Nancy Folbre is a feminist economist and professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
What kind of an economic system delivers as much wealth to 8 men at the top as to the bottom half of the global population? It’s easier to describe shocking levels inequality than to explain them.
Activist challenges to the power of the top 1%–along with demands for the empowerment of the 99%– have moved way ahead of academic theorizing about the dynamics of global capitalism. Attention to the concentration of wealth challenges the time-honored distinction between those who own the means of production and those who work for wages. It highlights not only stark inequalities among owners, but also the gender, race, and citizenship of men at the top.
These men own their own forts and fly their own flags. Politicians are their minions. This sounds like patriarchal feudalism or colonialism to me. The economy we inhabit bears little relationship to textbook descriptions of a competitive system that encourages innovation and rewards hard work. Our economic labels, as well as theories, seem out of date.
Social scientists in general and economists in particular cling to a vision of patriarchy, feudalism and colonialism as anachronistic systems, stages of development supplanted by something they call capitalism. But the economic system we inhabit consists of layered hierarchies in which new forms of privilege crystallize on top of ancient pyramids.
Global capitalist dynamics are driving many economic trends. But their directions and their consequences are predetermined by the unequal distribution of many different forms of wealth. The financial assets that Oxfam’s recent report documents are the easiest to quantify. But access to education, workplace opportunities and the languages of power are also assets to be capitalized.
Most capitalists today are like the jousting knights of old, the few who could afford the horses, armor, servants, and jewel-encrusted swords required to even enter into competition.
Capitalist dynamics undermine some inherited privileges, but creates new hybrid forms: intersecting shards of gender, race, citizenship, class and other dimensions of socially assigned identity. The many exploitations of the past make current exploitations easier, creating fractal inequalities that hinder efforts to build political coalitions of the disempowered.
The system we inhabit is not capitalism, but capitalist plutocracy. A capitalist democracy would look quite different. It would give the 99% the assets needed to invest in an equitable and sustainable economic future.