“There are two kinds of justice: one for the rich and powerful, and another for everybody else.”
Who wrote that? You may be tempted to say Karl Marx – it has in a way a quasi-Marxist ring about it. I actually don’t know who originally said it but it has been repeated many times, in one form or another by critics of contemporary western economy and society.
This particular quotation in fact is drawn from an article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, reprinted in The Age on 16 April. Times have changed! Current attacks on the world-wide economic system, capitalism (the term ‘free/private enterprise’ is underused in critical moments like the present), have never been as pervasive and emotive since the days of the Great Depression.
Attacks seem double-pronged: the excessive greed of the very wealthy, and the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. The ‘rich’, significantly, been frequently differentiated between the ‘rich’ and the ‘extreme rich’. General comparisons abound: one being that the richest one percent of the population ‘earns’ 460 times more than the average family. The term ‘class’ is rarely employed; even less so is the author Karl Marx – despite his analysis been considered by many still the most accurate and comprehensive on how the capitalist ‘system’ operates, and systematically dysfunctions.
Joe Nocera writes as he does having read a history of BP which apparently overwhelmingly demonstrates that the recent spill off the American coast was no accident but a patterned consequence of BP always cutting corners in pursuit of greatest profit. The question is ‘when’ not ‘if’ the next ecological disaster will strike. And it coolly follows that policy, the book argues, because it knows that whatever huge compensation repayments recur it can still make the profits it desires. Nocera urges jail sentences rather than court fines as the only effective real deterrence. But how likely it that? Thus two kinds of justice. The BPs of the world will continue to laugh all the way to the bank. And the poor will become homeless.
John Lanchester writing ‘Marx at 193’ in London Review of Books on April 5 reminds us that the once witty expression ‘socialism for the rich’ is in fact a perfect description of how capitalism works. And it continues to survive because of its effective globalisation (which Marx foresaw): flourishing, in fact, because it hides the operation of ‘surplus value’ – tens of thousands of third world labour scanning the contents of ‘hygienic’ Facebook for ‘offensive images’ – working for wages as low as one dollar per hour. And it is now ‘worth’ $100 billion.
It continues to flourish for the major reason, according to Lanchester, that it has ‘flourished’ in even more complex ways than Marx expected. The working class or proletariat has not become the strong, centralised, solidarity group or movement as originally assumed: ‘it’ is complex in itself, a heterodoxy. It is also spread out – around the world. Interests are many, loyalties are many – and transient. A government, even a state may be confronted perhaps overthrown – witness the Middle East last year – spontaneous unity, apparent success, then promptly disunity again. But how much more complex and difficult against an ‘economy’. It has no head-quarters to storm. And the IMF and WTO are secure in the hands of their patrons.
Society and individuals, affecting each other, become infinitely complex. Each forms the other into multi-classifiable labyrinths. It is not quixotic that the notion of ‘complexity’ has become the most common and telling description of modern society and life. Everyone militates against a common ‘consciousness’. And that is before we consider the many cultural seductions of modernity which easily distract us from more ‘serious’ concerns. We are too busy on tour and detours.
We can go even further, I think, in explaining the continued absence of a unity, a solidarity, a classness. The culture of thinking, eduction, does little to discourage narrow thought: we think at a shallow level, on immediate concerns, in local circumstances. Our curiosity is circumspect, through a narrow lense. We think, feel, identify and have compassion only close to home, to ourselves, for tomorrow. We remain as uncommitted to class conflict as we are to global warming. In each, pleasure and immediacy reign supreme.
Marc, once again, predicted that the efficacy of capitalism and its spirit would expand our consumption without end. We steadily become more and more glutted. And never satisfied.
But Lanchester’s final observation is that in factt no-one could have been expected, one hundred years ago, to realise that the earth is actually finite in all its resources. There is not enough to go around – let alone remove or even reduce the consumption gap between the rich and the poor. Or even between the poor in the wealthy western countries and the poor in the non-western world. His telling sample: the average consumption of water in America is one hundred gallons a day. There is not enough fresh water in the world to satisfy everyone on that need alone. Will it ever be likrly?
Is ant greater equality further doomed to fail? Can we expect people to limit their wants, he wonders. Can the rich reduce their desires?