By Max Lawson

Dear Friends

I hope this finds you well in these crazy times.

Imagine you are an ambitious budding script writer in 2019.  You have what you think is the perfect script for a new Netflix blockbuster:

Scriptwriter:[nervous and excited]  ‘Picture the scene.  A hideous new plague from China is spreading rapidly around the world.  Millions have died and are still dying, fighting for breath.  People everywhere have lost their loved ones and forced to isolate, spending months alone.  This plague has caused a massive recession, as the economy of the whole world has pretty much ground to a halt.  Tens of millions are facing hunger and destitution…..’

Producer: ‘Ok with you so far.  Sounds a bit like one of those great 1970’s disaster films.  Could work if we make it in a kind of retro kitsch way. Maybe with Tom Cruise.’

Scriptwriter (emboldened): ‘Yes right!  Exactly! Meanwhile, the world’s richest man, a multi billionaire, chooses this moment to blast into space in his luxury rocket with a few friends.  He is wearing blue overalls and a cowboy hat, has a manic grin, and is the spitting image of Dr Evil.’

Producer: (starting to look cross): ‘So… that’s more a surreal comedy? Nothing realistic about it. I thought this was meant to be a serious drama.’

Scriptwriter: ‘It is! On his return to earth he gives a press conference to the world, where he thanks the staff at his enormous company for all their hard work that has paid for his space trip.  These are workers he has refused to allow to unionise and who have had to urinate in bottles because they do not have time for toilet breaks.’

Producer (really starting to look exasperated now): ‘Right…’

Scriptwriter: (now worried he his losing ground): ‘It is a serious drama! The whole thing is meant to be a profound pastiche of our modern world, not strictly real of course.  And you are missing the best bit…’

Producer: (looking at the door): ‘And what is that….’

Scriptwriter: ‘His luxury rocket is shaped exactly like a giant phallus, thrusting into space whilst millions die!’

Producer: (Pressing button for secretary): ‘That’s great thanks for your time.  Don’t call us we’ll call you.  Goodbye.’

I think the Jeff Bezos rocket moment in 2021, presciently described in this script, could be a strong contender for the most iconic inequality moment in history.  Up there with Marie Antoinette, the French Queen, faced with the starving hordes of the French revolution, famously and apocryphally asked if they don’t have bread why don’t they just eat cake instead.

It got me to thinking of other contenders for this crown, perhaps less known, and less researched.

Build me that beach hut near Brighton

I grew up near Brighton in the south of the UK.  Brighton is dominated by a huge palace that is beyond kitsch; it looks like a cross between a wedding cake and the Taj Mahal.  It is called the Royal Pavilion and was built as a holiday home by the Prince Regent, who ruled the UK from 1820 to 1830.

The Prince Regent was a famous lover of luxury.  The holiday home was originally meant to enable him to rest and recover from his excesses and painful gout problem. 

It is an incredible place, with hundreds of rooms built in the exotic regency style by the architect John Nash, at huge expense.  It even boasted a separate kitchen solely for ice cream.

At the same moment the palace was being built, from 1815, the UK was going through a horrible financial depression after the Napoleonic wars.  Life for the majority was brutal and short.  Life expectancy for women was 20 years.  Children slaved in factories for 14-hour days and millions faced hunger.    Mass movements of protest were growing, demanding reform.  Parliament was made up of rich landowners, happy to turn the troops on trade unionists, as they did at the massacre of Peterloo in  Manchester in 1819.  In the face of such hardship, they were also happy to mobilise to repeal the income tax that they had been forced to pay to fund the war, which they saw as an unacceptable imposition on their riches.

Meanwhile, the Prince Regent was living in unimaginable luxury, one that meant he had to take opium daily to cope with his gout.   His banquets were legendary.  One such dinner was held at the Royal Pavillion on January 18th, 1817, in honour of Grand Duke Nicolas of Russia. The meal consisted of over 100 dishes prepared by celebrity chef Antonin Careme. Some of the more exotic dishes included:

  • The head of a great sturgeon in Champagne
  • Jellied partridge with mayonnaise
  • Pigeons in crayfish butter
  • Terrine of larks
  • Rose ice cream
  • The Royal Pavilion rendered in pastry

Sadly, the remarks made by the Prince Regent on the plight of the poor have not been recorded. But fortunately, we do have the amazing comedy series Blackadder, where the Prince Regent is lovingly portrayed.  This clip is a good one, about moves in Parliament to stop his allowance.

