THE TOP, THE BOTTOM, AND THE POWERFUL
Though the USSR’s socio-cultural experiment may have had its roots in a Marxist notion of universal equality, the beast grew so out of control that it eventually confused equality with uniformity. Because it sought to brutally quell any sense of personal, creative expression or dissidence, USSR Socialism came to be internationally recognized as a system of mind control directed by oppressive dictators.
Today, our recognition that we are all born with different mental and physical capabilities, different interests and, perhaps most importantly, into different socio-economic and political backgrounds, has allowed the entrepreneurial spirit to soar and to cause huge socio-economic progress. And the Capitalist Economic System thrives on this.
But what happens when this spirit soars too high? What happens when, in our consumerist society, individual interests of those at the top trump the individual needs of those at the bottom?
Despite a global economic upsurge in the last two centuries, the gap between the rich and the poor has paradoxically grown larger. It seems the entrepreneurial spirit has had a runaway effect, allowing few individuals to consume, own and control an increasingly larger share of the economic pie than the majority of the world does.
The World Bank Global Poverty Estimate puts around 80% of the world under $10-a-day living standards, which includes much of the First World. To put this in perspective: 76.6% of the world’s goods are consumed by the Top 20%, while the Bottom 80% shares a dismal 14% of the world. In the U.S. alone, the top 1% earns more than the bottom 40%, part of why in 2009 almost 44 million Americans (nearly 15%) lived in poverty.
Inequality and polarization help reproduce poverty. As the world continues to adopt unfettered neo-liberalism, a larger section of it finds itself in its throes. Indeed, a UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities in 2008-2009 report found that India, as many other Third World countries, is becoming more unequal as a direct result of economic liberalization and globalization.
The same report also found that economic growth exacerbates poverty in more unequal places rather than reduce it. For example, in the U.S. – where it’s been proven that some cities are as unequal as African and Latin American cities – social upward mobility is damn near impossible. In a study done by The Equality Trust in 2009, the U.S. was at the low end of the spectrum for social mobility when compared with 40 other rich countries. In Scandinavian countries, according to the GINI index, which measures the equality of income distribution in a nation from 0 to 1, the equality rates are around the 0.23 mark, placing them near the top of the same graph.
In today’s unequal societies, the higher echelons have created their own communities, their own schools, their own health centers, their own shopping malls, all in an attempt to maintain separated from those of the lower classes, whom the former fear may at any moment harm or rob them. This has vital psychological effects. The lower classes may foster feelings of resentment, of inferiority and even of antagonism, which as many studies have proved can and does lead to higher rates of poverty and crime.
The answer is not in gating ourselves off. As Michael Camdessus, the former head of the IMF and a hard-line conservative suggested, the widening gaps between rich and poor is “morally outrageous, economically wasteful and potentially socially explosive.”
Particularly explosive is the effect that inequality has on access to life-opportunities. Despite the fact that we are all humans with the same rights, concentration of wealth and inequality drives a wedge between the elite and the layman, and it gives the former more access to life opportunities than the latter.
Though various sources have undisputedly proved that education and health are imperative to socio-economic progress, access to these two continues to be the hardest thing for poor people to have. A Business Week Magazine article reported in 2002 that the U.S. ranked 10th out of 17 industrialized countries in literacy rates, part of why there is so much inequality. The same article reported that the largest chunk of those people who had no access to education or to very poor education were visible minorities and new immigrants – precisely two of the poorest groups in that country.
In another article in the Street Level Consulting Ltd. website, a study from Kevin Lee, from the Canadian Council on Social Development, is cited, concluding that “persons with less than high school education were more likely to be poor than those with a post-secondary level [of] education.”
The blow is 100-fold in the Third World because as a Rural Poverty Report 2011 states, although urbanization has historically been on the rise, “poverty remains largely a rural problem, and a majority of the world’s poor will live in rural areas for many decades to come.” This is the case in Ecuador, where the largest segment of the country’s population includes peasants and subsistence farmers, informal sector vendors and agribusiness employees. President Correa’s administration is fighting to bring education and health centers to these historically ignored areas as well as the favoritism shown to urban schools over vocational and manual skills schools when it comes to public funding.
Because where Economic Power is concentrated so is Political Power, and against a global background of political bickering, those with economic power seem to have the greatest leverage. As such, the privatization of most services and programs has been on the rise, including education and, in a tentative move not yet solidified in Canada, health, too.
The access to education in industrialized nations is getting ever more difficult. In Canada, a four year university degree in say, Political Science, will cost around $25,000 – $30,000; depending on the program and the institution, the cost can go up to $80,000 – $100,000. In London and other parts of Europe massive and often violent protests have broken out because of austerity measures implemented to alleviate the economic blows they’ve suffered – measures that ultimately affected students, amongst other parts of society.
If indeed the knowledge economy is on the rise and in effect generating higher paying jobs requiring more acute levels of knowledge and skills, the number of people that are able to access these jobs is decreasing, and most of those who can access them must indebt themselves and their families for the better part of their life.
Against this background it is hard to envision any progress in the field of education and health – specifically, in making them more accessible to people so that they may pull themselves out of poverty – until a radical approach to it is taken.
In the spirit of true cooperation – political, economic and social – it would bode well for the Western Capitalist World to observe and pick some of the best aspects from their lifelong sworn enemies, and for the re-emerging 21st Century Socialist Bloc to return the favor.