Modern world neglects to ask why elites hold vast hoards of wealth

Wasn’t the rage of the Russian workers and peasantry against the power and riches of the Romanovs justified?


There is no breakfast at Tiffany’s, on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York. But you can buy an engagement ring for $1 million up on the second floor – one of the attendants told us she had sold several rings for over $1 million, paid for by credit cards.

On the first floor “The Tiffany Diamond ” is on display, “the priceless symbol of Tiffany’s great diamond heritage, the rarest and most beautiful fancy yellow diamond in the world”. It was mined in South Africa in 1877 and weighs in at 128.54 carats. It has been on display at Tiffany’s for over a century and is probably worth tens of millions of dollars.

Up the road at the Metropolitan Museum of Art there are more diamonds, some from the collection of the Russian Romanov dynasty.

Following the Russian revolution of 1917, some of the vast treasure of the Romanovs was captured. The Paris journal L’Illustration published a photograph of some of the hoard in September 1922. The article quoted from an official source which claimed that the House of Fabergé had estimated the total value of the hoard as $60 billion.

The House of Fabergé had been founded in 1842 in St Petersburg and it became famous for designing jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs for the Russian tsars. A collection of these eggs is on display at the Metropolitan Museum along with other remnants from the Romanov hoard.

There’s a special exhibition in that Metropolitan Museum at present: Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity , which displays paintings of the (mainly) French Impressionists showing Parisienne fashion of the late 19th century. What I found most striking were paintings of upper-class men’s fashions of that period, fashions that conveyed the status, privilege and power of upper-class men at the time. A painting by James Tissot, The Circle of the Rue Royale , I thought was the most powerful illustration of upper-class male pompous ascendancy: top hats, canes, flamboyant waistcoats, languid poses, oozing confidence and relaxed authority.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art itself is a representation of vast wealth and power, ranking second to the Louvre in Paris among the world’s museums. Its permanent collection includes classical antiquity paintings and sculptures of most of the great artists of Europe and America. It has extensive holdings of African, Asian, Byzantine and Islamic art. The value of its collections far exceed the Romanov hoard, financed mainly by the wealth that has accumulated in New York.

Lavish and operatic
The magnificent opera house over by the Lincoln Center has been financed by more of that wealth. One of the contributors, Anne Zinn, made a donation of $50 million. Each of the operas performed there costs over $1 million to stage. Opera tickets cost up to $500 each and most nights the opera house is packed, which suggests perhaps that the opera tickets are sold too cheaply.

What is it about the culture of the modern world that fails to question the legitimacy of the accumulation and hoarding of such vast wealth by a small privileged elite, and which gives to that elite not just the obvious joys such wealth bestows, but status, authority and power over much of the rest of humanity? Wasn’t the rage of the Russian workers and peasantry against the power status and vast wealth of the Romanovs appropriate?

Many of us are repelled by how many members of the family were executed. The young girls didn’t die initially because bullets rebounded off jewels sewn into their corsets. The government tried to stab them with bayonets but this too didn’t work because of the jewels. They were then shot in the head at close range. And many of us are appalled by what ensued in a society that was supposedly liberated by the revolution. But isn’t indignation at such inequality of wealth, status and power appropriate? And isn’t indignation appropriate when governments are commended for the infliction of policies that immiserate the most vulnerable?

A special issue of Forbes magazine is on sale currently, dealing with “The richest people on earth”. The richest person is Carlos Slim Helú, a Mexican telecom businessman with a fortune of $73 billion. We are keenly aware of the blessings telecom businessmen bring to the societies in which they operate – but $73 billion? Some 49 million Mexicans (44.2 per cent) live below the poverty line, according to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy in that country. And according to the OECD report Growing Unequal: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries , Mexico, was the most unequal of all 31 countries in the OECD (Ireland was the 23rd most unequal).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of exploitative regimes and systems is to convince the exploited either they are not exploited or their continued immiseration is to their ultimate benefit – and that the vast wealth, power and status of an elite is an entitlement to which everyone can aspire.

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