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  • Published in Book Reviews

Why We Can’t Afford the Rich is a compelling condemnation of the current global elite for its destructive impact upon society and the planet, as well as its obscene wealth, argues Sean Ledwith

Why We Can’t Afford the Rich

Andrew Sayer, Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, forward by Richard Wilkinson (Policy Press 2015), xi, 433pp.

How do you spend £1 billion? In the unlikely event you ever need to think about that problem, Andrew Sayer’s highly informative new book, Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, supplies some handy suggestions. Some of the options might include fifty luxury mansions, priced at £20 million each; a fleet of private jets, weighing in somewhere between £28-44 million; throwing £30 million at your daughter’s wedding (like F1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone); or stopping at Dubai’s 'Burj Al Arab hotel in a room costing £2000 per night - for a thousand years! If those options seem rather tame, other possibilities include a jewel-studded iPad case at £437 000 or installing a $55 000 car elevator in your garage, like failed US Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney (p.303).

The author also provides a helpful calculation to enable the reader to comprehend precisely what £1 billion means. If you were given £1 every second, how long would it take you to acquire £1 billion? Answer: 31 years and eight months (p.11). When Cameron’s coalition came to power in 2010, there were 53 individuals in Britain who could genuinely contemplate utilising that sort of spending power; now there is twice that number (p.13). Sayer’s book is bursting with this type of jaw-dropping data, leaving the reader reeling in disbelief and indignation that the global elite have amassed such obscene fortunes and shows no sign of slowing down in its insatiable appetite for financial and material excess. The author goes beyond the headline-grabbing examples of super-rich extravagance, however, to construct an incisive analysis of the origins and development of capitalist greed. Anybody looking for an understandable but insightful introduction to political economy need look no further.

Sayer’s framework is particularly relevant as he adopts the view that it is not just today’s international working class  that needs to off-load the parasitical elite, but that future generations also depend on the transition to a saner economic paradigm in order to secure a sustainable quality of life. He expresses the supreme challenge of our times in stark terms: ‘capitalism is incompatible with saving the planet’ (p.328). The title encapsulates the author’s conviction that capitalism has outlived any progressive tendencies it might have generated in the past in terms of revolutionising humanity’s productive capacity. The super-rich have jettisoned any form of useful economic agenda that might have had beneficial side-effects for the bulk of the world’s population, and are now blindly pursuing a tunnel-visioned stampede for profits. On this theme, Sayer includes a grimly amusing cartoon by the US illustrator, Robert Mankof, showing a corporate meeting in which one of the participants encourages his colleagues to adopt a not entirely unbelievable viewpoint:

‘And so, while the end of the world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit’ (p.333).

Sayer’s starting point for his radical deconstruction of bourgeois economics is a three-part conceptualisation of the essence of neoliberalism and its associated features that have permeated into the cultural bedrock of our times. First, it is based on the claim that markets are the optimal form of economic activity and that they ‘supposedly reward efficiency and penalise inefficiency and thereby incentivise us to improve’ (p.16). The unthinking implementation of this dogma since the 1980s has brought in its wake an assault on the public sector in the form of policies such  privatisation, league tables and target-setting; all presided over by a corporate managocracy, devoid of any authentic ethos of the public good. Secondly, neoliberalism has shifted the paradigm of our collective consciousness away from the notion of seeing ourselves as part of an inter-dependent  social network, and towards the more market-friendly conception of the self as an egocentric  consumer. Sayer perceptively notes that the word ‘loser’ has now entered our discourse as a term of abuse, rather than one that might elicit compassion (p.17). The third element of this resurgent ideology is a reconfiguration within the ruling class, in which wealth and status are increasing based on little more than manipulating the financial gyrations of the global market, as opposed to actually producing goods and services like previous generations of the elite.

Earnings, investment and wealth

Sayer proceeds onto a systematic critique of three of the pillars of bourgeois economics. Contemporary discourse on the functioning of modern economies rarely pauses to examine the exact meaning of apparently transparent terms such as ‘earnings’, ‘investment’  and ‘wealth’. On a daily basis, news outlets deploy the vocabulary of capitalism with the supposition that such terms are unproblematic and universally accepted. In contrast, Sayer remarks, a critical aspect of radical political economy is the deconstruction of even these seemingly innocuous notions: ‘If we are to understand the problems posed by the extensive concentration of wealth, we need to crack open these words to reveal the crucial differences they hide, because they affect how we evaluate what we and others do, including the rich’ (p.33). The concept of ‘earnings’, for example, is posited on the idea that the recipient has, in some form, merited financial remuneration for a significant amount of effort. The reality of the global 1%, however, is that a significant chunk of their so called-earnings is based on mere possession of financial assets (such as rent, interest and capital gains tax) and are in no way the outcome of any personal enterprise or initiative whatever. As Sayer puts it, ‘it is power rather than contributions that accounts for most of their income’ (p.47).

Likewise, neoliberalism has mutated the meaning of ‘investment’ to refer to a process that is entirely finance-orientated. From a different perspective, the word can refer to the funding of schools, hospitals or railways with the aim of benefiting the community and increasing our ability to realise human potentiality: the creation of what Marx referred to as use-values. Thanks to the neoliberal counter-revolution the notion is now used almost exclusively to refer to the amount of money an investor can expect in return for their outlay. The dominant mentality today, Sayer notes, is ‘money is money and masks all such crucial distinctions. As long as there’s a good chance of it bringing a financial return, then gambling, including gambling with other people’s money gets called investment’ (p.35).

