They used to be called robber barons. Now we call them one percenters. They’re the preposterously rich, and they got that way by casually crushing the hopes and dreams of the little guy. For each one of them, there are 99 of us, but that doesn’t matter—because they have all the moolah and they control everything.
They first showed up in the middle of the nineteenth century. Different from royals and aristocrats, these were canny businessmen who amassed great fortunes during the rapid industrialization that transformed the modern world. Their methods were often questionable, even downright immoral. But once the money started spewing forth no one could stop it. Nor, at the time, could anyone imagine where it would lead.
And from the very beginning, the men responsible—figures such as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, Morgan—have had serious problems in the PR department. Despite their arguably titanic achievements, these fellows have always been seen, and portrayed, as voracious and malign. Jay Gould was “the Mephistopheles of Wall Street”. In McClure’s magazine, Ida Tarbell dubbed Rockefeller “the oldest man in the world—a living mummy.” Economist and writer Matthew Josephson published his scathing and influential study The Robber Barons in 1934. Two years later, the figure of Rich Uncle Pennybags made his first appearance (on the Chance and Community Chest cards in the U.S. edition of the game Monopoly), and that seemed to clinch it. This image of the greedy capitalist—top hat, cane, monocle, mustache—was most likely inspired by Gilded Age top dog J. P. Morgan, and has been an enduring one, with a fresh incarnation showing up as recently as a few months ago on the cover of The New Yorker magazine. Here the greedy capitalist is seen protesting in the streets, Occcupy-style, and holding up a placard that says “Keep Things Precisely As They Are.”
Later on, the top hat and cane were dropped in favor of the Brooks Brothers suit, and the modern corporate CEO—blander, greyer, almost anonymous—was born. It’s only been very recently, thanks perhaps to the Enron scandal, that the greedy capitalist has made a re-appearance. He cracked the shell of anonymity, emerged giddily into the light and took on a new moniker. Less blunt than robber baron, one percenter nevertheless packs a subtle punch. It also provides us with a clearer organizing principle for understanding these men (and yes, it’s been pretty much an exclusive club in that regard). If we look at the following examples of how the greedy capitalist has been portrayed in literature and movies over the years, we can see that there’s at least one thing they all have in common. It’s an acute, almost sociopathic sense of entitlement and privilege. The essential, and sometimes fatal, delusion here—not unlike the earlier divine right of kings—is that it’s not just their money that puts them in the one percent.
Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) may well be the first One Percenter. But if you’re not convinced, read Jim Lacey’s robust defense of this shrewd “man of business” in the National Review – though be warned, Lacey does criticize the “enlightened” Scrooge for donating most of his fortune to the poor, thereby severely limiting his ability to create new jobs and further stimulate the economy.
Another great Victorian one percenter is Augustus Melmotte, the financial speculator in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now (1875). Melmotte seduces London high society with his promise of a new railway system running from Salt Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, but the project never materializes and the financier is revealed as a fraud. Today, comparisons are sometimes drawn between Trollope’s Melmotte and Bernie Madoff.
Lionel Barrymore’s Mr Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is the “richest and meanest man” in Bedford Falls. He is a slumlord and a banker and he owns half the county. The movie posits a nightmarish alternative reality to sleepy, bucolic Bedford Falls in the form of sleazy, monolithic Pottersville. Is it too simplistic to say that a key measure of this one percenter’s power and influence is the fact that we are all now, surely, citizens of Pottersville?
What can John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974) buy with all his money that he doesn’t already have? The future, apparently, the future. But before he gets to devour that, he works his way through the local water supply, the San Fernando Valley, the police department, LA itself, and his own immediate descendents. Power was never so voracious or malign.
In Network (1976) Ned Beatty is Arthur Jensen, the teddy-bearish chairman of CCA, and he has a message for mad-as-hell, proto-99 percenter Howard Beale. There is no America, he says, there is no democracy, there is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. The world is a business, a college of corporations. And he makes the chilling promise that one day all men will hold a share of stock, and all anxieties will be tranquilized. It was a rare glimpse behind the curtain. But it was more than 35 years ago, so you have to wonder... have the tranquilizers kicked in yet?
Another notorious glimpse behind the curtain came in Wall Street (1987) when Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko declared that greed, for want of a better word, was good. And that lunch was for wimps. A mashup of Boesky, Milken, and Icahn (with a tincture of Rand), Gordon Gekko was the early warning sign we all missed or chose to ignore.
But perhaps the most terrifying glimpse behind the curtain we’ve ever had is Michael Gambon’s brief appearance as Thomas Sandefur, CEO of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, in The Insider (1999). Here, seated at his desk in a dark, paneled office, is the creepy soul of corporatocracy, menacing but unshowy, an evil that positively exudes banality. His opening line to Jeffrey Wigand, a man he has unfairly dismissed and is now about to crush with the threat of litigation, “So, you had a chance to play golf?”