Uprooting toxic inequality



Almost all listings of our present discontents include inequality. I believe that gross inequality is the greatest threat to building a just and peaceful society. It is worth reflecting on why this may be so.

Bottle of poisonIn itself inequality is not harmful. It is part of the diversity proper in any human society. But the inequality that is now in question is toxic because it is extreme when measured by any scale, and because it is programmed to increase. It is self-perpetuating and self-intensifying. The increase of wealth of the few entails the marginalisation and impoverishment of others.

Fortunately, it is now notorious and is rightly resented. The cultural beliefs that have previously allowed radical inequality to be accepted as acceptable in a society have frayed. The religious understanding that each person has their God appointed station in life is no longer persuasive.

The ideological substitute — the belief that all in society benefit from unregulated economic competition — is now seen as the self-serving nonsense it has always been. Its fruits are rotten. Economic growth is now tested for fairness. It is no longer accepted as a good for which people can be sacrificed.

Resentment at the injustice inherent in an economy governed by greed ought to lead to the recognition that wealth has a social bond and is at the service of the common good, particularly to help the disadvantaged. That cooperative vision alone will lead to actions that redress increasing disparity of wealth and the resentment that its effects generate.

Much current evidence, however, suggests that resentment prompts behaviour which will intensify inequality, and so will increase resentment itself.

Resentment focuses attention on the wrongs done to oneself and not on the claims of others. So it strengthens the belief, fostered by neoliberal economic theory, that society is made up of competitive individuals and groups, and that consequently the political process is concerned with furthering one's own interests at the expense of others. It encourages a sense of entitlement.

The wealthy believe they are entitled to increase their wealth and dispose of it as they wish. Politicians believe they are entitled to the perks of office and retirement. Sectional groups believe they are entitled to have their interests served.


"Social democracy is based on trust that, through their representatives, citizens will consider the good of the whole nation and of its people. The disillusionment caused by governments extending inequality imposes great strain."


Each group regards others as self-interested and tries to strip away their entitlements. Reference to such concepts as the common good and the disinterested service of the community are seen as purely rhetorical: they are deployed in order to persuade but lack conviction. Ultimately the clash between competing interests is not to be resolved by reflection on the good of society but by the decisive use of power.

It is a commonplace that disaffection and alienation lead to political fragmentation and weakness. Politicians who are not trusted cannot take the bold actions required to make the economy serve people equitably. People who are resentful look for a strong leader who will represent their interests. But those who offer themselves as strong leaders usually look after their own interests while perpetuating and further deepening the inequality that brought them to power.

They also redirect the resentment at gross inequality against such minority groups as refugees or Muslims. They demonstrate their strength by the use of power against these groups in the interests of national security. The belief in innate human rights and the rule of law which are central in democratic societies are eroded. This further puts minority groups and their interest groups at risk.

History suggests that authoritarian leaders ultimately protect and extend inequality, whether in the interests of the existing beneficiaries or of the revolutionary cadres and their families. They also act to the detriment of individuals and groups who seek protection of their rights or freedom from discrimination. In a competitive society these groups have little power.

Social democracy is based on trust that, through their representatives, citizens will consider the good of the whole nation and of its people. The disillusionment caused by governments extending inequality and ruling for the few imposes great strain. Democratic processes and the respect for the dignity of each human being on which they rest are threatened by increasingly authoritarian practices to divide the community and stifle dissent.

That is why inequality matters. It is the enduring root and not the transient blossom of the plant of social division.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Inequality



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Existing comments

After reading this article, I thought of the phrase 'all things being equal' which means 'provided that other factors or circumstances remain the same.' Ha. Resentment is never a good look: it's severely limiting and highly contagious. It's also very understandable. The quality of people who stand for public office, particularly in politics, is of the utmost importance. I'm sure that strength is nowhere near as important as a belief in equality and fairness and a personality that perseveres. Groups, and individuals, who don't fit the 'norm' are particularly vulnerable to inequality. When our circumstances are overseen by those with little or no empathy, resentment gains a foothold and society is the loser.

Pam | 14 February 2017  

'The cultural beliefs that have previously allowed radical inequality to be accepted as acceptable in a society have frayed. The religious understanding that each person has their God appointed station in life is no longer persuasive.' I accept your point but it is hard not to see what you've written through the filter of what the church models for society. Is it a model of the 'trust' you speak of and the kind of 'common good' equality (as opposed to the 'toxic')? The wretched patterns of abuse in the church throughout the world could only have happened because there is a 'toxic inequality' where church leaders are not accountable to ordinary church members and where the glass ceiling of gender inequality is barely rattled.

Faz | 16 February 2017  

Great article and one of a growing number of voices on the scourge of inequality that has been well established for many years (e,g "The Spirit Level" - Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). However what are we doing about it? How do we bring all these voices together and change the system? Do we have to wait until the situation is so bad that we have a global-scale French Revolution?

