Saturday 9 March 2013

Revolution In The Kitchen

Ian Jack writes:

The rich must feel insufficiently hated – the case of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal makes that conclusion hard to resist. One of the more prominent of King Ibn Saud's uncountable grandchildren (the founding monarch of Saudi Arabia had approximately 22 wives and at least 40 sons; number of daughters unknown), his shareholdings include chunks of News Corp, Apple, Citibank, and the Savoy Hotel, while his private amusements number a Boeing 747 that he uses as his private jet and a collection of 200 cars.

Money, of course, can't buy you happiness, and the prince is unhappy. In its recently published list of billionaires, Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $20bn (£15bn) and placed him 26th in a list headed by the Mexican tycoon, Carlos Slim ($73bn). The estimate and the ranking made Prince Alwaleed furious. He felt insulted. He was worth so much more!

As the magazine prepared to publish the list, the prince's hirelings wrote to protest at an undervaluation that, to quote one of several letters, "strikes in the face of improving Saudi-American bilateral relations and co-operation". Forbes, it said, was "putting down the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and that is a slap in the face of modernity and progress".

Many people might have seen this differently – that any sign, however small, of a Saudi prince moderating his wealth might be a blow for modernity and progress – but never mind; the substance of the princely complaint was that he was worth $9.6bn more than Forbes said. The revaluation would have ranked him 10th in the list, one down from the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, but Forbes refused to budge. The list's editor, Kerry Dolan, said that Alwaleed had a habit of inflating his wealth purely to get on her list. "Of the 1,426 billionaires on our list, not one – not even the vainglorious Donald Trump – goes to greater measure to try to affect his or her ranking," she wrote. On hearing of his valuation in 2006, he had phoned her "nearly in tears".

Alwaleed's behaviour is magnificently childish – a magazine is only a magazine, a list is only a list – but perhaps tears before bedtime could be expected from a man who has installed a throne in his 747 and presumably straps himself into it for landing and take-off. The more interesting thing is his self-absorption: how little he cares that those of us who aren't billionaires or even millionaires – in other words more than 99% of the global population – might feel further estranged from the plutocracy and vow to damage it, one way or another.

In the 1970s I had a good friend, now dead, who belonged to the Communist party and kept a copy of Tatler magazine in his lavatory. In a shabby basement flat in east London that trembled to the noise of trains heading for Liverpool Street, the sight of pearly young women pictured "on the stairs" at hunt balls was more than just politically incongruous.

But when he was upbraided about it, my friend would explain that he read the magazine so that he knew "what the other side was up to". What they and their boyfriends and parents were up to was, by today's standards, nothing very much. Land rents, share dividends, jobs in stockbroking, insurance and the army: my friend may have frowned at these sources of income, but individually they probably multiplied his own earnings as a freelance journalist by no more than three or four times.

We weren't to know that Britain in terms of wealth distribution was a more equal place in the late 70s than it was ever before or has ever been since. As for the world beyond western Europe and north America, with a few exceptions (Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia), it had still to produce a millionaire class. If 2013's Forbes list had been placed beside my friend's 1978 lavatory, what gasps of disbelief and outrage it would have provoked.

According to Forbes' calculations, 210 individuals have become dollar billionaires in the past year, bringing the total to 1,426 – at a time when large parts of the world are suffering acute financial distress. The wealth at their disposal has grown from $4.6tn to $5.4tn in the same period, roughly equivalent to a third of the US's annual GDP. Credit Suisse estimates that the richest 1% of the world's population – that is, those worth $710,000 and over – control 46% of the world's assets. A large proportion of the profits from these is shielded from government view, and therefore from any hope of redistributive taxation, in tax havens. "Trickle down" economics seem limited to the personal servant class of hairdressers, chefs and chauffeurs. The shadow of inequality lengthens everywhere else.

All this is familiar, as familiar as the figure for Wayne Rooney's weekly wage. Every day brings stories of fresh excesses of wealth and privilege that make the targets of an older resentment look insular and ridiculous – Lady Docker's gold car, for heaven's sake! – yet at the beginning of the last century political movements were inspired by anger at "how the other half lived".

Prince Alwaleed was just one example in this week's crop, which also included the Emir of Qatar buying six Greek islands and the disclosure in a London court that two other members of Saudi royalty, Prince Mishal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and his son Prince Abdulaziz, never had to pass through immigration when they entered the UK and could claim "sovereign immunity" from any charges.

Elsewhere, Ivan Glasenberg boasted that his $1.5m salary from the Glencore commodities firm made him among the lowest paid CEOs in the FTSE 100, while taking $109m out of the company in dividends. From the Geneva motor show came news that while European car sales dropped overall by 3.3m last year, luxury models such as Rolls-Royce, McLaren and Lamborghini had never done better. A spokesman for Rolls-Royce explained that although the global economy was stagnant "some people are doing very well and want to reward themselves".

The effect on the rest of us is uncertain. People click their tongues and do non-ironic imitations of Victor Meldrew. We can't believe it, that so few people should have so much money, but any despair or rage we feel has yet to find a major political party that will give it a proper articulation. The trend seems unstoppable, and of any northern country, Britain sometimes seems closest to the wheels of the juggernaut.

We'll fight the EU to save the City of London's bonuses and squash thousands of new flats along the Thames's south bank for international elites to invest – perhaps even stay – in. In a nice phrase, the BBC's Evan Davis once summarised Britain's future as "butler to the world", and perhaps at some barely conscious level we've absorbed the truth of this: that to keep our wages coming in, we have at all times to be polite and welcoming to the very rich, hiding our disgust behind our hand as we open the door to plutocrat X or prince Y and say: "Ah, sir, how very good it is to see you again. I have prepared a warm bath and a hot concubine just as you like them. Pay no attention to the talk of revolution in the kitchen."

No comments:

Post a Comment