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What Will They Do With All That Money?

Alyssa Goldstein 5 March 2013

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When I was in fifth grade science class, my teacher showed me and my classmates a video meant to inspire in us a sense of wonder and awe at the sheer scale of the natural world. The camera, which was focused on a family enjoying a picnic, steadily zoomed out to encompass the entire park, the city, the continent, each frame growing larger by a factor of 10 until the entire solar system, galaxy, and eventually the universe itself came into focus. Then the camera raced back down at a dizzying speed to focus in again on the family, on one of their hands, on the cells in the hand, all the way down to the tiniest subatomic particles yet discovered. The video did indeed provoke the amazement of first discovering that some differences are so vast that they cannot be comprehended with a single scale of measurement. But it’s not only physics that offers these wonders. A glance at wealth inequality figures will create the same mind-boggling thrill previously only available to middle school science students and the very stoned.

To begin to understand this “statistical sublime,” as Malcolm Bull puts it, take a look at this video on wealth inequality in America that’s been going viral for the past few days:

The video compares three measures: what Americans think wealth distribution looks like, what they think it should look like, and what it actually looks like. Despite the near-pathological fear of socialism in the US, it turns out that 92% of Americans think that the distribution of wealth should be a lot more equitable than what they believe it to be. Yet it also turns out that most Americans vastly underestimate the amount of wealth inequality in the US—though they know that their country is less equitable than it should be, they do not imagine that the problem is so extreme that the top 1% controls 40% of their nation’s wealth. The 1% is so rich that its wealth cannot be measured on the same scale as the wealth even of the middle class.

What if we could do more than look at charts of inequality—what if we could walk it? Kelli Anderson (who designed the cover of Occupy!) created this walking tour of US inequality by imposing income data onto a map of New York City:

 Starting from Zucotti Park, the location which represents the average earners, you could walk south to reach the bottom-most earners in a matter of hours. However, if you wanted to walk north to reach the top-most earners, you’d better put your hiking boots on. You would have to walk all the way to Prince Edward Island, Canada. Keep in mind that this map represents income inequality, not wealth inequality. The outermost reaches of a wealth inequality map would stretch even further than the edge of our solar system. It is not just that the poor are poor, but that the rich are so rich that their wealth defies measurement on a human scale.

For an in-depth analysis of some of the numbers behind the maps and videos, see Dumenil and Levy's piece in NLR. It clearly illustrates how inequality became so dire under neoliberalism, and explains how 1% and .01% accrued such enormous wealth. The 1% we know today was long in the making, yet even after Occupy, most Americans remain unaware of how extreme the situation truly is.  

But this story isn’t just about inequality within the US or any other country. In a spatial metaphor of his own, Malcolm Bull describes global wealth inequality as “like being able to look up at the world’s highest mountain and then straight down into the deepest trench of the ocean.” The greatest inequality of all is not within countries, but between them. Even if income inequality were abolished within every individual country, the global Gini coefficient would decrease only marginally. As Goran Therborn argues, “The ‘development of underdevelopment’ across the 19th and 20th centuries meant that inequality between humans was largely determined by where they lived. By 2000, it was estimated that 80 per cent of income inequality between households could be attributed to their country of residence.” A concept of justice that is limited to individual nations is not enough, Bull argues. Just as we must widen our field of vision to even perceive and understand global inequality, we must widen our sense of justice to encompass the entire planet. 

So what should we do about it? And where even to start? 

First off, The Making of Global Capitalism by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin is a major analysis of the role of the US state in imposing capitalism around the world, the necessary foundation for the unchecked rise in global inequality. To learn why things certainly aren’t going to get any better on their own, check out Philip Mirowski’s forthcoming book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.

Despite the sublime enormity of inequality, there is no shortage of visions for how we can create a more just future. For a reminder that our potential for resistance is as vast as the injustices we face, be sure to read Occupy!, the in-depth anthology on the OWS movement; Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously on the new global revolutions, and Rebel Cities for an analysis of how urban spaces are increasingly becoming sites of defiance. For some inspiration from the union movement, see Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell). Do you want to start a revolution, or at least theorize one? The Communist Horizon and Philosophy for Militants explore a renewed idea of communism.