Shared Destinies: Why Wealth Inequality Matters

In Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway many in the youngest generation―now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life like food, clothing, and shelter―choose to do just that, walk away. But is it unkind to exit a society defined by daily toil that benefits the rich without helping others who don’t have that option?

Below, Doctorow explains the strains of history leading up to this question.

So much many of us are poor today than just a few decades ago; after the world wars’ orgies of capital destruction, wealth reached unprecedented levels of even distribution. After all, the poor had little to lose in the war, and the rich hedged their war-losses by loaning governments money to fight on, and so many of those debts were never paid. The next thirty years—the French call them “Les Trentes Glorieuses”—saw the creation of the GI Bill, the British and French welfare states, and the rise of an anti-capitalist, anti-war counterculture that reached its apex in the summer of ’68, when the world was on fire.

But since the malaise of the 1970s and the reboot of fiscal conservativism with Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened all over the world. The rich got a *lot* richer, and though the world’s economy grew, and though millions in China were lifted out of poverty, many millions in the “rich” world sank back down to pre-war levels of inequality—levels of inequality to rival France in 1789, when the Reign of Terror brought the guillotine and the massacres.

But being poor in 2017 isn’t the same as being poor in 1789. Even the world’s poorest (the people living on inflation-adjusted one dollar/day) enjoy lives that surpass those of the very rich of revolutionary France, thanks to sanitation, nutrition, and telecommunications—the Big Three that bequeath long, healthy, fulfilling lives to rival those of lords in times gone past.

Those who provide intellectual cover for gross wealth inequality say that this is why it doesn’t matter that today’s rich are so much richer. The problem of inequality is one of quality: quality of life. If the Great Men (and a few token Pretty Good Women) of the ultra-rich can preside over industrial and telecommunications process that provide enough to everyone, does it matter if they, personally, have much more than enough?

It does. Of course it does. The super-rich—like every other human being—are just as capable of kidding themselves as any other human. This is our great frailty as a species, the reason for the scientific method (because every experimenter will happily interpret their ambiguous results as confirming their hypothesis, so they have to expose their experimental results to hostile feedback from people who point out their stupid mistakes or nothing will ever get done). One of the most toxic forms of ignorance is self-confident ignorance, and the successful are even more prone to this kind of ignorance than the rest of us, because their skill in one domain gives them the erroneous belief that they are good at everything.

(This is why con artists do so well on the rich and powerful: merely flattering their self confidence is enough to lead them into unfamiliar territory where than can be readily fleeced.)

Concentrating power in a few wise hands works great, but it fails badly. Letting the smart, competent technocrats make all the decisions without having to explain themselves to the sheeple can produce remarkable results, but it also means that when the Ubermenschen made dumb mistakes, those mistakes go unchecked, because the emperor’s new clothes cannot be contradicted on pain of defenestration through the Overton Window.

So: the mental quirks of Galtian titans such as climate denial (USA), dotty cult religion (South Korea), cults of personality (North Korea), vicious misogyny (Saudi Arabia) and so on become the law of the land, and the consequences of these peccadilloes swamp any benefits we get from streamlining our authority structure to Get Stuff Done.

The more unequal a society is, the more out-of-balance its policies will be.

But how unequal can a society get? Economist Thomas Piketty suggests that the inequality in France on the eve of the French Revolution is a good benchmark, a point at which no amount of spending on guard-labor can keep M Guillotine from taking the stage. Piketty shows that most societies over the past 300 years that neared this level of inequality diverted some of the wealth of the few to benefit the many, because it was simply cheaper to spend on bread, schools and hospitals than it was to pay for the guards needed to keep desperate people from seizing these things by force.

But technology changes this set-point. Technology has allowed us to achieve astounding breakthroughs in guard labor: in 1989, one in 60 East Germans worked for the Stasi, the country’s notorious secret police. It wasn’t enough: the Stasi wasn’t able to stabilize that unequal, unfair society, and the Berlin Wall fell. But today, each NSA spy is keeping at least *10,000* people under surveillance (probably more, the business is secretive, after all)—that’s two and a half orders of magnitude in productivity increase in a mere 25 years. Screw Moore’s Law: go long on mass spying!

There are many upshots of making it practical to spy on everyone, always, but one is that it becomes possible to stabilize societies under conditions of otherwise unsustainable inequality. That’s the world we’re living in now: ever-larger roles for the biases and cherished illusions of the super-rich, thanks to ever-growing fortunes, kept in check by ever-growing surveillance.

Something has to give. When it does, the question is: how will we react? Will we shoulder one another’s burdens, grabbing our bags and bugging in to the places were our neighbors need us? Or will we act like the cruel and selfish people the billionaires insist we are, grab our things and bug out, leaving others to sort through the rubble.

I’m betting on the former. That’s why I wrote Walkaway, an optimistic disaster novel about being kind during awful times. Awful times are a given, even in well-run, stable societies—they get smote by war, by disease, by climate and by unimaginable failures of complex systems. The delusions we cherish about our neighbors, about their essential untrustworthiness and downright unworthiness determines whether we rush to their aid or run from them.

Walkaway is a story where crisis threatens to tip into dystopia unless we can beat back elite panic and realize our shared destiny. It’s a vaccination against paranoia and mistrust, and a reminder that working together to make a better world is the oldest, most noble dream of our species.

Cory Doctorow Walkaway cover by Cory Doctorowis a science fiction author, activist, journalist, blogger, and the co-editor of Boing Boing. His latest novel is the multi-generational SF thriller Walkaway, available now from Tor Books.

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