I’m utterly gripped by Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland and its account of the meta-country being built through the ability of global elites to escape national jurisdictions, facilitated by an army of lawyers, accountants and wealth managers. One of the most incisive themes concerns the acceleration of this corruption and the difficulty which it creates for public or private investigators seeking to reconstruct events. Not only do investigators move more slowly than those they are investigating, they do so in a game which is rigged against them as it is much easier to hide wealth through global dealings than it is to find it from the vantage point of a particularly national jurisdiction. From pg 20:

The physicist Richard Feynman supposedly once said: ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’ I feel the same way about the way offshore structures have warped the fabric of the world. But if this dizzying realisation sends me out of the house and away from my screen, there’s no escaping it. The building where I buy my morning coffee is owned in the Bahamas. The place I get my hair cut is owned in Gibraltar. A building site on my way to the train station is owned in the Isle of Man. If we spent all of our time trying to puzzle out what is really happening, we’d have no time to do anything else. It’s no wonder most sensible people ignore what the super-rich get up to. You follow a white rabbit down a hole, the tunnel dips suddenly and, before you know it, you find yourself falling down a very deep well into a new world. It’s a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, you can only glimpse it through doors you lack the keys for.

The vertigo this induces can only be solved by recognising the inadequacy of methodological nationalism to make sense of the scale of this corruption, hence his notion of moneyland as something akin to a meta-country being built within the crumbling ruins of the Westphalian order. From pg 25.

Moneyland induces vertigo to such an extent that, once the idea had occurred to me, I felt dizzy because it explained so much. Why do so many ships fly the flags of foreign countries? Moneyland allows their owners to undercut their home nations’ labour regulations. Why do Russian officials prefer to build billion-dollar bridges rather than schools and hospitals? Moneyland lets them steal 10 per cent of the construction costs, and stash it abroad. Why do billionaires live in London? Moneyland lets them dodge taxes there. Why do so many corrupt foreigners want to invest their money in New York? Moneyland protects their assets against confiscation.

Why do expressions of wealth through social media attract such attention? How does something like rich kids of instagram provoke such morbid fascination in so many? In Uneasy Street: Anxieties of Affluence Rachel Sherman offers a penetrating account of the moral universe which wealthy New Yorkers have constructed for themselves, unpicking the ambivalence they feel concerning their own privilege. While materially embracing their privilege, they nonetheless feel a profound need to subjectively distance themselves from it, particularly in relation to their children.

Doing this involves distinguishing themselves from the unthinking, unappreciative, uncaring embrace of wealth and instilling the related dispositions in their children. As she writes on pg 232, “They want to be in the middle, not in a distributional sense but rather in the affective sense of having the habits and desires of the middle class”. This relies on distancing themselves from “images of ‘bad’ rich people”. These images thus serve to legitimate inequalities by helping construct ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to be affluent, something which was particularly pronounced among those in Sherman’s sample who had inherited their wealth. As she notes on pg 230, positive representations circulate of figures who are praised for how they acquired their wealth and how they subsequently relate to wider society:

In November 2016, James B. Stewart wrote a New York Times column in which he tried to pin down the net worth of British writer J. K. Rowling, author of the fantastically successful Harry Potter series. 1 In the piece he attributes his interest in her assets to the fact that she is “that all-too-rare commodity in the ranks of the ultrawealthy—a role model.” He continues, “Not only has she made her fortune largely through her own wits and imagination, but she also pays taxes and gives generously to charity. At a time of bitter disputes over rising income inequality, no one seems to resent Ms. Rowling’s runaway success.” What struck me about this piece, first, is that Stewart invokes two of the characteristics of the good wealthy person that I have described: Rowling is hard-working, as indicated by her upward mobility, and she gives back liberally. 2 He doesn’t mention her lifestyle, but a 2006 Daily Mail article describes her relatively moderate consumption as “a valuable and uplifting counterpoint to the circus of pointless and continuous spending” of other celebrities, and it seems unlikely that Stewart would think she was such a role model if she were perceived as an ostentatious consumer. 3

There was an excellent Vox piece recently which explored the myth of the frugal bllionaire. As Gaby De Valle summarises these representations, drawing on an interview with Sherman:

You may have heard that Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway whose net worth is somewhere around $87 billion, lives in a modest house he bought in 1958 for just $31,500. Or that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drives a stick-shift Volkswagen GTI. Maybe you’ve seen those articles floating around about how Bill Gates, who was once the wealthiest man in the world, wears a $10 watch. Or how Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who is currently the wealthiest man in the world, drove a Honda Accord for years after becoming a billionaire.

