Economic inequality increases the likelihood of authoritarianism
“When Covid first hit I … thought that maybe, just maybe, the way our structures had been so starkly revealed as unjust and downright cruel would wake us up and give us new energy to think differently about the way resources are distributed. In fact, the opposite has happened.”
— Abigail Disney
By Herbert Rothschild
David Brooks is my go-to guy for faulty understandings of current political issues. That’s because he’s intelligent and knowledgeable and influential with people who are intelligent and care to understand rightly.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist, but usually I get his opinions when he appears with Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post on the PBS News Hour on Fridays. Last Friday, host Judy Woodruff asked them to speak about the recent elections in Sweden and Italy, where fascist-oriented parties did very well and in Italy will probably form the government. Brooks’ concluding comment was that countries need to control their borders, clearly implying that recent immigration into Europe is responsible for fascism’s rejuvenated appeal.
Coincidentally, a column I wrote was published that day arguing that it’s a mistake to believe that nativism is the primary cause of the drift toward authoritarianism in liberal democracies. Rather, immigrants are among the outgroups that fascist leaders use to distract the attention of a deeply insecure people from the real cause of their insecurity, namely, an economic system that allows fewer and fewer people to engross more and more of the wealth of their nation.
I cited a couple of statistics regarding global inequality published in Oxfam International’s briefing paper called “Inequality Kills,” published in January. The executive summary, to which I have linked, is under 20 pages. I urge you to look at it. It conveys in easily accessible data a worldwide condition stunning in its dimensions.
Here’s an example:
- The 10 richest men in the world own more than the bottom 3.1 billion people.
- A new billionaire has been created every 26 hours since the pandemic began. The world’s 10 richest men have doubled their fortunes, while more than 160 million people are projected to have been pushed into poverty.
- A 99% windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men could pay to make enough vaccines for the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender-based violence in more than 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8 billion better off than they were before the pandemic (emphasis added).
A major contribution of the report is its documentation of the way COVID-19 exacerbated inequality. Given that worldwide disruptions and crises will only increase as global warming progresses, unless national governments individually and collectively make drastic changes, the exacerbation will continue.
We might not want to feel the pain of the impoverished peoples of the world, but in predictable and unpredictable ways we will be made to feel it. Getting control of a nation’s borders means much more than what Brooks meant or understands, and it isn’t possible without taking responsibility for what lies beyond them. Writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben cites a prediction by the International Organization for Migrants that by 2050 climate change may have forced 1.5 billion people from their homes, and another prediction published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of about 3.5 billion by 2070.
Economic inequality increases the likelihood of authoritarianism in a way more profound than providing conditions for demagogues to arise. Authoritarian governments may offer the possibility of dealing with the real crisis when democratic governments fail to do so. That was what Karl Polanyi, whom I quoted last week, meant when he said that fascism arose to protect nations from being destroyed by an unregulated capitalism.
The challenge today is graver than in the 1930s, because we not only have to prevent our own nation from being destroyed by economic inequality, we have to prevent the world from being destroyed. The resources of the world must be made available to do the kinds of work that are specified in the third bullet point above. The Chinese government is able to do that within its own borders. Currently, it is less able than Western powers to do that internationally, because, collectively, Western powers — governments, banks, corporations and international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that are de facto under Western direction — have much more control over the global economy.
Abigail Disney is the granddaughter of Roy Disney, who co-founded the company with her granduncle Walt. A documentary filmmaker and activist, she’s a member of the Patriotic Millionaires. In one of the two forewords to the Oxfam report, Disney writes, “We have just spent nearly two years, over and over again, watching people die … When Covid first hit I, and a lot of other naifs, thought that maybe, just maybe, the way our structures had been so starkly revealed as unjust and downright cruel would wake us up and give us new energy to think differently about the way resources are distributed. In fact, the opposite has happened.
“Decades of coordinated assault upon the laws, regulations, and systems that protected the common person from those that would exploit them have left us with a hobbled civil society, a union movement on life support, and a government so starved for resources it is barely able to simply collect the taxes it needs just to keep operating. The solutions, therefore, must be just as deliberate. We must undo the structures that are perpetuating a deadly status quo and build new ones that will redistribute both wealth and power in a more equitable manner … There is more than enough money to solve most of the world’s problems. It’s just being held in the hands of millionaires and billionaires who aren’t paying their fair share.”
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Columnist opinions do not represent the opinion of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at email@example.com.