Inequality inevitably destroys democracy

Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in their book ‘Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty’ take a broad sweep though human history and demonstrate that inclusive political institutions are vital for long term prosperity, while extractive systems undermine both prosperity and functional democracy. These authors fail to make clear the extent to which inequality is now destroying countries long thought of as democratic, especially USA.

One statistic demonstrates the extent to which the USA must now be regarded as a failed state. “The top 400 people … own more wealth now than the bottom 185 million Americans taken together. That is a medieval structure.” (Gar Alperovitz) In January the Guardian Weekly quoted Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, who said extreme wealth was “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive”. ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, Annie Leonard’s ‘Story of Stuff’ videos would all be known to many of the readers of this blog, and all give ample evidence to the destructive effects of excessive wealth.

Our mainstream political parties have utterly failed us in America and Britain. Barack Obama is probably the best candidate either the Democrats or Republicans could have come up with and yet judged by any meaningful political or economic indicators he has been a disaster. The extent to which the American state is in the hands of a few rich individuals and corporations makes democracy a sham. The UK is not much better. Inequality has risen consistently from the Thatcher era through Blair, Brown, and Cameron. Paranoia over terrorism has forced us into pointless wars and unprecedented surveillance.

However I remain optimistic. One reason is the burgeoning size and dynamism of what Paul Hawken in ‘Blessed Unrest’ calls ‘The Movement’. We can see it active on the streets of Brazil and Turkey, in the growth of online activism with Avaaz and, in the increasing global numbers of bottom up, self organising community groups. This movement is profoundly egalitarian, inclusive and global. I feel strongly a part of something very big and very little understood. We demand real social justice, real democracy and real ecological sustainability. I’ll write more about this movement over coming weeks: it is of profound significance.


The 400 individuals to 185 million ratio of American inequality is one I heard the excellent Ted Howard of the Evergreen Coops quote at a meeting in Hereford, but here is quoted by Gar Alperovitz on the democracy now website

The books referred to in today’s blog are:-

‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty’ by Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, Profile Books, 2012

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, Penguin, 2009

‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, Vermilion, 2007

‘Blessed Unrest’ by Paul Hawken, Penguin, 2007