By James Fleming
The coronavirus pandemic has been among “the best times in recorded history for the billionaire class”, according to Oxfam in their Profiting From Pain report.
While increasing numbers of working class and poor people have been sacrificing meals, warmth, healthcare and other necessities, the billionaires have been making a killing – literally. One person is dying every minute from hunger. Food prices are up more than 30% on last year and will push an additional 263 million people “into acute poverty” – earning less than $1.90 per day – in 2022; that’s more than the populations of Germany, France, Britain, and Spain combined.
Hundreds of thousands of Irish people face deprivation this summer, including 200,000 children. The Irish Times wrote, “the pandemic and now the steep increases in food and energy prices have, simply put, been a bonanza” – for the billionaire entrepreneurs. Ireland’s nine billionaires increased their wealth by €15.5 billion since 2020, to a total of €51 billion.
According to Forbes, there are now 2,668 billionaires globally with an inconceivable wealth of $12.7 trillion ($12,700,000,000,000). Bezos, Musk and other plutocrats within the world’s top ten rich list have hoarded “more wealth than the bottom 40% of humanity, or 3.1 billion people.”
Workers pay the cost
In March 2022, we witnessed “the largest leap in food prices since records began by the United Nations.” Real wages are declining as workers’ pay is not keeping up with the cost of living. As Oxfam reports, “it has never been more expensive to be poor”.
Such inflation is described as a rising cost of living, but for many people, it is a rising cost of survival; increasing food and energy prices, not to mention high rent and housing prices, most affect working-class people already struggling. Food, energy, shelter and healthcare are not luxuries but our means of subsistence.
Oxfam has used the tag #ProfitingFromPain to raise awareness of their report. The tag is appropriate – capitalism profits from pain. The source of profit is exploitation.
The incredible wealth of a few and the generalised poverty among billions of people are not separate issues. Oxfam reports that “the rapid rise in billionaire wealth and the cost-of-living crisis faced by billions of people are one and the same phenomenon.”
In 1867, Karl Marx had shown that, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” This May, The Irish Times stated that ordinary people are “working harder, for less pay and in worse conditions“.
Decades of pro-corporate, neo-liberal policies “have ripped away public services into private ownership and have encouraged … massive concentration of corporate power and tax avoidance on a huge scale. These policies have worked to deliberately erode workers’ rights and… have… opened up the environment to levels of exploitation far above what our planet can bear.”
Oxfam’s modest proposals
Oxfam made three proposals to curb social and economic misery in their report. These are:
- An urgent pandemic excess profits tax on the world’s largest corporations
- Urgent one-off solidarity wealth taxes on new billionaire wealth
- A permanent wealth tax on the richest
These are progressive measures that could “lift 2.3 billion people out of poverty”, but the reality is that they are not nearly radical enough. Even if Elon Musk was taxed 99% of his wealth, he would “still be in the top 0.0001% of the world’s richest people”, still be a multi-billionaire.
But are these proposals likely to be implemented by the world’s pro-business governments? Certainly not. But even if some or all of Oxfam’s demands are implemented, capitalists will lobby to have them reversed or find “loopholes” to get around them; they’ll stir up outrage through the mainstream media and social media about how such taxes “infringe” on their freedoms.
So what is the solution? Well as long as capitalists exist, and privately own the economy, the land, the resources, the media etc. they’ll also control the governments, which all amounts to the power to continue to oppress the people and destroy the planet. This is the power we have to take out of their greedy hands. That means making capitalists history! It means taking their wealth and resources into public ownership, where they can be used – as part of a democratic plan for the economy – for the benefit of humanity and the environment.
Make capitalism history!
Apologists for capitalism argue that the system ‘lifts people out of poverty.’ However, roughly every day-and-a-half, “one million people will fall into extreme poverty” while another person becomes a billionaire.
Take the Walton family – the owners of Walmart – for example. Between 2020 and 2022, their wealth grew by $503,000 per hour, yet the average Walmart worker earns only $20,942 per year, and many earn less. In other words, the Walton family gets more than 23 times the amount of money every hour than what they pay their employees in an entire year!
What can we hope for under a continuation of capitalism? Economic crises, inequality, climate change and war are its current consequences, and it is only going to get worse. Capitalism offers no prospects for working-class people because it is a system based on the exploitation – the systematic rip-off – of the working class.