Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, John D Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt – come back; all is forgiven. The 19th-century robber barons, for all their crimes, were surely not as naff as today’s billionaire tech nerds. In recent weeks, we have been treated to the prospect of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, two of the richest, most powerful people on Earth, having a cage fight. It would be held in an “epic location” in Italy, Musk said, and “everything in camera frame will be Ancient Rome”.
Alas, it looks like Gladiator: Midlife Crisis Edition will have to wait. Zuckerberg said that Elon wouldn’t confirm a date and it was “time to move on”, to which the $224bn baby replied: “Zuck is a chicken.”
This is no momentary lapse in taste. Zuckerberg has clearly realised that being rich doesn’t scratch the itch of social anxiety that lurks in the lizard brain of every former geek – hence him taking up martial arts and posting topless photos on his Instagram. Musk’s vice is the humour of a 13-year-old circa 2006: dated internet memes, a giant X on the roof of the social network formerly known as Twitter, and, well, whatever this is. Jeff Bezos seems almost understated in comparison, dressing up as a B-movie cocaine smuggler for New Year’s Eve and putting a model of his pneumatic fiancée on the prow on his $500m yacht.
It might seem churlish to begrudge this lot their foibles. It isn’t. Powerful people hold sway over our lives. If they’re trivial and narrow minded, we should be worried. J Robert Oppenheimer knew Hindu scripture and the poetry of John Donne and TS Eliot: understanding human civilisation helped him understand how the bomb he was building would alter it. Artificial intelligence is another technology with the potential to endanger the world, but OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, seems to be rather less of a humanist. If the forces he unleashes get too spicy, he once said, “I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defence Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”
Mocking these people for their terrible humour, terrible dress sense and total lack of sophistication, is not just fun: it’s practically the only weapon we’ve got left. A society in which money was the only arbiter of status – where the richest person in the room always felt like the biggest person in the room – would be terrifying. Snobbery attempts to stave that off. Our cities are filled with examples of the rich attempting to flaunt their cultural learning, from galleries and universities endowed by tycoons to abstract expressionist murals stretching across investment-bank lobbies. This isn’t because the rich have a sensitivity towards creative endeavour. Being rich, they probably don’t. It’s because cultural snobbery has, historically, required a hefty tribute from those with aspirations of grandeur.
[See also: Elon Musk is trying to silence his critics]
Then there’s the more squeamish side of elitism: class snobbery. This is not a popular cause. In The Great Gatsby, one of the most enduring depictions of the old-money/new-money showdown, its representative is the oafish Tom Buchanan, who attained “acute limited excellence” at Yale, then sagged into a racist, booze-soaked manhood. Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels portray, vividly and at length, how the snobbery of English aristocrats cauterises human decency. After David Melrose rapes his five-year-old son, the protagonist of the series, he reflects that “he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far”.
Brideshead Revisited takes the opposite approach. As Martin Amis wrote in 1981, it “squarely identifies egalitarianism as its foe and proceeds to rubbish it accordingly”. The narrator, drugged up, like Evelyn Waugh was, on Catholicism and old buildings, laments a modern world “safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet handshake, his grinning dentures”. But Waugh’s snobbery only amounts to a “failure of imagination”, says Amis, matched by the clichéd purple prose the novel is laden with.
Nevertheless, class prejudice can have paradoxically progressive effects. If, no matter how far you rise, you’re never allowed to forget your origins, you might retain some solidarity with the people you grew up with. A more liberal, meritocratic elite, which welcomes you as an old friend once you crack a certain tax bracket, is more effective at banishing class consciousness. Think of it as the White’s club model – wingback chairs reserved for the spawn of marauding Normans – versus the Soho House vision of overpriced cocktails for all. After Margaret Thatcher forced meritocracy down the Conservative Party’s throat, like a nanny wielding a spoon of cod-liver oil, Labour embraced social mobility too, and shied away from pitching itself in class-based terms.
All this might be academic. The objects of cultural snobbery are increasingly oblivious to the fact that they’re being mocked. The decreased focus on humanities education, whether literature or modern languages, means that aspiring business bros don’t feel bad about not reading the great books – they haven’t even heard of them. Mention world literature, and they’ll think of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. They get their wisdom from The Diary of a CEO. When they make their fortunes, they won’t be doling out money to support starving novelists.
It’s a similar case with class snobbery. Much of British history has been driven by the wary, elaborate courtship between the rich and the posh. There have been several spells of deep, doe-eyed romance, and several occasions when one of them got the ick (“He’s just so common!” shrieks the toff; “An American fling would be much less hard work,” admits Mr Moneybags). It wasn’t a sure thing they would both turn up at the altar.
But tie the knot they did, and now all the trappings of the old elite – public schools, titles, well-spoken wealth managers – are available to the noveau riche. Princes and poets no longer intimidate the rich. Beyond a few narrow circles in the media and academia, new money is welcome everywhere. So let loose your snark about Musk and Zuck and their equivalents over here. Increasingly, they just don’t care. They don’t want to join your club. They don’t want your approval. Down in their well-stocked bunkers, they have all the society they need.
[See also: Whoever wins, we lose]