The myth of trickle down economics has been exposed. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. A rising tide drowns those at the bottom.

Davos Convention Centre, where the World Economic Forum is meeting this week to carve up the world's wealth

Davos Convention Centre, where the World Economic Forum is meeting this week to carve up the world’s wealth

The ideology that took control of the world after 1973 is called neoliberalism. It was conceived at the University of Chicago, and born in blood when CIA-backed forces overthrew the democratically-elected left wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and used the country as a testing ground for market fundamentalism

Its central argument is that markets are the most efficient way to organise economies and societies, and anything that restricts free markets needs to be opposed. Thatcher and Reagan were the first political leaders of major countries who were able to implement neoliberal policies at a national level, and they quickly became the norm – especially after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. We live in the world they created – a world where a tiny minority has succeeded in looting half the world’s resources, supported by a loyal chorus of economists, politicians and journalists.

A new report by Oxfam highlights the situation: 1% of the world’s population control half the world’s resources. Last year, they owned only 48%. Next year, it will be more than half. 85 billionaires own as much as the bottom half.

The other 99% of us need to compete with each other for what’s left, to get enough to survive. And we do need to compete, because the 1% have bought the political and economic system, and created a dog-eat-dog environment where divide and conquer is the rule.

Instead of organising to distribute resources more fairly, we’re fighting each other: blaming immigrants, Muslims, feminists, workers in other countries, anyone who is different.

The rich love it.

Already apologists for the 1% are rushing to their defence: inequality is a good thing, they claim, because it motivates people. Obscene wealth at the top makes us richer overall. These apologists are, of course, not in the 1%: they are the 10% who hope to be well rewarded by the 1% for their loyalty. And that is how the world is structured: a pyramid with a tiny elite at the top who own most of the world. They are protected by a layer of people – the Establishment – in politics, the media, finance and top universities, who are paid very well to defend and protect the system. They control the media, and tell us there is no alternative.

The rest of us scrabble around for what’s left.

As this famous old image shows, the idea of capitalism as a pyramid scheme is not new. How do we level it?

As this famous old image shows, the idea of capitalism as a pyramid scheme is not new. How do we level it?

Enough. It’s obscene. We are destroying the planet. People die of preventable illnesses. We could stamp out hunger with the money spent on weapons. We know of all of this, and yet we have been unable to change things. We see conflict everywhere, as the 1% – who have the luxury of detaching themselves and floating above the rest of us – sow division so that we fight over the remaining half, and forget to turn our attention to them.

Of course, inequality is bad for everyone: even the 1%. Inequality leads to conflict, which means – at the very least – massive security bills for the rich. It leads to environmental degradation: manicured lawns won’t protect the rich from a planet in meltdown forever. Poverty means shrinking demand, as people can’t afford to buy things, which strangles the economy.

But we will never convince that hostile band of brothers to change things, either out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of enlightened self-interest, because they are neither good, nor enlightened.

Lobbying for a fairer deal won’t help. The elite, meeting this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, will not agree to give up their wealth. We need to take action. We need to organise to change the distribution of resources.

This is what we do best.

This is our main role as trade union activists: to shift the balance of power between workers and bosses. To take money out of the pockets of the 1%, and put it in the pockets of working people. To move control of our political and economic system out of the hands of the tiny elite, and into the hands of the great mass of people. To bring about real economic and political democracy.

We do this really well when we stand up and fight. Unions have done more to lift people out of poverty than any charity or rich philanthropist. But too many of our own people have bought into the myth that nothing can change, and that the best we can hope for is to fight a rear guard action to protect decent conditions for as long as possible.

When we fight back, we win. Our natural terrain is the workplace and the community. And this is where we have begun to turn the corner, to win both the argument and the fight.

Some of the most marginalised and poorly paid workers in the US work in big supermarkets like Walmart, in retail, in Amazon fulfilment centres and in fast food. Over the past couple of years, they have been fighting back, and demanding a working life with dignity. And they have begun to win. Their demands are ambitious: they are campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage, which is a 100% increase on the current Federal minimum. And they are winning: Seattle became the first city to agree to the $15 minimum in June last year, followed by San Francisco in November. Other states and cities have raised the wage too. This is a great victory for organise labour, and it materially changes conditions for hundreds of thousands of low wage workers.

Sotheby'd workers celebrating their Living Wage victory

Sotheby’s workers celebrating their Living Wage victory

Marginalised workers in other countries are fighting back too: from Ritzy cinema workers and Sotheby’s cleaners in London, the capital of Capital, to Kenyan schoolchildren occupying their playground, domestic workers slowly gaining dignity and respect, to Bangladeshi garment workers building unions from the ground up.

We’re beginning to turn the tide on TTIP, too: a secret trade deal that the elite were trying to sneak through to stitch up even more wealth and power for themselves was exposed and opposed by unions and social movements. 1,3 million people signed a grassroots European Citizen’s Initiative, and the most controversial aspect of the treaty, the ISDS mechanism that would allow corporations to sue countries, has been taken off the table. We haven’t won yet, but we’ve shown that we can.

topple capitalist pyramid

New political forces are emerging across Europe, especially in Spain and Greece, with Podemos and SYRIZA.

But to be effective, we need to fight on many fronts. Developing and voting for electoral alternatives is important, but not as important as rebuilding power on the shop floor and in the streets.

A victory on the electoral front alone will quickly be co-opted or neutralised: if SYRIZA wins in Greece, for instance, it will come under huge pressure. Left wing governments – from Spain in 1936, through Chile in 1973 and Latin America today – are relentlessly attacked. The elite don’t like democracy.

But we can do it. We can win. If we stand together, if we support each others’ struggles, if we recognise who the real enemy is, and refuse to be derailed into blaming scapegoats. We are many, we are diverse. Together, we can find a way to fairly and sustainably share the Earth’s resources.

Something must be done. We need to take back power from the 1% who have seized it, and each of us can play our part, from where we are now: in our unions, our political parties and organisations, our social movements, our communities and our faith groups. With mutual respect and solidarity, we can reach out, support each other, and create a network, an eco-system of activism that can quickly and effectively mobilise people.

Take heart. Get involved. Together, we can win back the world.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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