Of billionaires and bombs

Extreme wealth is potentially as dangerous as any weapons of war, says Colin Tudge. So why are we so relaxed about it?


We – humanity – go to immense lengths to ensure as far possible that no-one starts a nuclear war. There are treaties and agreements and physical restraints that even most mavericks seem to respect (fingers crossed). Even Putin has so far balked at the use of nuclear weapons (touch wood). Even the wildest and most deluded seem to recognize the reality of MAD – mutually assured destruction. Whoever starts a nuclear was will surely be destroyed by it.

And yet, I suggest, extreme wealth in the wrong hands is at least as destructive, or potentially so, as a small arsenal of nuclear bombs – and this we do little or nothing to hold in check. Indeed we have built the entire modern world – our economy, our politics – around the perceived virtues of material wealth. “Get big or get out” said the infamously racist and generally vile Earl Butz, who first gave advice on and then ran American agriculture under presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford. “Growth, growth, growth” said Liz Truss –and many in high places thought her policy was spot on, in principle if not in execution. The prevailing offshoot of capitalism known as neoliberalism is in effect an unrestrained global competition to maximize and concentrate material wealth, as if wealth and competitiveness were the noblest of virtues. Furthermore, it seems to be taken as read that the wealth should remain for the most part in private hands, or at least in the hands of shareholders in more or less autonomous corporates.

Freedom of commerce is equated with freedom itself, and personal freedom in the western world is seen as the sine qua non. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is the stated goal of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – signed by such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. The Declaration says nothing about social responsibility. But any US American however unpleasant from Donald Trump to Al Capone could be said to be doing no more than they have been enjoined to do by their country’s founding fathers. This basic idea – that unrestrained pursuit of personal wealth equals freedom equals good – comes out of western capitalism but has long been adopted by non-western states that claim self-righteously to have rejected the evil ways of the west and yet have emerged as superpowers run by the super-rich and as corrupt and venal as anyone.

In our present economy – or indeed in almost all economies throughout history – wealth means power; and enormous wealth means enormous power. Today’s super-rich – Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, a long shortlist of oil sheiks and Russian oligarchs (they haven’t gone away) and a great many more who keep their heads below the parapet – are rich enough to buy entire cities or estates as big as English counties and to hold elected national governments in thrall. If the very rich do get caught with their hands in the till or are known to have arranged for their detractors to be murdered they can cocoon themselves in lawyers and legal niceties more or less indefinitely — and there seems to be no shortage of expensively educated lawyers with off-the-scale IQs who are perfectly willing and indeed eager to go where the money is no matter how obviously vile their clients may be.

Of course, Musk, Gates, Bezos, etc could do enormous good with their money. The immensely rich diamond magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes established the Rhodes scholarships at Oxford University and on the strength of this and a few other things was seen for many years to be a philanthropist. But the good that money may do must be balanced against the damage that’s done – ecological, social – in the raising of it; and on balance, as is now widely agreed, Rhodes comes out badly.

The case of Bill Gates is more complex. Gates’ apologists see him as the model philanthropist. He amassed his enormous fortune not by doing bad and damaging things but by helping to develop IT, which ought at least to be a force for good. Then he ostensibly donated some of his billions to good works, including R & D to raise the productivity of Africa’s agriculture – which for the poor majority is the chief employer and the main source of income. Others point out however that his greatest donations are to organizations within the affluent world. 

Many doubt too whether his investments in Africa really bring net benefit to the African people.  He is after all a technophile through and through and accordingly has promoted high tech crops of the GM kind and in this finds plenty of support from equally technophilic scientists and from politicians who like to be seen to be bold and decisive.  But many people who know Africa best are wont to argue and have often demonstrated that it would be far better, socially, psychologically, politically, economically, and ecologically, not to override the experience, skill, and traditional wisdom of Africa’s traditional  farmers  but to build on them or indeed simply to leave well alone. The insouciant imposition of high-input, high-output, high-capital, high-tech agriculture worldwide may be seen not as a boon but as an immense threat, exacerbating global warming, accelerating mass extinction, and increasing the gap between rich and poor. Sceptics suggest indeed that Gates’s ostensible philanthropy is not intended primarily to help the poor but to tweak the world as a whole to make it more receptive to and more dependent on the kind of technologies that he has to sell. He has apparently grown even richer since he and Melinda Gates set up their Foundation in 2000.   

The case of Musk is different again – and of the various oil sheiks and oligarchs. But the general lesson is the same. Immense wealth is potentially at least as dangerous as it is beneficial; and immense wealth in the hands of individuals or of corporates whose dominant agenda is simply to generate more wealth is at least as great a threat to the world as any you might name. The danger becomes greater since the people who have the greatest wealth tend to be self-centred and maverick – loose cannons indeed. To allow or indeed encourage individuals to become as rich as they are able is surely the greatest folly. It’s as if we allowed individuals to store nuclear bombs replete with detonators in their garden sheds.

What’s the answer? Step one is to recognize the problem – that unrestricted wealth in the hands of individuals (or of commercial companies – corporates – whose prime or sole objective is to make more money) is at least as dangerous as the unrestrained proliferation of nuclear weapons (or, on a smaller scale, of the over-the-counter sale of assault rifles to all and sundry as in many a US general store).

But as I say in The Great Re-Think, and as is the point of this website, nothing that’s wrong can properly be put to rights in isolation. Truly to put the world on an even keel we need to dig very deep and go on digging. For starters we, humanity, need to re-define our Goal – not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but “convivial societies and personal fulfilment in a flourishing biosphere”. And this can be achieved only within a democracy of people who really give a damn and are well-informed and are guided by the bedrock principles of morality (compassion, humility, and the sense of oneness) and the realities of ecology.

People have been saying similar things for several thousand years in many different contexts yet we are still a million miles from where we need to be and the ideas that prevail right now for the most part are leading us in entirely the wrong direction. But there are small signs nonetheless, of growing awareness and of concerted action. And we must never give up hope.

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