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Why Does the Media Love Billionaires?

Britain's media reveres billionaires and thinks criticism of them is motivated by envy. In reality, getting rid of billionaires would be good for society as a whole.

Last Thursday, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle appeared on The Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5. Russell-Moyle made the case that the existence in 21st-century Britain of grinding poverty, deprivation and hopelessness alongside the unfathomable wealth of billionaires is morally unacceptable. In an exchange that went viral, the host was visibly angered and incredulous at Russell-Moyle’s critique. ‘Why on earth shouldn’t people be able to be billionaires?’ Barnett remonstrated.

Maybe Barnett’s job is to play devil’s advocate. But any viewer would be struck by the contrast between her contempt for Russell-Moyle’s point and the breeziness with which findings like the 120,000 excess deaths caused by austerity since 2010 are typically treated by journalists. Likewise the fact that 14 million people are currently struggling in poverty, including 4 million children and two million pensioners, or that most of those afflicted by poverty live in a household where at least one person is in work.

Barnett isn’t a representative of the crackpot right but rather of an establishment media which prides itself on sensible moderation and nuance, and which sets the terms of political debate. It is therefore worth thinking about what was at stake in this defence of the UK’s 151 billionaires and, by extension, the broader economic elite.

Part of Barnett’s objection was economic. As economist Grace Blakeley has detailed, this involved a resort to the timeworn tale whereby the wealth of the few ultimately trickles down to the many. So the story goes, the jet set crowd create jobs, boosting economic growth, as well as making outsized contributions to society in tax receipts.

As Blakeley argues, the reality is that concentrations of fantastic wealth in the UK derive overwhelmingly from inheritance, rent extractions through property, financial speculations, resource monopolisation, and leverage over political processes to minimise tax liabilities and maximise market power. Likewise, as scholars like Costas Lapavitsas have shown, in the financialised UK economy such concentrations of wealth and weak and precarious growth, low wages, profound inequality and deep economic instability are two sides of the same coin.

Labour’s manifesto will ask the top percent of earners to pay a bit more. It won’t do away with the super rich. In fact, their lifestyles are unlikely to be seriously impaired. But it would be a start. A signal from a Labour government that it intended to rebalance a grossly skewed and dysfunctional economy and shore up flagging public services. The derisive dismissal of the party’s platform as unrealistic in this context looks rather silly given that it involves adopting industrial strategies and fiscal policies quite unremarkable in other OECD countries like Canada, Denmark, Germany, or Sweden.  To borrow Walter Benjamin’s maxim, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s economic programme is not the runaway train but the application of the emergency brake. 

Barnett’s disgust, though, was not really rooted in technical questions of economic policy. This is an issue not of distribution but of recognition. Russell-Moyle was found wanting in deference and respect for the elite. Most often when people express such irreverence they are accused of resentment. Indeed, this was a dominant trope in the debate that the exchange sparked elsewhere in the media. Envy or resentment are favoured clichés of opponents of radical change; but precisely because they are, the left is in danger of underestimating their ideological power. And since they look likely be one of the dominant tropes of an election season in which Corbyn’s Labour is set to make a big economic offer to a Brexit-weary UK, it is worth thinking through their implications. 

Ideology can be understood as the naturalisation of social arrangements and hierarchies of power – and the charge of envy and resentment acts to facilitate that process. To cry envy and resentment is to do more than say that the concentration of vast wealth is right and proper. It is a form of ideological decontestation. In effect, it is to decree not only that you must defer, but that you must defer unquestioningly, to existing divisions of wealth and power, no matter how iniquitous and exploitative they appear to be. To fall afoul of this imperative is not simply to be wrong but to be pathologically inadequate. Those afflicted by this unfortunate state are fundamentally lacking not so much wealth as moral substance and a robust and adjusted character.

Appeals to ‘the politics of envy’ also convey prevalent superstitions about work; above all the superstition that millions, or even billions of pounds, euros or dollars can be generated through a particularly talented individual’s work. Perhaps there is something of projection here in the elite’s veneration of work and boasting of inhumane work schedules, from Emmanuel Macron’s recent scoffing rebuttal to an unemployed youth that he could just cross the street and get him a job, or Elon Musk’s brandishing of his 80-hour work week.

Class relations involving the extraction of rent and surplus value from workers are sneered or bragged away. The only difference permitted between the jobs of the 1% and ours is one of degree not kind. The denial of antagonism whereby the wealth of the capitalist is dependent on the impoverishment of the worker is also related to the common reference to the pervasiveness of ‘good’ billionaires who ‘play by the rules’. In this view, critiques of inequality stand or fall on the question of whether the super rich include concerned and conscientious individuals among their number. 

To the extent that potential Labour voters can be tarred as resentful, they are assimilated with the Brexit and Trump-supporting right, ensnared in the same counter-intuitively pleasurable but ultimately impotent rage that, as sociologist Eric Fassin puts it, there are undeserving others enjoying what is mine. Yet, for Fassin, those drawn to left politics are motivated, on the contrary, not by resentment but by indignation, which in its commitment to social justice and solidarity is incommensurable with the former. In insisting on the equivalence between right and left populism, waning centrist verities in the post-financial crisis world are soothed by the assurances that an alternative is not possible, and that the only thing more offensive than current levels of economic inequality is doing something substantive about them.

The upbraiding of envy or resentment is often coupled with a plea for ‘grown-up politics’. It calls to mind the rejoinder of the late Dominican priest Herbert McCabe:

“What is wrong with capitalism, then, is not that it involves some people being richer than I am. I cannot see the slightest objection to other people being richer than I am… What is wrong with capitalism is that it is based on human antagonism. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not.”

And so, to Russell-Moyle’s posing of the question in the radio exchange of whether we are on the side of tax dodgers and billionaires or on the side of working people, we can answer unapologetically and unequivocally at the polls on 12 December: on the side of the latter.