Did We Forget That Wealth and Power in the Hands of Few Never Ends Well?
It sadly looks like we did
You’re probably familiar with the myth of King Midas from Greek mythology.
He was that greedy emperor who had everything a person could ask for.
Yet when Dionysus — the god of celebration — granted him one wish, the king asked that everything he touched be turned to gold. And his wish turned out not to be a blessing but a curse — the Midas curse.
Because everything he touched indeed turned to gold — including food, water and his beloved daughter. He eventually learned his lesson and lived happily ever after, sharing his fortunes with the people in his kingdom.
Although the myth of King Midas is just that — a myth, history is full of such examples.
Throughout the centuries, many greedy kings, generals, and leaders had the Midas curse. Because they, too, didn’t stop their blind pursuit of greater wealth and power, even when their nations and people suffered as a result of it. And they still exist in the present times.
In today’s world, a small group of people afflicted with the Midas curse are touching our minds, our lands, our waters, our mountains, and our forests. But instead of turning them into gold, they turn them into zeros in their bank accounts.
The worst part about it? We just allow them to get away with it.
It seems like we really forgot how that will end for us.
Ultra-rich are only getting more and more powerful
Last week, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter once again laid one person’s wealth on display.
He put together a $46.5 billion financing package to buy Twitter — roughly two-thirds of it from his own assets and a third from bank loans secured against Twitter’s assets. It was the biggest acquisition financing ever put forward for one person.
And not surprisingly, many people voiced their concern that a takeover of one of the world’s largest communication platforms by a single billionaire isn’t exactly the best idea.
Because it gives Musk a new type of power — the power of using algorithms and data to his own benefit. But, of course, Musk says no one should object to what he wants to do with Twitter because what he’s doing is ‘good for the future of humanity’, and he’s a ‘free speech absolutist.’
Look, I couldn’t care less if he is or isn’t one. I couldn’t care less what he advocates for and whether that’s just a pile of shit or not. I couldn’t care less if he’s the hero or the villain of this story — although judging by his record of breaking unions and threatening people, I’d say it’s the latter.
And you shouldn’t care either.
Because none of these changes the fact that he is still one person. And the wealthiest one in the world at that. So until he manages to clone himself — which I hope will never, ever happen — he shouldn’t be the one and only person deciding the future of our entire civilisation.
No one person should.
Too bad that many people don’t seem to think that way at all. And they’d rather defend Musk and all the other billionaires doing similar things that ultimately make them more powerful than entire countries to death.
But when we live in a world where the Midas curse is not only permitted but also exalted, we’re all in danger.
Increasingly, it’s the 1% and the rest
According to the latest estimates, the bottom half of the global population owns only around 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold roughly 85% of the world’s wealth.
And the top 1% alone account for half of the global assets.
That’s right. Half.
The level of financial inequality around the world is staggering. And it’s been getting progressively worse for years now.
But it’s not only the individual wealth that is increasingly more concentrated in the hands of the few. These extreme inequalities are also interrelated with growing market concentration.
A small number of corporations now dominate many sectors of the global economy. And by small, I really do mean small. For instance, the international trade of agricultural commodities — from wheat, corn and soybeans to sugar, palm oil and rice — is dominated by just five companies.
Relatively small groups of huge corporations also dominate the mining sector, the global oil and gas market, and the car industry. As you might already guess, this makes it easier for them to influence — and often even undermine — effective measures against climate change and the transformation towards sustainable energy systems.
And as you can also imagine, the primary beneficiaries of these oligopolistic market structures are the companies’ largest shareholders and main owners, some of whom have made it to the top of the world’s billionaires list.
Yup, the Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks of this world.
And you could say, as many did during the last week’s Twitter debate, that they should be able to use their vast fortunes to do whatever they please — unconstrained by laws or regulations, shareholders, even consumers. Because that’s apparently an excellent incentive for all of us to also exploit others, ahem, work hard, and reach for the stars and all that jazz, right?
Well, there’s one major problem with this laissez-faire approach.
Wealth confers not just economic security but also social and political power.
It buys political influence, including through directly financing political campaigns. It buys access to the services of lawyers, accountants and lobbyists — what The New York Times coined as the ‘income defence industry.’ It buys the means to shape public opinion — think tanks, media outlets and social media platforms — and change narratives about which problems deserve attention.
And when concentrated wealth leads to concentrated power, that, in turn, translates into complete freedom from accountability for the ultra-rich elites.
Billionaires like Musk have shown repeatedly that they indeed consider themselves above the law.
And to a large extent, they are.
Redistributive policies should be among our top priorities right now, but they aren’t
Historically, we’ve dealt with extreme economic inequality mostly through civil unrest. Which was then followed by the governing elites redistributing wealth, tired of incessant violence and disorder.
We see this shift in the social mood, for instance, towards the end of the Roman civil wars (first century BC), following the English Wars of the Roses (1455–85), after the Fronde (1648–53), and in the United States around the 1920s.
The problem with this approach today is that we’d have to wait until the inequalities are so unbearable and so obvious that only violent extremism could force the elites to change. But by doing so, we’d also be putting the future of our planet at a significant risk since time isn’t exactly on our side when it comes to climate change.
Unfortunately, we might soon reach the point where the strength of number in the many poor won’t rival the strength of ability in the few rich. And if we won’t do something about it, it will get only worse and worse.
You’d think that squeezing the top 1% ought to be the most obvious thing in the world for politicians in democratic countries to do to bring down the rising inequality. But it looks like most of today’s populist insurgents are more concerned with sovereignty and immigration than with the top income tax rate.
Of course they are.
One fascinating study actually analysed bills brought before the parliaments of 9 European countries between 1941 and 2014 and found exactly this correlation. As inequality grew, political agendas have become less focused on redistribution and more on matters related to ‘social order’, such as immigration and crime.
It’s almost like the higher the inequality, the more power the elites have to press politicians to emphasise some topics rather than others, and the more likely they are to choose topics that won’t affect them in the slightest.
Who would’ve thought, huh?
The ultra-rich in Europe, America and everywhere else do seem to have the Midas curse — only they haven’t had the benefit of the king’s lesson. And that means that they will keep reaching for more wealth and power until, one day, there’s nothing else to take.
I hope that we’ll all wake up before that happens and understand once and for all that no individual or group of individuals should have that much power. Or hoard most of the world’s wealth.
Because it always leaves the world in peril.
And for now, let’s not forget that although the rich are indeed getting more and more powerful, they aren’t all-powerful yet. Or uniform in their determination to keep redistributing policies off the agenda.
But we can and should be determined to put them back on.