Magazine article History Today

What Shall We Do about the Rich? as Bankers Gain Pariah Status, William D. Rubinstein Discusses Britain's Changing Attitudes towards the Wealthy

Magazine article History Today

What Shall We Do about the Rich? as Bankers Gain Pariah Status, William D. Rubinstein Discusses Britain's Changing Attitudes towards the Wealthy

Article excerpt

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The most important lesson to be drawn from modern history about the wealthy is that they are challenged and hated in societies where upward social mobility is blocked; but are tolerated, even lauded, in societies where upward social mobility appears to exist.

Revolutionary action against the rich, although it is almost always led by small radical groups, has proven to be most successful in societies like France before 1789 or Russia before 1917, where status and power appear to be monopolised by an elite which opposes the inclusion within it of new rising groups. In societies in which existing elites appear more readily to accept new additions to their numbers and in which realistic opportunities exist (or appear to exist) for upward mobility, there is generally much less hostility to riches and wealth.

The uniquely ubiquitous ideological hold of capitalism throughout virtually the entire political spectrum of the United States in modern times has probably been due to the fact that the central myth of American culture, the 'rags to riches' story 'From Log Cabin to White House' and any of its variants, is widely believed to be true. There have been enough examples of this myth in real life to make it seem plausible.

Modern British history presents an interesting test of this theory. Prior to the 19th century, while the great landowners dominated the heights of wealth, status and power in Britain, arrivistes quickly joined their ranks through the purchase of land, the gaining of seats in Parliament and the acquisition of titles. Britain's traditional landed aristocracy seldom or never regarded trade as beneath it and never erected any caste-like barriers to the inclusion within the established elite of new blood. Indeed, it often encouraged it and the success of new men and families was often highlighted as a feature of British society, a kind of pale parallel to America's myth.

The enormous political battle over the Great Reform Act of 1832 can be viewed in part as a clash between old and new wealth, with old, traditional money giving way, to their long-term advantage, before it was too late. Yet it was always an argument made by opponents of reform that the unreformed Parliament had ample opportunities for business magnates and self-made men to enter and that it was not closed to them.

Opposition to the wealthy as a matter of ideological principle probably first appeared in the British political arena in the 1880s with the foundation of the Fabian Society, the writings of Henry George and the beginnings of trade union power. It became a politically significant issue with the rise of the 'New Liberalism', which favoured and enacted higher direct taxes to pay for the beginnings of a welfare state and a larger military budget. …

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