Ruling over Squalor

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Consumerism, Culture, Ethics, Idle Nonsense
Tags: , ,

With the direction things are currently going, namely, the widening gulf between the rich (and therefore powerful) and everyone else (not just the poor anymore but the middle class, too), I have been puzzling over what makes gathering wealth and power to oneself so irresistible that those in the narrowest and highest corridors of power are content to reduce everyone and everything around them to squalor even as they sit atop their miserly hoards, staring balefully at the rabble below (if they even bother to look). What’s the point of acquiring fortunes if one ends up besieged?

Numerous answers to those questions arise throughout history. Some want to make their mark on the world, even if they end up being villains. Others thrive on venal manipulation of the rules of engagement for the sheer thrill of success, though how one measures success varies widely with context. Yet others have a psychotic or sociopathic impulse to destroy. What they have in common is a lack of moral restraint, a quality that would keep them from victimizing others without compunction. Those victims may be remote from view, but they exist nonetheless.

Much has been said of the travails of the financial industry, which now accounts for a sizable portion of U.S. economic activity without really producing a valuable product or service beyond growing and destroying wealth, both of which this sector accomplishes with remarkable alacrity. A NY Times article (login required) describes how computers are used to manage trading in microseconds, which basically amounts to skimming wealth without returning value to anyone but the owners of the computers. I described this effect more fully in another post. In fact, the number of articles examining the same concentration of wealth at the very top continue to multiply, as can be seen here and here and here and here.

The graphics at Mother Jones tell the story in obvious terms:

The text tells the story in similarly stark terms. For instance, Chris Hedges says this:

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.

I still have to wonder though: what’s the point? Two answers come to mind. One is that the superrich are so lost and adrift in the world that they are unable to imagine anything else to do but count their money and grow it larger at whatever cost to others. In short, their heads are full of straw and their hearts are shrunk to the size and hardness of acorns. The other answer is that, especially for self-made men, they don’t know how to disengage once they make their fortunes because they identify so wholly with the mechanisms and corporations that enable their success that there is no world or life beyond further accumulation of wealth. I’ve heard several CEOs say in interviews that it’s no longer about the money, that it becomes about the game. It doesn’t seem to dawn on them that the point of money and the game is to enrich all people, not destroy them. So they become willing and even forceful cogs in the machinery that grinds people into the dust.

Other commentators have offered that it amounts to simple class warfare: the top 5% (or 1%, depending) against everyone else, where a complacent citizenry pins their faint hopes on it not getting any worse, which it will, of course, until literal slavery returns, not just metaphorical wage slavery. I have my doubts, though, that most within the top 5% have any inkling that their absurdly immense wealth, while fiat currency still holds value, comes at the cost of the destruction of so many lives in the bottom 95%. My basic question remains: who wants to rule over squalor?

  1. kulturcritic says:

    Absolutely a game Brutus. I once had a friend from Chicago, an executive type, (like myself at the time) who told me “He who dies with the most toys, wins!” sandy

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