I’ve had a thing for dystopian fiction ever since I read 1984, back when that date was, well… in the future. Dystopian books have always had a market and they’ve been especially popular in young adult (YA) publishing for some years now. Then there are the television and movie adaptations (everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to The Children of Men, Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner) that visualize dreary survival in a repressive time to come. It’s frightening and compelling to see imagined futures mapping out the world that might be if the present just shifted slightly to the more authoritarian side. Of course, dystopian novels have special resonance in eras of political or social anxiety, like say, today.
“Please Sir, I Want Some More…”
Lately, I’ve been indulging in a bit of my own dystopian imaginings. What would happen if, say, we allowed democracy to be eroded so much that we surrendered our (liberal) human rights and citizenship for the faint hope of economic security (or, you know, a crust of bread)? I have been thinking a lot about this since the Ontario government raised the minimum wage to $14 an hour, and since the Amazon HQ2 shortlist was announced (stay with me…I’ll try to come full circle on these two).
Way to Go on the Solidarity Front…
I was not surprised to hear yelps and complaints about the minimum raise hike from small businesses that are precarious or operate on tight margins. Clearly, wages are where these businesses squeeze their profits from and the few extra dollars per hour will reduce or, in some cases, eliminate them. Or so they say. We’ll have to see. I expect this type of response from business owners. Profit is within their interests. I am however, continually knocked back when I hear people who make a few dollars more than the legal minimum grumbling about others being raised up. Their chief complaint goes something like this: “but I make $17 an hour and it took me years to get here. Now somebody who just starts is going to make $15.” It kind of shows how low the bar is set and how the majority of us really don’t have a say in our worth when selling our labour. Worker can’t bargain (at least not individually) for more if an employer sees them as not worthy. You’d think that fact alone would make some people more receptive to government guidelines such as the lowest possible amount of money you can pay a person to work. You’d also think it would make us all more generous of spirit when it comes to our fellow human beings almost earning a living wage. Of course, there are ways around paying the lowest possible amount. Ask your pizza delivery person about that. That—the work for hire and gig economy—is also part of my dystopian imaginings. It is, in reality, happening right now, and I reckon it will expand in the future. This is why we need to tackle precarious work on our fairness and equality agenda as well. And this leads me to the other part of my dystopian imagining, which is that the world where we trade our rights for a crust of bread is already here.
Fighting Over a Crust of Bread
Just the other day, OXFAM released a report on inequality that stated 82 percent of the wealth created in the world last year went into the pockets of the richest one percent. The report, released for the suits who gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, called on governments to “ensure our economies work for everyone” by “ensuring all workers receive a minimum ‘living’ wage that would enable them to have a decent quality of life.” The report also asked governments to make sure wealthy pay their “fair share of tax through higher taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance” while increasing spending on public services such as healthcare and education. You can see Oxfam’s report here: https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2018-01-22/richest-1-percent-bagged-82-percent-wealth-created-last-year
Paying Tribute to Our Corporate Masters
The thing that frightens me is that while $17 an hour workers are sourly squabbling about their fellow underlings getting a raise, the richest man in the world is unashamedly asking our governments to give his company land and tax breaks and outright graft in order for him to set up shop in their communities and make more money. That’s right, cities across North America brought tributes to the feet of multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos’ empire, begging his corporation to bring jobs their way and shortlist them for a new royal city, erm, corporate headquarters. Amazon had prepared a ransom demand of “what we want from you in return for jobs” and governments all over North American bent over in servile compliance. Atlanta’s incentive bid included over $1 billion in free land, developments, tax breaks and bobbles. Boston waved $100 million in transit infrastructure and tracts of land. Chicago has apparently offered $2 billion in tax breaks. Also a contender, Toronto didn’t offer up any tax or public treasure box subsidies, but is is already forking out to help build a “smart city” in a deal with Google’s parent company. Yes, of course having Amazon H2Q will bring a (hopefully enduring) economic boost and 50,000 jobs. But bribes and gifts for a monopolistic corporation whose founder has a net worth of $113.5 billion is truly science fiction worthy. While we whinge over whether people who work full time should (should?!) make a living wage, we have lost the plot and lost control. By all accounts, billionaire Bezos is a kind and giving philanthropist, meaning that when he chooses to spend his own money, he plunks it generously into charities and causes he believes in. Causes that he deems worthy. That’s lovely. That’s what emperors do. What’s nicer though, is that he and other uber wealthy citizens like him pay their fair share like the rest of us into the communal pot, so that Oxfam doesn’t have to run a campaign to remind world leaders that inequality is harmful and that living wages (like the $15 one Ontario will soon have) and taxes (not just taken from the $15 or $50-an-hour earners) are necessary for running a healthy, functioning democracy. A healthy, functioning democracy with things like infrastructure, health care, and education. You know…those state-provided things that make running a high-tech corporation possible.