England, America, Empire, and Inequality
Two Sunday mornings ago ABC’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed that dreadful little English rat Tony Blair. In the segment I caught, Blair energetically claimed that the shared goal of the United States (US) and its loyal imperial pit-bull the United Kingdom (UK) in Iraq is the installation of “full democracy.” Not partial democracy, mind you, no…the full self-governing and egalitarian monty.
That’s an interesting and preposterous declaration for Blair to make, at various levels. Forget for a moment that the US/UK invasion and occupation has nothing to do with helping the Iraqi majority determining their own fate and everything to do with securing external -- primarily US -- control of Iraqi society and resources (especially oil, of course). Forget that the occupying powers have acted repeatedly to suppress even limited forms of elementary democracy in Iraq -- delaying elections, closing newspapers, imprisoning dissidents, etc. -- and that a massive imperial U.S. troop presence will remain in Iraq long after nominal “sovereignty” is granted to that colonized nation. Forget that the noted British philosopher John Stuart Mill once pointed out that externally imposed “liberation” always degenerates into enslavement, even when liberation is sincerely and genuinely intended (as is NOT the case in Iraq) by the imposers.
Forget all this (and much more) and contemplate the question of what qualifications the world’s two leading warrior states possess to export “full democracy” to anyone. I happen to agree with Noam Chomsky, Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith that (in Chomsky's words) “you can’t talk seriously about democracy” in a society with “extremes of poor and rich.” (see Chomsky, The Common Good [Odonian Press], excerpted at http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/books/cg/).
Democracy means one-person, one vote and equal policymaking influence for all citizens. It cannot exist alongside extreme wealth and income inequality for the simple reason that the rich use wealth to exercise disproportionately great political and policy authority: the people who “own the country” also “run the country” (in their own interests), to quote US founder John Jay (who liked it that way). No genuinely democratic society would permit such special power to be exercised.
Beyond its influence on the political system, moreover, economic inequality is profoundly anti-democratic in and of itself, something that tends to be veiled by our modern capitalist tendency to restrict “democracy” (such as it is) to “the political” -- as if daily economic life (including the workplace) was not a hugely significant and highly political part of social experience.
This stipulation seems especially valid
when Blair audaciously claims to be advancing “full democracy.” For
useful reflections on this question, see Ellen Meiksens-Wood,
Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge.
MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and William T. Robinson,
Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony
(Cambridge. MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
The Savage Internal Inequalities of the the Warrior States
From my perspective, then, it is interesting to learn that the United States is by far the most unequal state in the industrialized world and that England appears to be the next most unequal. The best source I know on this is the seventh chapter, titled “International Comparisons,” of the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) excellent statistical compilation The State of Working America 2002/2003 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
In table 7.10 of this volume, the EPI provides
two key measures of household income inequality within 19 OECD
(Office for Economic Cooperation and Development) states - the best
available source for relevant comparative international evaluation.
The first measure is the “90-10 ratio,” which measured how many
times more income a household in the 90th percentile [ie, the
upper-tenth or “decile”] has compared to a household in the 10th
percentile [the bottom tenth/decile].” The U.S. ratio is 5.64,
followed by Italy (4.68) and England (4.52). The lowest are Sweden
(at 2.59), Finland (2.68) and Belgium (2.76). In addition, the top
10 percent of American households receive income equivalent to 214
percent of median household income - the highest such rate in the
OECD, followed by England at 209 percent (EPI, State of Working
America, p. 411)
Interestingly enough, however, England has
exhibited the greatest annual increase in income equality amongst
all OECD states since 1979. Its Gini coefficient has risen by 27
percent. The next highest increases are the U.S. (24 percent) and
Austria (22 percent) (EPI, p. 415).
“The starkness of these numbers,” Wolff deadpans,
“suggests a widening fissure separating the strata without our
society” (p. 38). Talk about your academic understatement!
Empire and Inequality
It is more than coincidence, I suspect, that the world’s two leading imperial/warrior states are the imperialist world’s two most unequal states and that the leading warrior state is the most unequal. Just as England fell from its role as the world’s leading imperial power (after World War One), incidentally, Britain’s top 1 percent controlled more than 60 percent of that nation’s wealth (Wolff, p.33).
As the British liberal economist J.A. Hobson noted at the dawn of the previous century, modern capitalist empire both reflects and furthers poverty and inequality in the wealthy imperial homelands. Just ask some of the many millions Americans who waited in food lines even while they held jobs last year in the “world’s richest state.” According to the lead story in my Sunday newspaper (Tim Jones, "The Working Poor: The Forgotten Ones the Unemployment Numbers Don't Track," Chicago Tribune, April 25, section 1, p.1), some of these hard-working yet “food insecure” Americans can be heard grumbling about the billions of dollars the “cash-strapped” U.S. government is able to spend on the supposed export of “democracy” to Iraq.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher and activist in Chicago, Illinois. See his ever-cheerful reflections on imperialism and thought-control at his new ZNet blog "Empire and Inequality," available online at http://blog.zmag/empire/
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