The canyon between the rich and the rest of us

August 23, 2016

Michael Yates' new book documents the growing concentration of wealth at the very top of society--and points to how the rest of us can respond, writes Leela Yellesetty.

WE LIVE in a world of unprecedented inequality. Currently, the world's richest 62 people possess as much wealth as the bottom one-half of humanity. By any conceivable measure--income, wealth, health care, education, housing--the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us is astronomical and growing.

Although inequality has been on the rise for the past four decades, it is only since the Great Recession of 2008-09, and especially in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, that this reality has received more mainstream attention.

This is a welcome development. Yet much of the mainstream coverage either obscures or omits a discussion of how all this came about--and what, if anything, can be done about it.

The Great Inequality, the latest book by radical author and economics professor Michael Yates, offers an accessible and timely response to these questions. In a series of essays, he takes stock of the human and environmental costs of growing inequality, and zeroes in on its root causes. In the process, he offers a valuable primer to both newcomers and experienced activists for how to make the case for a better world.

Slums in Manila with skyscrapers in the distance
Slums in Manila with skyscrapers in the distance

AS BAD as we think inequality is, the reality is even worse. Citing a recent study, Yates points out that most Americans severely underestimate the actual levels of inequality--yet they still support a more equal distribution of resources.

Even the idea of the 99 Percent versus the 1 Percent--which in a later chapter Yates defends as a simplified but incredibly powerful political slogan--doesn't quite capture the severity of the concentration of wealth. Actually, the top one-thousandth of the 1 Percent reigns supreme.

By way of example, Yates cites the $4 billion in earnings by hedge-fund manager in 2009 alone:

This income, spent at a rate of $10,000 a day and exclusive of any interest, would last him and his heirs 1,096 years! If we were to suppose that Mr. Tepper worked 2,000 hours in 2009 (50 weeks at 40 hours per week), he took in $2 million per hour and $30,000 a minute. This means he would have paid his social security tax for the entire year in about four minutes of his first workday.

Unlike most of us living paycheck to paycheck, the wealthy do not spend most of their income--they accumulate it as wealth. This wealth then generates more income, exacerbating inequality and passing it on through generations.

The key to this accumulation, then, lies not--as mainstream economists would have it--in hard work and frugality, but in the fact of ownership. This is Yates' central argument: "Inequality has its roots in unequal power."

Under capitalism, those who own the means of production--land, factories, offices, etc.--are able to compel those who don't own those things to work for them, and generate even more wealth than they are paid back in wages, thereby further increasing the power of the owners. This power relation has profound implications, he writes:

First, power allows a person unilaterally to change another's constraints, and it can, when exercised long enough, change the habits of subordinates so that the latter act automatically in the interest of their masters. Second, those with personal power will inevitably also have social power, and this will allow them to make the rules that all must obey, and these will benefit the powerful. These rules, in turn, may come to seem normal, which lowers any costs the powerful would have to incur to maintain their power. Third, wherever there is power, there can be no democracy, since if there were, such power would be abolished by majority rule.

Yates is not making arguments that will be unfamiliar to readers of He is defending a basic Marxist analysis of class society--indeed, he continually returns to Marx's depiction of capitalism as creating poles of wealth and misery. As Yates makes clear, this image grows more starkly accurate by the day.

IN A chapter titled "All the economics you need to know in one lesson," Yates makes short work of what passes as economic "science" in most university courses--"it is no more science than is astrology."

Contrary to the lessons of Econ 101, the economy is not a collection of individual actors who are free to trade as equals--because existing power dynamics fundamentally constrain our choices.

Yet these ideas persist, writes Yates:

[N]eoclassical economics serves as a gigantic propaganda device aimed at covering up the power of those with money and convincing the rest of us that the bad things happening to us are either inevitable or our own fault...It's my fault, or the government's fault, or it is human nature. The fault never lies with the system itself. This provides the best possible cover for the grotesque wealth of the few, the rotten jobs of the many, and the ruination of the environment.

Yates also critiques liberal economists like Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty, who, while attacking inequality, nonetheless share many of the assumptions of classical economists. They believe that inequality can be lessened while keeping capitalism intact.

Even some socialists have suggested that markets could persist after the fall of capitalism. Yates contends, to the contrary, "Markets inevitably force us to act as individuals, responding to monetary incentives. We cannot liberate ourselves while maintaining a wage system and the selling of goods and services for profit."

This is not an argument against fighting for much-needed reforms that improve the lives of working people in the here and now, but to understand that such reforms will be at best hard-won and temporary, unless we attack the root causes of inequality. "[W]henever and wherever we can," Yates writes, "it is incumbent upon us to name the system, to say forthrightly that capitalism is the cause of most of our misery."

BESIDES LAYING out this central case, the book provides a wealth of illustrations of the tremendous human and environmental cost of inequality. Statistics about income distribution only tell part of the picture, Yates says, in describing some of what he and his partner have seen for the past 14 years that they have traveled the country and surveyed the damage wrought by capitalism. Yates writes:

I shudder to think what my great grandchildren will see if they make the voyage of national discovery we have. One gigantic urban-suburban-exurban mess of traffic jams, strip malls and concrete, marked by a bunker mentality and reality of the few versus the many (gated and guarded enclaves for the rich, and hideous mass housing and prisons for the rest of us), all of us fearful of ever-more devastating "natural" disasters. Don't laugh, these things are already here; we're not that far away from apocalypse.

