Who are the super-rich and what do they want?

My notes on Davies, W. (2017). Elites without hierarchies: Intermediaries,‘agency’and the super-rich. In Cities and the super-rich (pp. 19-38). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Who are the super-rich, and what do they want? This is the question which a thought provoking paper by Will Davies begins with and it’s one which has preoccupied me in recent years. Our statistical understand of the super-rich has increased in recent years but this increased knowledge leaves a range of sociological questions which need to be addressed:

What do they want to do with all that money, other than protect it, grow it and pass it on to their children? Do they want political power, and if so, of what kind and to what end? Or do they employ it culturally, to achieve their own modes of Bourdieusian distinction from the other 99.9%? (pg 2)

For a Millsian approach to elites, the question is which political, cultural or military  institutions are they gravitating towards in pursuit of power? For the Marxist approach, it’s a question of shared interests, their collective consciousness of them and self-organisation in pursuit of them in relation to other classes, as well as the tools of exploitation leveraged in this process. Davies agrees with Mike Savage that these aren’t necessarily the right questions, summarising his argument that we need to take money seriously as money (rather than assume it is waiting to be converted into power, with the assumption elites are intrinsically political) and must adequately describe capital before we can theorise it (rather than apply pre-existing categories to incomplete or outdated descriptions of our object).

What is this object? Is it a class? Is it a group? To what extent is it open or closed? To these challenges Davies adds another one: “the need to avoid wholesale methodological individualism, while recognising the deeply personal and individualised nature of the relationships and strategies that appear to structure the lives of the super-rich” (pg 3). Piketty’s contribution is to reorientate analysis way from the labour market and towards the family. But this is difficult because knowledge is partial and the super-rich is secretive. In order to addresses these challenges, Davies suggests we study intermediaries: agents working on behalf of the super-rich who represent their interests. By focusing on agency, in the sense of one party being contracted to represent the interests of another, it is possible to response to Savage’s challenges and move the study of the super rich forward.

He draws on Simmel’s account of money as a teleological vacuum, a pure means which extends beyond every possible use to which it can be put, connecting this to the ambitions of the super-rich. Piketty’s insight about the increasing importance of unearned wealth in the economy, as well as Dorling’s recognition of the professional classes now being subsumed into the 99%, yield a sense of the super-rich as breaking away. As he puts it on pg 6, “To break free of the bounds of culture, politics or technological limits becomes a teleology in itself, the same anti-teleology that Simmel identified as the metaphysical nature of money”. This is tied to a phenomenology of valuing money as “a state of arbitrariness, where money can be experienced as perfect liquidity, without friction” and “extreme form of negative liberty that lacks all normative restraint and relationship only to the future” (pg 16).

The problem of agency is key if we wish to avoid taking this analysis too far, with their insulation depending on the capacity of agents to represent the interests of the super-rich to the wider world. He summarises this as a theoretical approach on pg 8:

In this spirit, I want to propose a theoretical device which may help to shape a sociological approach to the super-rich – principle-agent problems. In particular, I suggest that we can think of the relationship of the super-rich to domains of power, culture and production as a series of principle-agent problems, in which they seek a form of representation which absolves them of the need to become involved in matters of public concern or controversy.

Principle-agent problems rest on the “paranoid methodological individualism” associated with game theory, with the primary challenge being to ensure the agent does not use their position to pursue their own private interests rather than those of the principle they are representing. Interestingly, this is the rationale for stock options for executives, theoretically encouraging them to act in pursuit of shareholder interest by making them a shareholder. But as Davies notes, the fact executive renumeration has risen more quickly than the stock market suggests it actually makes the agency problem worse.

This ties to a broader ambiguity about their position, as “symptoms of the deep-lying ambiguity surrounding the corporate form generally, which is neither a piece of private property nor a political association, but flips from one to the other as it suits” (pg 9). Training as professionals has been one solution but managers lack the monopoly over a specific domain of knowledge typical of professionals and their connection to the public interest is tentative and contestable. Techniques such as edit and credit rating were introduced to address this ambiguity but this introduce their own problem of agency, at least if the rating agency is paid by the company it rates.

This sociological reframing of the principle-agent problem “is a particular way of
representing the interface of politics and economics” (pg 11). If I understand him correctly, economics is insulated from politics by outsourcing normative evaluation to agents; capital can float free of controversy because the evaluation, justification and debate takes place at a distance through the mediation of ratings agencies, auditors, central bankers and policy makers. It is a form of “moral under-writing – declaring that activities are transparent and trustworthy, sometimes when they are not” (pg 15). The same analysis can be applied to the growth of family offices whose purposes is to “save super-rich families from having to engage in public situations (getting a child into a school, handling tax, booking a restaurant table, managing property) which may involve any form of antagonism” (pg 11). Whereas professionals once anchored capital in the public sphere, now they facilitate its escape.

He uses this to make the fascinating argument that the super-rich may benefit from further neoliberalisation, but it’s unclear how actively they are supporting it. Agency in this sense allows them to avoid becoming a class-for-itself, highlighting a micro-social disjuncture between the economic and the political which prevailing concepts of ‘neoliberalism’ are unable to capture. As a project it “required considerable solidarity and reflexive self-understanding on the part of capitalists and ideologues themselves, through think tanks, lobbying bodies, political parties, philanthropic networks” (pg 14). But if I understand correctly, its success has eroded the conditions which made the is possible while also making it less necessary than was once the case. In its place, we have increasingly complex webs of “non-hierarchical, non-exploitative dyadic contractual relations” (pg 15) which often overlap within super-rich networks in which intermediaries have become full members over the preceding decades. It follows from this that the problem is not wealth corrupting politics, as much as “how wealth is kept entirely separate from politics and public life, through strategic acts of delegation, where the delegate is also a delegator” (pg 15).

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