A Bedouin tent might be an odd place for a Spear’s event, but when William Cash took to the podium he realized that a gypsy tent was a perfect backdrop for a debate about whether there was cause for concern about how the super-elite traveller class are breaking away from the rest of the world while controlling ever-increasing parts of our lives
A BEDOUIN TENT perched on a steep Brecon hillside might be an odd place for Spear’s to host a debate on whether the rise of the new super-rich ‘global aristocracy’ is good or bad for society. But when I actually took my seat (a deck-chair of sorts) on the podium alongside Peter York, Jonathan Bailey, the outspoken former hedgie and champion of Darwinian capitalism, and the New Statesman’s own Ms Robespierre, Laurie Penny, I realized that a gypsy tent was in many ways a perfect backdrop for a debate about whether there was cause for concern about how the super-elite traveller class are breaking away from the rest of the world while controlling ever-increasing parts of our lives.
Spear’s has always been a champion of free market wealth creation. In a global village it is inevitable, and right, that those at the very top of the financial and creative tree — whether they are inventors, business visionaries, authors, artists or Rich List mavericks — should be rewarded for creating products or technological advances that transform people’s lives.
But the super-rich have become a lazy target for envy and media angst and one reason we sponsored the debate was that we wanted to see what, if any, were the arguments put forward by the left for suggesting that governments should introduce measures designed to curtail the nefarious power of the super-rich. If nothing else, the superinjunction fiasco in the UK has served to prove that many of Britain’s wealthiest people, faced with media exposure of their vain, selfish and tawdry lives, do think they are above the law. This is wrong.
YET SOMETHING SEEMS to be rotten in Richistan. The trouble is that the plutocrats’ numbers have swollen such that it is impossible to keep up with them and their ‘agenda’. From being a colourful social tribe, they are now seem to be turning into a self-contained elite, a powerful yet invisible and highly wealthy country.
Should we care? The richest 1 per cent of the world’s individuals now control 43 per cent of the world’s assets, and the richest 10 per cent controls 83 per cent. According to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, there are now 25.2 million people with net assets above $1 million. In 1995, the entry level for making it onto the Forbes Rich List was $418 million. Now you need at least $1 billion — and there are over 400 billionaires alone in the US.
The central idea of the debate was to look at the growing hostility to the idea of such a global elite. Do their peripatetic summits, global stopovers at Davos and the recent Google Zeitgeist conference at the Grove Hotel in Watford (yes, Watford is now a HNW global destination ‘think-point’) simply foster insular thinking and an apolitical self-interest with no loyalties and values other than themselves and their own interests?
Under this topic, however, I think there is a more interesting debate, and that is what the existence of such a class tells us about the meaning of self-worth and wealth today. The rise of social inequality as the super-rich get richer and the less well-off poorer is argued in The Spirit Level, the controversial book by two British academics who claim there is a ‘disconnect’ in society — such as America, which has increased murder and child poverty rates as there are ever more billionaires — whenever the gulf between the hard-working middle classes and the super-rich widens.
This is the old argument again that that the new rich today prefer to take care of only their own and create their own value systems, being little interested in the idea of ‘connecting’ back to society, or operating as a responsible citizen, in the ways that the old money aristocracy used to employ the people who worked on their land, and looked after them, and generally took a responsible role in society.
I don’t agree with this idea, subscribing to the ‘trickledown’ effect that the new landscape of wealth has undeniably created — HNWs now own $69.2 trillion in assets globally — raising the standard of living everywhere, from India to China to Africa, in ways that have never before been imaginable. If the knock-on effect is that a few oligarchs and tycoons — and even some very dodgy financial crooks — get presented with some monstrous super-yacht fuel bills at Monaco harbour that would be enough to heat the council houses in a Glasgow slum for a decade, so be it.
In the old days when you had a disconnect between the middle classes and the very rich, you went and caused trouble. Heads rolled. The trouble with today’s new super-class is that you don’t know where they are any more to throw your stones. As one very rich currency trader friend who knows this world intimately said to me: ‘The real luxury today, the thing that money can’t buy, is the ability to simply not care about “Other People”. You can’t vote against them and you can’t touch them. They are flying around in their private jets and the idea is to have as little as possible to do with the real world or ordinary people.’
They have done this by creating an aristocracy of phoney merit, as The Economist has argued. They have created a culture of intellect, networking, privilege and opportunity within which they marry each other, network with each other, raise their kids together, creating a new aristocratic elite which the old middle-class high-achievers are finding increasingly difficult to break into. But the real problem goes further: it is creating a culture of exclusion, and AC Grayling’s unashamedly pandering New College of the Humanities is one example.
I LOVED A story I heard at How the Light Gets In, the Hay philosophy festival, after the Spear’s talk when a teacher came up to me and said that he had recently witnessed such an example of the ‘entitlement’ of the new super-rich when he found himself being flown in a private jet to Paris to tutor to the fourteen year old son of a Ukrainian billionaire who was trying to get into an English public school. Few hard-working English children who are sons or daughters of the professional classes have such advantages. ‘Tutoring in what?’ I asked. ‘Basic English.’ The boy will, no doubt, have found several willing schools.
In the old days, social mobility was such that hard work and brains could get you to the top. I am not saying that it is impossible today, but the gulf between the very rich — who can afford £30,000 a year school fees, £9,000 university fees and an £800,000 flat in London for both Tara and Zac to enjoy their gap year — means that the new elite are doing what elites have always done, whether aristocratic or new money: perpetuate themselves and keep others out. And that is all the easier, and less morally worrying, when other people do not matter.