Bash the rich-bashers
Why is everyone from Tatler to Toynbee (as in Polly) attacking the super-wealthy for their greed and spending habits?
Attacking rich people for having tons of cash was once the domain of those pantomime anarchists, Class War.
Back in the Eighties they would organise ‘Bash the Rich’ festivals and campaign against what they saw as the gentrification of old working-class communities, particularly in east London. In recent months, these whinging, anti-success sentiments have made a notable comeback. Only this time, it isn’t Special Brew-drinking, dogs-on-strings anarcho-types who are attacking the wealthy – it is rather more respectable opinion-makers and columnists.
Slating London’s City traders, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee says ‘it’s time to face them down, call their bluff and regulate their unjust advantage before their pernicious buccaneering destroys the culture of corporate social responsibility’ (1). What next? Will Toynbee be sporting a t-shirt showing a graveyard under the slogan: ‘We’ve found new homes for the rich’?
Even more surprisingly, the defiantly right-wing Daily Mail, the London Evening Standard and even Tory magazine Tatler have indulged in the new anti-rich grandstanding. Tatler editor Geordie Greig ranted recently against the impact the super-rich have on dear old Blighty: ‘That old sense of living in a country where fair play and an honest day’s work led people to feel they could get what they strove for has been destroyed by dizzying extremes in wealth.’ (2) Blimey.
Is all this rich-bashing, as one commentator claims, a healthy sign of a desire for a fairer, more equal society? Is it a belated questioning of Thatcherite money-grabbing, and therefore A Good Thing?
No, it isn’t. On every level, today’s complaints about the ‘super-rich’ are spectacularly ill-informed and wrongheaded. For a start, complaining that millions in the bank is an ‘obscene amount of money’ is akin to looking through a telescope at the wrong end. Wouldn’t a £180 weekly wage packet, earned by some in the poorer sections of society, better be described as an ‘obscene amount of money?’ It’s coming to something when having little money is seen as being somehow more desirable than having a mountain of moolah. What kind of message does this popularise? That aspiring for higher living standards is the equivalent of dining with the devil?
Attacking ‘rich bastards’ might sound righteous and radical, but it conveys the idea that all of us should settle for less. Indeed, five years ago, when London Underground workers went on strike, commentators complained that the RMT union’s pay demand was a sign of wanton ‘greed’. Incredibly, there were even complaints that the Tube drivers’ £32K salary was already ‘too high’! (3) In truth, that paltry sum would barely buy a broom cupboard in London these days, let alone a semi-detached house. Those stinging criticisms of ‘greedy’ Tube workers should have served as a warning of what happens when anti-materialist sentiments are allowed to flourish. The real consequence of anti-rich ideas, which have little impact on the rich themselves, is to constrain those of us who want more from life.
Notice how the anti-wealthy opinion-makers berate the rich for what they do with their cash rather than for how they make it. There is rarely any mention of the fact that rich businesspeople make their fortunes on the backs of the badly-paid labour of the working classes. Instead, critics aim their fire at the rich for buying luxury goods and big houses, rather than for any exploitation they may preside over. One columnist reckons that the entrepreneurs on BBC 2’s Dragon’s Den probably drive tacky sports cars and therefore are a bunch of cocks (4). These are cheap moralistic shots rather than anything like a serious critique. It seems the workplace origins of wealth are of no real moment for these tax-the-rich complainers; they’re more interested in attacking the garish spending of the wealthy than in demanding a restructuring of wealth creation more broadly.
As a result, the discussions about the rich tend to mystify social relations in society. Having millions of pounds in the bank is not an automatic source of social power. Rich entertainers, pop musicians and actors might have accumulated enormous amounts of money, but it doesn’t mean they have the ability to shape society and make decisions that impact on people’s lives (bar the misery inflicted on people whenever U2 release an album or their frontman Bono opens his sphincter-like mouth to pronounce on African poverty). Social power only comes about when the owners of society’s resources enter into an economic relationship with those who survive by selling their labour power to them. This monopoly of the means of survival endows such businessmen with the power to influence debates, set agendas and make decisions that have real consequences for people’s livelihoods.
It follows, therefore, that calls for wealth redistribution don’t get to the heart of the problem of social inequality. Increasing taxes on the super-rich to give to the low-paid and the poor wouldn’t improve people’s living standards in any meaningful way, as previous welfare redistribution policies have shown. Perhaps our time would be better spent interrogating, and changing, the issue of who owns society’s resources. None of the rich-bashers (certainly not Tatler!) is suggesting that there should be collective ownership of society’s productive resources – that would mean allowing millions of people to have a genuine say in how society is organised. Instead, today’s attacks on the rich are driven by a rather patronising view of the masses as inert, passive dolts in need of a bit of altruistic charidee.
The likes of Toynbee and Tatler are not in favour of creating a more democratic method of wealth-creation. Rather they seem to believe that the rest of us should be happy with a few crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table – though heaven forbid any of us should spend these handouts on foreign holidays, a decent car or on a trolley-dash around Tesco.
How did moralising about money and materialism become mainstream? It strikes me that the origins of these sentiments lie in the Labour Party left during the 1980s. As their Alternative Economic Programme and welfare policies in the 1970s had proven an economic disaster, the Labour left quietly shelved their commitment to improving living standards altogether. Instead, they recast being left-wing as being all about moral-mindedness and a commitment to community, values and ethics. The then prime minister Margaret Thatcher seized the initiative by colonising social aspiration as being somehow the property of the New Right rather than the left, as it previously had been. So successful was Thatcher’s use of social aspiration as an ideological tool with which to defeat the left that, to this day, anyone who claims to be left wing will express his or her loathing for the politics of social aspiration. For them, anyone who wants more from life – a big house, cars, holidays, etc – has clearly capitulated to Thatcherism.
Today, anti-materialist ideas are so mainstream that even the rich attack the rich. Right now, there is no bigger or louder anti-consumerist and anti-materialist than the very wealthy green proselytiser, Al Gore. When even the super-rich berate the, er, super-rich, it seems clear that there is nothing to be gained from joining in with the attacks on wealth and success. To do that would be to attack the very basis for changing society for the better. So long as people aspired to greater living standards, there was an audience for politics that aimed to revolutionise the way society is organised. Attacking those at the top of society is simply an indirect way of keeping everyone else in their place below.
Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer in London.
Daniel Ben-Ami reviewed Oliver James’ book Affluenza and interviewed Indur Goklany, author of The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet. Rob Lyons looked at poverty and politics. And Daniel Ben-Ami summed up why, if prosperity doesn’t make us happy, it’s still a good thing. Or read more at spiked-issue Economy.
(1) ‘Stick it to these City Caesars – for the sake of the nation’, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 19 June 2007
(2) Tatler, June 2007
(3) See Underground Fat Cats, by Neil Davenport
(4) Last Night’s TV, Guardian, 4 August 2006
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