Recently I spoke to a group of business leaders on the subject of “wealth and social policy.” The audience consisted of sincere women and men who had grown concerned that with titanic amounts of wealth being generated in the developed world, little was changing for those whose lives remain in economic stagnation and whose prospect for gainful employment recedes each successive year. In all of this, governments themselves seemed particularly ineffective.
In my city of London, Ontario, recent research revealed that 48% of our workforce is either in precarious or vulnerable work conditions, with little in the way of benefits, pensions, or even a future. It is a reality that begs the obvious question: if all the wealth is resulting in such little meaningful work, what exactly are we doing? Sadly, while many declare the merits of this tax scheme or that social program, few wish to stop for a moment, survey the economic and social landscape, and question the very premise of our modern economies. Put another way, without work, where do people find their meaning and where do societies find their true worth?
Below is an excerpt from a book I wrote a couple of years ago, titled Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins. One of those sins he highlighted carried the heading “Wealth Without Work.” This is now where we are, and without work our productive future is no longer secure. The very rationale for our modern economy is suspect as a result.
Fast-forward to today and we can see the result of money shedding the last vestiges of its moral accountability, especially to community. When hard work was extolled as a virtue, a person’s reputation was often based on his or her performance within a community context. Diligent toil was noted and appreciated. It spoke to ethical character, a disciplined spirit, and a responsibility to the greater life. The Protestant Work Ethic wasn’t merely about diligence but character, relating success to the desire to please God by working for a greater purpose and a broader world. If one became wealthy in the process, it was seen as a benediction of the Divine on the exploits of the worker.
Today, the image of the wealthy is largely framed through notoriety, fame, and media coverage. The wildly successful capitalists of today (if capitalist is indeed the appropriate word) seek celebrity more than esteem from the community. There are exceptions, but they are rare. In a very real way they want to be envied as opposed to respected. Success in modern society has to be ratified by publicity, not the community.
In a world where the possession of wealth is more important than how it was acquired, it no longer is of consequence what methods were used to accumulate riches. Many of the world’s top millionaires and billionaires are decent and diligent people who often practice philanthropy. The particular manner in how they raised their money is never as important as the fact that they possess it. Our modern world is now faced with the uncomfortable reality that much of this wealth came from cheap labour, or the avoidance of taxes, and much has produced environmental harm. Eugene Victor Debs watched all this unfold and made a prescient observation:
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
Ironically, Debs made this statement in 1920, when capitalism was gaining its untold wealth through the process of cheap labour. One wonders what he would think of globalization today and its penchant for moving manufacturing around the globe to wherever the labour costs, environmental standards and commitment to core communities are lowest.