England, America, Empire, and Inequality
by Paul Street
April 29, 2004

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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)

The second EPI measure is the "Gini coefficient," a special inequality scale that ranges from zero (perfect income equality across households) to one (meaning that all income would be concentrated at the top). The U.S. has the highest Gini coefficient by far (0.372) and the second highest belongs to England (0.344) (EPI, 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).

It is worth noting that income inequality is slight compared to wealth inequality. Currently in the U.S., economist Edward N. Wolff has determined, the Gini coefficient for wealth inequality in the U.S is 0.84 (see Wolff Top Heavy: the Increasing Inequality of Wealth and What Can Be Done About It [New York: The New Press, 2002], p. 39). The top 1 percent of U.S. wealth holders owns a remarkable 38 percent of total household wealth in the supposed homeland and and headquarters of global democracy. The top 5 percent owns 60 percent of that wealth (Woff pp. 8, 39). The latest edition of Wolff’s popular study (cited two sentences ago) notes that:

● “the gap between haves and have-nots [in the U.S.] is greater at the start of the 21st century than at any time since 1929.”

● “virtually all the growth in marketable wealth between 1993 and 1998 accrued to the top 20 percent of households, while the bottom 40 percent saw its wealth decline in absolute terms.”

● “it would take a city of almost a quarter of a million average American families to match the net worth of Bill Gates.”

● “forty-seven percent of the total real income gain between 1983 and 1998 accrued to the top 1 percent of income recipients, 24 percent went to the next 19 percent of the income distribution, and 12 percent accrued to the bottom 80 percent….the top quintile [ie 20 percent] received a little less than 90 percent of the total increase in income and over 90 percent of the increase in wealth” (Wolff, pp. 37-38)

“The starkness of these numbers,” Wolff deadpans, “suggests a widening fissure separating the strata without our society” (p. 38). Talk about your academic understatement!

Looking back on the limits of economic growth during the 1990s, the EPI notes that “inequality has risen sharply, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, and a few other countries” that have followed the U.S. in cutting public expenditures and programs to meet social needs (EPI, pp. 431-432).

Some analysts think that equity is less important than adequacy. Who cares if society is becoming less equal as long as the people at the bottom are being “taken care of”? It is interesting, then, to learn (EPI, p. 416) that the United States has the highest comparative child poverty rate in the OECD (22 percent) followed by both England and Italy (at 20 percent).

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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