2015 must be the year we address wealth inequality

When the Economist asks “Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” something has gone badly wrong.

When the Economist asks “Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” something has gone badly wrong

If 2014 is the year that wealth inequality finally came onto the radar, then 2015 must be the year that talk turns to action.

Politicians in the United States have taken to the issue far more brazenly than those here. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders along with the Mayor of New York and even the President himself made wealth inequality the centrepiece of their campaigns in 2014.

It’s time we in the UK caught up with our cousins across the pond.

Whilst there are those that have been crying out for attention to this issue since well before the financial crisis of 2008, it must be the publication of Piketty’s seminal work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century that finally brought the topic to the fore.

Wealth inequality is the single biggest issue of our time. And while it has been talked about a great deal, very little has actually been done. The importance of this cannot be overstated; those who once believed that working hard would inevitably lead to a better life increasingly feel they live in a system that favours only the wealthy.

If this hope continues to be eroded the disenfranchised, the disillusioned and the hopeless will feel that the social contract which has held society together since the 1950s has been broken. They will feel that revolt will be the only means by which to right a terrible wrong.

I am not the only one to fear this. Robert Reich, former secretary of labour during the Clinton administration, warned that the “the working class and the poor as we used to call it, will increasingly become vulnerable to demagogues who come along and take their frustration and anxiety and turn it into and divert it toward targets of animosity. We have seen this before in history. I don’t have to tell you”.

Reich, a long-term Cassandra on the issue of inequality, made this warning not after the financial crash but well before it, in 2005.

Nick Hanauer, billionaire and campaigner on wealth inequality, said: “And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

It may be time his fellow plutocrats listened up before anger and anxiety boils over.

To accuse these critics of demagoguery and populism themselves is to dangerously miss the point and to shoot the messenger. Wealth inequality will only grow in 2015 as it has grown over the past 40 years.

If democracy is to continue to work in favour of the majority and not the privileged few, then extremely modest proposals like a wealth tax cannot be continually shot down as mad or unworkable. To say otherwise is to assume that the current situation is workable. It isn’t.

It is a travesty that anyone living in the fifth largest economy in the world is struggling to feed themselves. If you disagree, try listening to a 35-year-old man describing in detail how he cannot afford to eat. The number of homeless young people on the streets of London has doubled since 2010. The number of billionaires worldwide has doubled since the financial crisis. Let that sink in for a moment.

The old maxim about society being only three meals away from anarchy looms large.

When those great bastions of socialism, the IMF and the OECD, warn that not only has wealth inequality grown, but that it hampers growth and that redistributive policies may actually make society richer overall, it is time to listen up. When the Economist asks “Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” and Forbes ponders “Could America’s Wealth Gap Lead to a revolt?” something has gone badly wrong.

So, let’s make wealth inequality the issue of 2015. And let’s actually do something about it. It is not enough now to merely talk about it. Wealth inequality, whether in the UK, the United States or globally must be tackled via democratic, peaceful and prudent means. If not, the pitchforks are coming.

Zaheer Rayasat is an activist and social commentator

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