Are extreme wealth and privilege good for you?

Photo: twintiger007, Creative Commons

Photo: twintiger007, Creative Commons

Does being born into a rich family benefit you? Clearly it does. You inherit not merely money but ‘social capital’ – lots of connections in high places that will benefit you relative to others who lack them. You also inherit ‘cultural capital’ – an easy familiarity with the cultural goods and ways of speaking that play well with the rich and powerful: art (Renoir or abstract, not Jack Veltriano), music (cello or oboe, not banjo or bass guitar), elite sports (polo, lacrosse or tennis, not skateboarding or football), literature (Austen, not Dan Brown). You will probably have lots of holidays abroad, and hang out with rich people in other countries, and think of yourself as ‘well-travelled’, ‘cosmopolitan’ and see the world as your oyster. People will say you are ‘well-spoken’, ‘from a good family’ – euphemisms for posh – and defer to you. None of this has anything to do with merit, but you’ll probably be able to convert your inherited (i.e. unmerited) economic and cultural capital into the merited form of educational capital – qualifications, degrees.[1] And it will be easier for you to get these because in posh schools and universities and other ‘high places’ you will be a fish-in-water, already speaking their language.

Does being born into a rich family benefit your character? Probably not. Those who inherit a position of dominance are likely to overlook the fact that inheritance has nothing to do with merit or what we need or deserve. As C. Wright Mills said, “People with advantages are loath to believe they just happen to be people with advantages.”[2] You are unlikely to have much idea of what life is like for people who are born into disadvantaged positions. You might imagine that if you’d been born into a poor family, you would have fought your way up and out, but that’s a delusion, because you would have been a different person from the one you know. We are all substantially shaped by the position and circumstances that the lottery of birth in an unequal society gives us. Even motivation and aspirations are affected. Yes, we have some power to make a difference, but we don’t get to choose our parents or our environment in our most formative years.

If your family are in a position of power, able to make decisions that affect many others, and to give orders, then expecting others to defer to you, and assuming that you know best are hard to avoid given such an upbringing.[3] But the coupling of such a sense of entitlement with ignorance of what life is like for other less fortunate people breeds arrogance. None of this is inevitable in every case: some rich parents may strive to combat such arrogance. But it is probable, and common.

Photo: Matt Price, Creative Commons

Photo: Matt Price, Creative Commons

You might say, what’s wrong with parents wanting the best for their children, and hence wanting to pass on any advantages they have? The answer is nothing. What is wrong is the arbitrary inequality in the distribution of advantages that can be passed on. The rich are in the strongest position to take advantage of the unequal opportunities that confront us.

Upper class child neglect

But that there’s one source of advantage which many of the rich pursue that both benefits and harms their children. If you get sent to boarding school – a strange practice of child neglect found in the British upper and upper middle classes – it will probably give you more power in terms of social and cultural capital, and offer the benefits of small class sizes in school and lavish resources, but the chances are it will damage your character, and in ways that damage others too.

Nick Duffell went to boarding school, and felt damaged by the experience. He went on to

Holding 3D Bookbecome a psycho-therapist, and specialized in treating others similarly damaged by the experience. He’s written an important book about it – Wounded Leaders – following his TV documentary on the same subject called The Making of Them. Those who are sent away to school, especially at an early age, are deprived of the safe space of acceptance and unconditional love that families, at least good enough ones, can provide – a space where vulnerability does not have to be hidden or defended. They quickly learn that if they are to avoid bullying and ridicule they must present an appearance of absolute invulnerability, and use attack as the best form of defence. They develop what Duffell calls a ‘strategic survival personality’. This may include “a seamlessly smooth duplicity, an apparent unshakeable faith in his own ego, a tendency to bully when he feels cornered and a barely concealed contempt for being told what is what by women and foreigners . . .”[4]

Photo: artofthestate, Creative Commons

Photo: artofthestate, Creative Commons

As an illustration, Duffell refers us to Prime Minister’s Questions, that awful weekly spectacle that appals viewers of British television news, in which the antagonists go for the withering put-down and the knock out punch. This is where Etonian David Cameron infamously told Anna Eagle, a member of the opposition, to ‘Calm down, dear, calm down. Calm down and listen to the doctor!’ Cameron was sent to boarding school at the age of 7.

The vulnerability and emotions that they fear in themselves are projected onto others. Many find that in later life that they struggle to form intimate relationships because they cannot accept, hold and love their partners’ vulnerability, neediness and emotions. Hence their need for therapy. But it also means they lack the emotional intelligence required for the jobs that they get, including in high political office. “Only 7% of members of the public attended a private school. But 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior officers in the armed forces, 55% of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 45% of public body chairs did so.”

Boarding schools seek to build a particular version of masculinity. According to Duffell this applies to girls’ boarding schools too – forms of masculinity can be learned by women: they are not tied to biological sex. It was this upper class model of masculinity that dominated much of British literature and culture in the 20th Century, and it trickled down

Photo: Creative Commons

Photo: Creative Commons

to the middle classes, saturating much of what I read and learned about as a state school kid in the 1950s and 60s, from comics to war stories to ‘great man’ narratives in history. Rudyard Kipling’s awful poem ‘If’ represents it well; to become a man, a boy has to repress his emotions and assert his superiority over others who are to be regarded as fools at the mercy of dangerous irrational passions. This training would ‘armour’ him when he went out to the colonies, and enable him to subordinate his class and ethnic inferiors.

Some of the 1% see the character defects encouraged by public (i.e. private) boarding schools as virtues. Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington (public) School and co-founder of the neoliberal Institute of Economic Affairs, recommends the practice known at Eton as “’oiling’, which is learning how to win friends and influence others, and how to clamber over them to get what you want. It’s a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness . . . ” Seldon acknowledges that this will “nauseate many on the left” [and many others, surely?] and that for many the obsession with character is a “rightwing obsession, redolent of empire and all that is wrong with the class system.”[5] (I couldn’t have put it better myself.) But he is not discouraged in his desire to make a virtue out of a vice, arguing that oiling and the like are necessary for survival in a war of all against all, so the 93% who go to state schools better get over their moral scruples and get used to it, and also acquire the arch confidence that he admires in the public schooled. Though it sounds like self-parody of upper class overconfidence and the arrogance of ignorance, this was not an April 1st article. He was serious.

Combating and undermining the rule of the rich is not only a matter of challenging their domination of politics and economics. It’s also about challenging their idea of ‘character’, their behaviour, and their model of masculinity.




[1] P. Bourdieu, P. and J-P. Passeron, . (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, Sage

[2] C. Wright Mills, 1956 [2000] The Power Elite, Oxford University Press, p.14.

[3] See A. Sayer (2005) The Moral Significance of Class, Cambridge University Press, and A. Lareau (2003) Unequal Childhoods, University of California Press

[4] Duffell, Wounded Leaders, pp.46-7



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