Act: Inspiration

The Ignorance of Wealth

June 7, 2022

It’s a long-established truism that wealth and status breed complacency and a sort of smug sense of rectitude — which then turn into social blindness, self-absorption, and not a little stupidity. The richest person in the room is also very likely the dumbest. Yet he (and yes, it is usually…) is also utterly convinced that he is the cleverest and most able, definitely the most qualified to order others about. And this culture indulges that fantasy.

Partly this is because this culture is driven by those wealthy types, but there is also a high degree of reluctance to call them on their idiocy. We talk of the naked emperor, but we do what he says nonetheless. In fact, many of us go to sycophantic extremes to reassure him on his questionable choices instead. If it is true that most people think the wealthy are blinkered idiots, it is also true that this society treats those same idiots with a deference that borders on reverence. We worship the wealthy. And so we acquiesce to their rules and are complicit in their power. We put the idiots in charge, merely because they have money.

This is having devastating effects. There are regular laments these days about our crisis of imagination. We face existential crises, and yet nobody with any sort of influence has any sort of idea what to do about any of it. The typical strategy seems to be ‘more of the same’ on steroids. Who would suggest that doing the same thing is going to have different results? And not only different, but polar opposite results! This is idiocy. But then, that we got to this point to begin with, when there have been solid warnings for over a generation on the likely effects of using up all our resources or pouring pollution into the atmosphere and hydrosphere or taking everything from everybody so that a very few people can have it all (warnings on top of, you know, good sense…), can really only be blamed on the ignorance of wealth and status.

Some might debate that with me, saying that the wealthy and powerful knew and know what they’re doing. We’re simply living in a world ruled by sociopaths. The rich meant exactly for all this to happen so that they could revel in their short-term gains, no matter the consequences for a future that they may or may not be around to endure.

Only… that doesn’t make sense to me. Because the future matters to these people, if in highly circumscribed fashion. (Only the bits of that future that they believe might affect themselves.) But even Trump loves his kids (in a rather grotesque way, maybe, but still…). In any case, rich people are still people with all the concerns of people. Rich people want to have grandchildren; they want to see their own kids thrive; they at least want to have an old age that is not plagued by, well, plagues, among other inconveniences. Furthermore, rich people want a legacy. Many of them explicitly state their desire to preserve their names and their wealth in perpetuity. Not a few of them want to live forever (and seem to think that’s possible, because…). To a rational person, this might imply that there must be a survivable future somewhere and that at least their own children will inhabit it. That they don’t make that obvious connection seems to me evidence of something going on beyond sociopathy.

Living on the borderlands of that world, as I do, I’ve known quite a number of rich people… and they’re not sociopaths… they’re just… not that bright… even though they are also uniformly confidant in their own presumed high levels of efficacy and acuity. They may not lay claims to wisdom or erudition. In fact, in this boot-strapping cowboy age, they’re more likely to sneer at ‘book learning’ and ‘academia’ and other forms of information transmission that don’t come out of their own exceptionally shrewd big brains. But the ones I know — who constitute a fairly representative sample, I think — are mostly kind and caring people. Generous even. They’re not sociopathic or destructive. They are not cruel by design. They often desire to do good in the world and believe they are doing so. But they are so blinded by their own sense of self worth — I must be smart; I have all this money! — they don’t see the real world effects of their actions. Not the costs of their wealth on others. Not the logical outcomes for the future. Not even the truth of how they acquired their wealth to begin with (which is usually far less a tale of rugged individualism than they seem to understand). And no amount of inveigling will persuade them otherwise. They live in an opaque bubble-land that admits no opinion or evidence that might conflict with their own wants. They are like infants, incapable of understanding needs other than their own. (If I want it, it must be good, because look at how wonderful I am to be this rich…)

Now, I am quite sure that this blind ignorance is at least subconsciously created by the desire to not see what they don’t want to see. Because, of course they don’t want to see. Not the damages that they cause by being them and not the reasonable steps that might be taken to ameliorate those damages, all of which will result in less wealth and power — for them and for everybody else. They may be nice people, but they are first and foremost rich people. Their identity and sense of self-worth are bound up in their wealth and status. They define themselves in terms of their present levels of influence and material possessions. So they do not 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 them.

So they don’t see, but mostly I think that they just plain can’t see. They are largely incapable of comprehending the problems we face, the role they play in causing them, and the logical steps that might be taken to mitigate harm. All of these things are outside their understanding of themselves and this world. (Hence we have ‘solutions’ that are exactly the sorts of things that caused the problems.) When I speak of the various crises to these people, nothing of what I say penetrates. It is as though we are speaking different languages or having two completely different conversations. It is very much a Twilight Zone experience. For a long while, I thought the problem lay with me or that they were just mocking me. But over the years I’ve come to see that it’s more that they simply don’t understand a thing I say because I say things that don’t fit in their comprehension of reality.

This is common sense, I suppose, but it’s still hard to see. The blind ignorance of society’s leaders is not something we like to acknowledge. Yet it holds sway over everything, over all the conversations we are having. Because those of us who would see change in the world are mostly trying to persuade these people who have power and wealth to be that change, and those people won’t and likely can’t do that. That change is against their interests, but it’s also just completely alien to them, completely in opposition to who they are and what they know of life — and they are not open minded and creative enough to make a leap into the unknown. They haven’t had to do so thus far; they have no experience with such leaps. Their wealth has insulated them from having to be creative. They don’t have that invention-driving necessity in their lives. They’ve lived contented, and so they’ve also lived largely in ignorance.

I don’t think we have a crisis of creativity or a lack of imagination. I think we are looking for imagination from the wrong people. Those who do not have wealth or prestige are creating wonderfully imaginative new ways of being. In fact, those who are outside this system, the have-nots, have always made life with few resources but with an inventiveness that is just astounding. However, being outside the system they are not seen by that system. Instead the gaze of our culture is fixed on the people who have the most to lose. In the expectation that they will invent the path to that loss!

When I say we need to turn away from this system, this is what I mean. We need to stop looking for new ideas inside this system. We need to stop trying to fix this mess from within the mess itself. We need to look away from the money and status and look instead to those who already live small lives. Those who have wealth now, those who are leaders now, these are the people who have orchestrated this whole mess. They are happy in it. And they don’t see that the rest of us are not. So we need to stop wasting our time trying to open their eyes, trying to persuade them to act, trying to get them to be a change that they don’t even understand. We need to abandon the whole mess and turn for guidance instead to those who have always lived ecologically and fairly, those who have not benefitted from this culture, those who are largely unseen within this culture.

I am fairly certain that when we turn our supportive regard away from the power and wealth that this system generates, that power and wealth will evaporate. Because both power and wealth are agreements we make, after all. These are not real things with fixed physical definitions. So when we stop agreeing, they’ll melt away. But we can’t depend on power and wealth to unmake themselves. Powerful and wealthy people are just not smart enough to make these changes.

Luckily, there are plenty of smart people out there doing what needs to be done. We just need to look to them.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022


Teaser Photo by Rasa Kasparaviciene on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient societies, real wealth