“As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital.”
– Karl Marx, Capital
Reading the Australian Financial Review’s annual Rich 200 list is always an education. First there’s the money. This time last year, the richest 200 people in the country had a combined wealth of $283 billion. Today, they hold $342 billion: an increase of $59 billion or 21 percent in one year – and up 93 percent since 2013.
Instead of using this colossal wealth to house the homeless, build new hospitals or transform the electricity grid, our social system means that the Rich 200 get to spend as they please. Rich List magazine shows us how they do so. A portion of the Rich 200’s wealth – more money than most of us can imagine, but actually a small portion relative to their fortunes – goes on luxury consumption. Normal people might catch a plane. Rich List readers choose between Gulfstream and Dassault private jets – each has a full page ad. Advertisements for pearls, diamonds, luxury travel and real estate jostle for advertising space with the latest Maserati.
Anthony Pratt ($15.57 billion, no. 1), owner of the Visy packaging empire, poses with his private jet while holding an obviously empty cardboard box, as if in mockery of the work of 9,500 workers who create every cent of his fortune. Harry Triguboff ($13.54 billion, no. 3) poses with top hat and a Monopoly board. Lang Walker ($4.7 billion, no. 14) stands ankle deep in the water at his personal Fijian resort, his seaplane whirring in the background. Justin Hemmes ($1.06 billion, no. 88) sits for his photo at a lush banquet table, re-creating the style of painting popular with the Dutch bourgeoisie when their empire was plundering the world.
Normal folk might flick through a Kmart catalogue. Rich List readers see a different world in the magazine’s fashion photos. He wears a $4,600 overcoat, $1,650 pants, $835 shirt, $1,180 loafers and a Patek Phillippe Rose Gold Perpetual Calendar and Chronograph from J Farren-Price costing $368,550 (more than a third of a million dollars for a watch!). She wears a $9,270 jacket, $4,820 skirt, $1,900 shoes and a Tiffany platinum ring priced at $277,500.
Then there’s the real estate. The magazine reports on software entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes ($9.63 billion, no. 6) spending $100 million last year buying a Sydney harbourside mansion. Cannon-Brookes’ business partner Scott Farquhar ($9.75 billion, no. 5) lives next door, slumming it in a $70 million abode. The Pratt family lives in Raheen, the Kew mansion once owned by the Catholic Church and used to house Melbourne’s archbishop. We read that Paul Salteri ($1.57 billion, no. 54) “has made headlines in the past few years with record-setting buying and selling of Sydney’s elite residential property, including the purchase of a $27 million penthouse overlooking the Sydney Opera House, and the $20 million sale of a waterfront mansion in the suburb of Northbridge”.
Though most of the Rich 200 revel in this conspicuous consumption, it’s not the most crucial thing about them. Their money is not just money: it’s capital. The capitalist becomes, as Karl Marx put it, “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will”. And capital has a logic: expand or perish. The capitalists’ mindset and personality, their life activity – their soul – must be turned to accumulating further capital, or risk being overtaken by their rivals. The “restless never ending process of profit-making alone” becomes the point of their life.
In human terms, “capital personified with consciousness and a will” comes across as a sickness. At a mundane level, this pathology is visible as a personality trait among many of the Rich 200. The AFR, for instance, reports that for Patrick Grove ($885 million, no. 44), “even a nine figure personal valuation won’t let him relax. ‘Something inside me just won’t let me’, Grove says. ‘The markets are so big, there’s so much opportunity, there are competitors everywhere. If I took a day off, I’d feel like I was missing out.’”
Anthony Pratt’s recollection of his father Richard picking up and straightening bent nails discarded on a factory floor has a similar ring to it, as does Pratt senior’s habit of under-ordering Chinese takeaway to avoid waste (though often opening a bottle of Grange to go with the meal – the miser’s instinct for thrift battles it out with the demands of conspicuous consumption for many of the super rich).
Perhaps a similar sentiment motivated pubs kingpin Justin Hemmes to order the strip search of Danny Luu, one of his employees, in 2010. Hemmes spent years underpaying his workers by using an old enterprise agreement that enshrined inferior wages and conditions. But that one of his workers was stealing sent him into a rage that led to Luu being strip searched, his apartment trashed and Hemmes up on charges of false imprisonment (settled out of court some years later). In these events, according to court documents, Hemmes asked Luu: “Do you know who the fuck I am?”
What is a peculiar, unpleasant character trait of capital as individuals, becomes a full blown psychopathology when elevated to the main way our society organises production. Joel Bakan’s 2003 movie The Corporation compares a seven-point US Federal Bureau of Investigation definition of a psychopath to the way a modern, rational, capital-increasing corporation is forced to behave by this process of competitive accumulation. It’s an exact match. Callous disregard for the feelings of other people. Incapacity to maintain human relationships. Reckless disregard for the safety of others. Continual lying in the pursuit of gain. Incapacity to experience guilt. The list goes on.
