When ordinary people defend billionaires

From arguments over whether £80,000 is "rich" to the bizarre spectacle of average earners defending the rights of billionaires, a deeply-held belief in exceptionalism has poisoned political debate

November 26, 2019
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“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his novella, The Rich Boy, with a sense of romantic longing. “Yes,” his rival, Ernest Hemingway was said to have replied, mockingly: “they have more money.” As Hemingway wrote later on, in a 1936 issue of Esquire magazine, “that was not humorous to Scott. He thought that they were a special glamorous race and when he found out they weren’t, it wrecked him.”

The American Dream, as Fitzgerald would come to know, was based on this flawed assumption about ‘the rich’—that their wealth signified some elusive, intrinsically superior personal value, which set them apart from everyone else. That this magical dream could be acquired through charm and work; that having money—having things—would validate the dream of yourself that you, if no one else, believed in. And if it didn’t? Well, you still had your dreams; you were still ‘someone’ just through the strength of your own imagination. Worthy through imagined association, if nothing else.

Although it’s an American idea, the British, with their deeply ingrained class system and colonial past, have a similar set of assumptions and problems, which to this day divides society and undermines any hope of a fair and equal political system. This dream—that shot at an imagined, doomed superiority—continues to divide and mislead, and yet even as it does so, swathes of the population are ready to vote for it again.

Tory austerity has already been linked to thousands of deaths. Hundreds of benefits claimants, faced with destitution and homelessness due to sanctions and cuts, not to mention scarce access to mental health services, have taken their own lives. Cancer treatment has been delayed for the sickest patients leading to preventable deaths. Ambulances turn patients away or arrive hours late. Doctors and nurses are driven to the brink due to staff shortages. Those suffering from substance abuse problems—and their families—are left to fend for themselves due to a lack of funds and care from the central government.

This has all been well-recorded. We know that the country is struggling, that the poor are getting poorer, that economic growth is slow, that infighting and shame are endemic. At every level but the very, very top, people are suffering.

And yet approval ratings for Boris Johnson, a Prime Minister whose short time in power has been marked with a series of failures, scandals and embarrassments, remains high. When Labour proposed taxing billionaires more aggressively, there was outrage—but not from billionaires. Why? Why do people on ordinary incomes (or even high incomes), who could never hope to become billionaires, want to protect them? Why are they shunning the taxes that would help them and their society? Why are they defending politicians whose policies work against them? Why are they rejecting a vision of society that gives them more wealth, in favour of the mere idea of a handful of extremely wealthy individuals existing?

When Fitzgerald spoke about “rich people,” he did so with longing and deference, however, disillusioned with ‘the dream’ he became. He imagined that the upper class were superior on account of their wealth and glamour, that one could not, therefore, be worth or deserving of much without that money and the respectability that came with it. This equation of money and goodness is Calvinist in origin, and the foundation of capitalist thought. It goes some way to explain the ingrained obsession with money and class in British as well as American society today, and perhaps why people continue to go along with it. There is a continued acceptance of what we are often told to believe: that the extremely wealthy deserve to be wealthy, because they have 'worked hard.' That if we work hard, there is a good chance we will also become rich. But the very rich usually inherit it, or some form of inherited wealth and the associated social privileges help them get there. And so many of us work as hard as we possibly can, and usually still end up struggling, because the economy, and society, is rigged to help the rich stay rich, not to reward the deference and dreams of everyone else. 

If we are to get anywhere close to having a fair and equal political system, then these deeply-held beliefs in aspirationalism and exceptionalism must be confronted and thrown over. Wealth does not signify moral value, but it does represent social value. We still value wealth more than we value each other in this society. We still think that you have to be extremely rich—far more than £80,000 a year! That barely pays the school fees!—to be glamorous, or even just happy or respectable. To be somebody “of consequence.”

But it is not true. We can have all of those things, and be all of those things, without upholding a system that is damaging and deceptive. We do not have to protect those who have exploited us and will continue to do so. We can have it all, but we need to get rid not only of those particular individuals who endanger the future of the country with their destructive politics but also the toxic aspirationalism at the heart of their persistence.