A new report by Oxfam has found that a tiny elite owns the wealth of half of the world’s population. The report, entitled “Working for the few” shows that 85 of the world’s richest people own the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population. The report was released ahead of this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to highlight that economic inequality is rapidly increasing in most countries and is now a threat to democracy, states Oxfam. [i] As these facts show, society is sick and in real need of a cure, and sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, is one man who cares. In his wish to “make society better” [ii] he goes to great lengths to define and describe some of the prevailing modern social ills and their causes in today’s ‘liquid modernity’ (as he calls it). He talks about many issues including how communism failed; people’s obsession with security and safety in cities; the substitution of moral impulses by consumerism and the resulting transformation of consumption into a moral act; the mixing of public and private spheres, and the reappearance of luck as a concept on an individual level in a world devoted to the reduction of risk. Throughout his writing, Bauman makes regular reference to the words ‘uncertainty’, ‘insecurity’ and ‘impotence’, words he repeatedly uses albeit within differing contexts. In very basic terms, much of his writing focuses on the insecurities and fears of individuals and thus, society, all wrapped up around a dialogue on social inequality. Given his clear partialities, it’s no surprise then that Bauman talks at considerable length on one of the most ‘disturbing’ books in the whole Bible – the book of Job: “The Book of Job recasts the frightening randomness of Nature as the frightening arbitrariness of its Ruler. It proclaims that God does not owe his worshippers account of His actions, and most certainly does not owe them an apology.” [iii] Although his intentions are no doubt admirable, Bauman is not the most optimistic of writers, evident, by way of example, when he makes no reference to God’s extended discourse with Job over His love and concern for His creation, but prefers to leave his readers with a scepticism and distrust towards Job’s God. Elsewhere Bauman’s discussion of insecurities and power move over to man’s relationship with power in the context of technology and machines. He writes, “Powerless as we are, we are omnipotent, since we are capable of bringing into being forces able in their turn to cause effects which we wouldn’t be able to produce with our ‘natural equipment’ – our own hands and muscles. But having become all-powerful in that way, watching and admiring the might and efficiency and the shattering effects of entities we have ourselves designed and conjured up, we discover our own powerlessness” [iv] In reading his words, I am reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel from the Old Testament. They were fixated on building great projects back then, and aren’t we still today? Nothing much has changed in the way of human ambition. We still desire to succeed and reach the heavens – to attain that sense of omnipotence, in the face of our own weaknesses, throwing away our need for God in the process. Although it is true we may not be literally constructing tall towers in our lives per se, we still focus most of our efforts on external and material constructions, thinking that building bigger and taller, while leaving the divine out of the design, is the way to build our lives. After all, that’s how our consumerist society educates us. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with the desire to build, when we do so at the expense of concern for the poor, and at the expense of our dependence on the divine, that’s where things begin to go askew. In other words, the problem is foundational. Foundations matter, whether they undergird the construction of a building, or the structure of our lives and society. Indeed, what is interesting is that despite all the losses Job of the Bible endured, his faith was not destroyed. Not once did he curse God, although that was the advice of his wife. Not once did he turn his back on the God he had worshipped his whole life. How was that even possible? Because he had strong foundations in God and although Satan questioned it, God knew it. And so Job stood, through some of the worst personal losses any individual has probably ever endured, because he had firm foundations. For Bauman, the answer lies in quality dialogue and mutual understanding,[v] but I find that a poor solution at best. If humankind has not yet come up with effective answers to society’s ills, what makes us think we can come up with a remarkable new model to follow at this point in the game? After all, as Bauman has gone to great lengths to remind us, society is unstable and liquid. If society is so liquid, surely it follows that what society needs is something firm, unmovable and secure. Something to stand on, to be dependent on, something that will dissipate all the uncertainties and insecurities Bauman elaborates on. The abuse of capitalism is not simply the cause of so much poverty and inequality. It is also the new god, the new reason and purpose for living and everything around us: television, movies, and retail exist to reinforce that message. We have filled our lives with commercialism, a void it was never designed to fill. Life is more than the buying power of our wallets, and Bauman knows it. So what is the answer? Psalm 125:1 provides some insight:
“Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever.”
While no doubt consumerism has indeed fed into the inequality we see in the world, at the end of the day, it’s the heart of an individual that makes decisions among societies and nations. After all, whether someone chooses to purchase several top end cars with their money or just one modest car while using the rest of their money to help the poor, really is, at the end of the day, a heart choice. That’s where we need to start rebuilding.