Rich people are not an oppressed minority

So, ‘wealth therapy.’ Let’s talk about it, because it’s become the subject of a number of trend pieces, and at the same time that it makes me want to crack up and spit out my tea, it also makes me want to cry, because it’s emblematic of so much that is wrong with this country. This is the state we have reached as a society, one in which we are supposed to literally cry for the poor little rich people, who need to go to special therapy treatments to deal with the immense psychological burden of being wealthy. They are, you see, an oppressed, misunderstood, tormented class, and we are bad and should feel bad for criticising them alongside class inequality.

I confess that when I first heard about this, I didn’t believe that it was an actual thing. I couldn’t. It seemed like such a beautiful piece of avant garde performance art, a commentary on society, and I had to check bylines to see if these stories were set in San Francisco, where these kinds of parodies tend to come to fruition. In a region where economic inequality is skyrocketing over the rest of the nation, with an income gap of over a quarter of a million dollars between the top and the bottom and class war simmering beneath the surface at all times, mockeries of the rich like this are ubiquitous.

But it turns out that it’s not actually a parody. Wealth therapy is an actual thing that people pay money for, and there are therapists quite happy to provide it — for a hefty fee, of course. Since it’s traditional for therapists themselves to attend therapy, one wonders how recursive this gets and if any therapists profiting from wealth therapy are forced to go to wealth therapy themselves to cope with the unimaginable distress of making too much money.

In a conversation a few years ago, someone tried to earnestly argue that the wealthy and powerful at the heads of major corporations are ‘an oppressed minority.’ He actually said those words, and I was taken aback. A statistical minority, to be sure, and we certainly use statistics when discussing power and oppression — as for example when we are talking about structural disparities (why, for example, are disabled people statistically more likely to be poor?). Very few people are as wealthy as these individuals, which is why we have terms like the ten percent and the one percent, because we need a way to discuss wealth in a familiar framework: In the US alone, the one percent earns 25 percent of the nation’s annual income, and it holds 40 percent of the wealth.

Oppressed, though? Are we seriously going there? Are we calling people who have every possible social privilege imaginable ‘oppressed’? Most wealthy people in the United States come from wealthy backgrounds — that right there eliminates a major social barrier from childhood, as they have access to high quality education, safe and ample housing, nutritious food, environmental enrichment, excellent health care, and much, much more. The vast majority of children in the United States do not grow up in the conditions that the children of the wealthy do, and they don’t come into vast amounts of money and corporate holdings when they come of age. Even when parents claim to be ‘teaching their children’ about how money works by making them work or taking their trust funds away, those children have the kind of financial security that the vast majority of people of any age can’t even imagine.

The wealthy can pay for anything they need: Every single imaginable life necessity is covered, with no questions about whether they will struggle to pay for emergencies. And, of course, their disposable income is vast, allowing them to purchase multiple homes and vehicles, boats (what is it with wealthy people and boats?), and so much more. They have fine art collections and indulge themselves in any hobbies they feel like. Sure, they also contribute to charity and engage in philanthropic activities, and some aren’t even doing it from the tax break or as a result of social pressure and some vague, niggling sense of guilt over economic and social inequality.

This is not what oppression looks like. Oppression is a systemic cultural devaluation, the knowledge that you don’t have a safety net, that you are not welcome in some parts of society and may be actively endangered if you try to enter them. Oppression is being refused service at the lunch counter, is being unable to pay for gender confirmation surgery, is being unable to buy food for your kids, is being shot by police, is being forcibly institutionalised, is being treated like garbage instead of a human being. Oppression is torment at the hands of society, in some form or another, to varying degrees — maybe you’re middle class, but it’s not going to stop you from being arrested on your own doorstep for being black.

Rich people? Not oppressed. They do not fit within even the most generous definitions of oppression. There’s no dangerous stigma to being rich. Yes, a lot of society hates rich people and what they symbolise, but it doesn’t affect them on a day to day basis — and lots of people hate those associated with power and oppression in general, because, again, of what they symbolise. People have good reason to dislike cops, to dislike crooked prosecutors, to dislike bankers. They aren’t in a position to discriminate against them. Just as there’s no such thing as reverse racism, there’s no such thing as reverse classism — you have to have the power to reinforce your distaste for a given social group to be dealing out oppression. It’s not oppressive to demand justice, to ask for a redistribution of wealth, to make rich people uncomfortable by challenging their social role. It’s oppressive to perpetuate oppression, which is what rich people are doing — and they’re compounding that by insisting that it’s so very hard to be rich that the conversation needs to be centred around them, rather than the huge percentage of the population that’s suffering under their hands.

Sorry rich people: I have zero pity for your money problems.

Image: money money money, Alexey Krasavin, Flickr