Billionaires on trial: Oxfam’s ‘Survival of the Richest’ report

By Martin Murphy

On 16 January, Oxfam published a report ‘Survival of the Richest’ highlighting the massive gulf in wealth between the super-rich 1%, and the world’s working people and the poor. 

The report serves as a scathing indictment of the obscene and unjustifiable wealth that billionaires have accumulated in the aftermath of the great recession, and particularly cynically, in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report found that since 2012 this parasitic 1% has accumulated over half of the world’s new wealth. Since 2020, the pace of this profiteering has accelerated to unprecedented levels with the 1% accumulating up to 63% of all new wealth generated!

By comparison, the bottom 90% of humanity was left with just 10% of newly created wealth to survive on. Oxfam notes that another way of looking at this is that billionaires are earning $2.7 billion per day, and highlights that “10 billionaires own more than 200 million African women combined”.

Profiteering while the world burns

The world is currently in the midst of multiple deepening capitalist crises. The report estimates that 1.7 billion people are seeing their incomes outstripped by inflation. This translates to the vast majority of people working at a loss, while struggling to maintain basic needs such as eating and heating their homes. Shamefully, 50% of this inflation is driven by corporate price-gouging. Not only this, but “while 800 million people went to bed hungry, food and energy companies doubled their profits in 2022.” Indeed, in 2022 the world’s top oil companies made profits of $200 billion, and coal companies made $97 billion. 

Given that the extraction and burning of fossil fuel is driving climate change towards catastrophe, this should be labelled as what it is: profiteering at the expense of all people and the planet. It will leave large sections of the world’s population in worse poverty, fleeing from uninhabitable land, creating millions of climate refugees on top of the millions of war and economic refugees.

In the face of all of this suffering profiteering should be considered a crime. ‘Survival of the Richest’ cites that between 2014 and 2018 two of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, respectively paid as little as 1% and 3.27% in tax. Oxfam estimates that a simple tax of 5% on billionaires’ wealth could raise $1.7 trillion dollars a year, which could potentially end poverty for 2 billion people.

Unequal Ireland

In the southern Irish economy wealth inequality has skyrocketed over the last ten years. Since 2012, the number of people in Ireland with wealth in excess of €46.6 million ($50 million) has doubled to a total of 1,435 individuals. Today, the richest 1% of Ireland’s population owns 27% of the country’s wealth (€232 billion), and the richest 10% owns nearly two-thirds (€547 billion), while the bottom 50% of the population own just 1.1%.

The report makes the point that for every €93 of wealth created in Ireland over the past decade, €31 has gone to the richest 1% and less than 50 cent to the bottom 50%! In other words, the richest 1% has gained 70 times more wealth than the bottom 50% in the last ten years. This spectacular growth of wealth has taken place in the wake of crippling austerity measures imposed on the public by successive Irish governments, exacerbating the unending healthcare and housing crises.

Currently in the South, there are over 11,500 people living in emergency accommodation, including 3,500 children. Unofficially, the numbers of people experiencing hidden homelessness are estimated to be well above 200,000 people. This ranges from young people couch-surfing to women escaping gender violence and residing in refuges. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing war and oppression are being housed in inadequate temporary accomodation, and being scapegoated by the far right who can exploit the clear failures of the government to try to whip up racist division. This dangerous hate and fear mongering will only intensify as capitalism’s crises deepen. 

On the other hand, the housing crisis is a bonanza for some. One beneficiary of the housing crisis in Ireland is billionaire John Grayken, the founder and chairperson of Lone Star Funds – one of the many major vulture funds to have benefitted from the purchase of distressed mortgages in Ireland. Grayken has personal wealth of $8.5 billion.

No more billionaires!

In light of the extreme income inequality in Ireland Oxfam recommends an income tax of “2, 3, and 5% for those earning above a high threshold of €4.7 million.” This would raise tax revenues of €8.7 billion annually. This is money that could be put to use building public housing, and overhauling the health service, as well as putting money back into the pockets of struggling workers and communities.

On a global level the report recommends that an effort is mounted to permanently tax the world’s richest people’s income at a rate of 60%-80%, with an eye to doing away with billionaires. The plan essentially boils down to pressuring governments into taxing unsold stocks, capital gains, and inheritance, among other measures. This could radically alter the living standards of working people and lift billions in the neo colonial world out of poverty. 

For socialists, these tax measures would constitute welcome reforms. The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Seattle, which has a representative on the city council, Kshama Sawant, successfully fought for a tax on Amazon to fund public homes – a huge win. But such reforms cannot simply be achieved by appealing to the reason of capitalist governments. Their system is driven by the crazed and relentless drive to amass more and more profits, and they can only do this by exploiting workers and degrading nature. 

More to the point, they will resist any attempt to cut across their profit-making via a system of progressive taxation. They would launch a strike of capital, i.e. take their money out of the country in which it is located, and refuse to invest it in the economy. This is why taxes alone are not enough, and why we need to take back not just wealth from the billionaires and big business, but also control and ownership of the key sections of the economy. This kind of socialist change is the only way to really end wealth inequality and all the social damage it produces. 

But such change cannot be achieved without mass struggle. In order to end the existence of billionaires we – the billions and workers and poor people – must end the system that breeds billionaires: capitalism. We make society run, and we can transform it if we organise together. The recent strike wave in Britain and the North that has brought teachers, nurses, dockers and rail workers out on strike gave a small glimpse of the power of workers. This is a power that if harnessed can end the rule of the billionaire class and bring about a socialist world. 

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