“You have to be wealthy in order to be great.”
– Donald Trump, campaign speech, Bismarck, North Dakota, May 26, 2016
In The Power Elite, his 1956 study of the powerful’s manipulation of the powerless, C. Wright Mills, the American sociologist, sounded what would probably be his most devastating critique of ingrained assumptions about wealth:
People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages. They come readily to define themselves as inherently worthy of what they possess; they come to believe themselves “naturally” elite, and, in fact, to imagine their possessions and their privileges as natural extensions of their own elite selves.
Mills’s book is complicated, and it would be simplistic to reduce his claim to this, since he is equally at home dethroning the ruling class, exposing the horrors of the military-industrial complex, and otherwise laying bare the hypocrisies of the governing elite, including the academic world that fed him. In short, the book is brilliant and never timelier than now. But allow me to expound upon what I take to be its most important claim—this false assumption about wealth—and what it might mean in today’s terms.
Generally speaking, the more wealth a person has, the more harm he or she has brought upon the world. The basis for this claim, and the reason it runs counter to most people’s intuition, is that there is no such thing as new wealth, despite what people have been taught or led to believe. Wealth is not created ex nihilo, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be. Wealth, as Marx and others pointed out, means profit that is created at the expense of others. In Das Kapital (1867), Marx explains, per Jonathan Wolff’s summary in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003; 2017), that “all capitalist profit is ultimately derived from the exploitation of the worker. Capitalism’s dirty secret is that it is not a realm of harmony and mutual benefit but a system in which one class systematically extracts profit from another.” More recently, economists like Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Michael Perelman, along with social ecologists and critics like Murray Bookchin, David Nibert, and Derrick Jensen, have shown how humans are hardly the sole victims of capitalism; indeed, it is animals and ecosystems that find themselves principally exploited, giving rise to our current anthropocene.
That mainstream economics has refused to acknowledge these facets is hardly surprising. In The Origin of Wealth (2006), Eric Beinhocker, the Oxford economist, and hardly a disciple a Marx, concedes that the questions of “what is wealth,” “how is it created,” and “how can it be increased” are “among the oldest questions in economics. Yet they are questions that economics has historically struggled to answer.” Those who have tried to pose answers, or, worse yet, link profit to victimization, are usually consigned to the fringe, or what Neoclassical economists term “heterodox economics.” Even the word “heterodox” sounds appropriately religious, as if thinkers like Georgescu-Roegen, Perelman and Marx have dared to question the faith.
Either way, to expand on Mills’s point, it is not just a myth that wealth can be invented. “Myth” implies a cultural grandeur or an associated spiritual value. It is an outright lie and one that has been recycled for generations, probably since the invention of currency, to delude those who don’t have it, as well as those who seek it, as well those who own it and would, not unpredictably, rather not give it away, into believing that wealth is just, or somehow noble, or in anyway reconcilable with our charitable instincts and our inclination not to murder and maim. In fact, one might term this the dark secret of our own late-capitalist age, and one that well precedes Trump.
The original “Gospel of Wealth,” to which the title of this essay refers, was penned by one Andrew Carnegie in an 1889 article for, appropriately enough, The North American Review. The Review was, and perhaps still is, among the leading literary journals of its day, and, at least then, a staunch defender of the ruling class. Like most American institutions, the Review was founded to help rich people feel better about themselves, or at least feel comfortable in the belief that the harm they were afflicting on society through industrial works—that is, enslavement—could be lessened in some way by the penning of thoughtful odes, meditations, journals, and the occasional piece of crude fiction (culminating, it would seem, in the 1903 serialization of Henry James’s snarky The Ambassadors, which, with lines like, “the source of his grandfather’s wealth—and thereby of his own share in it—was not particularly noble,” must have caused more than a few corsets and waistcoats to strain and undoubtedly presages Mills).
Carnegie was and still is today seen as a leader of American industry, a titan, as it were. And his gospel of wealth was quite radical in that it advanced the proposition that rich folks shouldn’t squander their money or waste it on wine when they could be spending it on mollifying workers, founding institutions, donating (wisely) to charity, and living otherwise abstemious lives. In other words, doing the sort of things which free market capitalism requires to sustain the illusion of a free market, chief among them the furthering of the myth that anyone who works hard can get rich.
