It is, perhaps, the most powerful moment in the very powerful Polanski film Chinatown, when detective Jack Gittes, played superbly by Jack Nicholson in the role of a lifetime, confronts the corrupt tycoon Noah Cross, played superbly by John Huston. The detective asks the multi-millionaire who has been manipulating Los Angeles water rights for personal profit: “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” Cross replies: “The future, Mr. Gittes!”
Well, the elderly Cross’s answer is dishonest, not surprisingly. As a man in his seventies or eighties, he doesn’t have much personal future left that would require so many more millions, and if it’s the future of his granddaughter/daughter he’s concerned about, well . . . the less said the better.
The superrich are worried about the present, not the future, and in fact they are so obsessed with it and nothing but that by the looks of things they wouldn’t mind mortgaging the fate of the planet to their short-lived whims: between global warming and nuclear armament, corporate depredations upon the environment and skyrocketing arms sales, a chasm between the 1 and the 99 percent that will require a miracle to bridge, there won’t be much of a future for anybody. However, selling oil and arms, like privatising and selling water, is a good racket to be in if you’re working for the immediacy of present-tense personal profit.
But I honestly didn’t set out to write a gloomy article. Even when I read the recent Oxfam report, which revealed that the top 62 richest people on earth possess the wealth owned by the poorest half—yes, fifty percent!—of the world’s population, I didn’t feel gloomy or irascible or even all that angry. But I wondered, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, what in fact these 62 people (who are, you can be assured, actively planning to amass even MORE wealth) want that they don’t already have—better restaurants, jewellery, toys, cars, girls, guys, planes, widescreen monitors, professional sports franchises? And if they have them—and they already have, don’t they?—how much better can or will they live?
I once knew a very wealthy individual who told me that he had to leave one of the premier New York investment firms to form his own company because ‘you can’t earn any real money there’: his salary of several million yearly was obviously not ‘real’, or at least not real enough, I guess. And, fortunate and hard-working person that he was, the company he created allowed him an intake of many times that. I never got to ask him the Gittes question, but it was certainly on my mind as he recounted his personal woes to me.
At some point there is a kind of ‘endpoint,’ isn’t there? When certain levels of wealth are achieved, levels that allow one to live without fear of poverty or hunger, that allow one to live safely, how much more is there to satisfy? Admittedly, in our era of cancer-capitalism—a far more accurate phrase to define the overarching economic model of the global world—there are far too many who cannot achieve those basic goals, goals that should be the birthright of us all, and out of which should evolve the rights to clean air and water, universal healthcare and universal education.
But let’s get back to the Noah Crosses of the world: what do they really want? If it weren’t for the destruction and mayhem and destitution their drives create for so many others, I think I would take pity on them—really and truly. Because, in a way, they’re running for their lives. They’re stocking and stacking and hoarding as much as they can, they’re forever sharpening the elbows to get even further ahead in line. But for what?
To a reasonably enlightened person the riches of the world are in the marvels of nature and the kindliness of one’s fellow humans, in the slender line of coastal sand that rings the sea, or in the trees that whistle high above us, in the selfless touch of a lover, in the magnificent beauty of poem or canvas, in the ethereal ecstasies of music. All the perfumes of Arabia cannot blot out the stench of overwrought wealth that has been built on the backs and bones of the poor.
I’d like to say to them, any of them, one of the 62 or even the many millions that make up the one percent—which is still a helluva lot of human horseflesh, so to speak, on an earth with a population of 7 billion—wake up, you can’t fit it into your coffin, you can’t buy a spot in heaven, you’re not gonna rise from the dead without dying first anyway! Why not use the billions you’ve amassed to establish a system that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody“.
It’s called “socialism”. Yes, Oscar said it. And so did Bernie, for crying out loud, in America of all places!
And socialism is itself only a fancy economic term for sharing You’d eat a whole lot better, wouldn’t you, knowing that everybody else could eat well too?
Dr. Garcia is a Philadelphia-born poet, novelist and physician who now resides in New Zealand. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.