Friday, April 29, 2016

One Sign of Civilizational Collapse: Accelerating Inequality

In the first chapter of his book, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman asks whether American culture is decaying or simply changing.
Morris begins by noting that, in the past, all civilizations have followed the same general pattern of developing, reaching a peak of creativity, and then collapsing. He does not believe that America will be an exception. It too will collapse.
He nonetheless believes that America’s current state of decline is worth examining.

First, it might not be so bad. American society and culture may be declining right now but, given some creative responses, might return to another period of creativity.
Second, rather than understand that Western civilization is declining, perhaps we should say it is merely transitioning from one form to another. If we look at the western Roman Empire in the 400s AD, both society and culture stopped being what they were and—after several centuries—became something quite different. If we think critically and respond creatively now, then perhaps the West can make it through its current period of transition more quickly and with less agony.
Third, if Western civilization is experiencing a decline, it is an unusual one. It is very energetic. In many ways it is also invisible. “For those seduced by noise, toys, and technology, the current transformation to a global economy is nothing less than a cultural efflorescence” (16).
We might also add that different responses to collapse are possible and more creative responses are worth imagining. Collapse can be slow or abrupt, soft or hard, difficult or catastrophic. Thinking about alternatives is meaningful and might be useful as well.
Morris then gives us four symptoms of civilizational collapse: (1) increasing inequalities, (2) decreasing effectiveness of solutions to problems, (3) increasing ignorance, and (4) “spiritual death” (19).
Today we will briefly examine the first symptom: increasing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. Morris gives evidence of growing inequalities in the US prior to the publication of his book in the year 2000. These are worth summarizing now even though inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth have gotten unimaginably worse since then.
In the US, the gap between the rich and the rest of us has been growing since 1973. Between 1945 and 1973, inequality of wealth existed, but increases in income were similar for everyone. Between 1973 and 1993, however, only the top fifth of the population saw a large increase in income. The bottom two-fifths actually saw a decline. More and more wealth is in the hands of fewer and fewer people in a process that only worsens this inequality. The US is no longer a country with a robust middle class. It is a country in which a few are extremely wealthy and the rest are increasingly desperate. Well-paying jobs disappear while jobs which are low-paying, part-time, and without benefits increase. The marginal class—those living in poverty—continues to grow as formerly middle- and working-class families join it.
Increasingly dramatic differences in wealth lead to increasingly painful consequences in life. Educational opportunities for the rest shrink. Rates of disease increase and life expectancy decreases. In the US, more people per capita get thrown into prison than in any other country.
This growing injustice has had dire effects upon children in the US and worldwide. A growing number of children grow up in impoverished families. As a result, more children are compelled to do hazardous work for long hours, become prostitutes, or find themselves sold as slaves.
These painful consequences are known and pursued by corporate and governmental decision-makers. The World Bank knowingly approves loans to corporations exploiting children. Corporate executives maximize their own income by stealing from their workers. “By 1996, the 447 richest people on the planet had assets equal to that of the poorest 2.5 billion—42 percent of the world population” (24).
As buyers, we, of course, do our part to perpetuate these dire inequalities when we voluntarily purchase products from the very corporations busily exploiting their workers.
This parasitism of the rich on the rest, of the few corporate leaders on the many of their workers, is not simply the wicked choice of a few rascals at the top. It is the basic characteristic of that structured disorder, that parasite, we call the Global Technological System (GTS).
The GTS divides the world into central and marginal regions. Central regions are areas in the US, Western Europe, China, Japan, and Russia with concentrations of powerful people working together to control powerful corporations and governments. Marginal regions are the areas everywhere else where people and resources get exploited by the powerful people in central regions. The wealth of central people and regions, then, is wholly dependent on their impoverishment of marginal people and regions.
The tragedy is that the exploited people of marginal regions are just as Olympian, and thus just as interested in getting rich by exploiting others, as are central people. Indeed, central people are only able to exploit marginal people and regions through the direct cooperation of leaders in marginal areas bribed to help them do just that.
The current structure of central and marginal regions began in the 1400s as a result of voyages through which more technologically advanced European countries discovered less technologically advanced ones in the Americas, Africa, and Asia—and then exploited them. This exploitation enriched European countries as it impoverished exploited ones. This enrichment eventually enabled central people, corporations, and governments to develop permanent economic structures of domination. These, in turn, have been defended, when necessary, by the central military destruction of marginal movements seeking freedom from perpetual exploitation.
Morris concludes this section by asking why the unjust distribution of income and wealth is accelerating. He offers some suggestions: “the rising volume of international trade, the spread of computer technology, the [28] decline of labor unions, and the immigration of unskilled workers into the country” (28-29). He then acknowledges that all of these reasons are subject to doubt. A clear cause is still unknown.
The cure, however, is clear: a large increase in taxes on the income and wealth of the rich. Strangely enough, however, there is no support for this policy even among the middle-, working­­- and marginal-class people who would benefit immensely from it.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.