For this book, the polling firms Ipsos MORI and the Allensbach Institute conducted identical surveys in Germany, the United States, France, and Great Britain on attitudes toward the rich. The surveys’ first question was used to determine the extent to which society would tolerate critical opinions of various social groups, especially critical opinions related to minorities.
The interviewees were given a list of various minorities: Muslims, immigrants, Jews, blacks, homosexuals, disabled people, people receiving welfare benefits, unemployed people—and people who are rich. Women and Christians were also listed. Which of these groups, the respondents were asked, do you need to be careful not to criticize in public? Respondents in each of the four countries felt that publicly criticizing people who are rich was the least problematic, or nearly so. On the other hand, 67 percent of interviewees in Germany and France, 59 percent in Great Britain, and 56 percent in the United States said that you have to be careful when criticizing Muslims in public.
However, the point here is not about criticism of individuals, but about the extent to which it is socially acceptable to voice sweeping negative statements about certain groups, or even to place them under general suspicion when some of their members violate social norms.
Consider the following example: For years, individuals with Islamic backgrounds have committed terrorist attacks in these and other countries. In the aftermath of such attacks, politicians and journalists regularly and emphatically warn against placing Muslims under a general suspicion, with the media insisting that not every Muslim is a terrorist. The majority of Muslims, the media reiterates, are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.
In contrast, when reporting scandals involving executives who received generous severance packages despite their failures, or bankers who received massive bonuses despite their unchecked risk taking, or some rich people who legally avoided—or illegally evaded—tax payments, the media almost never caution against generalizations or warn that rich people, executives, or bankers should not be placed under general suspicion. On the contrary, such cases are often subject to sweeping generalizations, as the media analysis in Part Three of this book shows.
Even when pronounced hatred of rich people is articulated in public, it rarely has negative consequences for those who express themselves in this way. In Berlin, my hometown, demonstrators were pictured brandishing large placards emblazoned with the words “Kill Your Landlord” on the evening of May 1, 2018. A year later, activists sought to mobilize demonstrators by hanging posters of guillotines all over the city. The image of the guillotine was accompanied by the following text: “Against a City of the Rich.” When I saw the posters everywhere, I couldn’t help but wonder how people would react if the target of such intense hatred were not the rich or property owners but members of other minorities. The indignation in this case would have been—rightly—great. One of the few counterexamples in which inciting hatred of the rich did actually have negative consequences was the case of Professor Chris Knight, a renowned anthropologist at the University of London. He gave a radio interview in March 2009, in the wake of attacks on the home and car of Sir Fred Goodwin, former director of the Royal Bank of Scotland. One of the groups behind the attack had declared, “We are angry that rich people, like him, are paying themselves a huge amount of money and living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute and homeless.” In the interview, Professor Knight commented on the victim of the attack and a planned demonstration: “We are going to be hanging a lot of people like Fred the Shred [Sir Fred Goodwin] from lampposts on April Fool’s Day and I can only say let’s hope they are just effigies.” He added: “To be honest, if he winds us up any more I’m afraid there will be real bankers hanging from lampposts. Let’s hope that that doesn’t actually have to happen.” And: “They [bankers] should realise the amount of fury and hatred there is for them and act quickly, because quite honestly if it isn’t humour it is going to be anger.”
Another newspaper reported, “Knight’s garden is awash with homemade props, including bloody effigies of dead bankers to be hung from lampposts when protesters converge on ‘the belly of the beast,’ the Bank of England, on 1 April.” The professor was then suspended. He had crossed a line. Today, however, he is back teaching—at University College London.
The German philosopher Christian Neuhäuser, whose 2018 book Reichtum als moralisches Problem (Wealth as an Ethical Problem) generated a great deal of attention, including positive reviews in conservative newspapers, may have been less aggressive, but he was still quite radical. According to the philosopher’s central thesis, wealth should actually be forbidden. In his words, someone is rich “if they have considerably more money at their disposal than would usually be needed to take care of themselves in an appropriate way and to respect themselves as a person of equal status.” Since this formulation is somewhat abstract, Neuhäuser made it clear that he means not only millionaires or billionaires but “really all people who have more than 200 or 300 percent of the average income.” In his opinion, everyone who earns so much has far more money than they need for their self-respect.
Neuhäuser says that wealth is morally problematic simply because it potentially gives the rich power over other people. He illustrates this statement with the example of Bill Gates:
If I bruise the ego of a very wealthy individual, maybe Bill Gates, he can use his money to torment me in the cruelest ways possible without my being able to do anything about it. He can harass me with endless lawsuits. He can simply buy the company I work for and rationalize my job away. He can buy my entire neighborhood and ruin it at will. He can do the same to all the people I love. Whenever I go on holiday somewhere, he can organize a nerve-racking event at exactly that place. There is no limit to the trouble he can cause me.
Of course, Neuhäuser is not actually accusing Bill Gates of doing anything like this, but he is making the point that rich people pose a threat to others simply because of their wealth. After all, they could theoretically use their wealth to do horrible things. If we follow Neuhäuser’s logic, wealth is always morally questionable. And it is not only a problem if it can be exploited to hurt the self-respect of other people: “Second, wealth becomes an ethical problem because the excess money could easily be used to help restore the dignity of people who have been deprived of their self-respect, but this does not happen.” Neuhäuser adheres to the zero-sum belief that wealth needs to be distributed more equitably so that everyone can be better off. With so much poverty in the world, any wealth would thus appear to be morally problematic, because the rich could give their money to the poor in order to “help them live more dignified lives.” If the rich do not do so, then from Neuhäuser’s point of view, that equates to a failure to provide help—and it shows that wealth is morally questionable and should therefore be forbidden.