We can see this psychopathic impulse in the way that the Rich 200 treat the people who produce all this wealth – their workers. A living, breathing, dreaming, acting human is reduced to a factor of production, subject to the capitalist’s will, with something essential to our humanity – our ability to labour, by brain and by hand – turned into a commodity to be bought by the capitalist at the lowest cost.
Exploitation is essential to generating a profit. Raise the pace of work, lower the pay to the worker, and an increased profit results. So it’s not surprising to find a roll call of gross worker exploitation in the Rich 200. There’s Russell Withers ($1.33 billion, no. 67) whose 7-Eleven franchise turned worker exploitation into a highly profitable business model. There are shopping centre owners such as Frank Lowy ($8.56 billion, no. 7) and John Gandel ($6.6 billion, no. 10) who have drawn fire from United Voice, the union for cleaners, over their chains of contracting out and rock bottom wages for their cleaning workforce.
There’s John Camilleri ($816 million, no. 114), whose Baiada chicken processing empire, as recently as 2015 at least, runs on illegally low wages, paid through a network of shelf companies described by the Fair Work Ombudsman as “like syndicated crime”. As Red Flag reported: “Breaking your back for 18 hours a day on $11 an hour. Going home every night to a house your boss forced you into, crammed with 20 other people sharing a single bathroom. That’s the life of hundreds of migrant workers in Baiada’s poultry processing plants, according to an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman”.
There’s the viciously anti-union Frank Costa and family ($802 million, no. 118), who have resisted multiple attempts to organise their low paid and migrant farm and horticulture workforce. Tony Perich and family ($1.76 billion, no. 36) enrich themselves by paying workers from the Philippines 25 percent less than the established rates at their plant at the Shepparton dairy operated by Freedom Foods, according to the National Union of Workers.
There’s John Richards and Family ($729 million, no. 133), whose family business won the J.J. Richards case, which legitimised the legal tactic of simply refusing to bargain with their workers, thus making it impossible for the workers to take legally protected industrial action. This gaping loophole in Labor’s 2009 “Fair Work” legislation was eventually closed by the Rudd/Gillard government; reversing this amendment is still Liberal Party policy.
Jack Cowin ($2.79 billion, no. 25) is one of several Rich 200 listers who took full advantage of a major loophole in Labor’s Fair Work legislation, which became operational in 2009. By keeping alive “zombie agreements” made under the previous Liberal government’s WorkChoices laws, Cowin underpaid workers compared to the new legal minimums. According to a 2016 report in the Age, the Hungry Jack's agreement “excludes penalties, and pays lower casual loadings” than the award. An analysis by Josh Cullinan of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union shows one Hungry Jack's employee was underpaid about $5,000 a year, while others were paid 30 to 40 percent less than the award. “Look after the pennies”, goes one old saying, “and the pounds will look after themselves”. Rip workers off thousands, another version might run, and the billions seem to look after themselves. The only people who come out looking as bad as Cowin and his ilk are unions such as the SDA and United Voice that have failed to challenge such agreements.
A business model like this relies on protection – legal, political and sometimes straight out muscle – to keep the profits flowing.
We get some idea of what’s required to rise to the top by looking at the richest family in Australia – the Pratts. Anthony Pratt, reports the AFR, “talks of life lessons being passed on by ‘osmosis’ and ‘around the kitchen table’” from his father, the late Richard Pratt, from whom Pratt junior inherited the Visy packaging empire.
A few of old man Pratt’s tricks of the trade, outlined in a Sunday Age piece in 2010, included business practices such as “bribes, thugs, systematic tax evasion, intimidation, the use of prostitutes and the purchase of political influence”. According to the piece, Richard Pratt employed Hell’s Angels bikies to intimidate striking workers. He bribed mid-level managers who awarded him packaging contracts by giving them brown paper bags full of cash, free accommodation and extravagant parties. Former prime ministers were on Pratt senior’s payroll, along with a former chief commissioner of Victoria Police.
SAS veterans and other “security” personnel were also paid – many of whom helped John Howard in his attack on the Maritime Union in 1998. When Visy executive Alan Hancock fell out with Richard Pratt and fed information to the corporate regulators, he was beaten and robbed by three men in a carpark, who told him “don’t cause trouble for the Pratts”.
Eventually, the corporate regulator took down Pratt senior over a cartel arrangement conservatively estimated to have netted Visy $700 million. The Federal Court fined Visy $36 million. Chump change for a family like the Pratts.
You can bank on all in the capitalist class being at least as ruthless as the Pratts, if need be. But Australia’s business elites have decided over the years that, for the good order of their system of exploitation, it’s often preferable to outsource large parts of the protection they need to others. The police and the courts are part of this: another is the system of politics that guarantees business as usual.
