Inequality, unemployment and poverty
Neoliberals sideline talk of harms such as global warming, poverty and unemployment because they believe the required interventions in the underlying systemic contexts will jeopardise their global economic project (Hall et ah, 2020). The remarkable universality of neoliberal discourse used across different nations and regions of the world shifted, at least prior to the current crisis, popular debate in the “west,” away from issues related to the inner workings of the global monetary system and its impact on economies and populations, towards generalised ideas about applicable policies. Therefore, issues such as increased social and/or political inequality have been and are being transformed into matters related to individual or governmental choices (Afouxenidis, 2015). For example, patterns of social inequality and poverty are reduced to ideas about individuals helping themselves (Springer, 2008; Bourgois and Schonberg, 2009; Briggs and Monge Gamero, 2017).
This is why, in official documents published by bodies such as the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), all they can do is essentially make limp calls on governments to act against challenges such as inequality, unemployment and poverty, and/or provide guidance on policies to enhance “human capital” - the skills, knowledge and experience possessed by an individual or population. In a neoliberal society, citizens are called upon for their “meritocratic initiative” (Young, 2007) to work themselves into security and stable wealth as much as they are expected to work themselves out of their own suffering and destitution (Briggs and Monge, 2017).
Economic inequality is largely driven by the unequal ownership of capital, which can be either privately or public owned. Since 1980, very large transfers of public to private wealth occurred in nearly all countries, whether rich or emerging. While national wealth has substantially increased, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries. Arguably, this limits the ability of governments to tackle inequality; certainly, it has important implications for wealth inequality among individuals (Alvaredo et al., 2018). This is because we are talking about “individuals.” Over the years, Oxfam have continued to document the steep increase in inequality around the world, and their latest report shows that “the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population” (Oxfam, 2020: 6). No surprise then that 10% of the world’s population live on less than $2 a day (World Poverty Report, 2019).
Governments are massively under-taxing the wealthiest individuals, companies and corporations, and because of this fail to collect revenues that could help lift the responsibility of poverty reduction and inequality. But because neoliberal capitalism’s main goal is to search for new profitable markets, exhaust them and then seek out new markets, inevitably there is a human cost. Companies and corporations look to streamline their operations and services to maximise their profit, which results in making redundancies, new and precarious work contracts, lack of work rights, low pay and increased pressure to work more hours, to name a few (Cardoso et al., 2014; Lloyd, 2018; Farina et al., 2019). In a time of reduced human labour and increased meritocratic pressure to compete to work (Young, 2007), there are inevitably large numbers of people who cannot find it. According to the International Labour Organization (2019: 2),
An estimated 172 million people worldwide were unemployed in 2018, which corresponds to an unemployment rate of 5.0 per cent - a further 140 million people were in the “potential labour force” in 2018, which means that they have to be classified as underutilized labour. This group of people who are looking for a job but are not available to take up employment, or who are available but are not looking for a job, includes far more women (85 million) than men (55 million).
In low-income countries, these pressures are far more pronounced as political regimes, social infrastructures and employment relationships drastically impede the possibility to escape poverty. Other variables also make for startling consideration such as the increasing poverty associated with rural areas, hence the growing populations in cities across the world. In particular, this distinction is important because, as I hinted at in Chapter 1 when I referred to the research by Kelley et al. (2015), when combined with botched domestic economic policies and the increasing presence of man-made climate change, we see increased social pressure in poor urban areas. For example, a report by the World Bank Group in 2018 found the bottom 40% of the world’s poor disproportionately live in rural areas, making them vulnerable to disruptions caused by the climate. Changes in climate impact ways out of gross inequality. For example, Uganda suffered significant setbacks in poverty reduction and shared prosperity in recent years largely due to a series of damaging droughts and pests that affected harvests throughout 2016. Consequently, Uganda’s poverty rate rose from
35.9% in 2012 to 41.6% in 2016 (World Bank, 2018). Climate change therefore exacerbates inequality.
As a result, these regions of the world have experienced increased social tension and conflict. While many of these people have protested about these threats to their livelihoods (Winlow et al., 2015), little change is seen which is why political crises have become everyday occurrence for many nations (Zizek, 2016). This is why the concept of social harm is fitting. Tifft and Sullivan (2001: 198) define social harms as “actions or arrangements that physically and spiritually injure and/or thwart the needs, development, potentiality, health, and dignity of others”; in other words, the perpetuation of social conditions that facilitate the mass production of what Bauman (2003: 5) refers to as “human waste,” or more correctly wasted lives.
Expect there to be more wasted lives after the advent of the coronavirus outbreak. Just watch the companies and corporations cull employees because of the lack of economic activity as the weak, poor and vulnerable experience the brunt of suffering because of the virus (Chapter 11). As I write, we are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of redundancies, but in the few months since the outbreak hundreds of thousands of people have been sacked worldwide. This is because today’s neoliberal capitalists, benefiting from advanced technology, the mobility of capital and the precedence of finance capital, no longer need labour in numbers (Hall and Winlow, 2018).