Cooking the Books 2: Who needs the rich?

  To be one of the idle rich these days £1 million is not enough, according to the private bank, Coutts & Co., who specialise in dealing with the accounts of such people. The “super-wealthy”, said Coutts’ chief executive Sarah Davies, was “a person who didn’t have to work if they chose not to, and who was able to lead a life of luxury” (Times, 18 October).

  Twenty-five years ago £1 million would have allowed you to lead a life of luxury, defined as having a 5-bedroom house with two staff, an apartment and a yacht in the south of France, eating out twice a week in a posh restaurant, and going on three two-week holidays to a luxury
destination. To lead such a life today you need, apparently, some £3 million.

  Nobody could amass that amount by working. Those that do possess such a fortune will have got it either by inheriting it or by wheeling and dealing in the City or in property speculation, as a look at the Sunday Times annual Rich List confirms. In other words, they can only lead their life of luxury on the proceeds of the exploitation of those who do work. They are not the only ones
doing this since the “fat cats” at the top of private and state industry who pay themselves bloated salaries and bonuses are at it too.

  A million pounds is still a lot of money of course and would still allow a person not to work if they chose not to, though not the sort of life of luxury just described; rather not much above the average of the rest of us.

  But it’s a measure of how non-rich most people are – and so have to go out onto the labour market to find an employer – that there are only 425,000 millionaires in Britain, which is under 1 percent of the adult population.

  It couldn’t be otherwise of course,since the basis of capitalism is the wages system and, to work, the wages system requires that most people are forced by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies as the means of obtaining money to buy the things they need to live.

  One old socialist definition of a capitalist was a person who has sufficient wealth and unearned income from it to avoid having to sell their ability to work. In other words, someone who plays no part in producing the wealth of society but lives off the backs of those who do. The pro-capitalist
economist Keynes called such people “rentiers” and looked forward to their gradual “euthanasia”.

  In Russia after 1917 they actually did this. The idle rich were dispossessed without compensation and went into exile. Some people thought that this meant the abolition
of capitalism. But it didn’t: capitalism continued without them, but run by the state. The lesson of this was that if you abolish the super-wealthy and the idle rich you don’t necessarily abolish capitalism.

Capitalism is essentially an economic system (of capital accumulation out of the surplus-value obtained by exploiting wage- labour). It is this impersonal economic mechanism that wage and salary workers are up against and which involves their exploitation irrespective of who manages
the system or benefits from it (whether private capitalists or those who directly control the state).

  It is this system, not the idle rich as such, who are only a by-product of it, that socialists are out to abolish.

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