(This book review was published in the Business World magazine dated 1-June-2015)
When Gordon Gecko utters his famous words of Greed, for the lack of better words, being Good, little did we comprehend the thought process that goes into psychology of the money-making business that has rarely changed for generations. John Kampfner in The Rich: From Slaves to Super-Yachts: A 2,000-Year History (Hachette) shows us that the gap between the super-rich and rich (not to mention the poor) has only continued to widen and grow as he focuses on the world of haves and have-mores in his brilliant treatise on The Rich.
The author runs through the individualities starting from Marcus Licinius Crassuw, from the Roman times, to the likes of The Krupps, Andrew Carnegie and Mobutu Sese Seko. The theme throughout the book is money and wealth and the process of making and accumulating it. Kampfner never romanticises his subjects and his discernible commentary is restricted to the subjects alone and ignores the families and friends.
The rich live in a parallel world and belong to a globalised and gilded class flaunting their opulence in their own ways. The author deep dives into a world in which power, influence and position are the pillars of the new establishment and creating and maintaining the reputation is the motivating force. The rich swoon and fraternise on each other’s yachts as the tax regime and infrastructure go hand in hand with glamour and gigantism, to give birth to cities like Dubai. The panorama of the current wealthy people includes the sheikhs, the oligarchs, the geeks and the bankers with a combined wealth to buy out complete economies and also to bequeath important and much needed political muscle, while societies continue to indulge the super-rich.
The fossilisation of the previous dynasties of billionaires has been a wakeup call to the current super-rich, as the latter has indulged in ‘philanthrocapitalism’ for serving the broader societal needs. The moral commitment of the Giving Pledge is overshadowed by words of Buffett when he says “enough so they feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing”.
Envy, detest and abhorrence often runs across the reader’s mind as the author profiles some of the wealthiest who have ever lived on this planet. While the reader might sometimes be embarrassed with means adopted to accumulate the wealth, the author maintains a distant journalistic view, only reporting what he sees and observes as he concludes that the victory of the present super-rich is a product of the 2,000 years of history.