I remember in the early 1950s, when I was newly arrived in London, England and unemployed, reading in the newspaper that the dramatist Terence Rattigan, very much the man-about-town, had leased a flat in Mayfair for 18 pounds a week. I was astonished that anyone could pay so much: how much money would a person need to be able to afford so much? Just to put this assumption in perspective, my unemployment ended when I took a job, for the magnificent wage of four pounds a week, as a factory worker in Hammersmith.
I wasn’t in it for life, a mere three months, to tide us over a lean patch, but on the conveyer belt on which I worked in the factory I was surrounded by honest working people for whom that wage of four or five pounds a week was the best they could look forward to in the rest of their lives, a paltry sum which the powers-that-be --- who themselves lived in the lap of luxury ---- decreed had to cover all of their costs for everything they needed. Some democracy that was! And is!
Of course, all this has to be judged against the belief I had come to as an enthusiastic socialist teenager than no one should earn, for any job, more than 5,000 pounds a year, a sum that seemed to me to be adequate for the living needs of anyone on earth.
In other words, I have been a proponent of social equality ever since I started thinking about the world and its problems. And yet now I find myself in a world where inequality has reached such a level of criminality that our societies are governed by an oligarchy of the wealthy elite that not only runs the economy but has its palsied hand on every parliament ever elected, buying politicians as if they were boxes of chocolates.
I have welcomed the recent agitation of people protesting against the one per cent of wealth owners having collared virtually all of the increase in wealth generated by workers in the last 40 years. Somehow or other I have managed so far to come through more or less intact after a lifetime of journalism and film-making and book-writing --- none of which paid me more than a sort of lower-middle-class income ---- and now I am existing on the money I have made by owning, and selling at a modest profit, three houses, known to the tax people as my principal residences, in the last 40 years as I have moved from place to place.
I’m not complaining. I have had a good life in which I have spent every penny I ever earned, have travelled to many parts of the world, have written about every subject that seized my interest, and am still keenly interested in what is happening in the world.
But one thing that seems clear to me now is that the global admiration for the capitalist society of the United States is totally misplaced: rather than deserving our admiration, that country seems to be trapped in completely misplaced, dysfunctional notions of patriotism, individualism, militarism, and aggressive intentions towards the rest of the world.
Anyway, what I set out to write about today was the shock I encountered at the weekend when I picked up a coloured supplement accompanying La Presse, a glossy advertisement taken by the “international realty” company Sotheby’s.
I had always thought of Sotheby’s as a fuddy-duddy English firm, probably struggling to keep abreast of the modern, fast-changing economy (it was, after all established in 1744, and is one of the four oldest auction houses in the world.) So I was totally surprised to open up this advertisement, printed on a glossy sheet slightly bigger than three feet by two feet in size and containing the coloured pictures of no fewer than 150 houses that are offered thereby to anyone who wants to cap his or her success in life with a magnificent, highly-priced, home.
Top price on offer was $9,500,000 for a Westmount home, a vast structure surrounded by a glorious garden (or as the capton said “nichée derriere une vegetation luxuriante”) on “la recherchée” Lexington avenue. There were at least eight offered for more than $4,000,000, and to judge by the pictures the offered homes were of every kind, some in apartment buildings, some in huge homes of modern construction (the architect’s fees alone must have cost a fortune), and others in long-established dignified houses set in beautifully maintained grounds. The architectural style exhibited on the page tended towards pomposity, and a few showed what might reasonably be called execrable taste.
What surprised me most was that they were located all over the province of Quebec, from Montreal downtown, to the Eastern Townships, to the North shore, South shore, and in towns that one would not normally associate with splendour --- Boucherville, for example, Kirkland, Candiac, Ile Bizard, Ile Perrot --- islands that I remember driving around in the late 1950s when they were virtually empty except for the occasional eccentric living in a modest shack of some kind, lovely calm and forgotten places that seemed to have been forgotten in the postwar rush for development, tbut that now appear to have become playgrounds for the rich.
I should not have been surprised by any of this: but it did strike me that here, right under our noses, was evidence of the One Percenters who, nowadays, are dominating our societies, and of how they have collared most of the wealth available, and are spending it on ostentatious self-indulgence.
I had a similar awakening a couple of years ago when, waiting to board an overcrowded plane from Frankfurt to Montreal, I was, without any request, upgraded from economy to business class. I had, of course, passed through the business class seats on the way to the economy on many occasions, but to suddenly be the recipient of the many privileges to which my higher-class seat entitled me was a profound revelation: right under my nose all these years, the One Percenters had been living it up, lounging full-out on their luxurious seats, drinking the best of wines for free, eating the superior foods provided to them, while down there we were struggling through the night in our overcrowded seats, crammed like sardines into a can, barely able to sleep for the caterwauling of kids and the sheer sense of oppressiveness.
So this, I ruminated, on that occasion, is how the One Percenters go through life.
Of course, my original belief that 5,000 pounds a year should be enough for anybody has been discovered to be wildly impracticable. (I am reminded of my high school principal, who, during the Second World War told our chemistry class that “there will be no millionaires in the future, you know, that’s over.”) But I have noticed, in some of the programmes of the developing leftist parties that are springing up throughout the capitalist world, various hints that suggest some form of salary cap might still be a good idea. One does rub across occasional examples of people who have stuck with lower-paying jobs to pursue worthwhile work, and one sees on TV every day the devotion of many volunteer, or near-volunteer workers who administer to the victims of the various brutal wars conducted these days, usually under the aegis of the United States.
But even more evident are the examples of egregious waste occurring every day. Like the story of the $500,000,000 programme to train local soldiers, which succeeded in training five people. Like the several trillion dollars spent on wars in the Middle East that have succeeded only in destroying one country after another, killing hundreds of thousands, destroying the lives of the innocent, and achieving nothing of any discernible value.
Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of people are like me, appalled by these things, but at this level one feels a sense of helplessness, of there being nothing we can do to change it. Yet we are constantly told by those people who never stop insisting that it is all wrong, that change will come only from the development of a great movement in which people demand change.
I hope they are right…..