Opinion: The World Has Reached Peak Plutocracy

2015•04•28 Soren Ambrose

The land by Boegbor, a town in district four in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, has been leased by the government to Equatorial Palm Oil for 50 years. Credit: Wade C.L. Williams/IPS.

Parents in despair because they can’t pay the fees at the privatised neighbourhood school…

Families left without healthcare because the mining company that pollutes their river also dodges the taxes that could pay for their treatment…

Women getting four hours of sleep a night as they try to balance caring for their families and homes with earning income…

Whole communities thrown off their land to make way for a foreign company…

Workers paid so little by employers that they’re suffering malnutrition.

These are just a few of the reports I’ve heard from my colleagues in recent months.

We see people frustrated by the surge in the power of the plutocrats.

Plutocracy is a society or a system ruled and dominated by a small minority of the wealthiest. The rich have always been powerful; some element of plutocracy has been present in all societies.

But the degree of control being exercised now; the number of the ultra-rich essentially buying political power; the nearly impossible persistence required to overcome the legal, public relations, and technical resources controlled by corporations and the richest individuals; the much denser concentration of wealth in even the largest countries; and the global nature of the resources, power, and connections being accumulated have combined to foreclose meaningful democratic options and space for a life independent of the materialistic values of the plutocracy.

The economy no longer facilitates human society; humans live to serve the economy.

The logic that undergirds all of this — the greed for money, power, and control — is antithetical to preserving an environment in which living things can thrive. Through most of human history we have endured various unbalanced political and social systems.

Today’s market economy has roots going back centuries, but only in this one has it become so monolithic, with virtually the entire world under its spell.

We are living in an age of hyper-capitalism: we have gone beyond industrialisation and value-addition to a point where the rules are written by the financiers, and the finance industry, rather than a sector that actually makes something, has become arguably the most politically powerful industry in history.

A brief period of relative equality in the richer countries after World War II gave way from the late 1970s to a powerful ideology of competition, unending growth, and unhindered profit. This ideology was charted deliberately by institutes lavishly funded by aspiring plutocrats.

The denial of limits, the privileging of competition and profit over cooperation and public goods, and the capitulation of governments to the power of money has made the modern plutocracy a dominant reality, and one that must be reversed.

Commentators now routinely speak of how people can “contribute to the economy.” The economy no longer facilitates human society; humans live to serve the economy. “Freedom” has been reconfigured to refer to consumer choice rather than the ability to determine how to order one’s life.

A few years ago there was considerable debate about the concept of “peak oil” — the possibility we were reaching the beginning of the end of usable petroleum supplies. We may be reaching a more dangerous point: peak plutocracy, where society and the environment can sustain no more concentration of power and resources.

The now predominant and powerful ideology of competition, unending growth and unhindered profit was charted deliberately by institutes lavishly funded by aspiring plutocrats.

So it is worrying to hear so consistently from colleagues around the world the extent to which the power of people is being curtailed by the people with power.

We see the evidence of peak plutocracy in:

The hyper-concentration of wealth in the hands of the few has corrupted democratic systems, in rich countries as well as in poor ones.

We need to democratise power. But that doesn’t mean just better monitoring of elections. It means making power more horizontal, more accessible to more people, the people who are affected by the decisions made.

There is no one-off recipe for making this happen. It has to happen over and over again, every day, everywhere, with increasing connections so that we won’t be crowded out by those with money and influence. We have to occupy space and not leave it, and then occupy some more.

Edited by Kitty Stapp.

 

Copyright Inter Press Service (IPS). All rights reserved.

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Soren Ambrose is Head of Policy at ActionAid International.

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