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Between Chaos and Commonwealth

Some reflections from decades of contemplating the rich, the poor, and the conviviality that comes with common purpose.

We may call this state of affairs Capitalism, but the rot goes back deep into the history of Civilization, a history of conquest, colonization, and oppression of the many by the few. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We may call this state of affairs Capitalism, but the rot goes back deep into the history of Civilization, a history of conquest, colonization, and oppression of the many by the few. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In my own life, by choice or by chance, I have had the good luck to cross various frontiers. Not on any great mission, but because that seemed the best when the occasion arose. Which it did for me in my late teens. I left my Quaker school as soon as I decently could, after learning I could choose between required military service and more peaceful challenges at home and abroad.

My “alternative service” in the mid-1950s, my preludes in a Swedish mountain hotel and an English geriatric hospital, may have turned out to be more of a relief to me than a service to others. But those experiences left me happier in my skin. A lot older now, I feel, if not a better person, more at ease with people and more at home in the world.

But not more accepting of our world’s systematic disparities of wealth and poverty — and corresponding distortions of corporate and political power. What half-decent society would allow its richest 1 percent to own as much as its poorest 50 percent? And allow that same 1 percent to emit twice as much toxic CO2 as its poorest half?

We may call this state of affairs Capitalism, but the rot goes back deep into the history of Civilization, a history of conquest, colonization, and oppression of the many by the few.

Centuries ago, in a flat-earth world, looking up to the great lords on their commanding heights may have seemed quite natural. Didn’t the sun, moon, and stars shine down from the sky and didn’t gods in heaven above dictate from mountaintops? What’s not so natural or comprehensible today: that this Babel of wealth, power, and knowledge should still survive intact.

For all our scientific wizardry, our reframing of evolution and relativities in space-time, we find ourselves still stuck in the same old crumbling forms, not quite pyramids but more like tepees with converging ladders that prop each other up and support the fabric of the wider society. Where the ladders meet, at the social summit, a privileged few share or trade the tricks that got them there and fend off any threat from down below. And somehow this primitive structure now spans the world, across all frontiers.

The poor may always have been with us, but now the rich most concern us. In the face of climate change and Covid, we may all be bent by the same storm, but we do not all sit in the same boats. Some boats hold more of the resources needed to survive. Yet today we need all the energy and skills, ideas and models, plans and images we can muster between us. Only by bridging our differences, pooling resources, reaching out and joining hands can we hope to save each other and our fragile ecosphere. In a world as varied and divided as ours, only some broader common sense and purpose can turn things round and save our mortal souls.

Greg Wilkinson

Greg Wilkinson, 84, lives in Wales. A former journalist, community worker, teacher, and woodland smallholder, his formative stints include, among many other endeavors, relief work in North Africa and Palestine, bricklaying in Manchester, and subway tunneling in London.

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