Severe income inequality is a cornerstone of our best dystopias—in the ruined future, the rich still live like kings. It's one of the genre's most enduring constructs: technology, disaster, and plain old human nature allow the haves to tighten their dominance over the have-nots. Now, news that one percent of Americans raked in twenty percent of the wealth last year—and that ten percent swallowed up nearly half of it—means the US is well on its way to do a pretty solid impression of some of these catastrophic dystopias.
Since at least H.G. Wells' Time Machine (1895), where the leisure-loving Eloi elites live in ignorant bliss that their lives are made possible by the brutish, deformed Morlock laborers, our fiction has warned about a growing chasm between the rich and the poor. Again and again, the rich exploit the poor, eventually to disastrous results—social unrest and violent uprisings, typically.
In Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), rich above-grounders rely on the poor subterranean laborers to operate machines that power their utopia. The film literally depicts those machines as demons, prone to exploding, malfunctioning, and killing workers. The exploited laborers eventually revolt, grinding the city to a standstill, endangering their own children in the process.
Which, well: The Washington Post reports that economists at the University of California, Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University have demonstrated that "the gulf between the richest 1 percent and the rest of America is the widest it’s been since the Roaring ‘20s."
In other words, the income gap that Lang caricatured in the 20s, the one enabled by the surge of industrial capitalism, has risen again. Al Jazeera explains further, noting that the "top 1 percent of US earners collected 19.3 percent of household income in 2012, their largest share in Internal Revenue Service figures going back a century."
That's right—the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than it has been in at least a hundred years. It could be more, too, but that's as far back as the data analysis went. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent raked in 48 percent of the wealth, nearly half of all the total earnings in the US last year. In other words, 31 million people took home half of all the earnings in a nation where 316 million people live.
Which explains why dystopian fiction has again risen to the fore in our literature and pop culture. Recent incarnations include this year's Elysium—the poor Earth-bound are stuck working in the factories of the rich, who literally live on a luxurious orbiting castle where space is the moat—and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy (beginning in 2003) where the pre-collapse rich lived in gated corporate campuses and the outside world teemed with disease, poverty, and turmoil.
There are obviously countless more examples, but a slightly less mainstream dystopia that's worth mentioning is Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age (1995) which envisions a globalized world where society is organized into phyles, tribes of varying prosperity that are spread out across the world. Despite universal access to machines that can produce all the vital items for survival, classes are still seriously segregated, with clans like the Neo-Victorians and the Nipponese enjoying security and dominance over the other classes. The rich "Vickys" also purchase archaic handmade artisanal furniture, which makes for a humorously prescient take on current late-capitalistic hipster trends, but I digress.
Diamond Age cover, 1995
This is closer to our world now. We have access to a wealth of resources and an abundance of food, the requisite technology to help everyone live better, a waning allegiance to nation-state boundaries and a growing allegiance to brands and tribal ideals—yet we're still failing to equalize the global society. In the United States, we're failing especially miserably. Here, income inequality has been spiking for nearly three decades in a row.
US income inequality has been growing for almost three decades. And it grew again last year. This trend has some strikingly dystopian implications: In 2010, 17 million American households—14.5 percent of all US families—were considered "food insecure." That's a record.
We may not yet have Star Trek/Diamond Age machines that can produce food and vital tools out of nanomaterials, but we do have more food than we know what to do with—36 million tons of food hits the landfill every year, according to the EPA. The only reason so much got tossed out while so many were hungry is that tens of millions of Americans simply weren't earning enough money to afford food. Talk about dystopian.
Furthermore, the digital divide will continue to widen along with the income gap. Labor unions will continue to erode as corporations concentrate more wealth and power—enrollment is down to 12.5 percent from 23 percent in 1985. Precarious temporary and part-time employment is becoming the norm. As a recent Daily Beast report notes, "America is well on its way to becoming a nation of part-timers and full-time temps. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of involuntary part-time workers rose by 322,000 to 8.2 million in June."
None of this is likely to get better any time soon. You'd think that a democracy as storied as America's would be capable of recognizing such a dangerous trend, and correcting it with healthier policies—but no. A new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives finds that a number of factors are paralyzing the democratic process, and preventing us from closing the income gap.
"Overall, the kinds of government policies that could have ameliorated the sharp rise in inequality have been immobilized by a combination of greater polarization, lack of voter participation, feedback from high-income campaign contributors, and political institutions that must overcome a series of key pivots before making significant changes," the authors write. In other words, tribal politics, an apathetic public, rich power-brokers, and an outmoded political system are allowing the wealthy to continue to accumulate wealth while the poor get poorer. Sounds pretty dystopian. And pretty familiar.
Meanwhile, technology and the quality of life it affords, is improving faster than ever—but not nearly as much for the 90 percent of Americans fighting for the half of the pie left over from the rich's take. It seems like a cliche to invoke the famous phrase from William Gibson, another towering dystopia-builder, but it couldn't be more apt right now: the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed. At this rate, it won't be anytime soon.