Ireland's Great Wealth Divide - A critical look at the David McWilliams documentary


Monday night (22/09/2015) RTE aired the misguided David McWilliams documentary "Ireland's Great Wealth Divide". It points out that the richest of the rich have far, far more than their fair share and that it's considerably worse than "we" think it is - this is demonstrated with opinion poll data (see image below) showing how Irish people would like wealth to be divided, contrasted against how "we" think it's divided and how it's actually divided. It also argues against the notion of trickle down economics, pointing out that the wealthy don't let their money trickle down and do not create jobs.

In the beginning you might be forgiven for hoping this documentary was going to be a searing critique of the capitalist system but McWilliams dispels this early on. He says things like "wealth in itself is not the problem" and that capitalism has been dragging people out of poverty for centuries "so capitalism works!". The argument that conditions have improved under capitalism and therefore capitalism is good is an old one but is seriously flawed. The flaw can easily be seen by attempting to apply it to other systems that have been in place in the past.

For example, conditions for slaves in 1850 were a lot better than they were in 1750. Is that an argument for slavery? Of course not. The notion that wealth is not a problem has an even simpler flaw, no recourse to analogy is even needed: wealth is comparative, in order for someone to get richer other people have to get poorer. There's no obvious way to be anti-poverty without being anti-wealth. This idea is backed by the principle of equality, which McWilliams doesn't exactly say he's against, but he believes is unachievable, he says, "...we will never all be equal, humans have always wanted to better themselves...that's human nature." But of course it's also human nature to want fairness and equality. Simply declaring it impossible just seems like an easy way out of advocating for it.

David McWilliams wants us to go back to a nicer, kinder capitalism that apparently once existed. His prescription for the problem is that we need to move from a system of exclusive capitalism, which makes huge profits for the already rich, to a system of inclusive capitalism, which is more open to all. And that this needs to be done in some kind of partnership between stake-holders, who have a stake in the running of the country (i.e. the rich) and non-stake-holders (everyone else). How this would be set up and work is not detailed. How are we supposed to convince the rich to allow governments to implement it?

The super-rich have the most control over the range within which governments are allowed to operate, if moves are made to curtail their wealth acquisition there are lots of things they can do to disuade the politicians: threatening capital flight and withholding investment and so on. Chances are it wouldn't get that far anyway, you don't rise to the top layers of the political class without sharing the basic values of those already in it.

The fact of the matter is the state-capitalist system we're living under rewards the rich and powerful, punishes the poor, and increases inequality. It's a class-based system with workers and bosses. Any system that's based on an authoritarian model like this cannot create equality and cannot even strive to. What's needed is radical social change to a model that gives people a role in the decisions that affect their lives, instead of one in which we're supposed to vote for one or another mouthpiece for the wealthy.

WORDS: John Roche

If you are quick the program might still be on the RTE Player