Greedy Old Plutocrats

In his book Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud indulged in a speculative scenario for the origins of society. Everyone, young and old alike, once lived together in a “primal horde”– ruled by an aging, domineering father-figure, who selfishly monopolized the women for his own satisfaction. But one day (so to speak), the deprived “sons” defiantly rose up, challenged his control–and slew him. In the aftermath, separate nuclear families now became possible, along with the sanctions and taboos which would facilitate orderly social relations.

Notwithstanding the fanciful quality of Freud’s origin-myth, world mythology does exhibit countless fables of aged tyrants ruling and depriving youth–who, in the end, overthrow them. (Freud, of course, in a perhaps dubious fashion, claimed the age-old Greek myth of Oedipus as a confirmation for this theory.)

The inevitable life-cycle, the replacement of one generation by another: the very existence of sexual reproduction means that the old, who die, are superseded by the young. But some, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, “do not go gently”! (As a startling example, David Rockefeller–who had a succession of heart transplants (7?), before finally dying at age 102.) What I’m suggesting is that the aged plutocrats’ pathological “greed”–especially aberrant since they will soon have no use at all for wealth–is ultimately a graceless, petulant, denial of (inevitable and approaching) death. And, as well–a power-fantasy of continuing dominance over the rising younger generations.

I think that we can agree that this monomaniacal obsession with ever-more wealth–on the part of aged, almost infirm, billionaires–cannot be explained as simply “human nature” (“greed”). Certainly it is grotesquely unjust, domineering, “selfish”–and responsible, directly or indirectly, for the suffering, even despair and death, of countless (younger) people. These consequences, in fact, may be a key motivation: a kind of revenge, a vindictive satisfaction, in continuing to dominate and discomfort those younger generations who possess the one priceless thing they don’t have: Youth–and with it, decades of living ahead of them.

To be sure, many affluent old people, recognizing and accepting the inevitability of their imminent decline and death, graciously make way for the young, helping them–and even heavily financially contributing toward a more humane future they will never see. But others (most notably the aging billionaires we are examining), try for “immortal fame” by endowing orchestra pits or museum wings (most notoriously, the Sacklers–of oxycontin infamy). While others, still profiteering on fossil-fuel stocks as the planet itself dangerously heats up, spitefully offer their own, infamous epitaph: “Apres moi? Le deluge!”

In many cultures, the old males explicitly act out their envy of the young males. Indeed, anthropologists have often suggested that the circumcision characterizing puberty rites, commonly found throughout the tribal world, was among other things a kind of “partial castration.” In our own plutocratic world today–with its astoundingly obscene concentration-of-wealth–we see aging tyrants trying to hold on and dictate the conditions under which younger people are forced to “live.” Such geriatric billionaires–and I am, admittedly, focusing on males in this essay–have “spent” their lifetimes focusing single-mindedly on pursuing more-and-more wealth. The ostensible rewards?: not only ostentatious “status-displays” (as classically described by Thorstein Veblen), but more significantly, the consequent “power”–to impose submission and deference, and to demand various “services” (many humiliating). Still, the exercise of this “power” is only partially satisfying (in a sadistic-vindictive fashion)–the envy remains. Since these billionaires, in their rather crude equation of money=satisfaction, never developed genuine moral and aesthetic sensibility–let alone empathic solidarity with humanity–they have, toward the end, nothing enduring to compensate for their loss of vitality, sexual pleasure (virility), physical attractiveness, and so forth. They still do have, rather than the developed human qualities of compassion and magnanimity, the stunted passions of pride, vanity–and vengeance.

It is the age-old question of two, diverging paths: “to have”–or, “to be.”

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).