Sometimes when I’m critical of capitalism or when I write about inequality, I get comments that say I’m anti-wealth, or that I’m practicing “the politics of envy”. I find this rather amusing, as if I had become a writer on sustainability and been disappointed that it didn’t lead to fabulous riches.
I’m sure there are people for whom those comments apply, though I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the phrase ‘politics of envy’ used kindly or accurately. It’s usually used as a way of dismissing people.
There’s nothing wrong with being rich. What I’m interested in is the answers to these two questions:
- How was that money made?
- What are you doing with it?
If someone has made their money unethically, then that wealth is unethical – whether that’s from the arms industry, or from exploitative labour practices, or environmental destruction. See Philip Green, for example. As a high street clothing tycoon, his grossly inflated wealth has come from exploiting the skilled labour of women in poorer countries. I am against that kind of wealth.
If you’re using your wealth to cement your position of privilege, or to undermine the rights of others, then that wealth is being unethically used. When rich people do this, they set themselves against society and sometimes against life itself. See the Koch family, who have spent a significant portion of their fossil fuel riches undermining the case for climate action. I am against that kind of rich person.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and there was a good example of that recently. The online design website Canva has grown its user-base to the point that it was recently valued at $40 billion. This is what the founders, husband and wife team Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, fully intended. Perkins is not shy about her ambition “to scale Canva into one of the biggest companies in the world.” It’s the second part of her ambition that makes it more interesting: “build an organisation that at its core is focused on being a force for good.”
In a message to Canva users recently, Perkins wrote about the valuation and what they intend to do with the money. “Our intention has always been to use the vast majority of that wealth to do good in the world” she writes. “It has felt strange when people refer to us as ‘billionaires’ as it has never felt like our money, we’ve always felt that we’re purely custodians of it. As we’ve previously shared, it’s long been our intention to give the wealth away.”
Perkins is not wrong – that wealth isn’t entirely theirs. They’ve had a brilliant idea and built a great company. But is a website ever worth $40 billion? Surely not. They have built their business at a particular time when web start-ups have drawn spectacular valuations.
That’s not to take anything away from their achievements. Wealth is like that. Some things are richly rewarded and some aren’t. If you’re among the best in the world at tennis, you can make a fortune. If you prefer badminton or squash, that’s unlikely to land you millions or make you a household name. So it’s good to hear a little humility from Perkins about their presence on the rich list.
How rich people talk about their wealth matters. In a capitalist system, wealth runs upwards. Money generates more of itself, so it’s much easier for the richest to get richer than it is for the poorest to get less poor. It’s all too easy to take the credit, defend your position and entrench an unjust system. Or you can do what Perkins does here, or what Chris Hughes does in his book, or what Mackenzie Scott is up to as she attempts to “give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change.”
It is entirely possible to critique the systems that create billionaires without envying them. It is not anti-rich to think critically about justice and equality. And it is quite possible for very rich people to make excellent decisions about what they do with their money, and use it to do good in the world.