Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The inequality indictment

If you wanted evidence to draw up an indictment of corporate power and the global market economy, you need look no further than the reports on inequality in Britain published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). While you’re about it, there is plenty of material for a charge sheet against successive governments as well. In the dog-eat-dog globalised market economy, the story is a simple one: the rich have obviously got a lot richer and the average worker has got relatively poorer. Another group – they used to be called the “poor” but are now officially known as “socially excluded” – have grown in numbers. The JRF findings do not delve into socio-economic causes. But their conclusions speak for themselves because the period studied – 1968 to 2005 – coincides with the contemporary globalisation period. During these decades, successive Tory and New Labour governments have facilitated the accumulation of private wealth on a grand scale. The deregulation of capital and finance has enabled City traders, merchant bankers, industrial and financial capitalists to amass wealth on an unprecedented scale at the expense of ordinary working people.

The JRF research , which uses new ways of comparing poverty and wealth trends across Britain, reveals inequality to be at a 40-year high. Researchers discovered that households in already-wealthy areas have tended to become disproportionately wealthier and that many rich people live in areas segregated from the rest of society. At the same time, more households have become poor over the last 15 years. The widening gap between rich and poor has meant that “average” households (neither poor nor wealthy) have been decreasing in number. Danny Dorling, who led the research, said: “Most interesting and certainly unexpected when this work began is the geography of those households who are neither rich nor poor. Over time it has become clear that there is less and less room in the south for them; they have either moved elsewhere, or become poor.” A second report studies people’s attitudes to inequality. It found that over the last 20 years, a large and enduring majority of people have considered the gap between high and low incomes too large.

Britain over the last few decades has become a low-wage, long hours, exploitative, debt-ridden society as far as the majority is concerned. New Labour has speeded this process along, as did the Tories before them. In place of decent wages, there are tax credits so that the employers are not put under any pressure. In place of strong trade unions, there are organisations enfeebled by anti-union laws and weak leaders who are frightened by globalisation and corporate power. While most people reject gross inequalities, there is no one in parliament to represent their views. The state has abandoned its mediating role between class interests and in the period covered by the JRF research has become partisans of big business interests. Overturning inequality will require a comprehensive remaking of the state and a democratisation of ownership of economic and financial resources. That takes us way beyond the wretched New Labour outfit and what passes for democracy in Britain today.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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