I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago and was shocked to see the level of homelessness and begging on the streets. In parts of the city there were three or four beggars on every corner. Looking out of the window of a bus as it passed through the Tenderloin area I saw pavements crowded with what appeared to be down-and-outs sitting or standing around aimlessly – dirty, down-trodden people surrounded by the sad paraphernalia of the homeless- filthy blankets and sleeping bags; carrier bags stuffed with goodness know what. Across the city I saw people foraging through rubbish bins. There was a bronze statue, a memorial to the great depression, and it seemed very poignant – apparently history repeating itself, despite the fact that we live in a time of plenty, at least for many people. And of course at the same time, and often in the same places, there were signs of great wealth, of conspicuous consumption – wealthy people flaunting designer brands, expensive jewellery and high-tech accessories. Exclusive shops and restaurants were busy, and there were plenty of very expensive cars cruising the streets.
In the UK, the divide between rich and poor has been growing steadily since Margaret Thatcher acceded to power in 1979 (and even more shamefully, didn’t stop growing during the years that the so-called Labour Party were in power) and is now reported to be the biggest since Victorian times. Food banks are springing up all across the country as more people are unable to feed themselves and their families. The numbers of the homeless are rising as house prices, and subsequently rents, continue to rise, pricing ever more people out of the ‘market’ of having somewhere to live.
In countries such as China and India there is a burgeoning class of people with more money than they know what to do with, whilst those at the other end of society are arguably no better off than they have ever been.
Perhaps this is the most significant effect of globalisation – the convergence of societies in the first and third worlds, the product of which will be a global, homogenised society of stark contrasts – of ‘haves’ and ‘have-not’s’, of filthy rich and dirt poor.