Liberty Square Tartan

“The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.” ~ Thomas Piketty

In the US, the ratio of billionaires’ wealth has risen by a third to 19 per cent of Gross Domestic Product since the start of the pandemic. One reason is that the top 10 per cent of the population owns 84 per cent of stocks. When low interest rates fuel market bubbles, the asset-rich just get richer. Moreover, low rates have made it cheaper than ever for them to leverage up and maximise trillions of dollars in gains, much of which is parked offshore.

The Pandora Papers revealed how trillions of dollars are held in offshore havens, which have ties to 336 high-level politicians and public officials, including country leaders, cabinet ministers, ambassadors and others. This explains why so little headway has been made in ending offshore financial abuses.

“Modern redistribution is built around a logic of rights and a principle of equal access to a certain number of goods deemed to be fundamental.” ~ Thomas Piketty

As reported in the Financial Times, UBS is the biggest beneficiary of extreme wealth, and (for PR reasons) also among the most vocal critics. UBS research says that the net worth of the top 1 per cent of people by income was close to 26 times their liabilities, and that the difference between the top and bottom was at its widest on record.

What are the real costs of soaring inequality that is so often talked about, but nothing is done about? “To my mind, the greatest costs are the erosion of the republican ideal of shared citizenship,” warned Martin Wolf, the economist, in 2014. “As the US Supreme Court seeks to bend the constitution to the will of plutocrats, the peril is to the politically egalitarian premises of the republic. Enormous divergences in wealth and power have hollowed out republics before now. They could well do so in our age.” Financial Times

“Liberty Square symbolises the golden rule of contemporary capitalism: ‘Those with the Gold make the Rules’. In a throwback to the gilded age, the spoils go to a very few (represented by the gold stripes), while the ordinary citizen (centre) is gradually disempowered. In the US, real wages for average workers are slightly below their 1970 level, whereas the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold, with the 400 richest people now having assets equal to the poorest 140 million. Writing in the Financial Times, Jeremy Grantham, head of asset manager GMO, admitted the system is “designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence”. This tartan honours the Occupy protesters around the world who have recognised the danger and stepped up to demand transparency, reform and equality of opportunity.”

“Liberty Square” was the nickname of the plaza in New York City that was the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. Inspired by the Arab Spring and the anti-austerity movement in Spain, Occupy was the brainchild of an anti-consumerist magazine called Adbusters, which cheekily subverts well-known ad campaigns with radical messaging.

Occupy was a response to the 2008 financial crisis — the most severe global financial disaster since the Great Depression — and the systematic failure to hold the perpetrators accountable. Predatory home lending and excessive risk-taking by financial institutions led to a wave of debt crises from Greece to Iceland, high- profile bank failures, corporate bankruptcies, mass layoffs and the foreclosure of millions of homes (Financial Times).

Over a period of weeks, the occupation in Liberty Square grew from 40 people to 4,000 regular participants. Occupy groups appeared in cities all over the world, drawing in people from all walks of life, including bankers who felt trapped by a system over which they had no control.

Occupy did not have an agenda, nor did the movement make specific demands on governments. However it did have a vision, one of a fairer, more participatory system, free from the corrupting influence of money. Unfortunately, the vision was never realised. After two months of holding squares across the United States, the movement was shut down by the authorities. Although the movement seems a distant memory, the core structural issue it was trying to address has not gone away. This is captured by the Liberty Square tartan.

Design Observer story