As right-wing politicians around the world gathered power by scapegoating immigrants for the economic struggles of working people, the world’s richest people got nearly a quarter trillion dollars richer in 2016.
The 500 wealthiest individuals on a planet of roughly 8 billion humans gained $237 billion in personal net worth over the year, according to Bloomberg.
Those massive investment gains followed similarly massive convulsions – a natural byproduct of beginning the investing year with incredible wealth. The same microfraction of the species was almost $400 billion in the hole by Valentine’s Day, then up more than $300 billion in the months before Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in November’s election, before slumping to the mere $237,000,000,000 net gain by year’s end, Bloomberg reports.
The poorest 2.4 billion adults worldwide have an average wealth of under a thousand bucks, and a combined net worth of 2.36 trillion. The 500 people on Bloomberg’s list ended the year with close to double that between them: $4.4 trillion.
In other words, capitalism has decided that one crowded nightclub’s worth of people are worth twice as much as a human herd that could fill the cavernous Indianapolis Motor Speedway six thousand times over – assuming none of them brought their children along.
Such inequality isn’t just a condition of economic strife. It’s a cause of it. Yet in countries around the world, the broke billions are being encouraged to blame their own dire straits on other poor people. And it’s working. Xenophobic, nativist politicians on the extreme right edge of the traditional political spectrum have captured a larger and larger share of power.
Trump’s win in November, like the victory of pro-Brexit campaigners in the summer, suggests that the economically oppressed are embracing paranoid, mathematically insane explanations of why their lives are so rotten. Liberal political values seem poised to fall soon in France, Germany, and Brazil. The Trumps and Le Pens of the world are winning at the ballot box even as the evidence grows starker that inequality is to blame for the hardships these populists’ supporters endure.
The idea that democracies cannot survive intense maldistribution of wealth for very long is not new. But the sheer speed of this transformation is nonetheless breathtaking.
The fall of the liberal idea comes barely five years after a very different political moment around the world, where populists were in the streets decrying the wealthy, the financial industry, and their government abettors. Protests from Wall Street to Madrid to Athens to Reykjavik targeted not immigrants or refugees or government benefits programs, but concentrated wealth.
Sooner or later, governments called down the police on those same protesters. Few of those governments took any aggressive policy steps to redress inequality, or even to repair the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis. The already severe concentration of global wealth in a few hundred hands intensified.
And now, those same masses who rode a leftward breeze for a year or two have retreated – or simply turned right.
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