The gospel according to the rich

2014-02-06 10:00

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“The 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest.” That was one of the more sexy headlines to come out of Davos.

Nothing new there. It’s the story of the 1 percent and how they have the rest of us by the balls. But there is another part of our lives on which the superwealthy have a stronghold – intellectual capital.

Not that they are smarter, but that it’s their ideas and thoughts that are coming to define our current lives.

I say this as a book about a successful entrepreneur lands on my desk. It’s about his exploits in the business world. It’s funny and quirky, and his achievements are inspiring. That is undeniable.

But I know what I’m going to find inside its pages. It will be lessons about never giving up and about knocking on every door until one opens.

And another lesson of the moment, that failure is a good thing along the path to success. I do not dispute his truths as worthy advice, only that I’ve heard it before – from Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and many others whose books currently weigh heavily on all our bookshelves.

That’s fine, that’s just a crime of repetitive content. But we take advice from dubious sources, too, so long as they tick the boxes of rich and, preferably, famous. We feel better hearing about warfare from George Clooney and Bono as opposed to a doctor or a victim on the ground.

Look at the quotes and one-liners on our office walls and email signatures. How many of them are from today’s scientists, painters, explorers, natural-born do-gooders (like Mother Teresa, not Bill Gates) or philosophers?

Our minds are littered with the life conclusions of the rich.

I met a European last year who said he had come to the country to spread the message all over South Africa about how we should all work at our passion. An idea I love and try to practise in my own life.

But I asked – not to trap him, but because I’ve often asked myself the same – how would he apply this to a South African mine worker on strike. Could working everyday in the bowels of the earth be a passion? Or should he abandon that job and the responsibilities to navel-gaze, dig deep into his childhood, until he locates this true passion? He was stumped.

So was I. Maybe, I concluded to myself, this is an answer I would find from a book written by a mine worker on strike.

Could working everyday in the bowels of the earth be a passion? ‘Do what you love’ is not a reality South Africa’s mine workers, for example, can afford. Picture: Siphiwe sibeko/Reuters

A writer on America’s Slate, an online magazine of news, politics and culture, makes this point more strongly, challenging the mantra of our time, “Do what you love”: The gospelaccording to Steve Jobs.

“DWYL (as the writer has shortened it) is a secret handshake of the privileged and a world-view that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment,” says Miya Tokumitsu. This idea, the writer says, discredits the contribution of workers, who are the majority of the world’s population.

“By portraying Apple as a labour of his individual love, Jobs elided the labour of untold thousands in Apple’s factories, hidden from sight on the other side of the planet – the very labour that allowed Jobs to actualise his love.”

Have sympathy, not just for the workers, but even the average young South African university or matric graduate, who must find a job, any job, driven not by passion, but necessity. “Do what you love” might not be a reality they can afford right now.

We’ve pushed all these elite ideas into the mainstream, because there is nothing more that the emerging class wants more than to belong to the club of the 1 percent. We deride their greed as we envy their privilege. So we gag on ill-fitting ideas, trying to swallow them whole as all our life realities, forced down by the sight of money. After all, they are rich, they would know.

It’s not that the ideas of the rich are illegitimate (they are as valid or vapid as any other); it’s that they have become deafen–ing in this modern era. And I think we need some space, not just on our bookshelves, but in our minds, just so we can hear ourselves think.

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