If you didn’t see The Super Rich and Us, I would really recommend you look at it on i-player.
The first episode covered Britain’s property market and tax laws. The second focused on the growth of international financial markets.
Presenter Jacques Peretti begins each episode with these stark observations: “The super rich are taking over. 85 people now own the same as half the world’s population. Never before has money been so polarised. The 21st century will be the most unequal in human history.”
It is invaluable to have the facts about wealth inequality spelled out to a mass audience in this way.
It is also useful to “see” the rich. The programme gives us a window into their world. We see a woman spending £50 million on diamond jewellery as if she’s spending pennies in a sweet shop. We see Jacques Peretti enjoy a £30,000 luxury beauty treatment in Mayfair. As the beautician covers his face with a soothing mask containing solid gold, she explains that, for most of her clients, this is a routine treatment. A throwaway, solid gold face mask!
The wealth on display here is more vast and obscene than I had ever contemplated.
The programme includes analysis. It interviews Thomas Piketty and promotes his demand for a wealth tax favourably. It describes how “trickle down” economics leads to inequality: “wealth has not trickled down – it’s trickled up. From us to them”.
It explains that this inequality is no accident; it has been deliberately created. We see local councils selling public land to investors, fuelling the housing crisis. It explains that this creates a “business opportunity” for the buy-to-rent industry, which is able to extort high rents from low-income families.
We see a Citigroup strategist explain the advantage of the division of the economy into “two sectors”: the “1%” and “everyone else”. There has been growth in the sector where the 1% is active, e.g. investment in yachts and luxury goods. There has also been growth at the end of the “super poor”, e.g. payday loans companies and Walmart. It describes an “hourglass society”.
LSE anthropologist David Graeber tells us that the plan throughout the 1980s was to get us all in debt. Debt reduced industrial action, depressed wages and controlled inflation. Peretti asks him, “How important is debt for the extraction of wealth from us, the 99%, to the 1%?” Graeber’s answer is that it is “Key to the whole thing. The finance industry and the debt industry are really the same thing. Finance is just another word for other peoples’ debt.”
There are obvious limitations. The programme hints that the problem with this polarisation of wealth is that the “middle class” is missing from society’s hourglass shape. It does not share our vision of class struggle, of taking the wealth out of the hands of the rich and using it to create genuine equality by putting it at the service of the society that creates it.
But it does visit and interview anti-austerity marchers, people on strike for higher pay and the Focus E15 occupation for social housing. It indicates that this intolerable situation is vulnerable to class struggle. It is interesting in itself that a program focusing on extreme wealth inequality has been made at all. Culturally, the message that poverty is extreme and that inequality is intolerable seems to be getting through.
As socialists, we’ve been given a challenge and an opportunity; this programme indicates that there is an appetite for talking about the potential and necessity to radically reorganise society.