An African Versailles

Fast forward to 1985. Zaire, the biggest country in Africa, ruled by the flamboyant dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, in power since 1960 after the murder of Patrice Lumumba.  Zaire had borrowed heavily from international creditors with the majority of this spent or stolen by Mobutu.  Debt rose from 5% of GDP to 150%.  In the early 1980s, facing economic crisis, Zaire did implement economic policy set down by the IMF and was congratulated for this by Reagan.  Severe austerity coupled with high debt repayments, falling prices for exports and theft by the Mobutu regime sent the economy over the edge of a cliff. Between 1980 and 1985, the economy shrank by more than half.  Per capita annual income was just $200 and infant mortality was one of the highest in the world.

Mobutu used much of this loot to build a series of palaces, deep in the jungle, in his home village. In the early 1970s, Gbadolite was still a tiny village.  By 1985 a new town had been built, with a five-star hotel, a 3,200m runway for a supersonic Concorde and – the pièce de résistance – three incredible palaces filled with the finest furniture and fittings money could buy, with one of the best wine cellars in the world.  Gbadolite boasted long-haired sheep from Argentina. Guests, including the Pope and the French President ate surrounded by manicured lawns, with peacocks strutting, listening to Mobutu’s favourite Gregorian Chants on the latest stereo sound systems.

His birthday party in 1985, held whilst the country was in economic chaos, was particularly notable. Zairean politician Albert Moleka described in an interview how in 1985 France’s Gaston Lenôtre, the leading pastry chef in the world, flew in on Concorde with a birthday cake for Mobutu. “It was a big decorated cake with white cream. ‘ he recalled.

What are the key things you need to be a contender for the most iconic inequality moment in history? I think they all need a particular set of ingredients; not just widespread poverty but also some kind of additional economic crisis that make the already hard lives of the poor intolerable.  Not just obscene conspicuous consumption, but that which is colourful, creative and innovative.   Preferably some incredibly tone deaf off the cuff remarks that reveal just how out of touch the richest are.  And of course a political system that, if not an autocracy, is at least a plutocracy; organised by the rich for the rich.

Million-dollar debutante costume balls at the height of the great depression.   Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday on her private island whilst the rest of the world was in lockdown.   Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic’s lavish coronation when he allegedly fed human flesh to visiting dignitaries. There are so many more I am sure, and please do get in touch if you know of any particularly strong contenders.

Telling such stories is fun, I guess, as ridiculous farce can sometimes be. But, for absolutely certain, it is a vital part of political activism.  Disgust and anger on the part of ordinary people when they see such excess in the face of such suffering is a critical part of building power, and inevitably, change.  This week saw Elon Musk, the worlds’ richest man now, and another phallic-shaped-rocket-wielding ego maniac, made man of the year by TIME and the Financial Times.  The eulogization of plutocracy is seemingly never ending, so we must do all we can to puncture the illusion that these people are in anyway special or deserving of such riches.  No one is.

(My thanks to Branko and Chico for their help with this blog. )

Have great weekends, Christmases, and New Year’s everyone. Stay safe and see you in 2022.

P.S If you fancy some Christmas listening too, check out our Christmas debate on a hot button topic that is dividing the left.  Is Santa a socialist or a merciless capitalist roader?

Max is theHead of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Chair of the global People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Image Credits

  1. Featured image: Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash
  2. Jeff Bezos: “171228-the-post-premiere-jeff-bezos-njs” by Harryshype is licensed under CC PDM 1.0
  3. Royal Pavillion: “Royal Pavillion, Brighton, East Sussex, South East, England” by giborn_134 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
  4. A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion by James Gillray, 1792
  5. The Concord Parked outside Mobutu’s palace: Rich Duisberg, ‘Mobutu And The Concorde • Motorpunk’ (MotorPunk) > accessed 17 December 2021.