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Issue #1573      14 November 2012

Culture & Life

The elevation of the rich

Britain, the government never tires of repeating, “is open for business”, as though the country was being refurbished, or was recovering from some natural catastrophe. Prime Minister David Cameron told his reshuffled cabinet in September that all ministers are now economic ministers, since the economy must now be the focus of all efforts.

The National Health Service, following the successful establishment of an outpost of Moorfields Eye Hospital in Dubai in 2007, is to be allowed to set up profit-making “branches” abroad, to help fund the service at home. Education is now one of our major exports (although the withdrawal of London Metropolitan University’s licence to sponsor international students has thrown thousands into uncertainty as to whether they will be able to finish their expensive courses; a piece of xenophobic self-sabotage which has certainly tarnished the trade in this particular commodity).

Culture is also a major source of revenue for Britain – archaic historical dramas about the upper classes like Downton Abbey have the agreeable effect of persuading the world that Britain really is still living its imperial heyday, at the same time yielding lucrative returns. We know that the armaments industry has long made a significant contribution to keeping UKplc (as some proudly call it) afloat; authoritarian regimes have depended upon our weaponry to maintain order among their own restive citizens. Our language is also a profitable export item; the irony being that many native speakers in Britain have so little use for it that Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible have become unintelligible to them.

The urgency of restoring economic growth has placed the government in a dilemma. On the one hand, bankers, moneylenders and financiers who made great fortunes, both out of the financial collapse and out of its aftermath, are deeply unpopular. But these are also the people on whom, we are told, the country depends, to bring us out of the double-dip recession. How to rehabilitate the entrepreneurs and the masters of capital, how to ensure that London’s financial sector does not suffer under the general opprobrium incurred by bankers, speculators and traders in esoteric products – this is the question facing the Coalition government.

The government has skilfully transferred responsibility for the crisis, not only onto the previous Labour administration, but also onto the people themselves, whose indebtedness, overspending and self-indulgence have been seen as contributory causes. The Coalition alone has the courage to “rebalance” the economy, even if this means undermining the foundation of the welfare state. The rich have to be defended, indeed, protected from public wrath, a task made easier by the fact that in recent years, the rich have been elevated into objects of emulation, role models, the movers and shakers of the world, the source of all conceivable good. This is why government ministers have been swift to defend their true constituents, those whose money counts more tellingly in the scales of power than the weightless thistledown of mere votes. The native rich are being joined by their friends from sites of economic chaos and uncertainty – Greece and Spain, Russia, the Middle East – to snap up multi-million properties in London, which must represent the most extensive money-laundering activity in the world.

Michael Fallon, the new Minister of State for Business, said we should “salute” the wealth creators; he likened entrepreneurs to “Olympian champions”, warning against the re-emergence of “the politics of envy”, that serviceable slogan used to delegitimise any whisper of social justice. Chancellor George Osborne is adamant that he will not overtax the “wealth creators”, lest they switch their mysterious arts to enriching occupants of countries whose leaders understand the sacred inviolability of the market. The myth of universal business is so potent that no human activity can now be undertaken unless it yields a ”return”, pays dividends, is transformed into a market transaction. When Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg threatens to make the rich pay more, his empty words are carried away on the chill winds of economic “reality”.

The rich are no longer bloodsuckers, leeches or vampires, as they were sometimes represented in an earlier bestiary of capitalism; they are now a different order of creatures, tigers or lions, big beasts, cheetahs rather than cheaters. The epic process that has transformed the wealthy from bloated plutocrats, grinders of the faces of the poor, extortioners and exploiters into creators of wealth and authors of affluence is complete. Public outrage must be channelled into placid waters, where it will not affect those who make the weather (as well as change the climate), and upon whose scientific sorcery growth and expansion depend.

The rich, always alert to new possibilities, have donned the discarded clothing of the sometime heroics of labour and promote themselves as the sole source of all hope, increase and improvement. They display not only their wealth but the indispensability of their works, the high-octane lifestyle, the urgent jetting between continents for the sake of saving this company, promoting that technology, taking over some neglected assets. They tirelessly span the globe, risking ulcers, heart conditions and an early grave in the interests of generating riches, less for themselves (despite the handsome rewards) than for the salvation of the people; for without their selfless dedication to the revolutions of money, we would languish in the poverty, ignorance and misery from which their unwearying hyperactivity has rescued us. They have become redeemers – a role that belonged earlier to the vanguard of labour and, long before that, to the saints of Christianity.

This is why economic crimes come low in the order of justice. Did HSBC launder money from Mexican drug cartels and potential terrorists, and did it apologise for a “shameful system”? Was Ian Hannam of JP Morgan guilty of insider trading, a form of “market abuse”, as it was called, probably the worst form of abuse anyone can imagine? Did James Cayne of Bear Stearns cause the bank to suffer huge losses through sub-prime mortgages? Had Enron – perhaps the scandal of the century – hidden its debts in “special-purpose entities”? Yes; but even the epic wrongdoing of the new century cannot diminish the newly exalted status of the global rich and the insolence of their dictatorial powers.

This is not new. Down the ages, the rich have been looked up to, revered, perceived as the elect of God, placed in their high station by Providence, appointed to oversee lesser mortals. That there is a rough-and-ready congruence between the old bearers of aristocratic values and the new controllers of human destinies is not entirely fortuitous. But their remaking of the universe has been so successful that Marx’s priority of changing the world must be set aside for a season, while the struggle to understand it must be started all over again.

Third World Resurgence   

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