health is covered in-depth in an essay by Jimmy Wu. Wu asks, “But with the symptoms so widespread in our population, we ought to ask: what if correcting ourselves is not enough? What if the problem runs much deeper: that distress, misery, and loneliness are woven into the very fabric of our social system?”
He continues, “Modern-day capitalism, with its unshakable faith in deregulated markets, privatization of the public sphere, and austerity budgets, has of course contributed to our financial misery, leading to mass hopelessness and anxiety. But far from being confined to economic policy, contemporary capitalism (often called ‘neoliberalism’) also embodies a philosophical belief that self-interest and competition, not cooperation, should pervade every aspect of our lives. In short, our world is shaped in the image of the market. […] after all, under the reigning ideology, our self-worth is measured by our economic output.”
Wu asserts that people have adopted the characteristics of a capitalist firm, a corporation. Those who internalize the ethos of corporate culture exhibit more anti-social activities and lower empathy. Human needs – connection, security, meaning – are deprioritized and neglected. People are struggling against a culture contradicting their human nature.
From young, we are indoctrinated to choose competition over collaboration. We are encouraged to fight for limited resources. Resources are limited since some hoard when there is enough for everyone. Those with excess acquire and keep their excess with advantages in the competition, advantages we refer to as privilege. As inequality has skyrocketed over the past four decades, competition will inevitably lead to violence and upheaval.
The system keeps us in constant fight or flight mode, encouraging our worst traits: envy, lust, greed, selfishness. By the culture it enables, the system produces the ruthless businessmen and murderous soldiers it needs to sustain itself. John Steppling writes (1, 2) that most people are living in a dissociative state, and now suffer from a general post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Judith Herman says, “Capitalism propagates traumatic stress in ways that promote the pursuit of power and status, which ultimately keeps the system functioning.”
Our dog-eat-dog culture is not producing healthy individuals. Children struggle to read emotion. Hardly anyone can pay attention. People are uncomfortable with conversation, intolerant of the human standing next to them, preferring highly-personalized streams of infotainment that gels perfectly with their comfortable, algorithm-designed worldview. Loneliness and desperation are driving young people towards dysfunctional behaviour. The atomization of humanity is deliberate and nefarious.
We’re heading in the direction of the humans depicted in WALL-E:
We are conditioned to respond to money woes, lack of fulfilment, chronic anxiety and failing bodies with corporate solutions: toxic positivity, pharmaceuticals, consumerism, binge consumption, etc. – misled by the myth; the myth that says: all that is required is to do more and grind harder. You cannot buy, hustle or self-help your way out of the position we find ourselves in.
The next part is Billionaire Scum.