Inequality represents simultaneously a cornerstone and a weak link in today’s capitalism. The idea that wealth creation for the few benefits the many is a core myth of the system. But the expanding inequality divide shreds this theory. In practical terms, the super-rich buy political influence and control to constantly adapt the system to their needs, ignoring the cost to everyone else. But rigging the world, itself, causes instability.
Since the 2008 crash, the common understanding has spread that inequality binds the current system together. This awareness could be its undoing. As Bernardo Gutiérrez wrote two years ago on Occupy.com: “Measuring the period between 2006 and 2013, we live in the most agitated era in modern history – more intense than 1848, 1917 or 1968 – according to the World Protests report released last fall by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue.”
The trend shows no signs of stopping. This year has already seen a second Icelandic democracy revolution and France’s Nuit debout. Driving this momentum – and following in these movements’ wake – is an anti-inequality discourse that is becoming ever more mainstream. One marker of this is the way that films about the 2008 crash, and its aftermath, have hit the big screen, from "Sí Se Puede" to "The Big Short."
Now, Katharine Round’s documentary, "The Divide," substantially adds to the debate. Round’s work could become one of the defining films of our era, as it explains in clear terms how the 35-year experiment in neoliberalism has failed spectacularly.
Premiering this month across the U.K., "The Divide" is due for its U.S. release later this year. The film is based on the critically acclaimed book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in which the authors argue that equal societies are better for everyone.
"The Divide" skillfully weaves together seven lives – Americans and Brits from different economic backgrounds – and shows how the system is exploiting them in different ways. It’s a real-life systemic tragedy, where even the two most well-off characters are crumbling under the strain of modern capitalism.
Alden is a clinical psychologist working so hard on Wall Street he never sees his family. Jen, living in a gated community in Sacramento, Calif., feels ostracized for not adhering to the lifestyle of her rich community. She tells about one neighbor shouting at her: “Only poor people rake their own leaves!”
Yet such gated communities are only growing as people fear the growing instability in the rest of society. Rich Benjamin, who has written on the subject of what he calls "Whitopia," tells viewers we are effectively spreading a new segregation – racism in a more hidden form.
The people who are really winning from all of this, according to the film, are the 0.01%. They believe the system works as it is, because it works for them. One of the film’s key villains is a venture capitalist who explains that he is rich because he is cleverer and more motivated than everyone else. The film shows many examples of how the system is set up for some, like him, to win while most lose.
We hear from those who no longer work on Wall Street, like Alexis Goldstein, a former Deutsche Bank vice president – and later an Occupy Wall Street activist – who candidly explains: “The aspiration of Wall Street is making [so much] money that you can pick up the phone or say fuck you to whoever you wanted without repercussion.”
A theme emerges in which people’s lives, their homes and their jobs are seen by those at the top as mere units where profit can be made in a gigantic game like monopoly. The audience sees how the rich have been able to rig democracy for their benefit, and the psychological mind-set of society to largely believe their myths. The film rips off the emperor’s clothes.
The researchers for "The Divide" deserve a lot of credit. Three of those featured in the film are from the largest exploited workforces: a fast-food worker, a Walmart employee and a care worker on a zero-hour contract. All storylines end with them being interviewed on mainstream news, with their occupations’ stories of exploitation hitting the headlines.
Expert views complement the film. In a section looking at how the economic system drives over-consumption and obesity, Noam Chomsky comments that markets are supposed to be about informed consumers making rational judgements. “Suppose you turn on the TV and look at the adverts: are they trying to make informed consumers making rational choices?" he asks. "On the contrary, they are trying to make uniformed consumers that will act irrationally. And this is one of the biggest industries.”
The film cuts to a perfect example: a Burger King ad with the strapline: “Eat like a man!”
It’s not just junk food that’s being rammed down peoples’ throats by advertisers; as the film explains, inequality kills in many ways. Richard Wilkinson explains that socially deprived areas like South Glasgow in Scotland have a male life expectancy as low as 54 years old. This is eight years lower than India, where the average income is less than $2 per day.
Inequality, according to the film, is squarely to blame – where precarious livelihoods correlate directly with drink and drug abuse, suicide and other social breakdown. The film makes these statistics real through Darren, a former addict from South Glasgow who explains that the early loss of his mother could send him to an early grave. Another horrific story is Keith, incarcerated for possessing marijuana intended for personal use, who is serving 25 years in a U.S. penitentiary. He says he has become dehumanized due to severe beatings and degrading treatment by guards.
While weaving together these personal stories, "The Divide" also gives a political backdrop. We discover that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population – in part due to a policy signed into law by former President Bill Clinton. In the film, Clinton explains the “three strikes and you’re out” rule that has seen prison rates rise.
Short clips of American and British leaders talking – since the days of Thatcher and Reagan – show how the two countries have engineered today’s economic landscape of the have and have nots. Tony Blair replies “What’s the point?” when asked whether there should be a maximum salary. George W. Bush is shown encouraging sub-prime lending in 2002, only later to have to bail out the same bankers during the crisis six years later.
"The Divide" is an extensive and important work tracking the disaster of neoliberal capitalism. Through gritty, personal tales, you get a vidid sense of what a horror story our economy, and our society, have become.
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