I have always held the opinion that poverty is the greatest social driver in the history of the human world. That when the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime before the French Revolution, for instance, held elaborate parties with gold candlestick holders and fine and elaborate decor, they were proving how far they were from poverty. That when you look at how wasteful the truly wealthy are, with their flotilla of houses and luxury items, their expensive drop-dead watches, they are demonstrating once again how far they are from poverty. Deep within their psychology is still that nagging seed of poverty that they try to deprive of light and water so that it does not grow and choke out the pure light of their obese excess. How else can you explain such a pursuit of the useless but expensive? Why is it that they buy expensive art yet know nothing of it, chasing the artist’s name rather as they would chase any brand that costs an arm and a leg?
I am reminded of this when I flick through the corpulent magazines that show these products dripping with excessive prices. When wealthy people allow the camera into their homes, we are witnessing their ridiculous obsession with escaping the stigma and threat of poverty: yes, pursuing wealth to untold heights and accumulating ever more is actually running away from the poverty seed that resides in all human life.
The fear of not being able to feed your children can move mountains, if you follow the logic of what I believe to be this major driving force of human history. Why else should so much have been spent historically to decorate the everyday life of wealthy people? Why else do they spend their billions that way? Why have a house on so many different continents that remains empty but for a few weeks a year? To prove that you will never ever, ever be homeless?
- Why women are much more likely to be caught in the poverty trap
- A poverty manifesto about the glues, syrups and treacles that get people stuck
- I was born into poverty – and 77 years later we still haven’t solved it
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I know that I will be receiving mail from very, very, very rich people who say that they always travel on buses and do not elaborate or over-decorate their lives; which actually proves my major conjecture, that they – in fact all of us – are running away from poverty. The famous billionaire, the late J Paul Getty, might be the proof of that when he installed a coin-operated telephone in his house so that he didn’t have to pick up the bill for people’s phone calls. Yet he countermanded this penny-pinching by having a shedload of luxury gear. If you take my argument deeper, we might find that beneath the fear of poverty is the sense that piling up money not only wards off poverty but shields us from the fear of dying. Money is the biggest insurance policy ever imagined against dying, or dying without significance.
Plenty of money certainly guarantees that you can ward off poverty. You don’t have to meet the poor if you are rich. You can fly around the world in your private tin can and land at private landing strips. You can be inoculated against poverty by your dozens of drivers and carriers, your porters and sherpas. That is what wealth is all about: this hiding, this denying. This pursuit of a happiness that seldom arrives but in moments of ecstasy; that then evaporates until the next moment of ecstasy.