We live in a society that is inherently unfair. A small minority of people control a vast majority of wealth, power, opportunity, and land. These few flaunt their ostentatious lifestyle with mansions, fancy cars, and other emblems of wealth. All the while, a large percentage of people throughout the world struggle simply to feed, clothe, and house themselves.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what keeps this majority from somehow correcting this inequity, whether through riot, revolution, or some more peaceful means of societal upheaval? Wouldn’t you expect some sort of railing against a system that sees much of the fruits of everyone’s labour in the hands of so few?
From time of Marx and Engles, this issue has been wrestled with. Reformers and radicals alike have fruitlessly sought means of dealing with this uneven distribution. In some cases, so called “classless societies” have been developed but have proved to be failures as elites have formed to lord privileges over the less fortunate.
In the end, these experiments have become just as oppressive, if not more oppressive, than the flawed systems whose problems they were supposed to solve. What good is a classless society when you are forced to overtly oppress people with secrete police and military might? Something has been overlooked, some base element that drives human behaviour as we know it is being ignored in our attempts to bring about equality.
At first glance, there are few similarities between communist and capitalist societies. But take a second look. Each one offers rewards for services rendered, for compliance with the rules of the game.
In the former, there is the promise of privileges or the withdrawal of same. Better living, travel, and other freedoms were used to ensure compliance with their code of conduct. If you informed on your neighbour, met your quota for the month, or proved yourself worthy in some other way, you were rewarded. Stepping out of line could see a drastic reduction in lifestyle, if not one’s personal freedom. The spectre prison camps and political re-education prove a mighty deterrent to objectionable behaviour.
In the latter there is the promise of promotion to a better position to elevate you above your fellows, coupled with the fear of losing what you have for either doing well or failing at a specific task. While the fear of actual imprisonment is not as prevalent, debt and poverty are sufficient worries to act as a deterrent to abnormal behaviour.
No matter what facade we lay over top (the good of the state or an upstanding member of society), it all comes down to pitting one individual against another. Behaviour is motivated by self-preservation and self-aggrandisement.
In some sort of twisted race to a nonexistent finish line, we barrel down a track looking over our shoulder with one eye and glancing ahead with the other, never seeing what we are doing. This blindness, this singularity of focus on what’s ahead and behind is what traps us. We know there is someone behind waiting for us to stumble just as we are waiting for one of those ahead to fall.
From the moment we are put into the training system called education we are conditioned for competition: spelling bees, tests, grades. We are told that education will be our tool for a better life ahead, we toil to obtain standards of excellence. Through circumstances beyond our control: genetics, social standing, and quality of education, the first distinctions between us are drawn.
“Streaming” is what they called it when I was in High School but you could easily call it segregation. Pupils considered University and professional class material were put at one level, community college grade students another, and lower students were deemed fit for trades.
While there is validity to this system, everybody is encouraged to work where they are most comfortable and teachers are able to properly challenge students without leaving some out in the cold, it’s also the first sign that some are more favoured by society than others. This is the first indication that, while we may all strive to obtain the rewards that are offered to those higher up, our place in society is pretty much pre-ordained.
Forlornly, we cling to the hope of attaining some of the peaks, whether through luck or perseverance (“hard work is it’s own reward”) through desire to be rewarded on the same level as the lucky few. The carrot of individual freedom through independent means has an allure that is hard to resist.
As was shown with the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe, these systems can reach the breaking point. When too many people too frustrated by a lack of reward and even less promise of that reward being delivered, it will eventually leads to discontent too large to be suppressed.
As victims to a minority’s success continue to increase in numbers (whether the success of a country at another’s perceived expense or one section of society at another’s), tensions mount and cracks begin to appear. Manifested as resentment and anger, it is the root cause of terrorism and other extremist behaviours. It’s far easier to recruit discontented people for a cause then those who are at peace.
Unfortunately we have no examples of viable alternatives. After all, everybody attended the same school after and we all learned the same lessons. To the victor go the spoils. Losers are weak and everybody should want to be a victor.
Even on the level of interpersonal relationships, between man and wife, this attitude is pervasive. Instead of thinking of “ourselves” as a unit, the tendency is to think in terms of individual needs and how to fulfill them. Driving this is our conditioned reflex of looking both forward and behind at all times. Past treatment leads us to predict future reactions and directs us towards a position of self-preservation. If that is the way the whole world works, then why not between the four walls of your home as well?
Can this pattern be broken? Can the wheel be stopped from spinning before it breaks us all? It’s obvious that there are no political answers. No system yet that our civilized minds have come up with puts equal value on any and all contributions. Besides, how many are people are willing to surrender their chance at the brass ring of success?
To be blunt, there’s probably little or no hope of such a massive change occurring in any peaceable manner. It won’t come about as a planned event either. Much like the collapse of the Communist system of Eastern Europe it will take a series of events so severe that there will be no recourse. If the great depression of 1929-39 was insufficient to cause the collapse of our system, its hard to imagine the magnitude of the catalyst that would be required.
Perhaps like some overworked clock, the mechanism will just gradually slow to a stop. As the bits and pieces that fuel the engine stop functioning, it will simply wear out. The continual growth of disparity between the rich and the poor is a sign that all is not right with our world.
As fewer and fewer people are able to contribute to the economy through consumer spending, manufacturers will have to slow production which will result in higher unemployment. Once that downward spiral starts, it will not be easily stopped. Our market driven economy will collapse when there are no markets left.
At best, we can hope to prepare ourselves on an individual level. By realizing the futility of pursuing material gain and striving to win the race now, you will have far less to lose. If you are not judging your success by those standards, then no matter what happens you will be assured personal stability.
Even though you will probably suffer financially as much as the next person, you will not see it as the blow to your position that others will. When worth and status are defined by other than material value, they are not subject to economic prosperity. You will be able to withstand any turmoil with greater peace of mind then those still playing the game.
Learning to put self interest behind you will be difficult. Unlearning the impulses and ambitions that have driven you for years will be harder than you think. You will face criticism and derision from others. But when you finally realize that you don’t care about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the sense of relief will be enormous.
Even if we continue for centuries as a society denying that there is anything wrong and propping the whole mess up, the benefits of changing still out weigh the deficits. How many people drop dead of stress-induced heart attacks and strokes these days? Do you really think your family would prefer $2,000 a year more in salary for a couple of years over having you around for twenty more? The answer should be obvious.