Mike | 16 February 2017  

Shouldn`t the view here indeed be global, or indeed catholic, rather than "little-Englander"? Global "free" trade has brought truly enormous benefits to the poor of the world and will continue to do o, especially when rules are gradually introduced around pay and condition and safety etc (as in terribly and unfairly maligned TPP ). We also undoubtedly need better redistribution of the gains accrued in so-called wealthy counties like Australia, including wealth and death taxes. We are now the second wealthiest country in the world so there is really no reason why we cannot redistribute wealth to compensate the losers in this free-trade redistribution of work, and train them up for the new jobs that are emerging in educated countries. But try telling that to all of us greedy people in vested interest groups, not to mention the Senate!

Eugene | 16 February 2017  

Thank you for a clear outline of our divisive and unjust economic structures. One of the things that worries me is how complicit the church has become in this by way of the private school system which so easily mimics the perpetuation of privilege at the direct cost to the funding of public schooling.

Julie Perrin | 16 February 2017  

It was about 30 years ago now that I discovered that money was totally made from "thin air". These days, they call it Quantitative Easing. When there is an almost infinite amount of money, banks will try to lend as much as possible, and charge interest on it. Which is one very important reason why housing prices continue to go up and up. All this is fueled by the law that says company profits are the main reason for companies to be in existence, and that shareholders are to be priority. In other words, the environment must suffer. It was John Calvin who around 1535 said that we are predestined to go to heaven or hell. Eventually, Calvinism became the base for most American's beliefs. They now believe that if you are rich, you may be in the group going to heaven. However, if you are poor, sick or similar, they just want you off the planet quickly. Hence no good versions of Medicare, Social Security etc.

Clement Clarke | 16 February 2017  

I agree completely with Andrew " that gross inequality is the greatest threat to building a just and peaceful society." I'm also encouraged that people in Andrew's position recognise this ever deepening problem. I wish more church, political and business leaders would acknowledge present inequality in our society and work together to find a way forward that seeks the common good, rather than the wealth and advancement of a select few. Greater investment in government schools (which the poorest students attend) and significant increases in Newstart and single parent allowances would be a great place to begin turning the tide on gross inequality in Australia.

robert van zetten | 16 February 2017  

"Wealth has a social bond and is at the service of the common good, particularly to help the disadvantaged" ... this is actually what the notion of the Common Weal (Commonwealth) was about! For starters, perhaps we need to start calling out the deceptions that belie our use of such language. When will Wall Street operators who ran amok be prosecuted for their unconscionable actions? When will politicians learn the lessons of their cruel and death-dealing policies on people such as in the film "I, Daniel Blake"? When will business leaders come out and de-popularise the likes of Australia Post CEO's obscene remuneration package? YES, resentment will breed a global backlash ... but let's start in our own backyard. I met a 25 year old girl yesterday who, to stay in Australia for a second year, had to work on a farm in Victoria ... a dormitory to sleep (?) in with one toilet in the room for all, without doors; 7 days a week working for appalling pay. Then there's APPCO (ABC 7.30 Report) on http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-14/video-shows-appco-workers-forced-simulate-sex-acts-class-action/8268848. If we brutalise our young ... we ourselves will be brutalised in our vulnerable older years. A downward death-dealing spiral for us all eventually ...

Mary Tehan | 16 February 2017  

So many takes on contemporary life, like Andrew's here today, remind me of the entropic image of so many particles in a system bumping up against one another, with some bumps bigger than others, though in the long run all will be exhausted. In the human 'system' we have the image of muddle - contemporary life as in the polity, the economy, the church, the playing field, etc. In the end all will be exhausted, but in the meantime, there is a challenge for small groups here and there to make a difference, to deliver a few bumps, maybe against the unsuspecting (as in an election). But 'The System' as a whole will never retrieve or achieve a perfect disposition of parts; think of 7 billion people plus on the planet.

Noel | 16 February 2017  

There has always been inequality, but in the past it was accepted, and Rulers, both political and religious were seen as 'gods'. The Divine Rights of kings was promoted by the Bible and by religions for centuries. Only with wide-spread education and modern communications did the notion that "One man is as good as another- and maybe a bit better" take hold, and revolutionary thoughts demanded a "Fair go". Or was it that the means to effect it began to be realised??