It should also probably be said that while Carnegie was penning this thesis—which actually ran afoul of quite a few in his circle, some of whom claimed that he wasn’t precisely aristocratic enough in so far as he disdained the right of primogeniture, or the passing along of all inheritance to the firstborn—Carnegie’s henchmen were about to begin murdering strikers at his steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. There, the dastardly union had had the audacity to question the merits of a twenty-percent pay-cut, not to mention the working conditions. Carnegie, of course, denied any involvement in shooting them, claiming he had effectively ceded control of the business and pretending as if he weren’t the direct beneficiary of such action (does this sound like a character from James?). In fact, Carnegie Steel consolidated shortly thereafter, expanding its terrain, drawing U.S. Steel into a record-setting buyout, and making Carnegie the richest human. Why is this strike-break important? Because it sheds light on the very merits of his claim that wealth can be created anew, or that it isn’t somehow forged in the ashes and sweat of his workforce.
The most remarkable thing about this perpetual lie—though perhaps it isn’t so remarkable, since it’s required for the free market to grow—is that legions of academics, journalists, clergymen, judges, and other dubious servants of Wealth have paid credence to the myth (let’s call it a myth; after all, it’s borderline holy) and leant it its air of legitimacy. It continues today in the form of Western politics, where virtually all parties in Europe and North America remain superficially divided—though at bottom united—around the question of what to do with new immigrants, illegal aliens, and the surging tides of refugees. These aren’t new questions in politics. Immigration and mobility have been central features of the state—and probably the market economy—since their inception. In fact, it was primarily new immigrants, just-arrived from Eastern Europe and fully willing to cross the picket lines, who replaced the striking workers at Carnegie’s plant and effectively ended the union.
Certainly more attention has been given to the issue of migration now that porous state borders have collapsed and walls have sprung up to replace them. Witness Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico and, even more brazenly, his repeated insistence that his real estate empire wasn’t founded on the backs of illegal workers. Obviously the sole explanation for the rising tide of refugees, illegal aliens, and evictees of various wars is that as capitalism expands, it creates more victims and concentrates wealth in fewer hands—in this case the financial elite of the wealthier states and their lackeys in lesser republics. As everyone also well knows, the obvious way to deal with the problem of refugees, and aliens, and illegals, and war, is simply to remove borders and redistribute wealth. This, of course, is deemed heresy and anathema to the state—which, in fact, it is. As Emma Goldman, the Russian-born anarchist and revolutionary, remarked as far back as 1909, “Government exists but to maintain special privilege and property rights; it coerces man into submission and therefore robs him of dignity, self-respect, and life.” Goldman would know. She helped plot the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s chief henchman at Homestead, and, if her writings are to be believed, actually prostituted herself to help finance the effort.
Of course, the main victim of industrial capitalism isn’t workers, or aliens, or refugees. It isn’t even people. It’s the animals who populate the Earth, millions of whom are consigned to a system of factory slaughter and silently murdered each day for the so-called wealth that their bodies posses. Here there isn’t any pretense of denying creatures rights. These laborers simply don’t exist in our account. The bible was probably invented to justify this claim—that animals exist for our use and are wholly subject to our “dominion,” as Genesis 1:26 proclaims—and has been in circulation since then chiefly to promote it.
Likewise with the plants of the Earth, the vast majority of which, if they haven’t been deemed beneficial for the magical creation of “wealth,” have long been eradicated, as any surveyor of biodiversity will attest. Even oil, long claimed to be nature’s black gold, comes, of course, with a rather hefty price tag. Its burning destroys the planet and prevents future wealth—and of course murders many creatures, human and animal alike, through the release of potent toxins and emissions. Nuclear energy is no different, as the resultant radioactive waste will remain for hundreds of thousands of years and needs to be carefully guarded in that duration. Which, of course, it won’t be. The result will undoubtedly be fallout—and probably the destruction of Wealth. But that remains unacknowledged by quite a few Carnegies of the planet, or at least their latter-day descendants. U.S. Steel, Carnegie’s offshoot, was, in 2000, ranked the second-largest producer of air pollution in the U.S.
Of course, the consensus view among wealthy people now, at least in the West, and outside of the current White House, is that the Earth must be protected. This is because they are smart enough to realize that their heritability depends on the Earth’s continued sustenance, as does the fate of their children. Where Carnegie thought primogeniture must be stripped to make way for capitalism’s sustenance (under the banner of “meritocracy,” perhaps, or what he would like us to believe is hard work; in fact, it’s not easy sniping workers, particularly when you have to pay scabs), contemporary leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg proclaim their commitments to being “green.” Whether they mean this in the purely financial or environmental sense is less important than their overlap with Carnegie. All believe—in fact, have to believe, in so far as their future wealth depends on it—that capitalism requires a healthy place in which to grow. It’s okay to kill workers and trees, but one has to do it sustainably and with a view towards enhancing the system. This is the efficiency of wealth, its brilliance, as it were, and its force as an idea de jure.