While the pandemic raged in 2021, it remained a great time to be filthy stinking rich in Canada. While most of us banged on pots and pans, sandblasted our groceries, quarantined our mail, and hoped for a vaccine, the richest 1 percent were enjoying a substantial surge in their wealth — a staggering increase of more than 9 percent from the previous year, according to Statistics Canada.
At the same time, working-class Canadians faced a harsh reality of diminishing financial stability. Many grappled with increasing poverty, job loss, and a reliance on government programs to make ends meet. They found themselves on the front lines of essential jobs, exposing themselves to the risk of contracting COVID, and, tragically, and even losing their lives. The rich were living in a totally different world from the rest of us, as they always have.
The latest data from Statistics Canada is neither shocking nor surprising. It simply reaffirms something we all know: poor people struggle and rich people thrive because the system is rigged to favor them. The powerful are good at negotiating — they’re especially good at tax, ahem, “management.” They endlessly engage in mutual backslapping to ensure that their class makes a fortune while low- and middle-income workers get table scraps. They excel at making sure that they receive preferential treatment from governments that are structurally predisposed to giving them whatever they want. Dog bites man, pictures at 11.
The statistics speak volumes: in the year 2021, there was a 9.4 percent surge in income for the top 1 percent, averaging CAD$579,000, and this doesn’t even account for the considerable spike in capital gains. What these numbers highlight is not merely a financial trend, but a stark illustration of a fundamentally unjust economic structure propped up by the legal system that perpetuates it. Unfortunately, this revelation has become almost routine — it’s a one- or two-day headline. Some of us see it, get outraged, scream into the void of social media or at our devices, and then move on with our lives. It’s as if we’re signaling to the rich that we’re resigned to ongoing exploitation and are content to bide our time for the next inevitable tale of upper-class depredation.
When the Panama Papers leaked in 2016, they told the story — in over eleven million documents — of offshore holdings, tax havens, shady dealings, and trillions of dollars in wealth hidden away by the most powerful people on the planet, politicians included.
Some of the hoarding was legal. Some of it wasn’t. But the distinction almost didn’t matter. The rich were getting away with it either way, exploiting a global finance system of their making or pushing its boundaries, confident in their ability to elude legal consequences or successfully fight any charges that might arise. The return was obviously worth the risk. It almost always is for these people. While the range of money stashed was never precisely determined, experts estimate it to be somewhere in the range of $7 to $32 trillion — or 8 percent to 14 percent of global wealth.
While the Panama Papers did elicit a momentary shock, it was a fleeting and largely apathetic response. “My god!” we said. “Trillions! Can you believe it?” Of course, we could believe it. The papers confirmed what anyone moderately attuned to global affairs already knew about the rich. On balance, the collective reaction worldwide was a nonchalant “ho hum,” and swiftly, we moved on.
We’ve been desensitized to the rapaciousness of the wealthy. We’ve baked it into our expectations. Like school shootings in the United States. We see the news, grieve for a half minute, then scroll to the next segment in the endless sea of sadness that inundates our feeds. It becomes a routine, accompanied by the background hum of television or the prelude to bedtime. After all, what else can one do?
We need to rediscover our collective outrage over structural economic exploitation and inequality — and we need to organize a material response. Outrage itself is an important part of political change and the struggle for class justice, but on its own it’s a dead end. We can write and post and commiserate with our friends and colleagues, and we should. But beyond that we need to press for change through social movement building and by pressing left-wing political parties to embrace bold and aggressive policies. We should also demand of them that they reflect and amplify our rage and help translate it into action. In short, we need mass politics.
Stories of the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, the powerful thriving, and the weak suffering ought to mobilize us to demand a change in the economic structures and legal systems that feed wealth to the capital class and extract it from the working class. These stories are evidence of the crime — not a literal crime, most of the time, because the law is written by and for the rich — but a moral crime. We ought to use that evidence to build our case for the many, to fuel our action, and to demand big and permanent change that serves the many rather than the few.
If we let our rage at reading about exploitation merely wash over us before moving on, we are consenting, de facto, to our own economic repression. Of course, the wealthy are all for this. The more accustomed we become to stories like the Panama Papers — and jumps in wealth for the rich and powerful during the darkest days of the pandemic — the more securely entrenched the rich and powerful become in their havens. We can’t allow that to continue. We must insist on and fight for better — especially since our livelihoods and, indeed, in some cases our lives, depend upon it.