In most cases, feelings of hostility toward the rich are not expressed in such explicitly aggressive language. But prejudices against the rich are widespread in all strata of society, as this book shows.
Today, several thousand academic books and articles have been published on stereotypes and prejudices. The bibliography of just one book, Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination, contains some 2,400 titles of prejudice research. And a bibliography of works on prejudices and cultural and national stereotypes, published back in 1986, contains about 5,500 titles. Most earlier works focused on prejudices directed at minorities, women, and the people of other nations. In recent years, a flurry of studies have also explored prejudices and stereotypes concerning poor people. In contrast, there has only been sporadic research into stereotypes about the rich, for example, in the field of classism, discussed in Chapter 2, or the stereotype content model, discussed in Chapter 3. No comprehensive, scientific study of this topic has yet been published, until now.
This book consists of three parts. Part One presents the methods and findings of research into prejudices and stereotypes and examines how to apply these methods in the present inquiry.
Part Two presents the findings of the abovementioned surveys in Germany, the United States, France, and Great Britain.
Part Three examines the media. Most people do not personally know any millionaires, let alone billionaires, so the media play a particularly important role in forming those people’s opinions on them. This section examines the image of the rich in newspapers, magazines, and popular movies.
Readers who are less interested in scientific definitions and research debates will still understand and enjoy the rest of the book, even if they skip Chapter 1.
When I began to delve into the subject, some people questioned whether I was wasting my time. I think the pursuit of knowledge is always worthwhile, especially when it relates to fields that have hardly been researched, and that includes attitudes toward rich people. Skeptics who ask why we should even attempt to understand prejudices against the rich are often expressing the attitude, whether explicitly or implicitly, that even if negative prejudices against the rich do exist, rich people shouldn’t be too concerned. After all, the rich are much better off than most other minorities. In a public discussion, a politician from Germany’s left-wing party Die Linke told me that, as a rich man, I had made my own bed and should lie in it. Unlike black people, for instance, she pointed out that I had the opportunity to rid myself of the problem by surrendering my wealth. This view seemed to me just as mistaken as to argue that no Muslims need be upset about prejudices, because they could convert to Christianity. As one of the rich, I see the situation differently.
It is most often the case that people who are themselves the target of prejudices are most interested in researching them: Jews have made decisive contributions to research into anti-Semitism, and gender research is dominated by women. In and of itself, that phenomenon is entirely legitimate. But being personally targeted and having a total commitment to one’s own cause should not be allowed to influence the scientific standards of objectivity and openness that are so important in academic research. The empirical analyses for this book—surveys, media analyses, and so forth—should speak for themselves.
As a historian and sociologist, I am keenly aware from history that negative prejudices and stereotyping have repeatedly been used to justify the exclusion, expulsion, persecution, and murder of minorities who have been scapegoated at times of social crises. The 20th century is full of examples of rich people, including capitalists, kulaks, and other groups, who were victims of deadly persecution. In Russia’s October Revolution, one of the first instructions issued by the head of the Cheka (the Soviet political police) was: “We don’t make war against any people in particular. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. In your investigations don’t look for documents and pieces of evidence about what the defendant has done, whether in deed or in speaking or acting against Soviet authority. The first question you should ask him is what class he comes from, what are his roots, his education, his training, and his occupation.” At the end of the 1920s, the GPU (the new name for the Cheka) introduced a quota system: each region, each district, had to arrest, deport, or shoot a certain percentage of people from “enemy” social classes. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of kulaks were deported or murdered simply because they were wealthy.
Hitler declared in 1933 that if he had turned against communism, “then [it was] not because of the 100,000 bourgeois—it can be of complete indifference whether they go under or not.” He admired Stalin for his revolutionary consistency and, according to the reports of a confidant, agreed that “Bolshevism has simply removed these creatures. Because they were worthless for mankind, only burdens for their nation. The bees also sting the drones to death when there is nothing left for them to contribute to the hive. The Bolshevist procedure is therefore something quite natural.”
In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even as many as several million. As a rule in this persecution, “The higher the social class before the revolution, the faster its members were branded as enemies of the revolution.” People from higher social strata received such low food rations that many died of malnutrition during the revolution. Those who belonged to the upper economic and educational classes fell victim to the regime at the slightest offense or sign of displeasure at the new order. But persecution—as in the Soviet Union or China—soon spread to numerous other social groups and was by no means limited to the economically better-off. From the outset, however, all of those revolutions aimed to economically or physically destroy the bourgeoisie and anyone deemed rich.
It is only in exceptional situations that prejudice against social groups leads to such dramatic consequences, but even in more moderate forms it also harms society at large, not just the rich. This fact is illustrated by the example of the 2008 financial crisis. When the real, very complex causes of such a dramatic crisis are not properly analyzed, and when politicians and the media resort to pillorying scapegoats (rich people, greedy bankers, and managers), then the real problems will very likely never be solved. Resentment against the rich has often had a negative economic impact in democratic states, as seen in Sweden and Great Britain in the 1970s, where nationalization programs and punitive high-tax policies led to massive declines in prosperity.
However, stereotypes do not always have to be negative, as shown in Chapter 1 of this book. Even people with a positive view of a given social group often base their opinions on stereotypes. For example, many people think that the rich are particularly industrious, which is generally true but is certainly not the decisive factor in becoming rich. Most people, regardless of whether they have positive or negative opinions of the rich, think they know both why people are rich and how the rich live, yet those beliefs are shaped by prejudices and stereotypes. Some are true, but many are not.
The same is true, then, of the rich as of other minorities: negative prejudices and stereotypes are generally more pernicious than positive prejudices and stereotypes. This book aims to examine how we think about a minority that, while undeniably powerful, can still be the subject of negative stereotypes, prejudice, and scapegoating, often with dire effects for us all.
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