The Rich Hive

How many people would be willing to join in a campaign for the rights of soldier ants?

That sort of question gains a psychological relevance every time a social scientist reminds you that the rich and powerful (not least in the USA) readily form an organised group because they go the same schools, socialise and marry in the same circles, and live in the same areas. Indeed, they may even quarantine themselves in gated communities. They are sophisticated and effective at defending their interests, and have much experience and resources for doing so. Since they rarely give any impression of conflicts between personal concerns and collective interest, they begin to appear as the proverbial Hive Mind. Bluntly, they begin to appear as a threat.

In the conventional rhetoric of conservatives and neoliberals there should be no problem here – moral, social or political – provided we invoke charity (including corporate charity), beware of the (genuine) dangers of envy, and work to overcome our own problems. Yet history and recent economic troubles tell us these are not always sufficient to deal even with simple economic deprivation. More dramatically, they do not at all address the political and existential fear of a variety of people from political democrats to ecologists. At present, such anxiety amongst those other than the poor and hungry themselves probably covers only small groups of people (but without definitive evidence we cannot know for sure). But if inequality – especially of power – continues to increase and the world seems a more violent and dangerous place, their numbers must be expected to grow.

I emphatically do not wish to be forced into regarding the rich and successful as a disease to be eradicated. Yet that is not in my hands. I am told that Emerson once said that ‘What you do shouts so loudly I cannot hear what you say’, and certainly the study of society and politics is a mere commentary on that remark. If anyone, and especially anyone with power, wishes to be trusted, they must behave in a trustworthy way. Lobbying Congress for special tax privileges is not a good way to start.

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