An editorial in our last issue explained how a simple statistic arrived at in an Oxfam study on wealth illuminates the immense problem facing humanity. The combined wealth of the world’s richest 85 individuals now equals that of the poorest half of the human race — 3.5 billion people.
This figure is so staggering that even the economists who work for this capitalist system are worried. The rich really don’t want to give up any of their wealth. But they don’t want their system to collapse either. And they are afraid of that happening.
Look at it this way. The wealth in the hands of these 85 people equals $1.7 trillion, according to Oxfam. They can’t begin to spend it all, not even on the most ridiculously lavish things. Most of it is invested in production and commerce that is increasingly efficient, meaning fewer workers are hired to produce more goods and services.
Suppose these 85 billionaires did manage to each spend $1 billion each year — an amount that is 20,000 times what the median U.S. household earns in a year.
That would come to $85 billion, which is only 5 percent of their collective wealth of $1.7 trillion. The other 95 percent would be sitting there, most of it in income-producing property that means they’ll be even richer next year — unless the system crashes.
The 3.5 billion people at the bottom of the pile live from day to day. If they could get their hands on even a few hundred dollars, they would spend it very quickly because they are in need of everything — food, clothing, adequate housing, transportation, medical care and so on. But they don’t have it, so they can’t buy much of anything.
Capitalist economists know that this irrational situation can’t go on forever. If most of the wealth is bottled up in the hands of a few while the majority can’t buy more than the barest essentials, then the markets will dry up and the economy sooner or later will grind to a halt.
This is why even financial analysts warn about the growing wealth gap. But the investors are too focused on their bottom line — profits — to listen.
We have to fight hard for higher wages and programs that relieve poverty and unemployment. But as long as capitalism remains in place, any money the workers get will just wind up in the hands of the rich once again, who both exploit our labor and make a profit selling us whatever we buy. The trend toward the rich getting richer and the poor poorer is irreversible — as long as there is capitalism.
This is an argument for seeing beyond capitalism, beyond private property and exploitation, for understanding that every workers’ struggle, whether for a higher wage, a pension or an unemployment check, can be a stepping stone to the much bigger struggle: to liberate the tremendous productive wealth that the workers have built and apply it to solving the monumental problems of poverty, unemployment, oppression and the degradation of the environment.