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The billionaires’ club

As the gap between the uber-rich and the rest of us expands, authors and filmmakers call for change

By May Warren

Matt Damon strapped into a cyborg suit, taking on evil robots manipulated by an ice-cold villain played by Jodie Foster. In many ways, the film Elysium is a typical Hollywood action movie. But a closer look at the summer blockbuster shows that themes of inequality and the shrinking middle class are permeating popular culture.

A number of recent books and movies also highlight the expanding gap between rich and poor and caution against unbridled wealth. From tightly argued non-fiction to a vision of opulence gone awry, these works reflect the growing restlessness of our society and herald the need for change.

In her 2012 book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland, a veteran financial journalist and the new federal Liberal candidate for Toronto Centre, constructs a meticulous thesis on inequality. Describing capitalism as “the best system we’ve figured out so far,” she argues that it has changed dramatically from the post-Second World War model. The gap between the one percent (or the 0.1 percent, to be precise) and everyone else has widened drastically in the last 30 years. It’s as if the plutocrats are rocketing away into a stratosphere of private helicopters, mansions and exclusive gatherings, leaving the rest of us to fight over the few middle-class jobs that are left.

Freeland writes that the twin forces of technology and globalization have resulted in unparalleled wealth for the privileged few, who exist in a kind of “global gated community” that, paradoxically, is increasingly borderless. They do business and maintain residence in several countries without really being a part of any.

Instead they form part of a “billionaires’ circle,” using exclusive international conferences as forums for closed-door decision-making. They have increasing control over the global humanitarian agenda through their own brand of “philanthrocapitalism.” And they are able to shape the outcome of domestic politics, especially in the United States, with help from their deep pockets.

Meanwhile, ordinary working Americans “have found their professions, companies and life savings destroyed by the same forces that have enriched and empowered the plutocrats,” Freeland writes. “Both globalization and technology have led to the rapid obsolescence of many jobs in the West; they’ve put Western workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in poorer countries; and they’ve generally had a punishing impact on those without the intellect, education, luck or chutzpah to profit from them.”

If Plutocrats sounds a warning on existing disparities, Elysium is the fictional manifestation of where things could end up.

The year is 2154. Earth is diseased, polluted and overpopulated, visible from the space centre Elysium as a distant brown afterthought. The rich have evacuated to a utopian oasis where they have developed the technology to heal all sickness and wounds. On Elysium, blond children frolic on perfectly manicured lawns while classical music plays in the background. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is a Hobbesian slum full of Spanish speakers working menial jobs.

Against this backdrop, we are introduced to Damon as Max, an ex-convict who works in a Los Angeles factory manufacturing robots that are programmed to keep the citizens of Earth under control. Exposed to radiation during a malfunction at the factory, he must make it to Elysium illegally to try to heal himself and redeem humanity.

Themes of decadence and excess are at the root of another recent blockbuster, The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire. The 2013 adaptation is true to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the roaring 1920s. And, in a world still reeling from the recent financial meltdown, the story takes on new relevance.

The stark contrast between Gatsby’s extravagant parties and the coal town on the edges of his domain seems almost fantastical in the film, but perhaps isn’t far from reality. Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the ultimate plutocrats, are “careless people” who “retreated back into their money” and “let other people clean up the mess they had made” after behaving recklessly. Just like so many Wall Street bankers.

In a more straightforward manner, Jacob Kornbluth’s new documentary Inequality for All shines a spotlight on Robert Reich (Bill Clinton’s former secretary of labour) and his crusade against America’s widening income gap. Travelling the country talking to ordinary people, Reich seeks to bring inequality from the edges to the centre of public discussion.

The film, which won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, is direct in its message: “Of all developed nations, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, and we’re surging towards even greater income inequality,” Reich argues.

A small man who was taunted by his peers as a young boy, Reich sees himself as a protector of average joes, defending them against the people who would beat them up economically. “Who is actually looking out for the American worker?” he asks. “The answer is, nobody.” Reich offers a call to action based on hope. “Anyone who feels cynical, just consider where we have been,” he says in the film, referring to the civil rights movement and other great American triumphs.

In the meantime, some plutocrats are already making a contingency plan in case physical separation from the masses becomes necessary: the Seasteading Institute hopes to construct a series of islands in international ocean waters as a sort of billionaire sanctuary, out of reach of any national government. But as Elysium suggests, this exercise is doomed to fail. Instead of concentrating on escape, the plutocrats need to look inward at reducing inequality — before the financial system that spawned them sinks under its own top-heavy weight.

May Warren is a master of journalism student at Ryerson University and was The Observer’s summer intern.

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