It’s a long-established truism that wealth and status breed complacency and a kind of smug sense of propriety – which then turns into social blindness, self-centeredness and not a bit of stupidity. The richest person in the room is also most likely the dumbest. Yet he (and yes, that is often the case…) is also completely convinced that he is the smartest and the most capable, certainly the most qualified to give orders to others. And this culture indulges in this fantasy.
That’s partly because this culture is run by these rich guys, but there’s also a high degree of reluctance to call them out on their stupidity. We talk about the naked emperor, but we do what he says nonetheless. In fact, many of us go to extreme lengths to reassure him about his questionable choices. While it’s true that most people think the rich are idiots in blinders, it’s also true that this society treats those same idiots with a deference that borders on reverence. We love the rich. And so we acquiesce to their rules and are complicit in their power. We put idiots in charge just because they have money.
This has devastating effects. We regularly lament these days about our crisis of imagination. We are facing existential crises, and yet no one with any influence has any idea what to do about it. The typical strategy seems to be “more or less the same” on steroids. Who would suggest that doing the same thing is going to have different results? And not only different, but opposite results! It’s silly. But then that we have come to this point to begin with, when there have been strong warnings for well over a generation of the likely effects of depleting all our resources or polluting the atmosphere and from the hydrosphere or taking it all from everyone so that a very few people can have it all (the extra warnings, you know, common sense…), can really only be blamed on ignorance of wealth and status.
Some might argue with me, saying that the rich and powerful knew and know what they are doing. We simply live in a world ruled by sociopaths. The rich wanted exactly all of this to happen so that they could revel in their short-term gains regardless of the future consequences they might or might not endure.
Only… it doesn’t make sense to me. Because the future matters to these people, albeit in a very limited way. (Only the bits and pieces of that future that they think might affect them.) But even Trump loves his children (in a rather grotesque way, perhaps, but still…). In any case, the rich are always people with all the concerns of people. Rich people want to have grandchildren; they want to see their own children flourish; they want at least to have an old age that is not plagued by, well, plagues, among other inconveniences. Moreover, the rich want an inheritance. Many of them explicitly state their desire to preserve their name and wealth in perpetuity. Many of them want to live forever (and seem to think it’s possible, because…). To a rational person, this might imply that there must be a future somewhere where it is possible to survive and at least one’s own children will inhabit it. That they don’t make this obvious connection seems to me proof that there is something going on beyond sociopathy.
Living on the edge of this world, like me, I’ve known quite a few rich people…and they’re not sociopaths…they’re just…not that bright…even though they’re also uniformly confident in their own self- saying high level of efficiency and acuity. They cannot claim wisdom or scholarship. In fact, in the age of cowboys, they are more likely to scoff at “book learning,” “college,” and other forms of imparting information that doesn’t come out of their own exceptionally astute brains. But the ones I know – who are a fairly cross-section, I think – are mostly kind and caring people. Generous even. They are neither sociopaths nor destructive. They are not cruel by design. They often desire to do good in the world and believe they are doing it. But they’re so blinded by their own self-esteem – I have to be smart; I have all this money! – they do not see the real effects of their actions. Not the costs of their wealth on others. Not the logical results for the future. Not even the truth about how they acquired their wealth to begin with (which is usually much less of a story of rugged individualism than they seem to understand). And no investigation will convince them otherwise. They live in an opaque bubble that does not admit any opinion or evidence that might conflict with their own desires. They are like infants, unable to understand any needs other than their own. (If I want to, that must be fine, because look how wonderful I am to be so rich…)
Now I’m quite sure that this blind ignorance is at least unconsciously created by the desire not to see what they don’t see. want to have. Because, of course, they don’t want to see. Not the damage they cause by being them and not the reasonable steps that could be taken to ameliorate that damage, which will result in less wealth and power – for them and for everyone else. They may be nice people, but above all they are rich people. Their identity and self-esteem are tied to their wealth and status. They define themselves according to their current levels of influence and material possessions. So they don’t want this society and their position in it to change. (Well, who would?) Because even an idiot can see that every change that needs to happen is detrimental to him.
So that they don’t see, but mostly I think they just can not see. They are largely unable to understand the problems we face, the role they play in causing them, and the logical steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage. All of these things are outside their understanding of themselves and this world. (Therefore, we have “solutions” which are exactly the kinds of things that caused the problems.) When I tell these people about the various crises, nothing I say sinks in. It’s as if we were speaking different languages or having two completely different conversations. It’s truly a Twilight Zone experience. For a long time I thought the problem was me or that they were laughing at me. But over the years I’ve come to see that it’s more that they just don’t understand what I’m saying because I’m saying things that don’t align with their understanding of reality.
It’s common sense, I guess, but it’s still hard to see. The blind ignorance of the leaders of society is not something we like to acknowledge. Yet he reigns over everything, over every conversation we have. Because those of us who would see the change in the world are mostly trying to persuade those people who have power and wealth to be that change, and those people probably won’t and won’t be able to. This shift is against their interests, but it’s also completely alien to them, completely at odds with who they are and what they know about life – and they’re not open-minded and creative enough to jump into it. ‘unknown. They haven’t had to so far; they have no experience with such jumps. Their wealth protected them from the need to be creative. They do not have this inventive necessity in their life. They lived contentedly, and therefore they also lived largely in ignorance.
I don’t think we have a crisis of creativity or a lack of imagination. I think we’re chasing the imaginations of the wrong people. Those without wealth or prestige create new ways of being wonderfully imaginative. In fact, those who are outside this system, the poor, have always made life with few means but with a simply stunning inventiveness. However, being outside the system, they are not seen by this system. Instead, our culture’s focus is on those with the most to lose. In the hope that they will invent the path to this loss!
When I say get away from this system, that’s what I mean. We have to stop looking for new ideas inside this system. We need to stop trying to fix this mess from the mess itself. We need to look away from money and status and look instead at those who are already living a small life. Those who have the wealth now, those who are the leaders now, they are the ones who orchestrated this whole mess. They are happy there. And they don’t see that the rest of us aren’t. So we need to stop wasting our time trying to open their eyes, trying to persuade them to take action, trying to make a change in them that they don’t even understand. We need to let go of all this mess and turn instead to those who have always lived ecologically and equitably, those who have not benefited from this culture, those who are largely invisible within this culture.
I’m fairly certain that when we look away in support from the power and wealth this system generates, that power and wealth will evaporate. Because power and wealth are deals we make, after all. They are not real things with fixed physical definitions. So when we stop agreeing, they will melt. But power and wealth cannot be relied upon to undo. Powerful and wealthy people are simply not smart enough to make these changes.
Luckily, there are plenty of smart people doing what needs to be done. We just need to watch them.
©Elisabeth Anker 2022
Teaser photo by Rasa Kasparaviciene on Unsplash