Beware the wealthy who speak of changing the world

Francis James Barraud, His Master’s Voice (1898-99)

On the even of summit called The New Global Financing Pact, an open letter to the world appears …

We are urgently working to deliver more for people and the planet. … We are urgently working to fight poverty and inequalities. … We want a system that better addresses development needs and vulnerabilities, now heightened by climate risks, which could further weaken countries’ ability to eliminate poverty and achieve inclusive economic growth. … We want our system to deliver more for the planet. … We are convinced that poverty reduction and protection of the planet are converging objectives. … We, leaders of diverse economies from every corner of the world, are united in our determination to forge a new global consensus. … Achieving our development goals, including climate mitigation, will also depend on scaling up private capital flows. This requires enhanced mobilisation of the private sector with its financial resources and its innovative strength, as promoted by the G20 Compact with Africa. This also requires improving the business environment, implementing common standards and adequate capacity building, and reducing perceived risks, such as in foreign exchange and credit markets. This may require public support, as well as sharing reliable data. Overall, our system needs to lower the cost of capital for sustainable development, including through the green transition in developing and emerging economies. … Our work together is all about solidarity and collective action, to reduce the challenges facing developing countries and to fulfil our global agenda.

Emmanuel Macron, Mia Mottley, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, Olaf Scholz, Fumio Kishida, William Ruto, Macky Sall, Cyril Ramaphosa, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden[1] (The Guardian, 21/06/2023)

It is difficult to know what to make of these words, from an open letter signed by the leaders of some of the richest countries of the world (as such wealth is measured) – and the not so rich, perhaps as testimony to the “brotherhood of nations”.

Do they believe what they have signed? Will it be the rich and powerful, private financial institutions, corporations and states, that will redeem the species and life on earth, when it is they that have brought such catastrophes to the fore, and at a scale never before witnessed?

Or have words become so meaningless and cynicism so deep that quite literally anything can be said, because what is said is of no consequence or merely meant to be consumed; “fast thoughts” to match the likes of “fast food” and “fast fashion”?

Or is it propaganda, a last vain effort to convince some that governments are in fact concerned with general human wellbeing and, at the same time – why not?! –, to keep the pitchforks at bay? Does the “system” – capitalist, with all of its permutations – impede any other words?

What flaws of character animate these “ladies and gentlemen” – with at least two millionaires among them – that they should take themselves as our saviours? Are they plagued by a vain hubris to think that our salvation lies in the hands of so few?

The letter is very likely is born of all these factors, and others. And one is tempted to add that this letter of our “world leaders” will no doubt quickly fade into oblivion, as all non-events are wont to. But let us not fall too quickly into temptation, for one should be wary of the rich who seek to help the poor, in whatever guise they present themselves.

The aforementioned letter is a ritual often repeated by those who would dominate and exploit the many. It is in some sense as ancient as the divide between the wealthy and the wretched. And if we react in surprise, even shock, to this letter, it is perhaps only because of how glaringly delusional is seems to be. But, again, it is far too easy to be dismissive.

The demise of the modern “left” – an increasingly meaningless term –, in all of its many political expressions (socialism, anarchism, communism, etc.), has given new life to the idea, to the illusion, that human shepherds are the best keepers of the human flocks; but what we ignore at our peril is that the shepherd “governs” essentially for her/his interest, and only secondarily for the interest of the sheep.

Can we then still dare to say that we are not sheep, even if some are modestly content to be so and content to assume that some know better than others about how matters are to be governed? The stories and histories of the left seem distant. And yet without stories, revolts and rebellions will not outlive their eruptions.

Andrew Carnegie could write, at the end of the 19th century, that the “problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth”. The source of the problem is the growing inequality of economic progress, which Carnegie saw as both beneficial and inevitable; beneficial, because the material conditions of life of poor – even if they were many – was still better than that of primitive or ancient monarchs and inevitable, because the laws of competition made it so. To contest the latter, as socialists and anarchists do, is to attack the “foundation upon which civilization itself rests, for civilization took its start from the day that the capable, industrious workman said to his incompetent and lazy fellow, “If thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap”. And so “primitive Communism” came to an end; and happily so.

The price paid for this progress is however great: the mutual ignorance and absence of intercourse between workers and employers, the formation of rigid caste structures giving rise to distrust and disparagement, the need for strictest economies in business activity, including with wages. In sum, “there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses its homogeneity.”

If civilization is then built on individualism, private property, the law of accumulation of wealth and the law of competition, the solution to class conflict must be found from within this framework. This excludes the alternatives proffered by radicals that can only lead to destruction and generalised poverty, as well as charity, for the latter will only promote the indulgence and excesses of appetites.

The idealists are not of this world and the beautiful souls ignore the weaknesses and ignorance of the poor.

The merchant and the manufacturer are individuals of great ability, having, as they do, “to conduct affairs on a great scale”. For this, they must possess the rare talent for organization and management. Modest and unostentatious in their living, they possess the necessary virtues “to become the agent and trustee” for their poorer brethren, “bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

For Carnegie, the virtuous entrepreneur does not die with his accumulated wealth unused, nor does he freely bestow it upon his children, but rather places within reach of the community “the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise [e.g., parks, means of recreation, works of art, public institutions] … – in this manner returning their surplus wealth to the mass of their fellows in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good.”

With the millionaire as trustee for the poor, “intrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself”, the problem of the rich and the poor will be solved.[2]

North America’s “robber barons” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like Carnegie, may no longer be with us, but the heirs of their ambition remain – as exemplified by the letter that motivated this piece and by the many “enlightened” politicians and oligarchs that occupy our present – and the roots descend deeply into the past.

Peter Gelderloos has recently and again reminded us of the illusions of state-centred socialism. But the illusion may be even greater: that we are unequal, by nature and/or by nurture, and that only the “better” among us can see us – some of us – through the catastrophe.

We must recall how to tell stories of the folly of grandeur – that feeds the violence of domination –, and to tell anew stories of our common fragility in which we thrive with others, in freedom and equality.

It seems so little, yet it was such stories that moved so many in the past, and to this day still, to think and act, to be, against the violence of power.

 20:45  While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 46  ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.’

21:1  As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.  ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'” (Luke 20:45-21:4)   

[1] Emmanuel Macron is president of France. Mia Mottley is prime minister of Barbados. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is president of Brazil. Ursula von der Leyen is president of the European Commission. Charles Michel is president of the European Council. Olaf Scholz is chancellor of Germany. Fumio Kishida is prime minister of Japan. William Ruto is president of Kenya. Macky Sall is president of Senegal. Cyril Ramaphosa is president of South Africa. Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is president of the United Arab Emirates. Rishi Sunak is prime minister of the UK. Joe Biden is president of the US.

[2] Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth”, North American Review, vol. 148, no. 381 (Jun. 1889), pp. 653–64.

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