The Bank robber Willie Sutton reputedly replied to a reporter’s inquiry as to why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is.” Sutton denied ever having said it, but the popularity of the citation indicates a certain truth.
Wealth – and the power it confers – is in relatively few private hands. Organised through companies and states, it gives a tiny minority enormous leverage over everyone else’s lives.
This underlines a point that should be obvious but is mystified in the conventional wisdom. “The economy”- sometimes operating under its other alias “the markets” – is not a neutral machine that operates under mathematical rules unbeholden to human choice. It is a social construction in which the choices of the wealthiest are central, and the production of profits for their benefit the point. This is why – in a city like London – there are whole socially dead areas full of empty luxury developments – bought by the uber wealthy as investments. Not homes. Not neighbourhoods. Just vertically stacked physical portfolios. At the same time, a study by Shelter in 2015 found just 43 houses on the market at an affordable price for the average family. 43; in a city of 8.5 million people! Hard to imagine that there are any now. (1)
The priority is neither need, nor “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” – as `Jeremy Bentham described the purpose of political economy – but stacking up wealth and power where it already is. If you are in London, you can visualise this as a piece of psycho-geography when you stand on Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath and look South. The entire city looks warped around the skyscrapers in the City of London, Canary Wharf and the Shard, in orbit around the massive gravity of black holes of finance capital thrown up into blasphemous towers.
Sometimes there is a slip that reveals this, but it goes unnoticed because the narrative of “the economy” being a neutral good is so well established that it blinds us to the truth even as it is being revealed. Evan Davies, talking about the French 35 hour week on the PM programme around the time of Nikolas Sarkosy’s run for President as “really good for the people, but really bad for the economy” is a classic. Ponder that for a bit.
A recent report from UBS (2) shows how few billionaires there are in the world. A slight rise from 2158 in 2017 to 2189 now.
This is such a tiny proportion of the global population that you can barely see it on a pie graph. In fact, you could fit them all into the Royal Festival Hall and still have 500 vacant seats – or you could just about fit them into the old State cinema in Grays Essex with 11 seats left over. Perhaps we should invite them to a concert or film show and lock them all in.
It is reminiscent of the joke told by Jimmy Reid – who led the Upper Clyde Shipyard sit in in 1971. “If you put the ruling class on one side, and the working class on the other, and the working class spat – we’d drown the bastards.”
Their wealth however, and therefore their power, is much greater. As this wealth is so far beyond their needs, the way it can be deployed is far weightier than its raw quantity. It is also increasing rapidly – and crisis boosts this, with an increase of 70% (!) since 2017 – not a calm period marked by political harmony and blithe optimism for the future.
If you broaden out the definition of the world’s wealthiest to all the millionaires in the world, the rule of spit still applies.
The imbalance of wealth and power is even clearer, as 0.6% of the population controls 44% of the wealth.
It goes without saying that the conspicuous luxury consumption indulged in by these people would be completely unsustainable for the Earth’s resources if everyone were to have the wealth to join in. These people have carbon footprints the size of an Argentinosaurus. Oxfam carried out a study in 2015 that showed that each person among the wealthiest 10% of the world had a carbon footprint 60 times greater than that of people in the poorest 90%. (3) This is a significantly larger slice of global population than the millionaires and billionaires; so the scale of their personal carbon footprints can only be imagined.
The notion that emulating these people – wanting to live like they do – to “keep up with the Kardashians” escape from the common lot and shared problems and “spend, spend, spend” our way to an alienated nirvana of empty consumerism is “aspirational” is therefore a poisonous cul de sac for human culture. It is also impossible. There is no room at the top. Trying to get there will kill us all.
The desirability or otherwise of this narrow class of people to control so much of the world’s wealth – created for them by the labour of others – is underlined by just how mean spirited they are. The UBS report notes that just 209 out of 2189 of them have “given something back” in this pandemic.
The quantities given are also vanishingly small – with Jeff Bezos giving just 0.1% of his net worth and Bill and Melinda Gates 0.2%. With the sole and honourable exception of Jerry Dorsey (CEO of Twitter) who gave 25% of his wealth to COVID related causes this year – the spirit of Andrew Carnegie has well and truly left the building. (4). Philanthropy is clearly not a viable alternative to taxation if you want to even things out. Assuming – as these people do – that they can make a better use of the resources they control than states – is clearly effrontery on a grand scale.
The final point is that of all the billionaires in the world who did make some financial amends by donating to disaster relief, the meanest were those based in Britain. World beating.
Politically these people like to control the governments of the countries they are based in. The advanced capitalist countries are the best democracies that money can buy. Donald Trump – before he tried his hand at running the show himself, put it like this, when talking about donating to the Clintons. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.” (5) Quid Pro Quo. he is not alone in this. It is what they do. They also like to control the opposition. A sign that an opposition Party based on the Labour Movement which might prove difficult – in that the voice of millions or organised workers is expressed through it – can partly be neutralised by shifting the source of its funding directly to High Net Worth Individuals.
The establishment of a mainstream consensus that no party that aspires to office can actually achieve it while challenging the grip these people have on “the economy” is a key objective to make politics safe for them. It is also why, when the IMF and OECD recommend economic recoveries based on direct state investment – and state investment in Green transition – it doesn’t happen. The dominant orthodoxy is that recovery is based on a recovery in profits, which means the state subsidises capital – and therefore provides a direct transfusion to money to those who own it (and the more they own the more they get) – underwritten and paid for by the rest of us as Finance Ministries pursue their “sacred duty to balance budgets”. The presumption that the wealth generated at the top will trickle down from their empty penthouses is not true but challenged by any Party that knows its place in the old world order.
Challenges to this are not easy – as we have just learned in the UK – but nonetheless necessary – and will continue to be made.
its always time to get ready to spit.