The gap between very high incomes and low salaries has been widening for several years. Media attention to scandalously high remuneration accentuates the negative effect of this inequality. Such salaries, though rare, are freely admitted to or brandished like a badge of honour by their recipients.
In the 2008 crisis, economic and political leaders made solemn commitments to support increased regulation and more reasonable salaries. Since then the race for money has taken off even faster, benefitting some large businesses and a small class of the hyper-privileged. At the end of 2012 poverty is spreading like a disease and at the same time the bosses of the top quoted companies are earning even more. (Le Monde 12 December 2012)
These developments have a deep-seated impact. This growing inequality engenders a triple violence: moral, social and human.
First, moral: The legitimacy of possessing such riches, of such an accumulation, is based on nothing more that the law of the jungle dressed up as a fashionable economistic approach. Arbitrariness reigns, wrecking the meaning of effort, of work and of commitment. This form of violence is particularly felt by workers, families and those responsible for education.
Second, social: The very possibility of constructing society together is threatened. Solidarity, the very minimum of shared meaning and common perspective necessary for coexistence, are ruined. Events on some of France’s housing estates in 2005 were a warning to us – if nothing changes, violence will one day be unleashed.
Third, human: These enormous gaps pose the question of limits, one of those spiritual 'spaces' which make up the authentic humanity of human beings. A human being who wants everything straight away and believes he or she can obtain it, will gradually no longer accept limits of any kind. And in this process they destroy both their own humanity and gnaw away at the humanity of others.
Yet nothing seems able to be done at the moment to stop these inequalities widening.
The representatives of the people? Political leaders exercise their power on the economy in the framework of the markets. In the climate of general combativeness which marks globalisation, these leaders cannot afford to send ‘negative signals’ to the markets.
The people themselves? Collective consciousness, fragmented by all-out consumerism and the effects of mass individualism, has scarcely any ideological tools or political instruments – despite the effort and action of part of the voluntary sector - to hope for or to impose any other logic, to say nothing of the pressure generated by unemployment or the fear of being demoted.
Self-limitation, individual resistance to greed, seems today to be the means immediately to hand to stop such extravagance and to return to acceptable differences between incomes.
Very large shareholders, economic leaders of groups, the stars of sport and entertainment, top financiers – put a limit to the income you will accept. Refuse to give in to greed without limits. Encourage your peers to do the same. And tell us about it.
If you think that this is too naïve, because others will profit, just let them get on with it. Because naivety is not where you think it is. It is you who will turn out to be naïve for thinking that everything can continue just as it is and that you bear no responsibility.
Christmas has recently finished, a dream of community that does not depend on our individual religious views. A dream can remain a folksy illusion that is quickly forgotten. It can also shake up reality and begin to change it. It is a question of clarity and of will. In a word: of courage.
© Laurent Schlumberger is president of the national council of the Reformed Church of France. An ordained minister, he will be the first president of the United Protestant Church of France after its official founding in May 2013. The French original of this piece appeared in the newspaper La Croix. The translation here is by Dr Jane Stranz.