Octopus, a 126m long yacht owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (photo: Bjørn Giesenbauer)
In 2009, the Gates Foundation gave out $1.8bn in grants to improve health in developing countries. If it were a state, it would be the world’s 10th largest international aid donor. Its operations certainly resemble a state, complete with an eight acre headquarters in Seattle housing 1000 staff and a virtual diplomatic service in the countries it assists. Its buildings are designed to look like arms reaching out to the globe.
This is the more attractive face of plutocracy and the “new global super rich,” described by Chrystia Freeland in her new book, Plutocrats. “After a few million or something, it’s all about how you’re going to give back,” as Bill Gates puts it. But there are also less attractive facets.
A century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the United States: “nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions among the people.” Today, the top fifth of Americans own 84 per cent of national wealth. The top 1 per cent own nearly a third.
How big is the global plutocracy? Credit Suisse defines “ultra high net worth individuals” as those with net assets of more than $50m. Last year the bank reported that the number of them worldwide had surged to an estimated 84,700, of whom roughly a third had net assets of more than $100m. Nearly half of them are in North America and a quarter in Europe.
“The past decade has been especially conducive to the establishment of large fortunes,” Credit Suisse noted, contrary to expectations that the 2008 crash might have halted or even slowed the trend. So we are talking about a fairly numerous global plutocracy, defined by income, whose lifestyle and mores influence a still larger hinterland of the mere “super rich.”
A big and under-debated question is the compatibility of this plutocracy with modern democracy. This is a more specific issue than the growing concentration of wealth within society at large. It is about the political status of the new class of the super rich and their ability to shape law and society in their own image. “Figuring out how the plutocrats are connected to the rest of us is one of the challenges of…