Capitalism Is Making Us All Miserable — Even the Superrich

Capitalism imposes massive suffering on the poor and working class. But even the detestable superrich are being made miserable by the sadistic things market competition implores them to do to the rest of us.

A scene from HBO’s Succession. (HBO)

Last week, The Guardian ran a column entitled “I’m a therapist to the super-rich: they are as miserable as Succession makes out.” At face value, the piece is pure clickbait: a textbook example of the kind of headline that tends to drive traffic in a social media economy that thrives on provocation. And sure enough, it’s been greeted by an all-too-predictable deluge of comments expressing a mixture of schadenfreude and lack of sympathy for the exorbitantly wealthy. Let a thousand quote tweets bloom.

But the op-ed penned by Clay Cockrell — a psychotherapist who by chance became a specialist in treating ultrawealthy individuals and who now finds HBO’s Succession closer to documentary than drama — is well worth reading for the flicker of insight it offers into the inner lives of the superrich.

Just as the headline suggests, many of Cockrell’s clients find happiness elusive despite the unfathomable personal freedom and material comfort that come from wealth. Having indulged their children, some struggle to be effective parents. Many reportedly have trouble forming noninstrumental or nontransactional relationships, find it difficult to trust those around them, and feel devoid of meaning or purpose in life. The issue of money itself, meanwhile, is both prickly and uncomfortable, and it’s clear from existing research that many wealthy people experience a kind of perpetual status anxiety rather than the sense of security one might expect. As Cockrell writes:

Money is awkward to talk about. Money is wrapped up in guilt, shame, and fear. There is a perception that money can immunise you against mental-health problems when actually, I believe that wealth can make you — and the people closest to you — much more susceptible to them.

What’s noteworthy here is entirely separate from how most of us rightly feel about extreme wealth, let alone some burning need to increase our compassion toward the exorbitantly rich. It goes without saying that people with real problems will always be more deserving of sympathy than those who fly around in private jets, reside in gaudy mansion houses, or sit atop the gilded managerial hierarchies of large corporations. Being underpaid and exploited is a much more common experience than being wealthy, and the psychological toll it takes inarguably represents a greater injustice than whatever pathologies a handful of yacht owners are currently litigating with the help of well-paid therapists.

Nor, I think, is the real takeaway some trite rehash of the old cliché that happiness can’t be bought. What’s ultimately striking about Cockrell’s piece has more to do with what it suggests about the near impossibility of reconciling the possession of extreme wealth with basic moral or ethical impulses or other human traits. Some ultrawealthy people, of course, are simply incapable of empathy or compassion to begin with, and as such, feel zero remorse about exploiting and manipulating the world around them. In one estimate by journalist Jon Ronson, instances of psychopathy are four times higher among CEOs than among the general population — giving us plenty of reason to believe that the cloistered world of the elite boasts a disproportionate number of Patrick Batemans.

Nevertheless, even on the basis of this somewhat jaw-dropping estimate, we’re still talking about a rate of psychopathy that’s less than 5 percent. The vast majority of ultrarich people, then, aren’t literally psychopaths — even if many regularly do things that cause immense harm, stress, and suffering to other people. Being extremely rich is thus, at least for some, a constant psychological tug-of-war. It’s not that the wealthy are oppressed by capitalism, but rather that they are captive to it like everybody else — and, as the biggest beneficiaries of our hierarchical economic system, they are often given a bird’s-eye-view of its depredations.

As Jacobin’s Meagan Day put it in 2017, capitalism ultimately “forces everyone, including the ruling class, into a position of market dependence and market discipline.” The result, as Vivek Chibber argues, is moral and ethical subordination to the hollow dictates of exchange value and rapacious competition:

Simply surviving the competitive battle thus forces the capitalist to prioritize the qualities associated with the “entrepreneurial spirit”. . . . Whatever his prior socialization might have been, he quickly learns that he will have to conform to the rules attached to his location or his establishment will be driven under. It is a remarkable property of the modern class structure that any significant deviation by a capitalist from the logic of market competitiveness shows up as a cost in some way — a refusal to dump toxic sludge manifests as a loss in market share to those who will; a commitment to use safer but more expensive inputs shows up as a rise in unit costs, and so on. Capitalists thus feel an enormous pressure to adjust their normative orientation — their values, goals, ethics, etc. — to the social structure in which they are embedded, not vice versa. . . . The moral codes that are encouraged are those that help the bottom line.

Unless you’re a psychopath, being exorbitantly wealthy often necessarily involves painful contortions of the soul. Insofar as it’s possible to generalize about a vague and contested concept like “human nature,” there is something profoundly unnatural about exploiting and dominating other people, just as it’s deeply inhuman and antisocial to have the majority of your relationships be defined by proximity to money.

With the introduction of something like a global wealth tax, the unearned billions of the superrich could be redistributed to relieve the actual burdens faced by the vast majority currently exploited under capitalism. If nothing else, those in the former category might consequently have to spend a bit less time sitting on a therapist’s couch.