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The globalization of inequality

As the divorce between power and politics grows starker, populists are on the rise across the world

The globalization of inequality

Activists burn an effigy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a protest in Manila on Nov. 30, 2017, denouncing the government's crackdown on activists. (Photo by Noel Celis/AFP)

Father Myron Pereira, Mumbai International

April 5, 2018

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"Those who cannot change their minds won't change anything," said George Bernard Shaw. Unlike the ancient world where stability was a value sought and cherished, our contemporary world is characterized by change.

In the personal lives of families, the unthinkable has now become commonplace: marriages break up, people remarry, often more than once. Families have also grown smaller, tighter, more unpredictable. Domestic life has changed irreversibly.

At the wider social level, people are on the move everywhere: the young to study in distant colleges, older people to migrate in search of employment.

The massive displacement of different groups — refugees — has become yet another phenomenon of our age, creating both unrest and hostility as well as compassion and hospitality.

The tourist, the migrant worker and the refugee are all signs of our time.

Why societies are breaking up

Let me stay awhile on how and why societies as we've known them are breaking up.

What has caused the most unrest is the dissolution of the social contract by which industrial capitalism and labor gave birth to the welfare state.

In other words, the inequalities created by the free-market economy were corrected by governments through a redistributive system of taxation, geared to protect universal social rights. Foremost among these were public health, subsidized education and universal employment, accessible to most and beneficial to all.

All this seems to be an age which has passed. Everywhere social spending is being reduced. All governments are in a haste to privatize and commercialize what was earlier subsidized, and austerity measures are imposed in many countries. These hurt ordinary citizens most, even while the rich get tax breaks and record surplus profits.

Secondly, the divorce between power and politics grows starker every day. Financial power now is global and resides with the banks and monetary systems, not with governments. In fact, most elected representatives can do very little, beside promoting themselves.

Politics has become a relic of the nation states that continue to fight among themselves, and identity politics ("religion and race define power") has become the key to understanding contemporary conflicts.

Look at the world today: Europe is in turmoil over accepting refugees, "people not like us who do not share our beliefs." Sunni-Shia conflicts splatter West Asia, while in South Asia the turmoil is Hindu-Muslim, Buddhist-Hindu, Buddhist-Muslim, Uighur Muslim-Han Chinese.  

As American scholar Daniel Boorstin once observed: "The nation state is too small for the big problems, and too big for the small problems." But what will take its place — the market?

In other words, what we face increasingly is the globalization of inequality. As giant corporations seek the cheapest labor to lower their costs of production, they have industrialized the poorer countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa, and have deindustrialized many parts of America and Europe.

Unemployment is increasing — and with it, lowering of wages, reduction of purchasing power and worsening of social conditions.  

And with unemployment comes a distrust of democratic systems and a rising belief in populism. Look around: the populists are everywhere — Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Modi, Duterte. As the ordinary citizen's frustration with his elected representatives grows, more and more hope is pinned on the populist fixers who shout, "Make America great gain!" or "Kill all drug addicts!"

A silent, irreversible change

Another transformation is taking place on this planet of ours, and it is irreversible. We call it climate change or environmental disaster. Unfortunately, it is not benevolent.

As weather patterns change and global warming spreads, as temperatures become more extreme, as the oceans rise and glaciers melt, we look around in confusion and fear. The changes in ecology have substantially altered the coordinates which used to guide our daily lives.

The message from nature is clear: there is much that is wrong in the industrialization of the planet. If we wish to survive as a species, we must change. Or is it too late already?

Our civilization has been built on the premise that human beings are the center of the universe, and that nature is something external and subservient to human ambition. This premise has never been challenged.

But it is an instrumentalist and utilitarian one which underlies the whole logic of capitalist accumulation, unrestrained consumerism and a predatory economic system. It has set up big finance as the universal goal, and it demands total compliance. 

The Gospel calls this the worship of Mammon

The tensions in our societies can be directly related to the unrealistic demands for more and more production to generate even more and more waste. But in a finite world, uncontrolled growth is the premise of the cancer cell.

We need to change. We need to see humankind as only a part of the vast sentient and thinking organism which is this universe, not as its center. Our future lies in accepting and fitting into cycles of growth and decay in nature, and not in trying to thwart it.

We are right to be impatient with how our governments function, but any proposal for social change must be based on an economy of conservation, not of waste. Environmental degradation hurts us all but hurts the poor the most.

A changed economy must be at the service of all — to develop the abilities of every citizen, to enable them to enjoy a decent standard of living with full political participation. Environmental justice and social justice are inseparable aspirations.

 

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.

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