October 14, 2022
If there is a protected minority in the world, it is the super-rich
Insight by Alessandro Sahebi
We are beginning to talk about them, to discuss them, to criticize them. Such little is known about them and, most importantly, one does not really know who they are. What does it mean to "be rich"?
The rich are getting richer, while the poor have to live with their scraps and suffer the both tangible and intangible effects (1) of scarcity. Since the 1980s, with the historic defeat of developed socialism in the Soviet Union (and of the democratic socialism in Europe), the neoliberal school of thought has found no hindrance to its progression, eventually colonizing our minds and becoming naturalized to the point where it has become, more by collective conviction than by reality, the only seemingly viable system.
Among the most widespread beliefs that have been established over the past forty years it is surely the one that holds wealth as an absolute value. Absolute has its root in the Latin ab solutus, meaning loosed from all restraint, and so wealth to date knows no moral constraint on its growth: it is believed that those who are rich fully deserve it and that, thanks to their talents, in trickle-down fashion, they will redistribute wealth by investing and generating profits.
We have only recently begun to talk about the wealthy and the problematic nature of wealth; little is known about them. But, above all, it is not well known who they are.
What it means to be rich, moreover, is unknown, as the word lacks an unambiguous definition.
To be rich, what does it mean?
One who possesses money, goods, resources and generally means of livelihood to a greater extent than is needed to live in a reasonable way. Theoretically, at least according to the definition in the Treccani encyclopedia, rich is anyone who has access to an above-average material and immaterial lifestyle, being able to enjoy the privileges of the superfluous.
An inaccurate but clear definition, which nevertheless runs the risk of being dangerous: in fact, this equation would include, in the same cauldron, the tenants of a three-room apartment in Milan who can afford to go on vacation once a year and, at the same time and under the same linguistic umbrella, the very rich patron of Amazon Jeff Bezos. If almost all of us are rich (especially if we consider the Western lifestyle compared to the Global South), then no one is rich.
Since you started reading this text Bezos has increased his wealth by about 300 thousand euros, which is what, with a rough average, - if you are lucky enough to have a job and a salary - you will earn in about 10 years of work.
So there is an abysmal difference between the well-to-do and the super-rich, and no, it's not just a matter of vile money.
The power of the super rich
In a system in which economic power coincides with political power, wealth is first and foremost a matter of power. If a few individuals gather too much wealth in their hands, centralizing power in an unbalanced way, then it comes to deny the very principle of democracy.
Possessing substantial wealth means being able to engage in lobbying the representatives of the electorate, establishing greater weight in decision-making processes. It means having the tools to evade the tax systems of one's country, perhaps by changing citizenship or company headquarters. It means being able to have influence or own the media of information and cultural production, such as newspapers and television stations, imposing forms of cultural hegemony on nations. In this light, the habit of calling the super-rich oligarchs is healthy; it should perhaps be expanded in the West as well.
As French economist Thomas Piketty (2) wrote in 2013, even in less unequal societies there exists a separate world consisting of the richest 10 percent of the population. The richest in a nation have an exclusive lifestyle and sociality made up of self-segregation (3) and rarely have deep contacts with the rest of the population. Even the measurement of their wealth is approximate, as even the economist Branko Milanovic had to admit, who argues how incomes and assets of the world's rich are systematically underestimated by official assessments.
Yet, if we wish to proceed methodically, even among the richest 10 percent of the population a distinction must be made: again, according to Piketty, there is an abysmal difference between the top 1 percent and the remaining 9 percentiles at the apex of the pyramid. The former are the super-rich, the latter the wealthy class.
The richest 1%
In the upper centile, the richest 1 percent of the population represents a powerful social minority capable of building a class network that can protect and legitimize itself. According to social psychologist Chiara Volpato, "the phenomena of individualization and progressive selfishness [typical of the Western world and the lower classes, ed.] do not seem to touch the elites; indeed, the class of the great wealthy seems to be the only one surviving today as a class, because it is the only one to have preserved a precise self-consciousness as a social group characterized by boundaries and precise collective interests".
According to data from Knight Frank's The Wealth Report, to understand who belongs to the 1 percent, it is necessary to consider the tax residence of the citizen taken as a reference. For a resident of Monaco who wants to enter the top 1% of wealth, assets of nearly $8 million are required. For a Russian, coming from an average poorer nation, $400,000 would suffice. An Italian with assets of $1.4 million would fall into the category of the country's richest people.
In a country of 57 million people like ours, considering the adult population, about 470 thousand individuals thus hold on average more than 1.4 million in wealth.
To be even more refined, Piketty recognizes a third distinction: within the 1 percent one may consider the richest 0.1 percent (roughly those we call billionaires). Still more wealth, still more power, still more injustice.
The dominant narrative is written by the dominant. If there is a protected minority in the world, it is the super-rich. Although Piketty himself, among others, has shown how the share of global wealth, derived from labor, is declining, the widespread idea is that the rich are so because they have earned it by working hard. Although much of the wealth comes from financial rents, real estate liabilities or inheritances, the capitalist bourgeoisie, as it is defined in the Marxist analytical enclosure, has operated a process of ideological construction that makes the position of those who have more not only physically better but socially desirable.
Work, previously despised by aristocratic elites and reserved only for the subordinate classes, has become the symbolic tool for the ruling class to be able to make growing inequality just.
The super rich are little talked about, and when they are, it tends to be done mainly to highlight their professional merits: Jeff getting up at 4 a.m., Elon calling meetings late into the night, Bill following the three-piper rule. And so on.
What it means to be rich
To be richer means to live better, to live longer, to enjoy fewer of the worries experienced daily by those who have to deal with the burden of need.
But it means, first and foremost, enjoying a privilege paid for by others. In a system of limited resources, those who are super-rich are hoarding a superfluity that for millions of individuals would mean survival and dignity.
The rich pollute more, consume more, privatize profits but collectivize externalities, such as environmental degradation or the progressive erosion of the social fabric.
The problem of wealth is not a matter of habit or morality, but a real threat to democracy and to the environmental sustainability of our system.
Taxing them does not mean taking away their resources; it means redistributing power and putting social justice back at the center of public debate.
(1) Read in our HUB the insight: "Inequality is not only an economic layer but is a real tax on the mind", by Alessandro Sahebi.
(2) Il Capitale del XXI Secolo.
(3) C. Volpato in "Le radici psicologiche della disuguaglianza".