There’s an African proverb that is becoming uncomfortably apt to apply to many workers and citizens: “As the waterhole becomes smaller, the animals get meaner.”
In other words, as basic needs dwindle, so does the willingness to share what’s left. The merits of community and co-operation are superseded by a selfish survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
A big difference, however, exists between what happens at a shrinking waterhole in Africa and what happens in Canada when good-paying jobs are reduced, incomes fall or stagnate, and government services are cut back. The African waterhole gets smaller because of a drought. It’s a natural and unavoidable phenomenon. In Canadian society, however, the necessities of life for the most vulnerable among us are being deliberately restricted.
Our welfare “waterhole” is being siphoned away, its contents inequitably transferred from the pockets of the poor into the bulging bank accounts and stock portfolios of the rich and powerful.
There is no shortage of money in Canada. Our per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the country’s entire financial output — has more than doubled over the past 50 years. But its dispersal has been ruthlessly skewed to favour the most opulent among us. Corporate executives, bankers, major investors and financiers wallow in wealth, much of it derived from taxpayer-funded billion-dollar bailouts of big corporations.
Maldistribution of income
That a barbaric maldistribution of income leaves millions of citizens, including hundreds of thousands of children, destitute and undernourished doesn’t bother the elite in the least. Their cherished capitalist system inevitably creates many more losers than winners, and always will. That’s its chief purpose. So the diversion of income from the needy to the wealthy is welcomed, and the wealthy can count on their right-wing political minions to block or minimize significant poverty reductions.
In the past, prior to the global expansion of capitalism, picking on the marginalized and poor was not something that could be done with impunity. Corporations were confined to the country of their origin, and subject to political and social constraints on their power and greed. Strong unions prevented them from underpaying their employees. Most people — even many of the rich themselves — would have been shocked by today’s obscenely inequitable distribution of income and the widespread misery it inflicts.
Today, thanks to “free trade” and the global expansion of high-tech communications, corporations have been freed from economic and regulatory limits on their insatiable profit-making — free to move their operations to countries with the lowest wages, lowest taxes, lowest environmental standards. This planet-wide omnipotence also enables them to exploit their power over subservient governments and weakened unions in their home countries, where wages stagnate, inequality soars, poverty pervades, corporate taxes decline, and pollution rises.
Corporate oppression unchallenged
One of the worst outcomes of this corporate oppression has been its abject acceptance by so many of its victims. Yes, there are protests by activist groups, complaints about service and funding cuts, valiant attempts to help the many casualties. But these efforts are mostly confined to mitigating the harmful impacts of the dominant capitalist system, not targeting that insidious system itself.
As long as progressive activists continue to accept the calamities of runaway capitalism as unpreventable, then their many protests, though admirable on their own, will be ineffectual.
As for those who now consider resistance to corporate power futile, many have unfortunately decided to embrace its pernicious “survival of the fittest” practice. They resent anyone who seems to be faring better than they are in the current jungle-law economic system. Instead of striving for a fair income for everyone, they try to catch up to and financially surpass the co-workers and neighbours they now perceive as rivals and competitors.
It’s one of the baser instincts fostered by a baneful socioeconomic system that puts individual competitiveness above communal co-operation.
Many human animals, it seems, also tend to get meaner as their personal economic waterhole gets smaller. They don’t blame the bloated plutocrats who greedily suck up the largest share of the country’s fluid assets. They turn their wrath instead on those who are competing with them more effectively for what’s left in the national financial “pond” after it’s mostly slurped up by the powerful plutocrats.
If they are employed by a private firm, they resent public employees enjoying higher wages and better pensions. If they work in the oil and gas industries, they resent efforts by environmentalists to reduce harmful carbon emissions.
Of mice and men
It’s eerily reminiscent of a laboratory experiment I once read about in which sadistic scientists provoked naturally peaceful mice to fight among themselves. This was done with an extended colony of mice which coexisted in harmony as long as they all had enough to eat and drink.
Gradually the scientists reduced their supply of food. They wanted to find out at what lower level of sustenance the mice could be induced to “compete” for their dwindling rations.
Eventually, of course, growing hunger turned the biggest and strongest mice against the weaker ones. At first they simply nipped at them and drove them from the food and water containers. Then, as the food was drastically curtailed, the attacks became fiercer. The weakest mice eventually died, either from their wounds or starvation.
Thus was a stable and co-operative community of mice converted into a war zone in which the strongest prevailed over the weakest.
Like these lab mice, the weakest and poorest among us have also been subjected to a contrived reduction of their collective means of livelihood. They’ve been forced to make do with fewer good jobs, lower incomes, declining services.
Many of us in the middle class, too, though not victimized to the same extent, also struggle in underpaid and insecure jobs with minimal benefits, living precariously from paycheque to paycheque.
There’s a vital difference, however, between us and the mice. We’re more intelligent and not as powerless. We don’t have to react as they did. We don’t have to be goaded by the corporate lab technicians to fight among ourselves for the fair share of the national income that has been as ruthlessly withheld from us as was the food and water from the mice.
Instead, we have to stop diffusing our immense potential power. We have the inherent ability to co-operate and collaborate, to consolidate our collective force and focus it decisively against our plutocratic tormentors.
Yes, we face a monumental corporate Goliath, against whom an individual David is helpless. But if we can jointly muster all our protest “slingshots” on a global scale and wield them together, it’s possible that even the mighty neoliberal capitalist system could be toppled.
We’ll never know, however, unless we stop squabbling and start mobilizing a massive, united, unstoppable civilian crusade.
Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.