Rich People Things: A review

We may share the same planet with rich people, but we live in two different worlds. The world of the rich is one of seven-figure bonuses, private jets and gated residences, boardrooms filled with other rich people, and too-big-to-fail privilege.

Our world is measured paycheck to paycheck. For us, burdensome debt, stagnant wages, insecurity on the job and in retirement, and expensive and uneven health care have become as American as cherry pie. A serious injury or illness, a divorce, or an extended period of unemployment could push us over the brink into insolvency

This savage inequality is made palatable by the generally held perception that if you work hard and have a little luck, you can improve your station in life and maybe even become one of your privileged betters. This perception of class mobility has stifled serious examination of class and its impact on inequality in the US. Any attempt to do so runs the risk of being labeled class warfare.

In Rich People Things (Haymarket Books, 2011), Chris Lehmann, a social critic whose work has appeared in The Baffler, In These Times, and New York magazine among others, happily assumes this risk.

Rich People Things is a collection of 30 essays, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes both, about  things that justify, rationalize, and naturalize the privileges of rich people.

The subjects of Lehmann’s essays include among others the US Constitution, the Democratic party, the free market, reality television, and the iPad.

How could the iPad be a rich people thing? After all, it’s a self-liberating tool for the masses, right? Not according to Lehmann, who instead describes it as a brand enhancement that helped Apple stock increase in value.

Furthermore, the self-liberating potential of the iPad seems suspect considering the brutal working conditions endured by those who actually make the device. Lehmann writes that the Foxconn factory in China where Apple gadgets are made is a postmodern sweatshop.

About 300,000 people work 12-hour days often seven days a week on monotonous and fast-paced assembly lines where conversation among fellow workers is forbidden. After work, they retire to a company-owned dormitory that they share with multiple roommates and cockroaches. Conditions are so grim that a spate of workers have committed suicide by throwing themselves out dormitory windows.

Crappy working conditions are rarely mentioned when media pundits explain how rich people like the owners of Foxconn get rich; instead, they’re more likely to tell you that riches are distributed to the deserving by the free market, another of Lehmann’s essay topics (Rich People Thing # 6).

Lehmann writes that while the free market is assumed to be a natural law akin to gravity that allocates wealth to the virtuous and industrious, it is in reality “a contrivance of contract law, interlocking trusts, and trade protocols” that benefits those well-positioned to game the market like the bankers at Goldman Sachs who made billions gambling with other people’s money on a casino game called derivative trading.

When the iron rules of the market temporarily stopped working and the casino stopped paying off, Lehmann writes, Goldman bankers and their fellow players turned to their welfare department known as the US Treasury for $1 trillion worth of low-interest loans to tide them over until the natural laws started working again, and they could return to the casino.

Lehmann recommends a 12-step program for the media’s biggest free market cheerleaders to let them see how free it really is. One step would be to put them to work in “Marianas textile factory for a couple of months” and see if they cling to their free-market illusions, writes Lehmann.

Lehmann could have been a bit more meticulous with his fact checking. For example in discussing the role that Twitter (Social Media, Rich People Thing #28) played in Iran’s 2009 election protests, Lehmann refers to Jared Cohen of the Bush Administration for his role in getting Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance, so that the 0.027 percent of Iranians with Twitter accounts could use the new medium to fuel their protests. While Cohen was appointed to his position in the US State Department by the younger Bush, at the time of his phone call, he was working for the Obama Administration.

Nonetheless, Lehmann’s essays offer a useful way of reading our public discourse on political economy, one which allows class to take its proper place. Rich People Things speaks the harsh truth often forbidden to our delicate ears–class matters.

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