In the eighties I wrote articles on ghastly yuppies, effervescing with expensive champagne and inflated egos. One of them poured his bubbly over my blouse when I tried to interview him. How they all laughed. In the nineties I met incredibly young dotcom millionaires, bright but vacuous. That was also the time when, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher, the middle classes suddenly wanted to be shareholders. Those were early signs of a major cultural and economic shift. But not even the great prophetess of the free market could have predicted that GB would become the epicentre of global greed and vicious inequality, a modern Herod’s Temple, where profiteers gather and lucre is worshipped. Christ drove out the money makers from the old temple in Jerusalem. Here, they are welcomed, given free rein and warm hugs by HMRC and our governments. Now the London Eye has been taken over by Coca Cola, the final insult.
These indulgences are, we are told, essential, because without profit makers economies would collapse. Their extreme wealth leads to better living standards for all. That, it turns out, is a myth or illusion or downright lie. Bankers, investors, the upper classes and big businesses rake it in while the rest of humanity is damned.
Last December the BBC brought us 3 programmes on The Tatler, the rag read by those who spend ten thousand pounds on a pair of cuff links. This week the broadcaster gave us The Super-Rich and Us, written and presented by the astute Jacques Peretti, who previously made The Men Who Made us Fat and The Men Who Made us Spend. The documentary exposed the wolves and their pampered families, their sense of entitlement, self pity and disdain. The Countess of Bathurst, a landowner who organises polo matches felt severely misunderstood by the hoi polloi: ‘They don’t know what it means to be people like us. We do work incredibly hard’. Then there was Tony Fernandes, who owns the QPR football team and Air Asia. No, with 650million pounds, he was not as rich as some. I know what he means. A millionaires school mate of mine who has a beautiful house in South London weeps because she can’t afford to buy a house in Holland Park. A distant relative who owns seventy five posh properties is furious because he can’t buy his son a job on the media: ‘ What good is this money if I can’t get him his dreams? We people suffer too you know’. He offered me £50,000 to see if I could pull strings. And then accused me of hating the rich. True, I do hate the rich who think they are the chosen ones, who think they can live by their own rules, pay no taxes, who feel no obligation to those who have less.
Back in Uganda, several of my uncles, now dead, were millionaire businessmen. But their employees were paid a pittance and their own families were torn apart by feuds. That was in the sixties. Today employers have the same mean spirits. Workers are denied a living wage because the shareholders and directors must have more- their next big car, yacht or mansion. We now have companies– Vault Couture is one such- which manage the possessions of men and women who buy too much and then feel lost in their forests of plenty. Here, take the sick bag…
Half the world’s wealth – 110 trillion dollars- belongs to the top 1%. Eighty five of the richest men and women own as much as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. In the next decade, those who have too much will get even more, that is according to Oxfam. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are both men of the establishment and of the wealthy Church of England. They warn that economic growth pursued maniacally has increased inequality, an ‘evil’ which must now be tackled. The warning appears in a new collection of essays, On Rock or Sand, published this week. Cameron rejected these calls and then ‘urged’ employers to pay their workers more than the bare minimum wage.
Don’t tell me governments are powerless. Japan and the Scandinavian nations have maintained relative equality through these hard years and since rabid free marketers took over the globe. Japan was once a feudal society and still retains deference, but its leaders understand how fairness makes for a better society for all.
Some powerful voices in the most cutthroat economies are now speaking up. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, for example, told Rana Foroohar, a Times magazine columnist: ‘ I’d lay [wage stagnation] right at the feet of trickle-down economics…We’ve tried that experiment for 35 years and it hasn’t worked’.
Democracy will collapse and aspiration will die unless we turn back from this disastrous ideology. Our leaders won’t do that. But when the masses have nothing left to lose, they may rise and light a bonfire of vanities. As they have done through history. This may be a seditious thing to say, but it is what billions of people worldwide are thinking.
The Independent, 19/1/2015