So, I’ve just finished reading a book called The Establishment and How They Get Away With It, by Owen Jones. I guess just from the title I knew I was going to love it, chiming as it does with my very strong belief that society has been completely rigged in favor of those at the top – that’s the wealthy corporate elite and their political bedfellows (basically the entire political class, give or take a few individuals), who ensure the elite remain at the top.
I admit, as I was reading the book, I could feel that warm glow of righteous satisfaction you get when your own cherished philosophical notions are confirmed by another and pointedly reflected right back at you (I’m a shameless Humanist, yes, but I’m also just a human). As personal satisfaction goes, however, it’s a pretty short-lived sensation; the more you read about how big business, corporate interests, financial trickery and political skullduggery asset-strip the society that gave them their advantages in the first place (even though you might already know it), that satisfaction quickly gives way to a more viscerally indignant, simmering fury.
In fact, there were more than a few occasions where I had to go back over what I had read, because a particular piece of information had filled me with so much anger and sent my mind off on (admittedly pointless) vengeance-against-the-elite fantasies that even though my eyes had been following the words on the page, my brain – focused instead on slowly removing Iain Duncan Smith’s fingernails – absolutely had not.
There’s nowhere enough space to list here the ways in which a wealthy neoliberal minority has rigged the game and thoroughly shafted modern society through buying governments, wheedling its way into the corridors of power and utterly subverting democracy. If you want to know all the ways – and, believe me, you do want to know all the ways – then I really recommend you get your hands on the book and read it from start to finish. It won’t take you long; The Establishment and How They Get Away With It is an accessible read, full of clear, engaging information, and written in a way that doesn’t patronize or burden the reader with unnecessarily pompous language.
So, having established that I can’t talk about everything, I’ll concentrate on the one question that kept cropping up in my head about this wealthy elite, the one I find the most irritating. It is this: why does the 1% appear to need to own everything? It’s a hell of a question, especially when you consider that the mega rich have so much money that, functionally, the great majority of it must be useless to them. It seems likely, of course, that functionality is probably the least of it, and in the end it all just comes down to something as pathetic as status, to ‘I have more than you… I am better than you,’ which may actually make the whole thing even worse to stomach, but there we go.
The potentially ironic thing about all of this is that the logical upshot of channeling so much of the planet’s wealth into the hands of a few surely has to be the complete devaluation of the very object which the few holds so dear. If we scale it down, and say that in a society of 5,000 people, only three people have all the wealth, the likelihood that the other 4,997 won’t just start using something else between themselves instead has got to pretty low. If the value of a particular currency doesn’t mean anything to the majority, then it means absolutely nothing at all. Worth and value are consensual. So, in the society of the 5,000, where three have all the gold, the 4,997 would eventually turn to them and say, ‘Fine, keep the gold… much good may it do you now that the rest of us have decided to use pebbles instead,’ and the three eventually starve to death because no-one is accepting the exchange of goods for the shiny yellow rock anymore.
The wealthy neoliberal elite must be aware of this somewhere in its subconscious mind, and this is maybe why so much money is spent on great works of art – which, though some of it might be nice, should never cost more than what it would take to keep a whole town alive for a year – along with yachts and mansions and other expensive toys. Somewhere in the murky recesses of its addled thoughts, the wealthy elite knows that the more money it hoards, the more the already abstract worthlessness of money must inherently increase in reality. So it hoards objects instead, assets at it prefers to term them, in an effort to appear less mercenarily shallow. You could almost say this sort of high-end acquisitive behavior is actually like some kind of weird, luxury-hued variation of Diogenes Syndrome – except that ordinary sufferers of Diogenes only real hurt themselves whereas those we might diagnose with Diogenes Plus cause harm to everyone else.
More than anything else, it is the causation of harm to others that really gets to me, that I find so hard to comprehend… and certainly impossible to accept from an ethical standpoint. The best explanation I have for the neoliberal wealthy elite’s total lack of a moral compass is mental illness. We’re talking two possibilities here: either the complete inability to relate to or empathize with other human beings indicative of straight-down-the-line psychopathy (in which case you’re screwed) or the steadily increasing sociopathic and morally ambivalent tendencies amplified by continued and intensifying substance abuse (for which there is some hope, though the road be long).
What interests us here is the second option (for more about the first, you should take a look at The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson). For the wealthy elite, the drug of choice is, unsurprisingly, wealth itself. To simplify, they are addicted to money, and just like any addict, the more they have, the more they want and the more they need. And the more they need their drug, the more they will consider anything that enables them to obtain it; and so the more the lines that separate right from wrong, the socially acceptable from the unacceptable, become blurred. It’s hard to see anything clearly when the fog of the fix is upon you.
Thus, just as the smack-head slowly rotting away in a derelict squat will eventually find it justifiable and expedient to mug his own frail old grandmother in order to get his scabrous claws on the next little baggie, so too the mansion-dwelling money-pothead will also quickly find a way to explain away his apparent need to trample over those below him in order to get his manicured digits on his choice of poison.
In the wealth addict’s case, that might mean encouraging someone like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to deny workers (employed by the addict) an increase in their living wage by telling them that $7.25 an hour is enough. The less the addict has to pay his employees, the more of the green stuff he gets to keep for himself. The same argument applies to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, attempting to redefine what ‘labor’ means by trying to make out that he doesn’t have to pay the extra time his staff need to take for the anti-theft security checks he obliges them to take. Admittedly, in both of these cases, it’s pretty hard to distinguish this elite’s brand of granny mugging from your average run-of-the-mill psycho behavior, but let’s be kind in this instance and just call it substance-related temporary insanity.
Neoliberal addicts, like heroin addicts, become adept at lying and justifying their actions to themselves, to the point where they actually believe their own untruths. So it is, therefore, that they are able to justify urging governments to cut funding to public services, to the poor and the needy, while demanding exactly the same kind of largesse for themselves that they deny everyone else, with state subsidies for business and tax credits to ensure that the state pays a percentage of the wage they should themselves be paying to those they employ. Giving to the poor is wasteful, say the corporate elite that owns Washington and London, but giving to the elite encourages innovation and progress. They are job creators, they say. They are wealth creators.
Reality proves them wrong at every turn; it is the lower and middle classes that spend and keep the economy moving; it is the lower and middle classes that make and buy the products that feed the market. It is the lower and middle classes that actually create the wealth. Still, regardless of who it is that creates the wealth, it is the corporate neoliberal addicts that snorts it all up; it is the corporate neoliberal addicts who refuse to share their stash, even if they don’t need any of it themselves right at that moment. For the neoliberal addict, it’s not enough to have the lion’s share, nobody else is allowed to get their hands on anything leftover either. If the neoliberal addict can’t have it, nobody can. For the neoliberal addict, it’s not simply about eating the cake; it’s about having the cake, keeping it, even though it slowly rots and decays away while the rest of the world starves.
Time for an intervention.