“Greed is good”

We have a curious habit of distancing ourselves from deep-rooted but all-encompassing realities pertaining to poverty and injustice by implicitly alluding to the misguided opinion that our society doesn’t suffer from ethical handicaps. We are, after all, living in the ‘civilised’ part of the world. A pertinent question we should ask, however, is: are there inequities to be observed in our own communities, in the so-called ‘first world’? Do we stop to think about whether the same causes and principles that we care so passionately about through our delivery of aid relief to the ‘developing’ world are being fought for and enshrined in our own backyard?

13 million people live in poverty in the UK. Poverty and underdevelopment are not exclusive to the ‘third world’; these aren’t simply predicaments that are faced by the African continent as many of us stereotypically, and ignorantly, assume. They are indeed phenomena that are created, exacerbated, and sustained by the global economic structure, the remnants of which are experienced in some of the world’s most ‘developed’ countries. In the case of the United Kingdom; the annual report by the New Policy Institute, which was the inspiration for this piece, has revealed a collection of staggering statistics about the extent of poverty:

  • For the first time, more than half of the 13 million who live in poverty are members of a working family.
  • 5 million working people earn below the living wage.
  • Average incomes have fallen by 8% since their peak in 2008.
  • Around 500,000 families face a cut in housing benefit and a reduction in Council Tax Benefit.
  • The number of sanctioned jobseekers with a reduced entitlement to Jobseeker’s Allowance doubled in 2010 to around 800,000.
  • The level of benefits for an out-of-work adult without children now covers only 40% of what the public considers to be a minimum standard of living, and for families with children, this figure is no more than 60%.
  • Over a quarter of children in the UK live in poverty.
  • The proportion of working-age adults without children in poverty is the highest on record.

It’s a disgrace that these statistics describe the state of affairs of the eighth-richest country in the world, according to this year’s rankings. So what if a country has a substantial global financial standing, when that wealth is concentrated in the hands of the elite few, whilst millions are left to freeze in minus temperatures every winter because they can’t afford to pay their gas and electricity bills? These statistics are endemic of a system that impoverishes because it can, and because it profits from doing so. If this were not the case, if the ‘free’ market was perfectly symmetric and intrinsically harmonious, why were 6,437 people seen spending the night on a street in London, the financial capital of the world? We’ve become so obsessed with absolute GDP levels whilst neglecting the value and importance of wealth distribution measures and poverty indices because, let’s face it, it’s not fashionable to talk about the poor, vulnerable, and homeless. The self-interested, ‘rational’ economic man continues to prevail as the point of departure in the mainstream study of economics; altruism and public-spiritedness are mentioned as side-notes in chapter 22, at best. Obnoxiously still, our politicians publicly and unashamedly bulldoze the notion that “greed is good”, as Boris Johnson abhorrently declared a few weeks ago. According to his sadistic creed, a “spirit of envy” and inequality are the catalysts for economic activity. We may as well consider them virtues. After all, you won’t get awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of your services towards developing a tangible theory for poverty elimination or conjuring up a social welfare system that puts the needs of society’s defenceless above the prosperous (unless you’re Amartya Sen):

“It is important to reclaim for humanity the ground that has been taken from it by various arbitrarily narrow formulations of the demands of rationality” – Amartya Sen

You see, my point in raising this isn’t that we should ignore the most destitute parts of the world because of the deprivation that is clearly present in the UK, or that it is futile to pursue degree programmes in economics because they’re so blatantly divorced from questions of welfare and poverty. Rather, it is vital that we maintain a sharp awareness that inequity isn’t exclusive to geographic condescension. It’s frighteningly easy to dismiss the very real fact that there are millions of people living in utter destitution in the wealthiest regions of the world. Still more frightening is not just the casual dismissal of this dire reality, but that in the odd instance when chance compels us to cross paths with a homeless wo(man) on our way home from work, we are unfazed, desensitised. It doesn’t hurt, even though it should. “Oh well, what can you do; you win some, you lose some”. I can guess that’s what runs through the minds of most because if it wasn’t, homelessness would have been abolished by now. The sad reality is that humanity has not yet succeeded in securing something as basic as a dignified life for so many across the world. How many more centuries, textbooks, and dollars, will it take for the collective conscience to be awakened, and compelled to act?

No GDP figure will ever be able to satiate justice, be it at home or abroad. Before labelling the rest of the world as ‘underdeveloped’, we, the so-called ‘first world’, should consider ourselves economically primitive until we can confidently and empirically demonstrate that not one human being is left to spend their nights in a deserted subway or under a shop entrance. Until then, we are not worth a penny of the pounds accumulating in our accounts.

N.b. We should maintain caution when deploying the ‘first world-third world’ and ‘developed-underdeveloped’ dichotomies. These paradigms through which we are taught to situate and dissect pivotal questions of global poverty, technological advancement, and socio-economic development are themselves a hindrance in the struggle to solve questions of great economic, social, and ethical significance, and indeed shield the very causes of historical and present disparities.

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2 thoughts on ““Greed is good”

  1. Great post Yasmin. An invigorating read! I recall reading a UNICEF report a few years back when I was studying International Development and the crux of it was that the two most neo-liberal countries in the world – the UK and US – had the worst cases of child poverty in the so-called developed world. Numerous economists, such as Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and countless others, as well as a plethora of reports from a litany of organisations all say the same: under the neo-liberal model, poverty increases and the chasm between the haves and the have-nots widens. Let us not forget that there is nothing natural about the “market”. It is distorted to serve certain ends. And for those who may argue that the benefits of the free market trickle down, they need to read more, travel more and perhaps hang out with those living on the breadline, or with the parents of the 22,000 children die each day due to poverty (http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats). The elites of the world, again, emphasis on the world, are responsible for a vast amount of unnecessary suffering. A final point is that it is another form of misinformation when we are lead to believe that the haves must go without, or live on less, or somehow find themselves impoverished. Thomas Pogge, outlines this illusion succinctly in his excellent book 2002 book, World Poverty and Human Rights. I guess the 1% may have to give up a private jet or two, but I guess that is the cross they may have to bear.

    • Thank you Layla. I completely agree with your analysis; the neo-liberal ‘natural market’ is a doctrinal deception of epic proportions, and one that must be held accountable for pretty much all the senseless destitution, suffering, and blood being spilt across the world. The fact that in this technologically ‘advanced’ age, we have two simultaneous battles, one against malnutrition which kills millions every year, and another in the form of an obesity epidemic, is such a shameful projection of how we have been played so cunningly by a system that literally has no mercy, and cannot, by any means, be considered ‘natural’ or ‘free’.

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