Most recently, the UK Sun reported that Michael O’Leary, the embattled CEO of budget airline Ryanair (which has been forced to cancel scores of flights amid strikes by pilots who say they’re underpaid and overworked), is as frugal in his everyday life as he is with his airline. Matt Cooper, the author of a forthcoming autobiography of O’Leary, told the paper that the airline CEO is “utterly ruthless and pathological about how much he hates spending money.”


These representations of admirable extremes co-exist with a broader tendency towards the normalisation of wealth. As Sherman describes it on pg 232, “lifestyles that would actually be quite expensive (including spacious homes, domestic employees, family vacations, and fashionable clothing) appear in ostensibly “middle-class” settings on television and in the movies”. I found myself reflecting on this recently in relation to the sitcom Modern Family. The family is portrayed as typical yet the grandfather is a multi-millionaire business owner while the families of his two children live a comfortable lifestyle for extended periods of time in LA on a single income.

It seems each of their houses would be worth well over a million, with the grandfather’s house being worth eight million. In the most recent season, they hire a yacht for a family vacation. These are not typical lifestyles yet they are represented in a way imbued with middleness even if they may be out of reach of most. Sherman’s crucial observation is how middle-classness in this sense is moral, defined by earned consumption within reasonable boundaries by people who are hard working. This matters for many reasons but not least of all because the defensiveness of the affluent goes hand-in-hand with this moralisation of lifestyle. Sherman writes on pg 235:

As we have seen, the people I talked with sometimes responded quite negatively to these critiques, interpreting them as personal judgments, as when high earners reacted defensively after President Obama advocated repealing high-wage tax cuts. But this tendency to feel personally affronted by public criticism of inequality also has to do with exactly the same process of attaching entitlement to individual merit. That is to say, to believe that J. K. Rowling should not have a billion dollars when other people have nothing is not to suggest she is a bad person for having the billion dollars. The distribution of the assets is the problem, not the individual behavior, disposition, or feelings—or any other characteristic—of the person holding the assets.

This feeling of being affronted fascinates me. I’m convinced it’s a subtle factor which a political sociology of elites must take seriously, though it’s difficult to pin down without using the lens of cultural sociology. I’ve been most interested in its expression by billionaires but Sherman’s superb book has led me to see that these extreme cases reflect a broader cultural sociology of defensive elites, driven by a social celebration of wealth accumulation coupled with an ambivalence about the wealthy.

An interesting thread I’m following up from Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. This is Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev on ‘guard labour‘:

Another dubious first for America: We now employ as many private security guards as high school teachers — over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980.

And that’s just a small fraction of what we call “guard labor.” In addition to private security guards, that means police officers, members of the armed forces, prison and court officials, civilian employees of the military, and those producing weapons: a total of 5.2 million workers in 2011. That is a far larger number than we have of teachers at all levels.

What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today.


How widespread could this become in the event of mass technologically-induced unemployment? One of my favourite dystopian fictions, Lazarus, imagines a world in which great status accrues to a warrior-class of guards amongst a population of citizens, living besides a vast population of non-persons:


I find this interesting because it suggests Guard Labour could (does?) serve a socio-cultural function, as well as a structural one. It inculcates a mentality of guarding ‘us’ against ‘them’, offering opportunities to achieve status within the social order to those who might otherwise struggle to do so. But how would this intersect with the practical reality of actually guarding the wealthy elites? After all, military robotics is advancing at a remarkable pace:

From The Boy Kings, by Katherine Losse, pg 191-193:

The catch for Facebook was that the more successful we became (and we were still, despite all the competition, dominant), the more likely employees were to be distracted by money and the new pastimes it enabled: fine dining, bar hopping, five- star vacations, expensive cars. In this sense, winning the game completely was a bit of a curse, because as our user numbers climbed quickly to 250 million in July 2009 and 350 million in December 2009, early employees had less incentive to work constantly, and more leeway to play games and party earlier in the night instead of waiting until the dead hours of two in the morning to socialize like we used to. New engineers were being hired all the time to take up the slack of bug fixing and code development from employees who had been there longer. The Facebook product itself made staying on task difficult: With the steady stream of pictures flowing down our pages, how could we be expected to focus on anything but planning our next photo opportunities and status updates? Looking cool, rich, and well- liked was actually our job, and that job took a lot of work.

I’d like to know if this goes hand-in-hand with a ratcheting up of corporate perks, at least for the engineers and executives, in an attempt to at least keep the hedonism in house. 

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 57-58. I’m very interested in how social expectations are generated amongst elites, how these in turn shape competitive pressures and the implications these have for how they orientate themselves towards non-elites. I’ve been looking through journalistic sources for examples of the super-rich complaining about their money not going far enough, as well as cases where this led to corporate malfeasance in an attempt to sustain a lavish lifestyle.

“ There’s an interaction between the global elite , as you call them, and the media, as follows, which has to do with sort of the, for lack of a term, sexiness of it all,” Eric Schmidt told me in his Google office in Mountain View. “Magazines are now publishing the destinations that everyone goes to. So, there’s a list, okay? So let me tell you what the list is. There’s Davos. There’s the Oscars. There’s the Cannes Film Festival. There’s Sun Valley. There’s the TED conference. There’s Teddy Forstmann’s conference. There’s UN Week, Fashion Week. In London, there is Wimbledon Week, which is the last week of June. “These have become global events, when they were local events,” Schmidt explained. “They’re not nearly as much fun as they were when I was reading about them in the paper. Because the pictures were much better than the reality. But because I see myself as a global citizen, I go anyway. … The math is that people want to be where other smart and interesting people are. … There’s a perception you have to be there. And globalization, air travel, allows you to do this. So, the people that you’re describing travel a lot. And they also have multiple homes, right? So, the rigors of travel are not so bad if you have a home in London. I don’t have these things, by the way.”

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 52-53:

One badge of membership in the super- elite is jet lag. Novelist Scott Turow calls this the “flying class” and describes its members as “the orphans of capital” for whom it is a “badge of status to be away from home four nights a week.” The CEO of one of the most prestigious multinationals recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughter to celebrate her graduation from college. He told a friend the two- week expedition was the longest they had ever been together. “They make a lot of money and they work incredibly hard and the husbands never see their children,” Holly Peterson said of the financiers of the Upper East Side. Their lives are driven not by culture or seasons or family tradition, but by the requirements of the latest deal or the mood of the markets. When Mark Zuckerberg rebuffed Yuri Milner’s first approach, the Russian investor, who was already a multimillionaire, turned up at the Internet boy wonder’s office in Palo Alto the next day, a round- trip journey of twelve thousand miles. In November 2010, the number two and heir apparent of one of the top private equity firms told me he was about to make a similar journey. I was a having a drink with him near Madison Park on a Wednesday night. He told me he needed to leave by eight p.m., because he had to fly to Seoul that evening. He planned to make the fourteen- thousand- mile roundtrip for a ninety- minute meeting. His putative partners had invited him to Korea just forty- eight hours before, on the Monday of that week. It was, he told me, “a test of our commitment.” When the European sovereign debt crisis came to dominate the markets in 2011, New York traders started to set their alarm clocks for two thirty a.m., in time for the opening bell in Frankfurt. Some investors in California didn’t bother going to bed at all. Wall Street e- mail in- boxes give you a flavor of the working lives of financiers, at least as they perceive them. In the spring of 2010, when the Obama administration first proposed a millionaires’ tax, an anonymous screed pinged its way around trading desks and into the electronic mail of a few journalists. It begins with the declaration “ We are Wall Street ,” and goes on to describe the intense workdays of traders: “We get up at 5 a.m. and work till 10 p.m. or later. We’re used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill.”