Particularly compelling are Yates' depictions of work under capitalism. "It has been said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having one," writes Yates. "This may be true, but what does it say about work?"

In a chapter titled "Work is hell," Yates dispenses with the mythology that our economy requires an increasingly skilled workforce or that technology will spell the end of work as we know it.

"In the world today," he writes, "the overwhelming majority of workers do hard and dangerous labor, risking the health of their bodies and minds every minute they toil." Wages and conditions are driven down to a bare minimum, thanks in part to the existence of a vast reserve army of labor, and to the bosses' unceasing efforts to increase exploitation and managerial control.

Work under capitalism grinds people down, not only physically, but psychologically and spiritually, alienating us from the very activities that make us human. The injuries of class can lead to a sense of rage and despair, directed both inwardly, in the form of addiction, depression, suicide and more--and outwardly, through hatred and violence towards loved ones, our community and beyond.

Yates goes through a series of anecdotes about workers in different occupations, industries, countries and time periods to illustrate that, despite the tremendous variety, a common process is at work. He concludes with a passage from Studs Terkel's classic book Working:

For the many, there is a hardly concealed discontent. The blue-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. "I'm a machine," says the spot welder. "I'm caged," says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. "I'm a mule," says the steelworker. "A monkey can do what I do," says the receptionist. "I'm less than a farm implement," says the migrant worker. "I'm an object," says the high-fashion model. Blue collar and white collar call upon the identical phrase: "I'm a robot." "There is nothing to talk about," the young accountant despairingly enunciates.

FOR YATES, then, the key to tackling the great inequality is to build solidarity among the vast majority of workers who have an interest in dismantling this rotten system. This does not mean that workers are a monolithic group, or that unity is inevitable. To the contrary, "inequalities within the large and diverse working class can have significant impacts, not just in life circumstances, but in consciousness," Yates writes.

In the chapter titled "Slavery by another name," Yates addresses the central issue of racial inequality in American life. Echoing his arguments about class inequality, he refutes the idea that racism is primarily a product of individual attitudes or actions. It is built into our social structure and perpetuated by laws and institutions.

Yates points to the ways in which the struggle against these structures has historically raised questions about society as a whole, including class inequality. He raises, for example, the idea of a Freedom Budget proposed by civil rights leaders in the 1960s and recently revived by Yates with co-author Paul Le Blanc.

At the same time, Yates cautions against the approach of some socialists to focus solely on economic demands as a means of tackling inequality:

[T]his "unify the working class" strategy doesn't seem quite right to me. If it is true that the social choices made since the beginning of the United States have created racist social structures and these have yet to be eradicated, it makes sense to have as part of radical program a direct confrontation with these structures...The working class will never be unified unless we once and for all confront the institutional racism that surrounds us. Unity requires restitution for past and present damages. Nothing less will do."

Yates makes a similar point in a chapter on global inequality, addressing the ongoing impact of centuries of colonialism and imperialism. While workers across the world share the experience of exploitation and hold a common interest in overthrowing capitalism, workers in imperialist countries have a special responsibility to reject nationalism and act in solidarity with the workers of oppressed nations.

SO HOW practically can such a global movement against inequality take shape? On this question, Yates doesn't offer any detailed plans or policy recommendations, writing, "It is our job to push the struggle forward and not just make suggestions."

In a chapter reflecting on his time working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union in the 1970s, Yates writes that he witnessed the rise of an inspiring and powerful workers' movement--and then its downfall, as union leaders came to assert top-down control of the union for their own interests:

Any movement of the poor is a fragile thing; it will be beset by demons from without and within. The external enemies are well-known, constant irritants and often overwhelmingly powerful. Those inside the union are more subtle yet nearly as destructive: leaders have big and conflicting egos; sexual and racial tensions are hard to overcome; people have honest differences about goals and strategies; it is enormously difficult to create the selfless bureaucracy which alone will insure the movement's continuity.

There are no guarantees in this process, but Yates does suggest some general ideas on how radicals can help shape and push forward the movement: build coalitions between various groups which agree on general sets of principles and demands; link local and single-issue struggles to larger systemic ones; pledge ourselves to come out in solidarity with one another; and emphasize democratic and critical education as a fundamental component of organizing.

This sort of education is badly needed as we face the great and growing inequality of today. Recalling Rosa Luxemburg's warning that we are increasingly facing a choice between socialism or barbarism, Yates issues a challenge:

To those who say that such ideas are utopian and incapable of realization, I say this: Look around you. Isn't it truly utopian to believe that we can continue along the path we have been traveling for so long now and with such shameful and deadly results?...Isn't it time for us to become protagonists, go on the offensive, attack our enemies head-head on, study and learn from both successes and failures, always look for how things are connected, and see what happens? We don't have much to lose.

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