Why are the rich so greedy?
The Packers, Rineharts and Twiggy Forests of this world seem to have an insatiable desire to expand their empires, accumulate more wealth and control, and to see themselves at the top of the Forbes Rich list. How can we explain this mad scramble to get richer asks Emma Norton in Socialist Alternative. Why can’t these characters be satisfied with the billions of dollars they’ve extracted from workers, without wanting to acquire even more?
The easiest, and partly correct, answer is that they are greedy parasites. They really do just want to sit on mountains of cash while masses live in poverty.
The US provides a particularly stark picture of the opulence of the rich alongside the poverty of ordinary people. After the financial crisis in 2008, which saw thousands of Americans lose their homes and jobs, there was actually an increase in the sales of luxury cars. This growth was as high as 60 percent in 2010, indicating that any embarrassment over their own outrageous wealth in the face of the economic crisis was very short lived.
A recent “Survey of Affluence and Wealth in America” conducted on the top richest families – the “0.6 percent” in this case – showed that per year they each spent on average: $7,500 on watches, $10,500 on fine jewellery and $17,800 on vacations.
Mit Romney, Republican presidential candidate, provides an example. Despite the economic crisis, the Occupy movement, and even attacks from other Republicans, he still maintains 6 mansions. One of them is a $12 million beach front villa which he plans to quadruple in size, installing a car elevator in order to fit all his Cadillacs in the basement.
One of the most ridiculous examples of opulence alongside impoverishment is seen in Dubai, the holiday and investment destination for many a rich parasite. One of the city’s top luxury hotels is currently building a refrigerated beach to protect the toes of its wealthy clientele. It will include cooling pipes under the sand and even wind blowers to produce a “soft sea breeze”.
But while the rich truly are scumbags, there is a deeper reason to their drive to accumulate.
The actions and individual aspirations of this small section of society is a reflection of their position within the capitalist system. Capitalism is driven by competition. Bosses who don’t sufficiently expand their companies and put profits above all else will go out of business.
In Australia between June 2007 and June 2009, it is reported that one third of all new businesses failed. The capitalists left in the game are going to be the ones that most effectively pushed down workers’ wages, increased productivity and, ultimately, made the largest profits. So there’s a kind of selective process at work in the corporate world. The most ruthless business owners are the ones that become successful.
The psychology required to actually remain a members of the capitalist class follows on from this logic. Greed, selfishness and ruthless profiteering best equip individual capitalists to make their exploits successful. Accumulation, according to this logic, equals success; lack of accumulation signifies failure. And what’s true in business becomes true of the bosses’ personal lives. They’ll do anything to be successful. Recent studies provide evidence for this. They have found that the rich are more selfish than the rest of us. In experiments they were found to be more likely to lie, cheat and even steal lollies from children.
Even within the capitalist class this mentality creates differences, as the wealthier, more “successful” capitalists snub their noses at their less wealthy colleagues. They justify occupying positions of power in society by the delusion that they must be entitled to it. It follows from this logic that the majority of the population are just too stupid to be rich and successful. This explains the sneering contempt and hatred that many rich people have for the poor. Silvio Berlusconi’s blasé advice to impoverished Italians is illustrative: “Do it my way and earn more money!”
It is the ruthlessness required to rule under capitalism that imbues the rich with their characteristic selfishness and greed. So capitalism makes the ruling class scumbags as much as the scumbags make the system. But the working class and indeed the majority of the world’s population has no interest in the kind of greedy, self-serving mentality of the rich and powerful. We can best advance our interests through cooperation, unity and fighting against those who preserve the capitalist system of exploitation for profits.