Will the rich reform themselves?

January 30, 2014

THANKS FOR the great editorial on Obama's State of the Union address ("State of the unequal union").

In it, Obama put stress on inequality as a problem--but actions by Obama and the rest of the government actually increase inequality.

The Oxfam report on inequality that SocialistWorker.org referenced is a very useful resource. It details the growth of inequality over the last few decades on an international scale and notes that the only area where inequality has decreased is in Latin America.

The report doesn't stress enough, however, that this decrease was the result of radical mass movements that were reflected in government policy. Even in Latin America, inequality is still very high today.

Though activists can use this report, we should be wary of some of the assumptions behind it. First of all, it is addressed to the same 1 Percent that recently gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum--appealing to them to restrain their greed! The example of Latin America in the report shows that inequality will only be significantly reduced by action against the 1 Percent--not by appealing to them.

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Secondly, the Oxfam report mistakes the source of the policies collectively known as neoliberalism (cutting social spending, attacks on unions, lower taxes for the rich, freedom to repatriate profits, financial and other de-regulation, privatization, etc.). The rich did not always favor those policies and then somehow gain the power to carry them out in the mid- to late-1970s.

Instead, the governments were always capitalist--dominated by, and pursuing the interests of, the capitalist system and the super-rich in particular. Especially in northern, economically advanced countries, it was the struggles of the '30s and '40s that changed the balance of class forces. The "welfare state" reforms were the product of struggle. In order to maintain the stability of the system, the rich and their governments granted concessions.

Right away, the super-rich fought against the new-found organized power of the workers and poor. When they felt they had weakened the unions enough, and when faced with a crisis of profitability on an international scale in the '70s, they shifted policies. They groped their way toward neoliberalism from the mid-'70s to early '80s, when the new policies were firmly in place across the Global North. They then spread these policies to the Global South and former "Communist" countries, in part through the Washington Consensus.

The second point reinforces the first. We cannot get better policies by appealing to the rich. We also won't get fundamental equality by electing "better" officials.

Governments under capitalism are inevitably capitalist governments. We can, from time to time, use electoral campaigns to make temporary changes and especially to help build movements. But the bias of governments under capitalism will always be toward capitalist interests: profit over humanity.

We will only get substantial equality by eliminating the capitalist system and its governments. Progress toward equality under capitalism will come from fighting against the rich and their governments--not from appealing to them.

Appealing to the rich to act for equality is like asking a tiger to be a vegetarian.
Steve Leigh, Seattle

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