‘There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery…’ This comment is as valid today, quite possibly more so, than when it first appeared as part of the introductory sentence to an article penned by Marx in the New York Daily Tribune of 16 September 1859. He observed that the ‘Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. To the wealth of the country it did not the slightest damage’ (Capital, Vol. 1, p.658). Back to the present: ‘global wealth increased by £7.3 trillion in the year up to June. More than 80 percent of this new prosperity was enjoyed by the top one per cent of the population. Meanwhile, the poorest half got no increase.’ And if that was not miserable enough newstatesman.com (22 January) adds ‘Oxfam has spoken to workers in US poultry factories who use nappies because they’re denied toilet breaks. In Bangladesh, a garment worker would have to work a lifetime to earn what the CEO of one of the top five fashion retailers makes in just four days.’
Down and out in London
Signs of class division were obvious in Marx’s time and remain so today. ‘Number of homeless people sleeping on streets in England hits highest level on record. More than 4,500 people were recorded as sleeping rough on any given night in autumn last year –a figure that has more than doubled since 2010’ (independent.co.uk, 24 January). The needs of the homeless are not met because they do not constitute a market. Thus we are told (theguardian.com, 4 February) ‘London councils have granted property developers planning permission to build more than 26,000 luxury flats priced at more than £1m each, despite fears that there are already too many half-empty posh ghost towers in the capital. Builders are currently constructing towers containing 7,749 homes priced between £1m and £10m, and have planning rights to build another 18,712 high-end apartments and townhouses, according to the Observer. Housing campaigners said the figures show councils are prioritising the needs of the super-rich over those of hardworking young Londoners.’ Existing without adequate shelter is a feature of capitalism worldwide.
Down and out in Calais
Luxury properties in London and elsewhere will remain empty, particularly if the market shrinks. ‘ Rich Folks Are Fleeing London and Lagos, Wealth Report Shows’ (bloomberg.com 31 January). Some of the 99 percent move in search of slightly better living conditions, trying to reach London after leaving Nigeria for example, but at risk of becoming stuck en route –perhaps in Calais or Libya. ‘ “One year ago, the Italian government, backed by their European counterparts, agreed on a dodgy deal with the Libyan government that has trapped thousands in misery. People are being forced to endure torture, arbitrary detention, extortion and unthinkable conditions in detention centres run by the Libyan government,”said Iverna McGowan, Director of the Amnesty International, European Institutions Office’ (amnesty.org 2 February). According to Indu Prakash Singh, Leader, ActionAid India’s Urban Knowledge Activist Hub, there are at least 3.7 million homeless in India. ‘We are now the 6th wealthiest nation in the world, and in terms of growth of wealth creation, we have beaten all wealthy countries including China, US and UK. Overall, India created a wealth of $8230 billion in 2017’ (track.in, 2 February). And who created all that wealth? India’s workers.
The stateless Marx lived in London from 1850 until his death in 1883. ‘Britain on the eve of the EU referendum reached its wealthiest position in modern history, according to figures showing the vast gulf between the richest 1% and the poorest in society’ (guardian.com 1 February). This gulf between a small parasitical minority and the huge majority who own little more than their ability to work is to be found worldwide. ‘Income disparity has been a persistent problem in recent years for Indonesia, which has the sixth-worst inequality in the world, according to Oxfam. Indonesia’s four richest men have more wealth than 100 million of the country’s poorest people’ (forbes.com, 2 February). And Oxfam’s cure? More reformist platitudes: ‘What we’re saying in the report is that corporations shouldn’t be paying out massive dividends until they can show that everyone in their supply chain is getting a living wage… We shouldn’t have a situation where countries and companies are able to reduce their margins by employing slave labor.’Marx’s solution: the abolition of the wages system.