More than a bit rich
The Rich: From Slaves to Super Yachts, a 2000-Year History By John Kampfner Hachette Australia, 454pp, $32.99
IF you want to know what God thinks of money, Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, just look at the people he gives it to. It is permissible, the rest of us feel, to diss the rich as a class. They may be the last minority left that we can put the boot into with impunity. Hating them, indeed, is a progressive stance. If it offends them, it will offend them on the way to the bank.
But the rich, as British journalist John Kampfner demonstrates in his panoramic and solidly researched new book, are not as easy to generalise about as we might hope. Inevitably, his survey of history’s most fantastically loaded people contains its share of bad seeds, ranging from the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who plundered his way to the top in South America, to the Wall Street spiv who, after the crash of 2008, likened the “demonisation” of America’s rich to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.
But there are philanthropists and forwardthinkers here too, such as American investor Warren Buffett, Kampfner’s “model of the good billionaire”. Worth about $US70 billion ($79bn), Buffett, 84, has pledged to give away 99 per cent of that fortune to charities when he dies, if not before. Moreover, he has a way with words. He wants to bequeath his children “enough so they feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing”. Stirring words, unless you’re one of his kids.
Kampfner’s tour through 2000 years of fatcattery opens with the case of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who shared power with Pompey and Caesar in Rome’s first triumvirate. Crassus owned an army of slaves from which he assembled a private fire brigade. When somebody’s house caught fire, Crassus would roll up with his team and offer to buy the blazing property at a rock-bottom price. If the owner agreed, Crassus would extinguish the flames and add the place to his portfolio of Roman real estate; if not, he would let it burn. This story, which comes from Plutarch, sounds a bit implausible, but so do a lot of true things about the mega-rich.
Crassus embodies several of Kampfner’s main themes. He shows how quickly the iffilygotten gain can become the established fortune — how quickly new money can become old money. And he demonstrates that cash, in suf- ficient quantities, can buy you a place at the political table. To believe this rule no longer applies, you would need to believe Clive Palmer got into parliament because of his charm and his carefully meditated policies alone.
But the rich don’t need to enter politics to prevail. Corporations can ride out storms that politicians, even dictators, can’t survive. These maxims vividly emerge from Kampfner’s portrait of the Krupp family, German steel barons who, during the armaments craze that preceded World War I, consolidated their fortune by selling hardware to both sides. Later, Krupp’s factories helped Hitler covertly re-arm for the sequel. At the Nuremberg trials, the Allies prosecuted Krupp directors for war crimes. But by the early 1950s they were out of prison and back in business — the US needed their steel to build a viably anti-communist West Germany. “The big corporations,” says Kampfner, announcing another of the book’s persistent themes, “were deemed too important to fail.”
Roman historian Sallust, writing about Crassus’s corruption of Rome, lamented the late republic’s decadent view “that everything was for sale”. But history tends to prove everything is, at the right price. About 1500 years after Crassus, the Medici family, which amassed its fortune through banking and speculation, would supply Italy with four popes. But they had taste: their patronage helped to bankroll the Renaissance.
These days, a bit less edifyingly, the oil-rich nation of Qatar is “hoovering up” masterpieces in a bid to turn itself into a hub of world culture. Its recent acquisitions include a painting from Cezanne’s Card Players series, for which it paid a
Montgomery Burns, left, is a caricature of the evil rich, but Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have a philanthropic bent