The world’s wealthiest individuals spend a considerable sum on personal security, but as Matt Mellen asks, would they feel the need to if we lived in more equal times?
The neo-liberal capitalism and deregulation of financial markets introduced by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s, honed in the 90s and then turbo-charged in recent history – with the mass transfer of society’s wealth to private banks in the so-called ‘bailout’ – has enabled a minority to become richer than anyone in history.
Earlier this year, Oxfam reported that half of global wealth is held by an elite one percent and that their share has increased from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014, while the least well-off 80 percent currently own just 5.5 percent. Or put another way, the world’s 85 richest people have as much as the poorest 3.5 billion combined.
The super-rich float on mega-yachts, cavort at exclusive parties, own media corporations, dictate national policies… and worry about their financial, and physical, security.
“Protecting the rich and protecting the poor are inexorably linked.”
Today’s spiralling inequality is predicted to be unsustainable. At this year’s Davos, the annual meeting of global political and business elites, one session described how nervous hedge fund managers were buying up airstrips in remote parts of the world to retreat to when the tipping point is crossed and civil unrest rises up to restore balance.
London is now the ‘billionaire capital of the world’ which affects property. Number 1 Hyde Park is some of the world’s most expensive real estate, and those that live there are so security conscious that the building is bomb-proof. Despite overlooking a beautiful park there are no balconies and each flat has its own private elevator to avoid having to come into contact with neighbours.
The trouble with these approaches to security is that they deny the fact that we all share one planet and that our world is increasingly interconnected. We might be able to run from a braying mob but we cannot hide from a third world war, climate change or the current ecological collapse brought about by the human-induced sixth mass extinction event – all of which are aggravated by inequality.
A short-sighted interpretation of security is writ large across the world. The billionaire Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch and their political lackeys prevent action on climate change and boost the fossil fuel sector to protect their financial interests. Hawks in the world’s richest nations justify ongoing bombings of poorer nations on pretence of ‘national security’, wilfully ignoring the historical truism that violence begets violence.
“We might be able to run from a braying mob but we cannot hide from a third world war, climate change or the current ecological collapse – all of which are aggravated by inequality.”
In their paranoid state of imagined separation the rich and powerful make consistently bad decisions. This is potentially catastrophic for everyone because of the disproportionate influence they wield. Bombing for peace and waging a war against climate science and renewable energy being the two most obvious – all of us have to live with the consequences.
The good news is that security can be approached from a different angle. In the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, the authors demonstrate that inequality has “pernicious effects” on society including “eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, [and] encouraging excessive consumption”.
Whereas the societies that do best for their citizens are those with the narrowest income differentials, such as Japan and the Nordic countries. Furthermore, more equal societies avoid the democratic distortions that come about when, for example, 70 percent of the UK national newspaper market is controlled by just three companies and certain political parties are funded by a surprisingly small number of donors.
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The most effective way to protect rich people over an extended time period is to enact policies that reduce poverty. These could include improved state provision of education, childcare and health, and strategic taxes on things we want less of such as carbon, corporations that cause harm and many of the dubious financial transactions that now dominate the ‘casino economy’. We might also look to cap how rich the richest people can get with a wealth ceiling, and how poor the poorest via a basic citizen’s income.
Similarly, it may seem anathema to the fevered military mind but the most efficacious way of preventing war may be to address the root grievances of the people taking up arms. Dropping bombs on them with drones won’t make the problems go away but may lead to the worst horrors radicalised terrorists can conjure away from the doomed theatre of asymmetrical warfare, i.e. in our cities.
“The societies that do best for their citizens are those with the narrowest income differentials.”
Ultimately, we see that protecting the rich and protecting the poor are inexorably linked; a stable atmosphere and equitable societies benefit people at both ends of the wealth spectrum. Our challenge today is to see through the misinformation broadcast by the mainstream media which promotes policies that further concentrate wealth and bring to bear adequate political force to redistribute it. An extra billion to a billionaire will most likely be stashed in a tax haven where it will do absolutely no good to anyone. In contrast, money injected into deprived areas transforms lives.
The point that security for the rich depends on security for all is carved deep across our historical record, the French and Russian Revolutions and the rise of Nazism from the Weimar Republic all being modern examples. Political writer Noah Webster documented an example much further back: “The causes which destroyed the ancient republics were numerous; but in Rome, one principal cause was the vast inequality of fortunes.” Undeniably, as long as some people require a vast security apparatus and others have recourse to none at all, all of us face dubious prospects.