Overcoming inequality: can we restore the wealth of the corporations and the super rich to society?

Eat your sops!

By Phil Hall

The key to preventing revolution, the powerful seem to have decided, is not to eliminate criminal syndicates but to coexist alongside them and engage them in wars of low-level attrition. Even on my street, in one of the wealthiest parts of one of the wealthiest cities on Earth, the drug gangs are at work and they are tolerated.

The slow sinking of the British economy means the more lumpen and less educated among us are turning nasty in order to survive. It happened in the time of Dickens. It always happens: more poverty brings more crime and prostitution. It is inevitable. When the Tories lower taxes, run down public services, send money abroad, put money into a casino economy, privatise, then, hey presto, the bad old days come back for ordinary people. We become the Titanic. The wealthy in a little group occupy the top decks and an ice berg looms out of the mist.

The small bullies and sociopaths, the minor criminals, are the bottom feeders: they are cannibals; predators with few social allegiances who steal from the vulnerable, from the old, the lonely, the needy, the sick, the weak. This is what a society based on profit does to some people. It changes them into beasts and chancers.

Wentworth Street, Whitechapel, by Gustave Dore. Britain is slowly sinking into poverty, crime and squalor.

Where there is no possibility of revolutionary change, criminality is a risky way out of poverty. No matter that Hollywood and online Hollywood flirt with criminality and glamorise it constantly. Without criminality, the fermentation process in society intensifies. People collect and organise to overthrow unfair and exploitative social systems. Capitalism relies on crime to diffuse and dilute the potential for revolutionary change that comes with hard times.

Change will come!

Chipping Norton, Belgravia and most of the rich estates in Surry are not very well fortified by land. If people decide one day that they really want change and that they want a different system to capitalism, something fairer, no matter what, then they will get it.

Chipping Norton, Belgravia and most of the rich estates in Surry are not very well fortified by land.

My analogy, explaining the reason why change is inevitable, comes from a reading of Early Greek Philosophy by the great John Burnet. According to John Burnet, the historian, the Greeks who colonised all the islands in the Aegean Sea, were the Phoïkos. The pattern of colonisation repeated itself over and over again.

Ivlia, the reproduction Greek ship in the Dardanelles, photograph Pavel Goncharuk wikimedia Commons

A Greek ship would pull up on the shores of a deserted island. The island would be parcelled out among the passengers and crew on the ship – or ships. Everyone would get a share of the island. The shares would be roughly equal. Perhaps the captain and navigator would get a little more.

Then people would set to cultivating the land and fishing on its coast. Because some people were luckier than others, or avoided accidents and illness, or because they were more fertile and had more children, or because the soil was richer, or there was more water, or the sun was more propitious, or the access to the sea easier, some of the Phoïkos did better than others and began to accumulate wealth. Other colonists fell on hard times.

with the release of the Pandora Papers we see there are no longer any controls on the most wealthy and powerful in all our societies. Society is out of whack. Society is rocky. It has lost balance.

The upshot was that the people who were less successful had to get support from the people who were more successful. This meant the poorer colonisers fell into debt. They paid back their debt to the richer colonisers with work and a part of their harvests. Or they had to give their land to the more successful inhabitants. Sometimes they even had to sell themselves or their children in order to survive.

Inequality grew and grew until, on the one hand, there was one close knit intermarrying set of families with many servants and soldiers and a lot of accumulated wealth and land and, on the other hand, opposing them, were the rest of the population of the island.

You can see why I am drawing an analogy with the situation in the UK in 2021. I would argue that, with the release of the Pandora Papers we see that there are no longer any controls on the most wealthy and powerful in all our societies. Society is out of whack. Society is rocking. It has lost balance.

On this imaginary colonised Greek island, the population would rise up and kill the rich and powerful and take over. It would always happen roughly the same way. Unfortunately, though the land and wealth would be redistributed, gradually the wealth would start to accumulate all over again in the hands of another set of people.

The alternative to killing all the aristocrats, to getting rid of the island oligarchy, was to leave and set up on another island. There, things would be different. Except, of course, they were not different. The process of wealth accumulation began all over again. We’ve seen this in recent attempts at communism. There is a slow drift towards wealth accumulation and corruption. Important Venezuelan politicians have been mentioned in the Pandora Papers. So much for their populism and verbiage about social justice.

According to Burnet, what broke the cycle were the dictators: people like Solon, Midas, Polycrates, Psyclon, and Pisistratus. These tyrants took power with the force of the populace behind them. They did so before the aristocrats’ heads could be all cut off. In fact, the tyrants often came from the rich families. They were taking over not to help ordinary people and give ordinary people power. They took over in an effort to preserve the status quo, not alter it. Then, on taking power, the new dictators offered sops to the poor.

Does all this sound familiar?

The dictators would make laws and according to these laws, the ordinary people could not kill the well off or steal from them and the well off had to keep their behaviour within certain parameters in order to avoid provoking a revolt.

if the rich are allowed to abuse their position too much, then, inevitably, they will get their heads cut off.

When some level of civility had been established through the enforcement of law, the dictators, who were individuals with foresight among the governing class, instituted further measures offering ways whereby the populace could be represented and so have a little say over their lives. This was a limited form of democracy. Where the system became stable, there was no need for a dictator any more. The system self regulated.

But the laws and systems of representation need to function well. In other words, if the laws are no use, if the rich are allowed to abuse their position too much, then, inevitably, they will get their heads cut off.

‘Then that bad Elephant’s Child spanked all his dear families for a long time, till they were very warm and greatly astonished.’ From Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories 

MBS, Duterte and a false social catharsis

The Saudi think tank, Arabia, before it was closed down, was quite open when it said that the reforms of Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) were there to prevent revolution. Now, with a huge royal family and plenty of hangers on all the parasites in Saudi society were bleeding its treasure chest dry; the oil company Aramco. Saudi society was beginning to fall apart. The extremists were gaining ground.

Mohammed Bin Salman tried to rescue the situation by punishing all the people who benefitted too much from their positions, through bribery and corruption, and those people who took without giving. He locked them all up in the Ritz Carlton in Riyad and had them soundly beaten. Then he took a lot of their money away and only let them out when they promised to be good.

MBS reminds me of the young elephant in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, who is beaten by all his relatives. The little elephant gets his trunk extended by the crocodile and he then turns around and beats all his bad relatives in turn.

The people of the Philipines, Mexico, Peru, Ghana, Poland, Thailand and most of the world would love this to happen to all the corrupt people in their societies. When Duteurte first started going on his murder sprees, some Filipinos I know, level-headed kind people, supported him to the hilt. They had had enough of crime and corruption and if it took a murderous dictator to get rid of it they would accept that. But Duteurte and MBS offer false dawns. The wealth they divert just filters into different pockets.

And now, with the release of the Pandora Papers, this false dream of a righteous dictator who will set things right, who will take the super wealthy and the criminals and the corrupt politicians, put them into a huge hotel somewhere and beat the culprits to within an inch of their lives, is just a fairy tale; like the story of the young elephant. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy. The wealth of these bloodsuckers would not be restored to society by a strong man, or strong woman; the wealth would find other people to stick to and places to hide.

Even if we could take away all the money and power from the current clatch of billionaire wastrels who usurp democratic government and the politicians who fawn on them, the problem remains. Having redistributed the wealth of the rich back to the people of planet earth, what mechanisms could we possibly think up to prevent the process of wealth accumulation from starting up again?

Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.