The objects of desire may have changed, but the rules have stayed the same. For the slaves, concubines, gold and castles of the past have been merely replaced by today’s private jets, holiday islands and football clubs. A fascinating recent book by the indefatigable author, John Kampfner, tells us extraordinary tales from the Roman Republic to Roman Abramovich to show how a tiny number of the superrich have held sway over the politics and economics of their eras.
In 2015, the rich are to be found everywhere. They are celebrated and feted, their lifestyles seemingly a constant source of fascination. There are whole sections of the media devoted to their stories and their spending. The rich are so ubiquitous that the very wealthiest are called the super-rich. They are not millionaires anymore, but multi-millionaires and billionaires. How they made their money — by skill, luck or determination — is the theme of this engrossing story.
From the Pope’s banker Cosimo de’ Medici to the modern-day robber baron Andrew Carnegie, the origins of fortunes are rather quickly forgotten: we take all that for granted. But not Kampfner, who meticulously dissects each tale down to its bones, as it were. How they being super-rich automatically leads to they being accepted as ‘natural’ patrons of arts and learning. And of much else, from building churches and temples to other means to immortalise themselves.
But as a perceptive article in The Independent points out, the rich the world over are getting rather worried. Protests against social injustice are rising worldwide. In the first six months of 2014 alone, there were 112. In six years, the rate of large-scale global protests over inequality has grown fourfold. And most of that hostility has arisen in higher income countries. It is, says Robert Shiller, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics, “the most important problem we are facing now, today”.
That anger at our complacency is the recurring message of another new book, Inequality and the 1%, by Danny Dorling. To those who care about social imbalance, Dorling, an Oxford University professor, is fast becoming its chronicler dujour. His last work, All That is Solid, laid bare the inequities of the housing crisis. As he points out here, with the help of a familiar battery of arresting statistics, if you are born in the top 1 percent, you are fortunate — all your life from cradle to grave you will be cared for, you will never have to struggle.
As another Nobel-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has said: “In our democracy, 1 percent of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income… In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent… (as a result) the top 1 percent have the best houses, the best education, the best doctors and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”
The British newspaper goes on to illustrate how, in the movie Wall Street, the famous speech by Michael Douglas playing Gordon Gekko was intended as a biting indictment, designed to dissuade anyone from going down the same archcapitalist road. Instead it was seized upon as a clarion call by an entire generation of wannabe Gekkos.
Part of the general failure to tackle the domination of the 1 percent is that there is not actually much we can do. Not in a hurry, anyway. The only quickfix to repairing such a skewed society is to legislate along rigidly totalitarian lines, or so it seems to most.
Just how slow this revolution will be — if it occurs at all — is perfectly illustrated by Kampfner’s vivid account, a companion piece to Dorling’s diatribe against the 1 percent, or vice versa. He adds the colour to Dorling’s charts. To qualify for the 1 percent, or more to the point, the 0.1 percent, you have to be opportunistic, decisive and ruthless. Then, with any luck, you can cement your position, sending your children to the best schools, consolidating their position in the social hierarchy.
“New money becomes old money,” writes Kampfner. “Dodgy reputation becomes pillar of the establishment.” ‘Reputation laundering’ is more powerful today than it has ever been. Much as the un-rich might wish, the rich are going nowhere in a hurry.