Sunday, 26 January 2014

The capture of opportunities by the rich at the expense of the rest Some people think that Bill Gates is a jolly decent chap because he gives some of his wealth away. This is the same perverse thinking that celebrates philanthropy as it disempowers people in poverty. I’d like to live in a society where people question the systems and structures that allow half of the world’s wealth to be owned by just one percent of the population. The Oxfam report which publicises this statistic (speaking truth to Davos) makes the point: ‘Some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks. However, the extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.’ It does look like we’re well-past the tipping point of ‘some economic inequality’ and we’re now into dangerous extremes. Oxfam note that: ‘over the past few decades, the rich have successfully wielded political influence to skew policies in their favour on issues ranging from financial deregulation, tax havens, anti-competitive business practices to lower tax rates on high incomes and cuts in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available.’ (Guardian article) And I weep for all the rights workers in the seventies and eighties who laboured to get equalities principles understood and acts of law passed. Now we have governments that routinely disdain equalities in pursuit of the re-feudalisation of society. Is there much awareness, let alone discomfort, about this state of affairs? Is it true, as I suggested here, that 'most people don’t really notice, and some even believe them to be doing their best'? Maybe more awareness than I’d have suspected: the Guardian article refers to Oxfam’s survey research: ‘In the UK, some 67% agreed that "the rich have too much influence over where this country is headed" - 37% saying that they agreed "strongly" with the statement - against just 10% who disagreed, 2% of them strongly.’ George Monbiot, meanwhile, is asking whether the reason we’re all so indifferent about the abuses of power around us is because we’re satiated with comfort: too much freedom to be bothered about freedom. Perhaps that’s part of it – certainly I don’t see how our cultural emphasis on consumption and celebrity can be regarded as healthy – but I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the issue of equalities. Oxfam are right to stress its centrality to social justice. There are people in positions of responsibility who spout the rhetoric of social justice who could appreciate that; but it's not in their interests, or those of their friends.
Whatever happened to that programme about community? I missed this when first broadcast back in December, but R4 are now repeating three programmes under the heading ‘Whatever happened to community?’ Giles Fraser, recently appointed priest in the parish that includes the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in south London, sallies forth in search of a few questions and possibly some answers. Slipping from labelled urban to fabled rural, he solicits views from some insightful folk along the way, including David Goodhart for example. Scale and diversity were the main themes of the first episode, which you can catch for a few more days here, with the remainder in the next couple of weeks. As these programmes go, I thought it was pretty good. At least we got an unequivocal statement from a resident about how the architects and planners had got things plain wrong. This is not trivial when you think how determined architects can be to defend their mistakes. There was also some brief reference to the experience of community over the centuries, and there is plenty to be gained from a more thorough look in that direction, as Emily Cockayne for instance has shown. Scanning the blurb about the forthcoming programmes though, I saw no reference to gated communities. Given the attention paid so far to ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ community, inclusion implying exclusion, and so forth, it would be a curious omission not to use gating and locking and ‘secured by design’ as a lens for further insight: especially if the last programme is to bring us back to the reality of those huge built estates from which we are still learning. I'm also starting to wonder about the widespread assumption that neighbouring in recent decades has been changed fundamentally by the proportion of residents who are at home during the day - the decline of the housewife. I think there is something in this argument, but maybe after an interim period, diverse others are now more likely to be at home, so is it time to test the theory with some thorough research? Perhaps the Royal Mail have some data that could be used? Thanks Martin for the heads up.

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