Matt Damon’s latest film Elysium imagines a world that starkly visualises the gap between the richest and the poorest: the rich live on a luxury space station, high above an overcrowded Earth, where the majority live and work in abject poverty. The film’s director Neill Blomkamp – the man who previously made District 9, a film about species rather than social apartheid – said Elysium is “about the third world trying to get into the first”. Not unexpectedly the film has attracted criticism, from the rather familiar quarter of the political right, over its “socialist” message.
In fact, the huge discrepancy between rich and poor that the film imagines is not science-fiction at all – it is documentary fact.
The makeshift spacecraft that try to reach the Elysium space-station from the Hobbesian Earth below are no different from the boats that, every day, try to make their way across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
When one of those boats sank last week on its way to Lampedusa, a tiny island between Tunisia and Italy, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of desperate people, it briefly highlighted the tip of an everyday iceberg and the desperate measures of the poor world to find a better life in the rich one.
Yet the migrants who died off the coast of Italy are only the most visible of many tens of thousands more, toiling in the shadow economies of the rich world, or seeking to migrate there.
It is a relentless tragedy. Every day, men, women and children take big risks for a better life – they head north from Mexico across the deserts of the United States, head in boats and on foot from East Africa or across the Sahara, attempt to cross the Timor Sea to Australia. It is an unceasing story, and with equal regularity results in dehydrated and drowned bodies.
In fact, the Mediterranean is by no means the stretch of water that the highest number seek to cross – that dubious honour belongs elsewhere in the Arab world. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, while around 70,000 migrants landed in Italy, Spain and Greece in 2011, more than 100,000 made the crossing from East Africa to Yemen. That tiny stretch of the Red Sea is the busiest crossing point in the migrant world.
The reporting of the Lampedusa tragedy has been filled with questions of interest mainly to the rich world: how to stop people making the journey or how to ensure deaths at sea are prevented, how to physically restrict access to the waters around the rich world, or how to make life hard for those who do make the journey (put them in camps or put them in jail seems to be the theme). Among the soul-searching and mourning, one issue has gone unremarked, precisely because it is so difficult. What, exactly, can be done about the vast discrepancies of the world?
However you measure it, the rich world is much smaller than the poor world. The planet’s richest one per cent live on $75 a day or more, meaning if you earn more than US$27,000 a year (Dh100,000), you are not just well-off, not merely wealthy, but are among the richest on the planet.
That is a sobering thought, both because it puts some of the everyday problems of the middle-classes of the rich world into perspective – whatever problems you have, 99 per cent of all human beings have it worse – and because it illustrates the vast gulf between those at the top and the rest of humanity. And it also illustrates the folly of imagining that everyone can live the way that the one per cent live today. Opening wide the doors of the rich world will not end poverty.
Making the billions at the bottom richer has exercised many of the best minds of the 20th and 21st century, and indeed led to devastating social experiments. What has raised more people out of poverty over the past 50 years has not been taxation or redistribution, but growth (and, right-leaning economists won’t be pleased to hear), state-promoted growth. As the vast nations of China, India, Russia and Brazil grow, they are lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. China alone has taken more than half a billion people out of desperate poverty in less than 30 years.
That points to possible policies that could reduce the gap between the rich and poor, and so reduce the incentive for people to make dangerous journeys for a better life. It would be far better for the rich world to use its vast wealth and power to ensure as much of the globe is stable and secure. Keeping nations secure, more of the population can stay and survive in their own communities – it is the insecurity of war and social unrest that is a big driver of migration.
The opposite of Hobbes’ vision would be countries that are secure, stable and fair (in the sense of low inequality between the richest and poorest, but also in the sense of effort being proportionate to rewards). For the rich world, which feels considerably less rich these days, such an argument seems like charity. Even leaving aside the tangible but tangled history of slavery, colonisation and occupation, it is in fact a purely self-interested argument for the rich world. Because there are no walls high enough to keep desperate people out.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai