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.
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.
- Welcome to Cabinetland: The worsening inequality between Britain’s rich and poor is shameful (newstatesman.com)
- A fairer distribution of wealth (georgedowdell.org)
- An Alternative view:
UK rich-poor gap is ‘narrowest for 25 years’ (theweek.co.uk)