People on both the left and the right have been raving for years about the elites, the establishment, or the 1% for siphoning global wealth into their coffers at everyone else’s expense; but these folks have typically been shunned to the fringe, cast as conspiracy theorists and idiots.
But now, even theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking – about as far from ‘idiot’ as you can get – agrees that widening inequality driven by technological advancements poses a dangerous threat to our civilization. And that it is the elite who are to blame – either for complicity or failure.
As the world reels from Brexit and the election of Trump – two events the elites in politics and media all assured us would never happen – Hawking parses why voters everywhere are rejecting establishment politics in favor of the unknown:
The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.
We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing.
Hawking has a keen understanding that the world is not divided by borders – all communities of people are interconnected through the forces of economics, globalization and technology. The internet has turned the world into a small village where we can all see each other up close: revealing the extreme inequities between rich and poor and broadcasting injustices that may have previously been ignored.
The consequences of this are plain to see: the rural poor flock to cities, to shanty towns, driven by hope. And then often, finding that the Instagram nirvana is not available there, they seek it overseas, joining the ever greater numbers of economic migrants in search of a better life. These migrants in turn place new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive, undermining tolerance and further fuelling political populism.
Capitalism has made a tiny few enormously wealthy, and everyone in the world envies their good fortune. But the internet age has proven once and for all that the system is rigged. It’s easy to see that powerful corporations have sucked all the wealth and resources from post-colonial nations, and are now abandoning those they once exploited in favor of robots who demand no rights or pay.
These 1%er’s did not become wealthy because of their innate genius or hard work; they acquired their riches through the exploitation of others, either directly or indirectly. Even a company like Apple, universally admired for being progressive, relies on poor people to mine the minerals needed for their computers and toil in factories lined with suicide-prevention nets. The magic of Apple’s products – along with all of the major manufacturers of material goods – is that the slaves who made them are tucked away out of sight. Without the abundance of cheap labor provided by poor people around the world, most of the major corporations would not be able to succeed in bringing their products to market and raking in enormous profits.
As the internet gives everyone a window into everyone else’s lives, it’s becoming increasingly undeniable that corporate profits are the unpaid labor of the working class. It’s not the genius of Steve Jobs that brought us the iPhone, it’s the impoverished workers sweating to reach their quotas on the production lines. But those people will never see the fruits of their labor, while the executives exponentially grow their own wealth. So naturally, the working class around the world is hungry for change and is willing to put their faith in con artists like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.
Hawking reminds us of the gargantuan challenges facing our civilization (“climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans”) and concludes that:
[T]he world’s leaders need to acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many. With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.
With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so. If communities and economies cannot cope with current levels of migration, we must do more to encourage global development, as that is the only way that the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home.
What he leaves out is that the elite have no interest in sharing wealth or resources, no interest in investing in impoverished communities and nations, and no interest in relinquishing their stranglehold on political power. They are advanced in their ability to distract and divide the people with superficial controversies, or to scare the populous into building their own cage. Only through the mass mobilization of working people everywhere can these enormously powerful forces be countered effectively. The good news is that it’s been done before, and it can be done again.