The third term that Sayer scrutinises – wealth - has also had its connotations hollowed-out since the 1980s and is now viewed in a narrow, purely monetary fashion. The author explains how in previous epochs, the concept was view in a very different way: ‘For Aristotle, true wealth consists in things and practices that are useful in themselves, not the accumulation of property or money. Money is just a means to an end, and to imagine it’s an end in itself is a form of madness’ (p.38). More recently, Victorian writers such as Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin explored a wider definition of wealth that incorporated friendship, culture, sport and nature. One of the grim but inevitable outcomes of this degeneration of our understanding of wealth is the spread of a corrosive philistinism in which ‘educational institutions have been pressured into making it their priority to prepare students for the labour market’and the supposedly non-utilitarian aspects of the curriculum are ejected (p.85).

A Marxist framework

Saver deploys an implicitly Marxist framework for his analysis of the system but mostly avoids the esoteric terminology of Marx and Engels that can sometimes deter the novice reader from engaging with introductions to radical political economy. Occasionally, however, the author alludes to his theoretical antecedents to make a telling point. For example, Sayer notes that the nineteenth-century version of capitalism explicated by Marx and Engels was relatively benign compared to the monstrosity that now prevails. The dynamic and insurgent system they analysed depended on ‘keeping the host organisms alive and supporting their growth’. In other words, the explosive development of the productive forces under capitalism in the nineteenth-century did have some beneficial consequences for the working class, making possible rising living standards and later on greater access to education and healthcare. In this century, however, that progressive dimension of the system has virtually expired and ‘capitalists have become less interested in long-term productive investment and more interested in plundering companies for profits, continually moving on to new ones to repeat the exercise’ (p.88).

Sayer defends a version of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit to explain the current crisis and the neoliberal response to it. As he observes: ‘In the late 1960s and 1970s, rates of profit in this productionist capitalism in the established industrial economies began to fall, mainly as a result of the development of a more global economy’ (p.185). The relative strength of trade unions and the embedding of substantial public sectors across their economies, Sayer continues, triggered a concerted attempt by the ruling classes of the West to both undermine these features and to launch  a policy shift to financialisation and what the author refers to as ‘rentier capitalism’. In Marxist terms, this meant that ‘surplus capital switched from the primary circuit of investment in goods and services to the secondary circuit of investment in property and other assets’ (p.192).  Characteristically, if this level of theorisation is off-putting, Sayer usefully provides a concrete manifestation of what this process means in our everyday experience. In 51 countries out of 73, for which the data is available, labour’s share of income has fallen in the last two decades, by between five and ten percentage points in the advanced capitalist states (p.188).

A new concept of wealth

Sayer does not just lay bare the insanity of the status quo but also engages with the obvious question of what can we put in its place. A key component of his attempt to re-formulate a new concept of wealth is an awareness of what he calls the ‘commons’ (p.139). This is the term he uses to underline the critical contribution to any form of economic well-being both by previous generations and the rest of contemporary society. Discourse on matters of finance and micro-economics nowadays is dominated by the belief that an individual’s status-or lack of-it is fundamentally a reflection of their own personal merit. Sayer soberly reminds us that anyone living in the West is automatically the thoroughly undeserved recipient of centuries of unequal exchange between that part of the world and other regions based on plunder, slavery and imperialism.

Sayer notes that ‘for any given traded product, the workers in the poor country have to work much longer to be able to afford it than do their counterparts in rich countries’ (p.143). The author uses timely reminders such as this to develop his idea of re-positioning economics towards a renewed focus on ‘provisioning’ (p.20). Each human being, no matter how autonomous they may claim to be, exists on an economic intersection of networks made up of all the other people in that society; a cultural framework bequeathed by previous generations and the birth right of future ones: ‘We can never pay back our parents for all the work they did for us, just as future generations will never be able to pay their parents back. Dependence on others, particularly across generations is part of being human’ (p.21). This shared inheritance is what he means by ‘the commons’.

Regarding the supreme threat to this birth right of unborn generations, Sayer highlights how the battle against climate change cannot be separated from the battle against the levels of inequality with which he is mostly concerned. He notes how ‘though the US’s population is only 5% of the world’s, it accounts for a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions’ (p.11). Obviously, he is not suggesting the entire US population is the problem here; the fundamental fracture in that society, like all others at the moment, is that it is controlled by an elite that cannot look beyond its own profit margins: ‘Their carbon footprints are grotesquely inflated and many have an interest in continued fossil fuel production, threatening the planet’ (p.2).

Overall, Sayer does an impressive job of bringing home to the reader the scale of the threat capitalism now poses to humanity. As an introduction to critical political economy, the book is one of the best available. Less compelling are the author’s proposals for how to achieve what he calls the ‘moral economy’ (p.19). He suggests the EU can be transformed into a progressive vehicle for a crackdown on the excesses of finance capital. As we are currently witnessing that institution playing a central role in the devastation of Greek civil society, it strains credibility to see how that miracle would ever occur (p.357). He also calls on Western governments to play a sterner role in the pursuit of tax evasion. Again, recent headlines on the interlocking relationship of the British state with serial tax dodgers like HSBC makes that seem a remote possibility (p.358). Proponents of revolution as the only real solution to the crisis are currently regarded as utopian, but Andrew Sayer has collated such a powerful case that it is even more utopian to believe that this zombie capitalism can stagger on much longer before it drags humanity into the abyss.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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