It’s easy to hate the rich but harder to justify it

A recent article in Vice, “You don’t hate charcuterie, you just hate rich people”, explained how the consumption of cold meats, a favourite of wealthy diners, has a noble working-class history and that we should celebrate this, free of guilt.

Without unpicking the class significance of pâté and cornichons here, the second half of the headline seems to imply that while hating charcuterie is wrong and worthy of reconsideration, hating the rich is just fine. Go ahead, fill your hatey boots.

You might expect this from a radically inclined outlet such as Vice, but the mainstream Washington Post last year ran an article with the headline “Why does everybody suddenly hate billionaires? Because they’ve made it easy”.

If the established media is wondering whether it is alright to hate the rich, on social media it is open season on the one per cent. In fact, on platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, the rich may be the only group you won’t be flamed for hating. But why is this? And is it acceptable?

There are several reasons we — rightly — no longer celebrate “masters of the universe” as we did in the 2000s. Inequality is at historically high levels in the US and UK: measured by the Gini coefficient, income inequality in both countries has grown considerably in recent decades (by how much is a matter of some debate).

While there are powerful economic pressures behind this shift, it is by no means a given that inequalities will grow. Policy matters. France has become less unequal, which may be why the French enjoy their charcuterie without a side serving of reverse status anxiety.

Added to this, we have serious generational inequality. Data from the US Federal Reserve shows that the boomers had a greater percentage of national wealth than Gen-X (my own cohort) and that Gen-X were wealthier than millennials at any given age, though the second difference was far less marked.

Perceptions matter too. America has an ostentatious billionaire class often lacking in self-awareness. It is easy to take a panel of Davos attendees laughing at the suggestion they should pay more tax and say that all rich people are like this. Here we are “othering” the rich and treating them as an undifferentiated group. Yet when I think about my rich acquaintances, they are mostly generous and decent, and pay their taxes. Some run businesses and, arguably, contribute far more to national wellbeing than I do.

Which brings us to polarisation. While meeting decent rich people might make one less likely to tar them all with the same brush, social media makes it considerably more likely we will interact with people who think like we do. Those with negative views of the rich tend to share and reinforce such opinions, often to the extent that people engage in an arms race over who can hate the rich the most.

I am not innocent here. As a student, I briefly owned a T-shirt with the slogan “Die Yuppie Scum”. But its audience was mostly…

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