From time immemorial, people have recounted in a combination of awe, respect, flourish and fanfare the wealth and power of the immensely rich people who lived at different times in the world.
The glorification of this club of uniquely rich and powerful humans has acted as a spur for others to try to match them or even transcend them in the domain of material accumulations.
That has not been at little or no cost to those less well-off or plain simple poor, quite the contrary, becoming the springhead for stories like those of Robin Hood taking from the rich to help out the poor. One of the objectives of great conquerors of new territories, empire builders, and so forth, it seems, was to make a lavish display of the wealth accumulated by them in various forms to dazzle and intimidate others and to single themselves out from “the crowd”.
Rich people liked to be singled out even in ancient times
There are references in the religious literature to singularly rich individuals like King Croesus and King Solomon. Other historical sources indicate the presence of ultra-rich individuals in different geographies across the then known world. These were, by the standards of the times they lived in, endowed with extraordinary wealth and, in fact, famed for the possession of such wealth up to the point information could travel in those days.
Still, they were few and far between. So rare were the examples of such ultra-rich individuals of those times that poets and flatterers waxed lyrical and used the strongest hyperboles they could command to praise the owners of such nonpareil wealth, each one in his own time and clime. Needless to state, all this wealth is no more, at least not in the hands of descendants of those super rich individuals. People were dazzled and drawn to them on its account for some time but that lustre died down with the passage of time. Only the recounting and poetry remained behind.
Entrepreneurship and industry brought up its own lot of super-rich individuals
Wealth accumulation took another turn after the European Reformation. There came on stage new figures who made their fortunes not through conquest, collection of exorbitant and selective tributes and taxes imposed on their subjects as it had been the case from the Middle ages onward. Trade and colonial exploitation proved to be the anchor of another wave of wealth accumulation for many of those who came in the wake of the generation of seafarers and pathfinders into the heartlands of continents heretofore unexplored.
New names started appearing on the register of those who could claim world renown for having amassed immense fortunes. These were: the Rothschild, the Medici’s, the Carnegie, the Rockefeller, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, George Soros, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and several others of a lesser grandeur in terms of wealth amassed. Many of these were entrepreneurs breaking new grounds in diverse fields, including international trading, banking, oil, railroads, timber, retail business, department stores, investments in securities, speculation on gold and commodities, etc. It was a slow ascent however from the looting and extortion which was commonly practised on the path of personal enrichment in the beginning to today’s more complex industry whereby merely churning numbers at the opportune moment with the help of software, computers, and models can get translated into instant huge wealth, let alone those who think they can become overwhelmingly rich overnight by gambling in systems like the Loto.
Casting ignominy of the downfallen super-rich does not keep others from treading the same path
When some of the rich and powerful are caught on the wrong foot and deposed from their thrones of power and grandiose enrichment – it happens rarely enough – the common people applaud the outcome and disparage them, in sharp contrast to the adulation they were bestowing on them only a while ago. It will be recalled how attention got focussed on the very large collection of luxury shoes of Mrs Marcos – a former ballerina – when her husband, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was thrown out of power, just to underscore the ignominy in which the couple was put after years of glory.
Even so, despite embarrassing situations like this one befalling on the rich and the powerful folk of the world from time to time, this does not hold back seekers of power and wealth from going after these. Numbers of billionaires in some of the erstwhile developing countries like India and China are already vying against the customary restricted club of such persons who hailed from the West and the Middle East so far. Africa is not far behind; its stars preferred to stack away their acquisitions from public sight and harmful scrutiny but now, with commodity uptake going on for several years now and infrastructure building perking up, they will, like others from other places who claim having walked their way to enrichment perfectly legally, shine bright enough on the firmament closer to us.
Mysterious are the ways to exaggerated wealth accumulation
The irony of this march to prominence of the few who acquire huge amounts of personal wealth is to be found in situations whereby they cohabit with all their glitz and glamour beside numerous of their utterly poor and deprived compatriots, in a flurry of increasing economic and social inequalities.
This is not a phenomenon of the modern times. It has been happening for ages and will no doubt carry on much the same, spinning off ever more unequal societies but also individuals so endowed with personal riches that, one might think, even after satisfying their most exaggerated fancies, disutility of excessive power and wealth could visit upon them. It is a phenomenon that has quizzed the best brains since centuries. Why this unending race after power and wealth?
The German philosopher, Max Weber had tried to size up the issue in a number of essays he wrote in the early 20th Century. The essays found shape in his 1930 book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. As the name of the book suggests, it was to religious belief he turned to explain the unstoppable pursuit of wealth accumulation by certain individuals.
His analysis led him to believe that, in contrast to the previous religious credo which considered the pursuit of monasticism, and hence renunciation, as the ultimate objective of the religious effort, the protestant ethic emerging in the wake of the European Reformation which started off in the first quarter of the 16th Century projected an altogether different image of the role of the individual.
In this new context, the aspirant was called up by the Divine power to strive continuously in his material existence and not to let go of it. If, as a result of this uninterrupted striving, huge material gains were achieved, such gains were to be seen not as something unbecoming vis-à-vis others less well off, but as signs rather of Divine approval of the efforts undertaken. It is this ethic that gave rise to the sort of capitalism we’ve seen and keep seeing to this day and maybe in the days to come, giving rise to accumulation not only of unlimited wealth but also to the pursuit of the levers of power, all of these being intricately linked to each other.
While this interpretation may apply in the case of the majority of persons – espousing unwittingly the Protestant ethic – keen on accumulating as much wealth and power as possible, another reason not unrelated to the capitalist model as we see it, may find its origin in insecurity. In most societies, people have lived through deprivation of different degrees, from the very harsh and enduring type to milder and less pronounced types.
A former colonial society characterized by concentration of wealth and power, Mauritius is also haunted by that feeling of insecurity at most levels of society. This situation gives rise to the desire in the individual to cross a threshold beyond which one would be immune from such distress, hardship and destitution. In some cases, the trauma experienced under deprivation can be such as to go for ‘sky is the limit’ in the process of accumulation of all sorts.
Many past generations in Mauritius have been through utter poverty – some are still steeped in it while the evolving economic structure is throwing many out of their erstwhile cushion of economic protection. There is lying dormant in those who’ve been through such situations, personally or through their previous generations, the gene which wants them to free themselves of any such recurring risk. Some would not be too considerate as to the means they employ to meet this target, which explains why many profess to be virtuous but do not hesitate to employ short cuts to get to riches, power and, why not, name and fame at the same time. Others cannot even put up a decent fight to free themselves from an uncertain future. This is the tangle hold in which many are trapped and keep striving until they meet their end.
* Published in print edition on 23 May 2014