We bemoan autocracies in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and China but largely ignore the more subtle authoritarian trend in the West. Don’t expect a crudely effective dictatorship out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: we may remain, as we are now, nominally democratic, but be ruled by a technocratic class empowered by greater powers of surveillance than those enjoyed by even the nosiest of dictatorships.
The new autocracy rises from a relentless economic concentration which has engendered a new and fabulously wealthy elite. Five years ago, around four hundred billionaires owned as much as half of the world’s assets. Today, only one hundred billionaires own that share, and Oxfam reduces that number to a mere twenty-six. In avowedly socialist China, the top one per cent of the population holds about one-third of the country’s wealth, up from 20 per cent two decades ago. Since 1978, China’s Gini coefficient, which measures inequality of wealth distribution, has tripled.
An OECD report issued before the Covid pandemic finds that almost everywhere, the non-rich share of national wealth has declined. These trends can be seen even in social democracies like Sweden and Germany. In the United States, as the conservative economist John Michaelson put it succinctly in 2018, the economic legacy of the last decade is ‘excessive corporate consolidation, a massive transfer of wealth to the top one per cent from the middle class.’
This process has developed both in the tangible and digital economies. In Great Britain, where land prices have risen dramatically over the past decade, less than one per cent of the population owns half of all the land. On the European continent overall, farmland has fallen increasingly into the hands of a small cadre of corporate owners and the mega-wealthy. In America, the largest farmland holder is Bill Gates, with over 200,000 acres, while Ted Turner and John Malone preside over lordly estates of over two million acres each — larger than several American states.