THE RICH AS REDEEMERS
It might have been foreseen, but not by the sightless visionaries of our age: when the old myth of the redemptive power of the workers was shattered, it was predictable that a new one would arise. And what could that be, in a world where wealth is paramount, other than a fable about the rich. These have plundered the ruined secular temples of socialism and seized for themselves the role of redeemers.
The blending of social and spiritual redemption is not a new phenomenon. In some versions of scripture, the meek were to have inherited the earth. It was said to be harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Association of the poor with Christ the Redeemer for a long time made wealth more dangerous than poverty, for it imperilled the immortal soul. This did not, of course, inhibit a church which ‘clothed its walls in gold and left its sons naked’, as St Bernard lamented in the twelfth century. But evicting the poor from their privileged access to God proved a long and painful process.
This was finally accomplished only with the establishment of industrial society. With the promiscuous huddling of humanity in squalid manufacturing towns and cities, the working class arose, a kind of human being never before seen, the offspring of a threatening experiment, destined, in some versions of a secular afterlife, to fulfil the prophecies of Marx. History was once more on the side of the oppressed.
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 now known to the world.
For a long time, the democratic Left took a borrowed lustre from this tale; it seemed the working class was here to stay, and upon its willingness to fulfil the mission entrusted to it, depended the attenuated social democratic dream that was kept alive in much of the western world.
But the working class proved as transient as any other social formation that rises, reaches its zenith and is then dissolved. As long as the making of daily necessities was concentrated within a national division of labour, a certain social and economic coherence persisted, just as the workers were indispensable to its maintenance. The world made sense: we knew where every item in our household came from – cutlery from Sheffield, ceramic from Stoke, hosiery from Leicester, coal from the pits of the North East, Wales and Scotland, woollens from Yorkshire, cottons from Lancashire; and all of it bound together by an imperial destiny.
The dissolution of this division of labour is generally attributed to Margaret Thatcher, although it had begun much earlier – in some industries, at the dawn of the twentieth century. Thatcher merely delivered the coup de grace, with the miners’ strike its climax.
As soon as the working class had been dismantled and absorbed into globalism, its redemptive power was tarnished. It was overrun and vanquished by the golden hordes of the rich who, apocalyptic warriors of wealth, invaded the spaces where mill and mine, manufactory and workshop had been. No time was lost, as they assumed the heroic mantle of those they had displaced. The rich, no longer idle, filthy or possessed of turpe lucrum, set about demonstrating their power. Their hyperactive movements across continents, their hectic schedules in which they immolated themselves with their ruined digestive tracts, heart attacks and ill-health, the urgency of promoting this or that must-have product, their selflessness in the opening up of markets made of them new frontiersmen, worthy descendants of the buccaneers and adventurers who had won an empire. They proclaimed their high function at every turn, and people duly marvelled at their self-sacrifice, the mysterious alchemy that turned so many of former freely-offered gifts between people into commodities, the expansion of the market until it became cosmos.
In the process the wealth-creators spun their own myth: without more, much more, now and for ever, nothing can be achieved. All that we want and desire as a society can only be realised through them, for they alone possess the magical powers that will ensure a future of prosperity and ease. And naturally, to augment the strength of their argument, they threw down golden ladders for the talented and the sharp-elbowed, the ingenious and ambitious, to join them. And all this coalesced in the mystique of ‘business’ – the only area of human activity in which the building of empires is till admissible; business, which has its own culture, its own language, its own initiation rituals and celebrations.
Even the banking crisis did not seriously affect the power of those whose wealth sets them above us. However much they may be disliked or resented, the wizards and magicians of money are revered, since they have everyone in their power; under their spell. The myth of their redemptive capacity is intact. It is more plausible than the discredited stories of workerism. The rich, exalted and admired, are the true agents of deliverance, and a fallen working class is only a memory, a faint grimace on the face of History.
The wealthy, usurpers of a role once attributed to the poor and oppressed, are unlikely voluntarily to set aside the part assigned to them by general acclamation. Theirs is a spiritual supremacy. They have no need of theory; there is no textual prophecy, unless it is the faded palimpsest of laissez-faire. The rich inhabit a supraterrestrial topography which hovers above the world. If, as Arundhati Roy has suggested, the rich have seceded from society, this is only to govern it more effectively from the empyrean which they now occupy, from their thrones above the clouds.
It may be, however, that the rich have assumed – unwittingly this time – another function assigned by Marx to the defeated workers. In the debauch of wealth of the contemporary world, as the treasures of the earth are gouged and the planet simmers, it is possible that the rich, in their frenzy to use up everything, are also becoming the gravediggers of capitalism.
1 January 2013