Thursday, August 11, 2011

When Privilege Becomes Indefensible

Lately there has been a spate of reports about the rich flocking to high end shops and indulging in the sort of luxuries reminiscent of the days before the Great Recession.   Even as the working classes struggle to make ends meet and lines blur between the merely poor and the outright destitute, the richest of the rich seem oblivious and bent on flaunting their good fortune.   Let them eat cake, indeed.

There are some now questioning whether the ongoing riots spreading through British cities are more than simple criminality and perhaps are harbingers of  social upheaval, uprisings.   Plenty of governments today wield the lash of austerity yet its sting is felt mainly by those least able to bear it, the most vulnerable - the homeless, the unemployed and the working poor.   Many of these people realize that their government hasn't trimmed the sails for everyone.   A privileged class exists that is, by good fortune, investment strategy and benevolent government, exempt from austerity measures, safely removed from all that.

Britain's Conservative prime minister David Cameron is waging an austerity war and it can be fairly said he's fighting it on the backs of the poorest and weakest.   Yet, when the youth of this economically disenfranchised sector take to the streets to riot, Cameron dismisses it as nothing more than rank criminality.   Two centuries ago the Brits knew how to deal with these types.   They transported them to distant penal colonies, notably Australia.  I'm sure Cameron must yearn for those good old days.

But what of the United States, where "rags'n riches" has achieved a near religious quality?  America's "bought and paid for" Congress, particularly its radical right Republicans, seek to solve their nation's deficit and debt crisis on the backs of the wage earning public while protecting ruinous military spending and morally outrageous tax favouritism for the richest of the rich who now often pay effective tax rates well lower than that of low-income earners.  It is this madness that has seen luxury goods flying off the shelves even as the remnants of America's once vibrant middle class reels.

It does not seem that life for most Americans will get better any time soon.   Life for the few, however, will remain just dandy.  What if enough Americans come to see the entire working class as set upon? What if the American street has its own Marie Antoinette moment?

There is a certain elasticity to inequality.  In stable societies, inequality can expand but will then be brought back down by prudent government policy if by no other means.   But if inequality expands too far and is magnified by imprudent government policy, what then?   Is it unreasonable to expect the disadvantaged to angrily reject a rigged outcome that is engineered by the elite with the connivance of their governments?   Is there a point in modern society where privilege becomes simply indefensible?

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