Excerpt: 'The Natural History of the Rich'

That last phrase suggests what Lorenz called the "dark side of pseudo-speciation," the tendency to consider outsiders irrelevant, uninformed, even subhuman. It is an entirely natural tendency. Indigenous groups do it implicitly, as Lorenz pointed out, when they use their word for "man" or "the people" as the name of their tribe, and for nothing else: "From their viewpoint it is not, strictly speaking, cannibalism if they eat fallen warriors of an enemy tribe." And from the viewpoint of the rich?


The history of wealth has always been about rich people separating themselves from hoi polloi. In different periods and places, the rich have worn clothing denied by law to the lower orders; they have recorded their own genealogy, a useful tool of social dominance, while forbidding poor people to do the same; they have even, at times, spoken a different language (Latin for the medieval gentry, Norman French for the post-Conquest aristocracy in England, Parisian French for the nineteenth-century Russian grande bourgeoisie at home, Classical Chinese for the educated and aristocratic in China).

The rich have also sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid the horrific possibility of seeing or being seen by their social inferiors. In the early 1700s, for instance, the Duke of Somerset, one of the wealthiest peers in England, used to travel in his coach-and-six with outriders sent ahead to chase rustics from the fields lest they sully him with their gazing. As recently as 1945, when the Maharani of Baroda went riding on horseback, servants shouted at people on the road to look away.

The result, paradoxically, may have been to reduce envy and competition by people who were not part of the privileged group. "The peasant may not feel deprived compared to the lord so long as the peasant continues to think of the aristocrat as a member of another species, as a different kind of animal with whom comparisons may not be made," writes Jerome Barkow, a Canadian anthropologist. "When such encapsulation of social groups takes place, envy is prevented." The rich would never, of course, have suggested that their social inferiors belonged to some distant species; they would have said simply, "Not our kind, dear."

When the rich actually chose to be seen by common people, they tended to elicit awe and subservience, as if they were superhuman. "I like best to visit the Baron in his office," Heinrich Heine wrote about his friend the Paris financier Baron James de Rothschild, "where, as a philosopher, I can observe how people bow and scrape before him. It is a contortion of the spine which the finest acrobat would find difficult to imitate. I saw men double up as if they had touched a Voltaic battery when they approached the Baron."

Or as an Egyptian civil servant put it in 1500 b.c., writing on the otherworldly presence of the king: "He is a god by whose dealings one lives, the father and mother of all men, alone by himself, without equal." But isn't this literally ancient history? The rich no longer live behind moats and castle walls. Bill Gates sits still for questioning by CNN reporters, and Princess Fergie will appear, as the British like to say, at the opening of a door.

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