Book Review of ‘The Rich’
A common trait over 2000 years: Ruthlessness
In the 1970s, I used to visit a client across from the Eros cinema in Mumbai. He was Sammy Lala, a top executive with a conglomerate. Some days, we had another visitor, a laid-back, colourful chap in jazzy clothes. One afternoon, holding a magazine in his hand, Sammy was agitated. In floral Parsi Gujarati, he exclaimed, “Remember that boy who comes here in those technicolour shirts and gold chains? That fellow who dresses like a smuggler! Told him a thousand times not to have himself plastered on a magazine cover. Now he’s in trouble.” The ‘boy’ was the director’s son; brash, maybe, but well-behaved, not uncouth, nor rude.

The ‘smuggler’ bit was hyperbole. Smugglers were a non-descript lot and kept a low profile, wore white clothes—maybe to compensate for the black inside. However, if our ‘boy’ had read The Rich, he may have acted differently and avoided the hassles he faces now. The secret to success and riches was accumulation-by-stealth… among other traits. When one started believing in the motto, ‘If-you-got-it,-flaunt-it’, the Ides of March did not wait until March.
The Rich, by John Kampfner, is a rich read. So prized that I am re-reading it; hoping for my pot of gold. It narrates the story of accumulation of wealth over 2000 years: from Marcus Crassus of Roman times to our present-day money-spinners. All of them became rich and powerful with one common trait: ruthlessness.
That is where we normal humans must fail. Acquisition, extortion, destruction, fleecing, were all in a day’s work for Crassus. Kampfner thinks that Crassus was the richest man who ever lived. And how did he get that far? With the strong belief that profits need to be privatised and debts must be socialised. Not having peace of mind was not an occupational hazard.
It always paid to be on the right side of the monarch. Kingie had the power, you made the moolah. Crassus had his slaves and his silver mines. He may also have purposefully burnt down properties and bought people out while they were still throwing buckets of water on the embers. Sounds very much like our local politicians and builders, doesn’t it?
The belief that ‘everything was for sale’ undermined all other thoughts. Charity was a fig leaf, crumbs thrown to those not invited to the party. Dependency and fear formed the power bases. Treats to lure voters, that politicians of today throw, hark back to Roman times. Coupled with that was mercurial loyalty. Everyone stood on quicksand. The rich were on solid ground but only until they remained rich.
Money, then as now, usually followed wars. The brave died. The smart got rich, picking up the remains of the day at throwaway prices or as payment in lieu of plain gratitude. From the Battle of Hastings, to the American Civil War (with its carpetbaggers), to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, there is money to be made over dead bodies, in shifting alliances, in propping up faltering dictators, or in plain old-fashioned extermination.
No one has ever asked where the money came from; yet, all know where it is right now. Money was the only tested route to power. Or, usually, the power behind the throne. What follows wealth acquisition is the search for legitimacy. Public relations (PR) exercises to buy a halo and go down in history as the beneficent, not the robber-baron. Oft times, it worked. But, at all times, the secret was to be a ‘yes-man’, even as you were twisting the blade in the back of your benefactor. 
Publicity was honed to a fine art. Musa, the African king, who manufactured gold like Bill Gates accumulates dollars, went all the way to Mecca by land. Just so that he could distribute nuggets on the way and back. He was also interested in another commodity—salt. The ancients understood the economy of shortages. Low supply, high demand, huge profits. Musa, however, was also keen on knowledge. Books and libraries found their echo in the Carnegie gifts to society, many centuries later. Men, not of learning, spend on manuscripts for others to study. One more PR exercise.
Wars brought devastation and ruined the warrior-kings, on both sides. Enter Mr Moneybags. Buy when the market crashes. Buy cheap. Sell high. Survival of the fittest is survival of the richest. Edward III of England was one such. The book tells you how he succumbed. We, as kids, had learnt of ‘My kingdom for a horse’. Or for a pound.
Usury was a vile word. From the Bible to Shakespeare. The bankers of Switzerland thought otherwise, like so many others. Ways were found, then, to circumvent religious and moral mores. As it is being done to this day. When the Spaniards found their way to the Americas, priests were as money conscious as the Conquistadores and the kings or queens. Even theology could be bent to fill deep pockets even as padres held forth on the evils of wealth collected over the deaths of the natives. Kampner calls it resource allocation and exploitation as the way to instant fortune.
Lessons in economics for today’s college students. The optimum use of scarce resources—slave labour and gold. Any priest, like the Dominican Fray Montesino, who brought ethics into the picture, was immediately unpopular. Gold shone brighter than some Paradisal light in the distant future. Maybe one could buy his way in, in afterlife too. Anyway, who cared?
Among the super rich, Akhentaten and Louis XIV were megalomaniacs. Both thought of themselves as ‘Sun Kings’. They were ‘city-obsessed’ wanting to leave legacies. They built from scratch. Today, we relish their magnificent obsessions. If one thinks that renaming is the name of the game for our politicians, it began millennia ago. Each potentate wanted ever-lasting memories of his reign. What better way to do it than by leaving the grandest cities they could imagine?
Riches came from conquests. The British and the Dutch, as much sea-farers as the Spanish and the Portuguese, were late entrants in the Western cities of gold. They headed East. Spices and merchandise replaced metal. Gold has limited supply. Organics grow continuously. Both nations were trading experts; something in their blood made them shopkeepers. They also had their guilds, societies within society—forerunners of the unions. They put their expertise, coupled with dollops of cunning and stealth, to subjugate local populations. The English proved smarter. They got the prize jewel, India. Other Europeans existed on the fringes. How Clive ‘conquered’ India is in Chapter VII. It’s worth a read.
Transitions, in the fate of nations, follow a pattern. Agriculture is followed by industry. Then follows marketing and, finally, it is finance, high stakes bankrolling. England, with its agrarian base in India, embarked on the Industrial Revolution. It was a lead that lasted till 1946. America was not to be outdone. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the connecting of the seas. When, at one time, men knew of places no more than 25 miles from where they were born, the motor car and airplanes opened up whole new worlds. Mankind was on the move, as never before.
Machines need something stronger than gold. Iron and steel became magnets for entrepreneurs. While Krupp built his empire in Europe, supplying weapons to both sides in wars, the robber-barons, as they were called, piled up wealth in post-Civil War United States and in the new century. No wonder, it was referred as the New Country. Virgin lands, big markets, melting-pot civilisation, and, above all, guts and imagination. Something that finds fertile ground only in young countries.
HG Wells blamed Krupp for World War I, but there were Americans directors on Krupp enterprises. 
Chapter IX is devoted to Carnegie. His was a rags-to-riches great American dream. Carnegie, being a Scot, kept his costs low. He believed that ‘inheritance was a dirty word’. Make your money work for you and then give it away. In full public view. Unfortunately, what followed was what Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’. We see it all around us now. Weddings are like coronations.
The later chapters tell of the richie-riches of our times: Mobutu, the Geeks, the Russian oligarchs and the Arab sheikhs. The race is to be the richest, build the tallest, own the fastest. It ends with the collapse of the banks; where no banker is any the worse off. Sick banks, healthy bankers. Socialise the debts—as before!
If you think you can be rich, The Rich is worth a read. Unfortunately, reading books does not develop guts. We are destined to be the base of the pyramid. And, by the way, the ‘boy’ in the first paragraph one was a young Vijay Mallya. Sammy was savvy.
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