Robert Liddy | 16 February 2017  

some years ago I became involved in massage and alternative therapies after being brought up in a puritan and prude environment where therapeutic l touch was virtually "tabu" One thing one soon learned was the importance of respect for human integrity and trust. Western culture and authoritarian political and church structures are learning this to their cost. It all starts in infancy and the home with the importance of "intimacy and affection"

john Ozanne | 16 February 2017  

I'm much more concerned about moving people out of poverty than making them equal in wealth to others, or even nearly so. So this is the great, yet curiously ignored fact for me: at the end of the 18th century, there were about 1 billion people, and well over 75% were at subsistence level poverty (SLP). Today there are 7 billion people, and only 900 million at SLP - ie around 13%. We are at a point in history in which grinding poverty is disappearing at unprecedented rates. The only holdouts are those places not participating in the global market economy, such as North Korea, some landlocked sub-Saharan African states, etc. The rich (I mean those on the free market-not the rent seekers and crony capitalists sponging off the state) are creating wealth, but the poor are not impoverished thereby: on the contrary, they are better off than they ever have been in the whole of human history. Market-based wealth creation is simply not the zero sum game Marx believed it to be. Equally clearly, equality has proven to be a disastrous delusion. Countless millions in The Soviet Union and its satellites, Red China and (still) North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba, etc all endured untold misery due to the egalitarian beliefs of their rulers. Plainly, as a matter of history, the conscious attempt to eradicate wealth inequality, rather than the tolerance thereof, has proven to be the policy most inimical to justice, peace and acceptable living standards for all.

HH | 16 February 2017  

H.H. "grinding poverty is disappearing ,,,,," Tell that to the millions who have had their jobs shipped over-seas, and are left with mortgages they can't afford, losing their homes and livelihood, just so the capitalists can accumulate more wealth. Or to the people in developing countries who had little money, but had land that provided them with the food and shelter they needed, and now have it taken away, and must work long hours for little pay.

Robert Liddy | 16 February 2017  

RL: demonstrate that the 2011 Brookings Institue report is wrong: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/01_global_poverty_chandy.pdf BTW, "grinding poverty" is about $US1.50 per day. That was the lot of the vast bulk of mankind over human history, until things began to improve with the advent of the market economy from the late 18th century.

HH | 16 February 2017  

HH ... You've missed the point here with your theme song in praise of all things neo-liberal. Please look around at who benefits and who loses out socially and economically in Australia today - courtesy of the allegedly beneficial disruptions of economic policy which just happen to shift wealth steadily and perceptively in favour of the already wealthy. Robert Liddy's examples are much more than anecdotal. Some more concreteness from Queensland: during the slash and burn economic practices of the Newman government (2012-15), we saw massive disappearances of public health services to rural and regional areas - as well as a trashing of the Youth Justice system in which the most productive restorative justice programs were axed in favour of punitive Boot Camps contracted out to incompotent LNP donors. The next government (now in office) has had an uphill battle in attempting to restore these and other vital services. Australia struggles at present to reconcile the various economic interests and aspirations for the common good. Many of us who have accomplished major gains in public policy and flourishing communities don't need to be regaled by neo-liberal soothsaying.

Wayne Sanderson | 16 February 2017  

I am totally with HH on this issue. Those countries that pursue equality before freedom become the most repressive and murderous history has ever known. Fr Hamilton is well aware of this as his third last paragraph shows. Despite the best hopes of many people that we will eventually find noble and wise rulers, it never happens. The power that state must claim for itself to bring about equality is simply too great and will eventually lead to its abuse. It is best that the state restricts itself to protecting the property rights and freedoms of its citizens. We can work the rest out for ourselves. Let each person trade their goods and services as they see fit, rather than ceding this fundamental right to the state. To all those waiting for the revolution, what is stopping you from giving away your goods right now? Work out what you think is a fair amount of wealth for you to have then give the rest away to people that you think are the most deserving.

Gerald Lanigan | 17 February 2017  

WS: 1) How is the fact that a government may have mismanaged health delivery services it has taken on a refutation of my point? It's just one more versicle in the Litany of Government Failures, of which the NBN is a more spectacular example and 2) the "boot camp" contract to LNP donors is precisely the sort of thing I referred to above as rent seeking/crony capitalism. You've actually supported my thesis there, thanks.

HH | 17 February 2017  

H.H. ""grinding poverty" is about $US1.50 per day."..... Much more wealth is generated with industrialisation and "all things neo-liberal.", but it is concentrated in the hands of capitalists. Any share for the dispossessed has been won by hard fighting by unions and solidarity among the workers, not by any sense of fairness from the capitalists.

Robert Liddy | 17 February 2017  

R.L. Unions weren’t around in any serious way when the standard of living began to rise in the first half of the 19th century. And the rise benefited not just labourers, but the self-employed and those who lived without employment income … everyone, in fact. You’re right that it had nothing to do with capitalists being “fair”. It had everything to do with capitalists being capitalists…taking risks with their capital and trying out new ideas. As a result there was an explosion of productivity, which resulted in an increase in the purchasing power of a given unit of money. So that, in real terms, e.g. a piece of cotton cloth selling for 70 shillings in 1780 was selling for 5 shillings in 1850. This is precisely what is happening today in the economies that are moving out of grinding poverty at historically unprecedented rates.

HH | 20 February 2017  

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