Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Money, Money, Money

Must be funny, in a rich man's world

money talks. i just don’t understand.
Tom Raworth

Not as powerful or as rich as you once hoped you’d be? Help is just a Google search away. Type the phrase “wealth and power,” for instance, and your desktop depth sounder will receive echoes from some 3.4 million sites in the seemingly bottomless cybersea, not all of them fishy or foul. Link number ten, on the day I looked, took me to an ad for the Wealth & Power set—a pair of History Channel videos on “the drive to accumulate riches,” including segments on “tyrants and plunderers” and “celebrity.” Alas, the set “does not include the broadcast segment profiling Oprah Winfrey.”

No matter. One side effect of ogling the lifestyles of the rich and famous is despair over one’s inability to compete with the moneyed and the mighty—lamentations over the lack of caviar and cluster bombs. Those so afflicted might find consolation in link number six: Wealth and Power Addiction. Dan Mahony, M. Phil., will introduce you to his “utopian trilogy” of books (none selected by Oprah), which show why a capitalist society is an addicted society. If Conrad Black, say, were to visit this site, he would find himself described as a “Chairman of the Hoard” and would learn that “Chairman would never think of himself as an addict. More likely a pillar of society.” His partner, Barbara Amiel, looking over his shoulder at the screen, would learn that “codependents admire Chairman and are in denial about his addiction, and their codependence.” But maybe she knew that already. After all, The Guinness Book of Money (yes, there is such a tome, shelved beside the more scholarly Encyclopedia of Money) has Amiel mouthing, in a 1989 London Times column, this priceless pearl of wisdom: “Money is the ticket, not the destination.”

All aboard!Having missed the boat myself, I have the leisure to wonder: where does it come from, this sometimes insatiable appetite for power and wealth? Does it begin with the startled cry accompanying our first ever gulp of air, a cry that makes us the apple of our mother’s eye (albeit an apple that looks as though it has just gone through a cider press)? My guess—since I don’t quite believe in original sin or the social Darwinist gospel that we are genetically hardwired to rise on the fallen—is that the appetite for power and wealth develops with language. As infants, a cry gets us a breast or a bottle, and usually a cuddle too. But as our cries and burbles and noises begin to shape themselves into the meaningful sounds of the language(s) in which we are immersed, we learn very quickly how to get more—much more—through words.

What we can do is amazing. A simple “no” can jam the flow of adult traffic around a two-year-old, arresting all forward movement as suddenly as would a rear-ender. A simple “want it” barked out with a pointing finger can alter the shape of the world: a distant toy magically makes its way into our hands, or food comes to our mouths, as if we had combined the fabled powers of Prince Charming and the Fairy Godmother. Our early words, we learn, can move the world, and the more words we learn—just ask Lord Black—the more we (think we) can do. Why, we can even make up entire worlds and convince others of their reality, as George W. Bush (tough talker) and Tony Blair (smooth talker) did when they transformed Iraq into a country bristling with WMDs. (Sometimes it seems only the merest linguistic trace, a few letters, is needed to conjure up a reality today—a reversal of the ancient belief that the trace was the safest way not to summon explosive force, as with the tetragrammaton for God, JHVH.) Who in their right mind would want to give up such powers?

None of us, probably. Those who cling hardest to the absolute world-making power of words eventually become storytellers, pathological liars or CEOs (this last group has also figured out how to make numbers work the same fictional magic). Even ascetic renouncers of worldly power, like Siddhartha, Saint Francis, Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, inevitably gain power by renouncing it—that childish “no” again, insisted on with the convictions of adult consciousness. (“‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to language,” said Emily Dickinson.) Who needs caviar when you have the courage of your otherworldly convictions and the forceful reach they provide?Yet most of us become neither saints nor CEOs. We give up the world-moving power and seemingly sourceless wealth we enjoyed as toddlers, grow into full-fledged childhood and its great burden of socialization, and agree to share the world and its riches with other people. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist epiphany—“Hell is other people”—is the throne-toppling realization that comes to every last child as surely as do skinned knees and new teeth. Most of us eventually get over that upset, accept our pittance from the Tooth Fairy and get on with the business of being shaped by the circumstances of our world. A small yet unavoidable minority, however, realize that if hell is other people, those people and their assets are, like Dante’s Inferno inverted, nicely tiered for rising ever higher upon and for making your way to your own private paradise. Donald Trump—a man who has travelled much on the vaudevillian low road to riches and power—has even turned such career-clambering into a “reality TV” game show, The Apprentice, where the wannabe well-heeled get to grind their heels into the manicured, toadying hands of their competitors—all in an effort to become the plastic apple of the boss’ eye. With a ballsy growl, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde caught the star-seekers’ negotiating attitudes perfectly in the group’s 1979 hit “Brass in Pocket”:

I gonna make you see
There’s nobody else here
No one like me
I’m special so special
I gotta have some of your attention—
give it to me.

Part of the original force of this song was that a woman was singing it, and singing it with a manly swagger. Of course, there have been many power- and money-mad women over the years—Imelda Marcos, for one—but the cultural associations of power and wealth have mostly been gendered male. For sheer bad-boy audaciousness, though, there’s no woman like the Byzantine empress Theodora in Procopius’ nasty Secret History, in which the author’s hidden phallic pen sprays its male disdain over her and her husband, Justinian, for being “as one in their rapacity, in their lust for blood.”

Male or female, this endlessly expansive appetite, this lust for power and wealth is, I am suggesting, species-specific, a mark of our humanity, like the capacity for spoken language. To the religious mind, such lust is a great black mark, linking us with devils (the accidental echo of “lucre” in Lucifer being too tempting to ignore) while distinguishing us from unfallen angels and animals. After all, even the species closest to us on the evolutionary map fail to match us in our bent for pursuing power and wealth. Has anyone ever encountered an orangutan Mafia don, a chimpanzee Caesar, a gorilla guerrilla leader? To find a creature remotely similar to Marcos or Trump in the animal world, we have to enter the realm of mythology, with its treasure-guarding dragons, like those in Beowulf or The Hobbit. “Man,” says Anne Wilkinson in her 1946 poem “Capitalist,” “has so little time to live / His instinct is to get not give.” The shaggy-headed Saddam Hussein was perhaps living proof of this—until, that is, he was surprised in his hidey-hole north of Baghdad, with nothing in his possession but a small gun and a large sum of cash.