I worry that this toppling statues lark is completely arse about face. Toppling the statues of the last 300 years should surely be associated with some alteration in the power structures of oppression. We should be able to say – these ideas that these people represented are no longer amongst us. I think that assessment would be wrong. But there are bigger problems than it being an empty gesture – symbolism of the worst sort related to symbols – some of which are the worst sort. So if we start with Rhodes and Churchill in the UK and and Massey, Hamilton, Cook and von Tempsky in NZ then who do we continue with? The mausoleum of Marx because Stalinism killed millions? Do we let the Peter Fraser memorial be taken down by a future National government who derides social welfare in favour of social enterprise, or should we rename David Lange Park in Manukau because his government enabled neo-liberalism? Once the “knock down the statues” issue is out of the starting gate it applies to them all – not just the ones we disapprove. This is more than theoretical. In Bristol where the statue of a slave trader Edward Colston was felled and tossed into the Harbour the name Colston refers to multiple institutions and places. The city is home to White Ladies and Black Boy Roads with their meanings coming from the colonial slave trade as well as the most incredible assortment of beautiful architecture in the form of churches and other public infrastructure. The entire city was built on its profits as a port in large part as a result of the slave trade. Perhaps by this logic it should all go? After all the old money and the powerful institutions the trade created are still with us and not going anywhere no matter the fate of the statues.
Meanwhile we are exorcising the memory of an older set of imperialists at the very same time that the newer set of the white patrician establishment – Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, Graeme Hart, Larry Page, George Soros, Jennifer Pritzker, the Chandler brothers and their ilk (who are not/not yet memorialised in stone in our parks and squares) are buying our present by implementing policies and norms that are by no means part of the popular will. I would argue that from Rhodes to the Churchills – the previous titans of colonialism were no worse than the current crop of billionaires. Just products of their time and context.
The philanthropic investing by the supposedly beneficent billionaires like Bill Gates and George Soros is nonetheless taking our world in directions that are utterly without democratic mandate even as they donate billions from their wealth. Peter Thiel puts his money into sea-steading – providing extra-state private homes for the very wealthy – and the investigation of life extending technologies. Can either of these be described as ‘philanthropy’ in any meaningful sense? I worked in international development long enough to understand the problems of top-down money from “benefactors”. Often it was nothing of the sort. Just as with the old capitalists legacy seems to be important. Christopher Chandler’s Think Tank – Legatum – has a legacy already. It crystallised the thinking on a no-deal Brexit. The investment for Chandler was pathetically small – a few millions of pounds. The hoped-for result – a disordered country and undervalued assets ripe for adventure capitalism of the free trade kind – is almost at the point of being delivered. What we need is for these rich people to be tax-paying citizens so that their unearned capital can be used in ways determined by democratic approaches. The people demanding that we topple the statues of colonialism don’t seem to have a vision of how to get rid of these contemporary colonialists who in some important ways are more damaging than their forebears. Today’s Merchant Venturers are colonising our minds and our thoughts, profiting from our DNA as well as damaging our bodies, our environment and our communities. The massive inequality brought about by the super-rich and their ethics-free ideas about what constitutes “the good” is impoverishing the health of our shared endeavours.
As Wilkinson and Pickett showed in The Spirit Level every social indicator is worse with massive inequality. From suicide and bullying to poor health and crime the blights on our landscape lie at the feet of the super rich and those in governments of both left and right who have singly failed to arrest policies that have allowed inequality to blossom. Moreover the solution is easily implementable and – now that everyone can see just how effectively some governments were mobilised in the face of the Covid virus – perfectly possible. It’s just an effective tax regime and an end to tax havens and dark money. It probably requires a more grown up political class who don’t mistake symbols with the actual structures of power.