Historical Inequality and the Future

A better world
Looking forward to a better world

In the United Kingdom we have been suffering years of recession. But the richest amongst us have suffered no loss of life-style. In fact the top 100 chief executives were paid £425 million in 2012,  up by £45 million, or 10%, from 2011. (London Evening Standard 10th June 2013)

At the same time, state benefits are being cut, millions of workers subsist on the minimum wage or ‘zero hours contracts’, many people have seen no increase in wages for years, and inflation eats into the spending power of those at the bottom of the income divide. The wealth gap between rich and poor is increasing in the United Kingdom, and in fact all over the world.

Throughout history there has always been a measure of inequality – sometimes worse than at other times. Much of what follows is written from a U.K. perspective, but other readers will find parallels in their own history and development.

Hunter-Gatherers in the Stone Age

At this stage of human development, inequality would probably be at its lowest, though a skilled hunter would obviously bring more meat home for his family. But for much hunting, cooperation would have been needed, increasing the fairness of society. Hopefully the disabled and sick would be cared for. Even then a more successful tribe might seek to plunder from a weaker tribe. But people living then had a hard life, and were totally susceptible to disease, causing low life expectancy.

A Feudal or Peasant System

In medieval England, the vast majority of people  were serfs, or virtually slaves to the Lord of the Manor. This person would own all the usable land and allow the peasants to grow crops on an allocated slot. The land-owner would then take as much of the crops as possible from the tenants. He could not take too much because if his peasants died of starvation, he would no longer have a source of income. But he had a vested interest in keeping the peasants as poor as possible.

The land-owner had no power of his own. He had to employ soldiers and tax-collectors to exploit the poor.  These people became the basis of a middle class. The King of England lived an even better life-style and demanded some of the land-owners profit in taxes, which he had to enforce.

To me, living in the United Kingdom, this is history. But readers in other parts of the world will see similar problems in their own country in 2013.

Food Surpluses and the growth of Towns

As more arable land increases and efficiencies mean that more food can be grown, towns begin to develop as the percentage of farm labourers decreases. These towns contained the new middle classes made up of merchants, bankers, lawyers, teachers, priests and soldiers etc. The rural labourers stayed poor and the gap between rich and poor widened. These new ‘middle classes’ needed workers and servants and a new class of urban poor was created.

Industrial Revolution and the growth of Cities

As at least some sections of the population became more wealthy there was a demand for clothing, transport, labour-saving devices, more exotic foods and the fuel and machinery to make these things possible. The new rich became the factory proprietors, the ship owners and the slave traders. Millions moved from the countryside to the towns. Working conditions in the factories were terrible, child labour was exploited and most of the urban population lived in abject poverty.

Colonialism and Empire

Throughout history there have been many empires in which one country, or culture, dominates other areas of the world. In more ancient times, the conqueror would demand tribute. In more recent times the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Russian, Chinese and British had colonies which covered most of the world. These often started with rather one-sided trade but soon required soldiers to enforce the arrangements.

The colonial powers hi-jacked the land and soon land owners and plantation owners controlled the goods being shipped back to home countries. Where there was inadequate local labour, slaves were brought in to maximise profits. Slaves and tenants were desperately poor and an international gap between rich and poor was created. When countries achieved independence the differences between rich and poor became endemic and continued to widen.

The growth of Democracy

As democracy developed and universal suffrage achieved, at last there was a chance for ordinary people to have their say in the way their communities were run. Socialism and trade unions became more powerful and probably had the effect of reducing the gap between rich and poor.

The Marxist experiment

Communism came into being because of extreme capitalism and the abusive power of the ruling classes. Obviously those in power didn’t wish to see their privileges abolished and so a communist state could only be introduced by revolution and warfare. The system promised equality for all but failed to deliver and millions have died through famine and oppression. The poor generally became poorer and a small elite became wealthy.

Multinational corporations and Globalisation

In today’s world, corporations are taking over as the controllers of wealth. American, European and Chinese companies with branches throughout the world are becoming impossible to control by nation states. Money and profits can be moved around, and taxation becomes voluntary. The only restraint on the profit motive is not to extract so much from individuals that it affects their ability to consume more products.

According to Wikipedia the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the poorest 47 countries! Extreme poverty is gradually being reduced but the elite are becoming more wealthy and so the gap between rich and poor ever widens.

The Future

Inequality to some degree is probably here to stay. But how extreme that gap between rich and poor becomes is up to us and the decisions we make today.

  • If we live in the U.K., do we want to regress to Dickensian conditions or will we strive to create a better tomorrow?
  • If we live in a country like India, China or Brazil, do we want the increasing wealth of our country to be concentrated amongst the elite, and middle classes while the poor under-class do not share in our prosperity?
  • Do we long for a better world? If so, let us do all in our power to create a better future for the whole of the human race.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

3 thoughts on “Historical Inequality and the Future”

  1. I think you’re just about right, George. Personally I worry about globalisation. I think there is much evil committed by corporations that get too powerful, particularly if you look at Coca-Cola, Nestle, Monsanto, Dow Chemicals… I could go on.
    The odd thing about Communism is that it was an experiment of wealthy bankers, in that the Bolshevik revolution was funded by Wall Street. Clearly their motivation was not equality.
    A very worrying trend at the moment is the tendency for technology to replace middle-income jobs (or facilitate the outsourcing of them overseas). This ought to be deflationary, so that at least people share the benefits by paying low prices for things. But unfortunately central banks took it as an opportunity for massive money creation in the last decade leading to now massively higher costs of living (particularly housing), which then leaves the youth of the country at the mercy of the banks (who have made vast profits from the scheme). All of this together is leading towards the masses being enslaved to labour for global corporations just to pay their rent – it’s very much heading back in the direction of serfdom (even in Western Countries).
    Another very disturbing fact (though sometimes classed as ‘conspiracy’) is that where you quote “the 3 richest people in the World”, you are almost certainly wrong, in that the very richest have their money very well hidden. The massive amounts of wealth built up by the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Duponts and others (possibly including the royal families of Europe and perhaps the Vatican) simply could not possibly have ‘dissipated’ as they claim, but is almost certainly lurking in obscure financial vehicles (as well as precious metals) where it cannot be traced and is not taxed. The fortunes of these families combined almost certainly exceed the GDP of the entire World many times over. This is exceptionally worrying, particularly once you realise how Rockefeller money has been used in all manner of geo-political engineering, just as Bill Gate’s money now is within a tax-free “foundation”.
    Sorry, to go on, but I feel it is important to discuss these things and hopefully challenge peoples’ World view a little.


    1. Also one of the biggest travesties of the so-called “austerity” is that it has been targeted almost exclusively against the poor and disabled. It has been aided by a propaganda campaign in the media branding such people as ‘lazy’ amongst other things (which I know is sometimes true but probably not the majority of cases).
      What the media has barely mentioned is that “austerity” has not resulted in any cuts to agricultural subsidies from which many very wealthy landowners benefit (including several MPs). The agricultural subsidies in many cases amount to wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. They are also to blame for very much poverty in less wealthy countries by allowing Western countries to sell food for less than it may have cost to produce, thereby making it difficult for other countries to compete.


  2. We have the same issue in the US, with the “haves” with so much more than the “have-nots.” With the cost of elections so high and the ability to fund them with fewer repercussions, it takes a Herculean effort to advocate for those in need. In some respects, we have returned to the “Robber Baron” era of the US and it sounds like we are not alone.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: