“The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty, but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds – where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough – a modest living- and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.”
Recently I was on a retreat weekend with sixteen women. One of us, Alex, led an exercise that still gives me pause for thought. She handed out one playing card to each of us. We weren’t to look at our own card, but were to place it against our forehead with the number side facing outwards so others could see it. We then had 5 minutes to interact with each other, and we had to behave according to the denomination of the other woman’s card.
So if she was holding an ace, king or queen, we were to treat her as an important person worthy of respect and esteem. If she was holding a two or a three, we were to treat her as the lowest of the low. At the end of the 5 minutes, still without looking at our own card, we had to line up according to where we thought we lay in the social order, from high to low. We succeeded with an uncanny degree of accuracy.
Here were some interesting things I noticed.
- The high-ups pretty quickly started acting entitled, even though the cards had been handed out at random.
- The low-downs were initially subservient, but it wasn’t long before we (yes, I was a lowly three) were banding together and plotting to overthrow the upper classes.
- We were finely sensitive to how we were being treated, and knew exactly where we stood.
- It was almost scary how, regardless of our real life circumstances, and with no special acting abilities, we easily slipped into role as a high-up or a low-down.
- It definitely felt better to be an ace or a king than a two or a three.
So what does this say about real life, where some people are handed a high card at birth, while the majority are handed low cards? Of course, there are still some self-made people, but increasingly wealth is inherited. (See Capital, by Thomas Piketty.)
Global wealth increased by £7.3 trillion in the year up to June 2018. More than 80 per cent of this new prosperity was enjoyed by the top one per cent of the population. Meanwhile, the poorest half got no increase.
There is ample research to back up the theory that rich people are more likely to act like jerks and less likely to have empathy. I recommend this TED talk by Paul Piff. (This does make you wonder how empathic a cabinet worth a collective $4.3 billion can be.)
But are the pitchforks coming? (Not that I’m for a moment advocating pitchforks.) It seems that – at least as far as I can tell from spending most of my time in the UK and the US – that many of those who were handed low cards are less likely to get angry at the abuse of privilege at the top, and more likely to turn to the modern-day opiate of the masses – shopping.
This article in The Guardian states that: “Studies have shown that conspicuous consumption is intensified by inequality. If you live in a more unequal area, you are more likely to spend money on a flashy car and shop for status goods. The strength of this effect on consumption can be seen in the tendency for inequality to drive up levels of personal debt as people try to enhance their status.”
And that debt leads to problems. From the Guardian article again: “The gap between image and reality yawns ever wider. Our rich society is full of people presenting happy smiling faces both in person and online, but when the Mental Health Foundation (in the UK) commissioned a large survey last year, it found that 74% of adults were so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost a third had had suicidal thoughts and 16% had self-harmed at some time in their lives. The figures were higher for women than men, and substantially higher for young adults than for older age groups. And rather than getting better, the long-term trends in anxiety and mental illness are upwards.” I’d be curious to know how much of that anxiety is due to financial worries.
Depressed and anxious people don’t tend to reach for their pitchforks. They withdraw from society and self-medicate with alcohol, TV, and video games. Never before have there been so many ways to distract ourselves from harsh reality.
So how do we fix it? This article in the New Statesman calls for: “A genuine shared future means building an economy that works directly to end poverty, not one that hopes for it as a side-effect of growth” – which all sounds very good, but if the peasants aren’t revolting, why would governments bother to take up on the massively unpopular task (particularly unpopular with their donors) of redistributing wealth from rich to poor? Especially when they have more pressing issues like Brexit or North Korea to deal with?
So maybe it is the task of Margaret Mead’s small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to start the change. Are you one of us?
“On Earth… you do not think there is enough for everyone, and so you have to make sure that you get yours. It is the idea of scarcity that stifles the idea of full and complete sharing… What your planet could benefit from right now are a few more humans willing to demonstrate and model a new form that humanity could take, based on their belief in Sufficiency and Sharing, and in this way helping to awaken the species. These models will have to self-select, however, because no one is going to appoint or anoint them.
Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God