In a remarkable column in Italy’s paper of record earlier this week, the columnist Ernesto Galli della Loggia flayed his country’s ruling class. The country is witnessing, he believes “a kind of incontinence and exhibitionism without restraint, a compulsive acquisitiveness,” rife within the highest circles of Italian society. This, mind you, after the departure of the highly acquisitive former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
“It seems,” he writes, “that in this country, for bankers, for entrepreneurs, for senior officials, for celebrities and for politicians, for those who, in short, count for something, any reward is never enough, any privilege or treat is never too excessive, any show of wealth is never over the top.” The politicians, if not the richest, are still the most degraded, because of their elective positions of trust. The press, the justice system and the frequent leaks of the many wiretaps that Italy’s magistrates order show the snouts of a political class that are too often deep into troughs of money, luxury and privilege, funded either by the Italian taxpayer or by private interests avid for political favor.
Flaying the rich in one form or another is becoming a habit everywhere where freedom reigns in the world and even — more carefully and more dangerously — where it doesn’t, as in Russia and China, where the very rich often have the backing of the state, or sometimes, are the state. It’s happening because the financial crash is making many people poorer, and most people poorer relative to the rich, who still contrive to get richer and richer. The stagnation in middle- and working-class incomes in many parts of the Western world is often turning into real decreases in spending power. Insofar as that goes on — and a fragile improvement in Europe and North America may take hold, and once again raise all boats, or it may not — then privileges, treats and shows of wealth become more and more galling, even to moderates not previously given to envy or militancy.
In mid-19th century Europe and in the turn-of-the-century United States, novelists like Charles Dickens, Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser drew portraits of societies corrupted by greed and the lust for money and security. Now, the task of exposing those sores pass to journalists and academics, through a slew of books on inequality, financial malpractice and political and corporate corruption. In China, where such realistic exposes are frowned on and usually suppressed, the job again falls to the novelists, with harrowing pieces like Su Tong’s Rice or Jia Pingwa’s Turbulence, among many others. Many journalists try their best: But while exposes are published, few see the light of day unless the Communist Party’s propaganda department wishes it — which often means that the story has a pre-ordered happy ending, to the effect that what has been exposed is already corrected by the party’s intercession.
There is a kind of convergence happening between the Western developed economies and the leading developing ones. In the former, especially those in Western Europe, the conditions described by the novelists, and by reformers and radical politicians, led to a growth in state provision and an expanding network of health, pension and social provision (more so in Europe than in the U.S.). This was the result of protests over the decades, reform movements of every kind and the galvanizing effect of World War II, in which the masses who fought against fascism demanded a state that adopted many of the features of social democracy.