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A Critique Of The Oxfam Report

Oxfam, a British anti-poverty charity, has released a position paper entitled, Survival Of The Richest. The organisation collates some income inequality data and argues for higher taxation on wealthy individuals and businesses. While the report is relatively shallow and polemical, it was distributed to several media outlets, where it was covered heavily.

The information presented in the report lends itself easily to shocking headlines, such as “The richest 1% of people amassed almost two-thirds of new wealth created in the last two years, Oxfam says” (CNBC) and “Oxfam: World’s Richest 1% ‘Grab Two-Thirds of Global Wealth.’” (Voice Of America)

This paper details that the pandemic era has been disastrous for so many people economically and socially worldwide. However, it has been very profitable for the global bourgeoisie, despite whatever health consequences they may face as well.

Oxfam timed the report to be fed to the media to coincide with Davos Forum in Switzerland, where extraordinarily wealthy people meet once a year.

One of the larger claims presented by Oxfam is that a sizable portion of the consumer goods inflation experienced by the world’s people is not organically caused by producer price increases but is caused by the desire for increased profit margins. Oxfam claims that global corporations will blame price increases on inflation while passing on higher prices than would be justified by the situation. Eventually, these gains are reflected in the increased worth of billionaires’ assets during the pandemic period.

In theory, if corporations were simply passing on increased costs to consumers, there would not be a noticeable increase in profits and wealth among the business class during the same period, or perhaps even a decline. Oxfam writes in its report, “many companies are using rising external costs as cover to enhance their profit margins, exacerbating inflation…Not only are companies passing increased input costs on to consumers, but they are also capitalising on the crisis, using it as a smokescreen to charge even higher prices.”

While the report is written in a repetitive style that ensures the reader gets the point and ensures easy portability to headlines, it does not provide the systematic context that would allow the reader to understand the complexity of the phenomenon. The World Socialist Web Site writes that “Oxfam Australia director of programs Anthea Spinks said the enormous gains seen by the world’s richest people were stark evidence of a broken system”, but not because Oxfam itself stated this. WSWS and other interpreters of Survival Of The Richest had to implicate this from what Oxfam wrote.

Capitalism haunts the report. Not because it is present, as the word does not even appear once in the report, but because Oxfam describes with relative clarity the negative externalities of the system without uttering the word.

It is a strange dance. Perhaps the organisation feels that it would be branded “extremist” if it were to speak in a more precise language. Or perhaps those at Oxfam are earnest believers in Capitalism, simply chafing at excesses by certain individuals.

To this author, the evasion present is strange, like reading a book on the AIDS epidemic that makes no mention of promiscuous sex or injection drug use. Yes, mentioning such subjects may repel some. Still, it is a necessary component of education on the topic so that the reader may understand why the epidemic became globalised. Likewise, an enormous concentration of wealth upwards through global commerce and industry could not have occurred and had never occurred previously without the innovation of Capitalism.

In an interview with the American state news agency Voice Of America, an Oxfam official named Ahmed says, “Extreme inequality is not inevitable.” Still, substantial arguments can be made that it is inevitable in the prevailing socio-political system.

While it is perhaps a positive that a report concerned with equalising society is getting onto many people’s screens, Oxfam seems to lack a theoretical understanding of the nature of the social-political system that dominates most of the world today.

Taxation on the wealthy can be tweaked, even increased greatly, but that does not mean that the state will use the money for the poor or that the commercial class  will not just wrest their taxes rates down later via their control and influence over the state.

In no way is the intention of Oxfam negative or misguided. It has long been believed by many in the 1st world that something is seriously amiss when it comes to the structure of these societies– lands that were once able to credibly boast of their “open” and labile structure of advancement and upward mobility now can hardly point to it, while the already-wealthy are using their power over the state and economy to increase their hoard.

Capitalism, while not the same in all places, moves forward as a global system, with many commonalities in economies far apart geographically. The current era is marked in part by the hardening of class barriers, an emptying out of the Petit Bourgeoisie into the working class, an increase in the wealth of the Bourgeoisie (With greater portions of ‘new wealth’ going to them), and a decrease in the likelihood of individuals rising into a higher class than that they were born into.

However, putting so much stock and hope into one policy component of a system may be obfuscating part of the inequality it is so against. Survival Of The Richest puts so much emphasis on taxes that some may read this as a solution to the structural problems of Capitalism when it is the re-arranging of deck chairs on a sinking boat.

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Tags: pandemic poverty UK capitalism CNBC WSWS Oxfam VOA


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