Third World Resurgence - April 2014
When belief in the myth of the redemptive destiny of the workers of the world crumbled, it was only a question of time before a new one would arise. And what could that be, in an age when wealth is paramount, if not a fable about the rich? And these have indeed plundered the trampled shrines of socialism and seized for themselves the role of saviours of humanity.
Of course, the blending of social and spiritual redemption is not new. In some versions of scripture, the meek were to have inherited the earth. The association of Christ with the poor continued to make wealth more dangerous than poverty well into the Middle Ages, for love of riches imperilled the immortal soul. This did not inhibit a church which ‘clothed its walls in gold and left its sons naked’, as St Bernard lamented in the twelfth century; spiritual power readily yielded to its overbearing temporal rival. But evicting the poor from their holy status proved a long and painful process.
It was finally accomplished with the establishment of industrial society. As people were coerced into squalid urban settlements to service the needs of manufacturing, a new form of humanity took shape, the industrial worker; a being whose temper was as alien to the old country psyche as it was to that both of the landed elite and the factory-owners. The wild, unknown character of these people struck fear into the heart of privilege. The working class, offspring of dogmas of wealth-creationism, impoverished and oppressed, would later be summoned to fulfil the prophecies of Marx. By that time, History, rather than God, was on the side of the downtrodden; support that proved scarcely more dependable.
Myths, by their nature, should remain in the realm of poetry, or at least, of theory. The practice of earthly redemption proved as destructive as its other-worldly counterpart; and the fate of the great experiment that was the Soviet Union is known. But the democratic Left also took a borrowed lustre from this tale; it seemed the working class was here to stay, and upon its willingness to concur with (if not fulfil) the mission entrusted to it, the social democratic dream was constructed; and has still not completely faded.
The working class proved as transient as any other social formation. It rose, reached its zenith and then dissolved. As long as the making of daily necessities remained within a national division of labour in Britain, social and economic coherence persisted, the workers indispensable to its maintenance. A strong labour movement depended upon conserving this situation; but conservation is alien to capital, the nature of which is mobile and opportunistic. The proletariat perished in its birthplace, as the sometimes workshop of the world fell into neglect.
As soon as the working class was absorbed into a global market, its capacity for salvation, already tarnished, wasted away. It was overrun and vanquished by the golden hordes of the rich who, apocalyptic warriors of wealth, invaded the spaces where mill, mine and manufactory had been. No time was lost, as they assumed the heroic mantle of those they had displaced. No longer idle, plutocrats or possessors of lucre described as filthy, they set about demonstrating their power. Their hyperactive movements across continents, their hectic schedules, in which they immolated themselves with ruined digestive tracts, heart attacks and high blood pressure, the urgency of promoting this or that must-have product, their dedication to the opening up of markets made of them new frontiersmen, worthy descendants of the buccaneers and adventurers who had won an empire. Breakfast in London, lunch in Dubai and dinner in Delhi – by private jet from boardroom to marketing strategy meeting, from acquisition talks to the deployment of fortunes in esoteric financial instruments; workaholics, in whose capable and unsoiled hands the fate of nations rests. They have proved their high calling, and by their fruits we know them, the marvels they perform, the mysterious alchemy that has enclosed the human commons, as it once enclosed its material counterpart of pastures, forests and heathland. Under their tutelage, the market has become cosmos, an ever-expanding universe which pushes everything beyond its reach into invisibility.
The wealth-creators have spun their own myth of salvation. All we want and desire, as individuals and as society, can be realised only through them, for they alone possess the occult powers required for wealth-generation. And to augment their strength, they throw down golden ladders for the talented and the sharp-elbowed, the ingenious and ambitious, to join them. These now include icons of heroic consumption, stars and celebrities of sport, music, entertainment and television; and together they have taken up the relay of redemption from a faltering proletariat. Despite cut-throat competition for the position of saviours – indigenous peoples, the wretched of the earth, slum-dwellers, women, Lesbians and gay men, anti-globalisers – the vacancy has been filled.
Even the banking crisis did not affect the status of those set apart by their wealth. However distrusted, the magicians of money are still revered; the myth of their redemptive capacity is now a far more plausible narrative than the discredited epic of labour. The rich are the true agents of deliverance, and a fallen working class only a memory, a faint grimace on the face of History.
The hostile take-over bid by the wealthy for the role formerly attributed to the oppressed has exceeded all expectations. Theirs is a spiritual as well as material supremacy, although they have no need of textual revelation or prophecy. They inhabit an ethereal topography which hovers above national, regional, religious, linguistic entities; cultural wars rage, leaving them scatheless. If, as Arundhati Roy has suggested, the rich have seceded from society, this is only in order to govern it more effectively from the empyrean they occupy above the clouds.
It looks, however, as though the rich may also have assumed – unwittingly this time – another function assigned by Marx to the now outclassed workers. In the debauch of wealth of the contemporary world, as the treasures of the earth are gouged and the planet simmers in the choking fog of universal industrialism, will the rich, in the frenzy to use up resources that were to have sustained posterity, turn out to be the gravediggers of capitalism?