By Paul Kivel
Adapted from You Call This a Democracy? (2004)
When I began to think about writing about the economy, it was from an abstract understanding of the economic system, and a general awareness of the tremendous inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power in this country. It did not feel personal. Although I was aware of many of the costs of having a ruling class, I did not see all the personal connections to my life and my relationships.
As I began to think more specifically about some of the people I cared about in my life, I began to see my connections to the root causes of the
death and devastation around me. Breast cancer, lung cancer, AIDS, skin cancer, brain cancer, heart attack, family violence, work related “accidents,” diabetes, kidney failure, asthma, suicide–I realized that I knew some of the people being killed–family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
The impact of the system became real to me, personal in a chilling way as I realized the close ones I have lost. But precisely because it was so personal, it was difficult to see the total impact. I couldn’t tally up all the people killed from inequality, because there are just enough social services provided to keep a lot of people alive, and to make sure that they don’t die in the streets. They die alone, or with family, or with an attendant, one by one, and the cause is never related to the exploitation, violence, and policies of the ruling class and the powerful elite. They die at home, or in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices, or in jails and prisons. They die from family violence, unsafe working conditions, homelessness. They die from lack of health care, overwork, child abuse, police brutality, and gang warfare. They die from the production, distribution, and availability of guns and drugs, and from inadequate, unsafe, or non-nutritious food, unsafe products, and environmental toxins. Each death is individual and can be explained, at least partially, by personal factors. These personal factors have social, political, and economic roots, but these are rarely discussed.
It took me a long time to put together the pieces of the puzzle and to be able to see that the concentration of wealth in the current political and economic system is killing us in large numbers, every day. It took me a long time to see that the great majority of individual deaths that don’t involve someone dying in peace in old age are probably related to some form of exploitation and inequality, despair and lack of hope.
I mourn the loss of loved ones and grieve with family, friends, and community members for many others. I know some of the casualties. I think that you know some of them too. And everyday, in the newspaper, on the radio, on TV, and over the Internet, we hear about many others killed by the effects of the tremendous inequality of wealth and opportunity in this country and abroad.
Not every single personal situation or crisis is the result of social inequality, exploitation, or discrimination, but many are caused by or worsened by these conditions. For example, 18,000 people a year die simply because they lack health insurance. Another 50 to 60,000 die every year from work-related diseases like black lung and asbestosis. Millions of people, those who can find work, perform work that is faster than ever before, are subject to Orwellian control and electronic surveillance, and reduced to limited tasks that are numbingly repetitive, potentially crippling and stripped of any meaningful skills or the chance to develop them. Other effects of the concentration of wealth and power include:
• Severe limits on our democratic rights
• Longer work hours (leading to a lack of time to spend with our families, in social relationships, in democratic activities and in leisure activities)
• A greater threat of violence to ourselves, our families, and friends
• Greater economic insecurity in our lives
• Greater degradation of our physical surroundings
• More discrimination against people of color, Muslims, women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, people who are transgender, immigrants, and people with disabilities
• A false and inadequate understanding of our history and current realities
• Few alternatives to a narrow range of cultural activities
• Wars and terrorism
• Environmental endangerment of human existence.
There is not a single significant issue, relationship, situation, or part of
our lives, that is not dramatically affected by the unequal distribution of
wealth in our society.
The Impact of the U.S. Ruling Class on the Rest of the World
The devastation caused by the U.S. ruling class is incalculable. Millions of people have been killed directly by war in such countries as Guatemala, Vietnam, Serbia, Somalia, Nicaragua, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, and Zaire (formerly the Congo). Tens of millions have died from preventable disease, poverty, hunger, pollution, environmental degradation, land mines, and economic exploitation. In collusion with other developed countries, the U.S. ruling class has plundered vast areas of the earth and left large areas in ruins; unsafe, unhealthy and uninhabitable. Toxic rain, global warming; and large scale degradation of the oceans, rivers, and forests threaten human and all animal existence. There is no person, animal, or place on the earth that is immune to the devastating impact of having such a large concentration of wealth and power under the control of the U.S. ruling class and power elite and its counterparts in other developed countries. The U.S. power elite has supported dictatorships, undermined democratically elected governments, funded and sold arms to counter-insurgency movements, attacked other countries by force, employed and distributed depleted uranium, land mines, cluster bombs, daisy cutters, defoliating agents such as napalm and agent orange, and used chemical and biological weapons. These actions have had a devastating impact on the rest of the world’s population and natural environment.
The U.S. power elite coordinates with the power elite of European countries and that of Japan to maintain control of natural resources and human labor around the world. These power elites work together to safeguard the wealth and power of their country’s ruling classes. The U.S. power elite, through its dominance of the economic and military force of the U.S. government, dictates much of the terms of relationships between countries and within countries, directly through U.S. foreign policy, and indirectly through such organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO), and through trade “agreements”
such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the increasing number of bilateral agreements on investment.
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