My latest FT book review

In: Daniel In The News

28 Jun 2013

No Billionaire Left Behind, by Angelique Haugerud, Stanford University Press 2013, RRP$24.95

Imagine stumbling across a demonstration by what appears to be the super-rich in New York’s Central Park. The women carry parasols and are adorned in elegant gowns, tiaras and satin gloves. The men wear tuxedos and top hats. Their placards spell out demands many would regard as outrageous:

“Privatize the Park: Keep off the Grass”

“Widen the Income Gap”

“Still Loyal to Big Oil”

“Taxes Are Not for Everyone”

Photographers and journalists swarm around the protesters. The demonstrators have adopted names such as Ivan Aston Martin, Iona Bigga Yacht, Phil T Rich and Alan Greenspend.

This is the scene with which Angelique Haugerud, an associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers university in New Jersey, opens her study of the Billionaires. The capital B is intentional. The Billionaires are satirical activists who campaign against what they regard as excessive economic inequality and the resultant unfairness in the political system.

In some ways the Billionaires echo the old left, although in many ways they eschew it. Instead of conforming to the stereotype of scruffy activists, they deliberately go to the opposite extreme of dressing in their immaculate Billionaire gear.

They also practise “culture jamming” – trying to subvert mainstream media images and cultural institutions – rather than traditional activism. Ironic humour is their weapon of choice rather than old-style campaigning for explicit political goals.

The Billionaires can be seen as a street-theatre version of the satirical humour that has blossomed in recent years. This includes television purveyors of “fake news” such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, as well as publications such as The Onion.

Haugerud uses her professional training to study the Billionaires as a participant-observer. In anthropology this approach used to be applied to what were once called “primitive societies”. Anthropologists would live with, say, a Native American or African tribe to gain insights about how it functioned. In this study, Haugerud joins the Billionaires as an avowedly sympathetic expert observer.

Her stated aim is not so much to observe practical politics, but to examine the “political imagination” and the “spirit of the times”. She wants to analyse “cultural politics during a period of profound ambivalence towards politics itself”.

She succeeds in this goal almost in spite of herself. Although she clearly admires the Billionaires, they come across as cynical and self-indulgent. Although they regard themselves as liberals, they are deeply conservative in the literal sense of being wedded to the established order.

Their cynicism is most apparent in the way that, in practice although not officially, they act as a street-theatre arm of the Democratic party. It is true that in 2000 they campaigned as “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)”. The brackets are significant since the overwhelming emphasis was on the Republican candidate. But, in 2004, they avoided turning their fire on John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, on the grounds that he was a lesser evil than George W Bush.

In 2008, the Billionaires produced a pastiche video that was ostensibly for John McCain, the Republican candidate, but in reality favoured the Obama campaign. The original “Yes We Can” video in support of Barack Obama had featured a speech by the then presidential candidate enhanced by music and various celebrity appearances.

In the same style, the “No You Can’t” spoof featured selected comments by McCain with the same soundtrack as the original. However, its aim was to present the Republican as a heartless candidate opposed to reasonable wages, affordable healthcare and gay marriage.

The caricatured image of the super-rich favoured by the Billionaires is another reflection of their one-sidedness. They prefer archaic images of the wealthy wearing top hats to grappling with contemporary reality. Haugerud reports that the Seattle Billionaires were told not to imitate that city’s casually dressed Microsoft multimillionaires. Instead, they were instructed to use images from New York’s Upper East Side or even British royalty.

Such campaigns can only reinforce cynicism among the public. It is hardly surprising that when Haugerud interviewed witnesses of Billionaire protests, she found many were bemused by their actions.

With critics such as the Billionaires, the real super-rich can sleep soundly at night. That really is the irony.