The 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath focused unprecedented attention on the alarming accumulation of the super-wealthy. Here was a class impossibly rich, impervious to democratic pressures and possessing a loyalty only towards itself.

In the West, the relatively equitable prosperity of the post World War II era had been reversed—the wealth accumulation at the top mirrored the Gilded Age of the 19th century—while the freeing of state controls on the economy in countries like Russia, China and India produced a rising number of oligarchs whose ostentation was as conspicuous as their plunder.

Even as movements like Occupy Wall Street have targeted the “1 per cent" and commentators in an era of rising global inequality lament that the social fabric has been ruptured irredeemably, John Kampfner, a former editor of New Statesman, takes a contrarian view. He does not find this situation anomalous in the least. Contending that the domination of the tiny elite has been the pervasive reality across centuries, Kampfner writes, “The condition of the twenty-first century is not an oddity of history."

To support his claim, Kampfner’s investigation straddles bewilderingly diverse eras. “Starting with ancient Rome, moving on to the Norman conquest, the Malian kingdom, the Florentine bankers and the great European commodity traders," he writes, “this story culminates with the oligarchies of modern Russia and China and the elites of Silicon Valley and Wall Street."

A general history like this almost necessitates a de-historicization: Specific contexts and cultures must, to a large degree, be overlooked in favour of a single, cohesive narrative spanning centuries. Kampfner’s problem is that his narrative is flimsy and full of glib and unsubstantiated pronouncements.

Kampfner is most readable when he brings to light the odysseys of history’s less salient characters, as in his lush description of the Malian emperor Mansa Musa’s epic journey to Mecca in the 14th century. “The caravan beguiled all who saw it pass, with thousands of lavishly dressed slaves and merchants stretching as far as the eye could see, and one man resplendent on his horse."

The Rich: From Slaves to Super Yachts—A 2,000-Year History: Litt.le, Brown and Co., 454 pages, 599.
The Rich: From Slaves to Super Yachts—A 2,000-Year History: Litt.le, Brown and Co., 454 pages, 599.

Indeed, his definition of what constitutes “the rich" is so porous as to render any historically sound assessment meaningless. “How do people become rich?" he asks rhetorically. “They do so by fair means and foul, by entrepreneurship, appropriation and inheritance. They make markets and they manipulate them. They defeat the competition or they eliminate it. They gain or buy influence among the political leadership and the cultural and social elites."

Some of Kampfner’s narrative choices are equally befuddling. The Rich is divided into two sections, “the larger ‘then’ and the shorter ‘now’". While the first section, which makes up two-thirds of the book, focuses on the individual accumulators of wealth of past centuries, such as Louis XIV and Andrew Carnegie, the latter section is devoted to the wealthy of our time who have replaced the emperors and merchants of the pre-modern world.

In Kampfner’s view, these are namely four: the sheikhs, oligarchs, geeks and bankers. A chapter is devoted to each, and from here on, The Rich begins to read like a series of descriptive, bland news reports. Even the pretence of serious reportage or rigorous scholarship seems to vanish, and the last chapters seem as if they have been compiled from the Internet in a distracted haze.

His chapter on the sheikhs is an almost perfect illustration of this malaise. Describing the rise of the oil-rich Gulf city-states Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as Qatar, Kampfner blasts through themes such as the impact of the 2008 economic crisis, the fevered acquisition of cultural capital, democracy and human rights, the shadow of the Arab Spring and Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 football World Cup.

Much of The Rich is dominated by this unrelenting, breathless rhetoric, and towards the end, his assertions become increasingly blasé. Consider the last section of the book, where Kampfner muses on the future of the super-rich. “Only a tiny few will get there, by fair means or foul. They will have pliant governments, parliaments, regulators and central banks to thank. As they have always done. The victory of the super-rich in the twenty-first century is a product of two thousand years of history."

It may have been possible to ignore such banalities had Kampfner’s account possessed even a modicum of entertainment. Early on in The Rich, Kampfner says “we should admit we are obsessed with the super-rich". “We envy and abhor their lifestyles. We say we loathe what they have done to society, but we love to read about them in gossip magazines…"

Alas, this is not true of Kampfner’s work. Even after nearly 400 pages populated with tales of barons, emperors, industrialists and geeks, The Rich does not inspire a state of voyeurism or guilty pleasure, but rather the monotony of endless toil.

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