One way of protecting the interests of the sickeningly rich is through political intervention. The recent foray of Clive Palmer ($4.09 billion, no. 15) into federal politics, splashing a claimed $50 million to funnel the preferences of the disillusioned towards the Coalition, would be regarded as money well spent.
For some of the Rich 200, ripping workers off and distracting them with racism can be a highly profitable business model. Kerry Stokes ($5.69 billion, no. 11) owns Coates Hire, which pushed through an 18 percent wage cut and cuts to annual leave and penalty rates in 2017. The workers there will no doubt be pleased to hear that, since then, Stokes has nearly doubled his wealth – from a mere $2.9 billion to $5.69 billion. Stokes also owns Channel 7, which played a prominent role in keeping alive Pauline Hanson’s career as a racist political celebrity.
Gina Rinehart ($13.81 billion, no. 2) is another billionaire who enjoys treating us to reactionary political views. “Let’s get through the class warfare smokescreen ... If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain; do something to make more money yourself – spend less time drinking, or smoking and socialising, and more time working”, she said a few years back.
In 2013 Fairfax newspapers reported that Rinehart had used her private jet to ferry herself and politicians (including Barnaby Joyce and Julie Bishop) to a 10,000-guest wedding hosted by her billionaire business partner, described as “among the most lavish weddings in Indian history”. Taxpayers were billed $12,000 for politicians’ travel. In 2012, Rinehart said:
“Those who hurt most when investments are killed off ... are those who usually vote for the anti-business socialist parties ... Why not ask whether lowering the minimum wages and lowering taxes would make employers hire more people? ... Furthermore, Africans want to work, and its workers are willing to work for less than $2 per day. Such statistics make me worry for this country's future.”
Gerry Harvey ($1.90 billion, no. 40) is straightforward. After the 2016 election returned a minority government, and a string of leadership coups in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd/Abbott/Turnbull years meant that no government could chart a course for Australian capitalism that pleased Harvey, he declared: “The only cure we’ve got is to have a dictator like in China or something like that. Our democracy at the moment is not working”.
Others (though not many) take a more progressive stance. Cannon-Brookes, as a tech entrepreneur, is free to promote green energy and is outspoken against Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton’s Decryption Act, passed late last year, which requires all tech companies to create a route to enable government agencies to access encrypted user data. It’s notable that Cannon-Brookes’ objection seems to have at least as much to do with the effects on tech entrepreneurs such as himself as it does with the increasing surveillance and control by the state.
One of the most striking things, reading the Rich 200 coverage, is the sheer variety of avenues for making a billion or two. Some, like Crown Casinos owner James Packer ($4.94 billion, no. 14), poker machine boss Len Ainsworth ($4.01 billion, no. 17), and Bruce Mathieson ($1.32 billion, no. 68), who owns 25 percent of the “hotels and pokie-owning giant” ALH (with Woolworths owning the other 75 percent), are parasites in a parasitic industry, specialising in fleecing working class people on a massive scale for no social gain.
Others, like Ian Roberts ($500 million, no. 190), fatten their bank balances by turning life’s necessities – in Roberts’ case, aged care – into a for-profit enterprise, financed overwhelmingly by the government (which provided $416 million out of $594 million in revenues for Roberts’ Regis Healthcare last year).
In his extended interview with the AFR, Jack Cowin waxes lyrical on a new non-beef burger that Hungry Jack’s is developing with the CSIRO to feed billions of people while saving land, water and greenhouse emissions used up by beef burgers. In another interview, he’s talking about his new investment in Apache Industrial Services, which provides services like painting, scaffolding, insulation, and fireproofing to the booming shale oil industry. Major clients include Exxon, famous for being major funders of climate change denial “science”. On a list of companies most responsible for global emissions since 1988, Exxon comes in at number five. There are a few dollars in giving a green veneer to capitalism, but many more in destroying the planet.
You’d think that not much would worry the Rich 200. And mainly, you’d be right. But reading this year’s Rich List magazine, there are glimmers of what might keep them up at night.
First, there’s a slow-moving investment strike. As “capital personified”, the Rich 200 must keep investing to keep piling up the wealth. But many billionaires – especially in property – note that they are slowing down investment and new projects, keeping more of their wealth as cash and waiting for opportunities rather than reinvesting in the current business climate. Quite simply, ten years after the global financial crisis, the billionaires don’t seem to have a lot of faith in their own system.
Second, they worry that the rest of us are also losing faith in their system. The magazine sports Jack Ma ($US35.6 billion, China’s richest billionaire) on the cover. The payments platforms built by his company AliBaba’s 100,000 employees have made Ma a worldwide business celebrity – and a colossal fortune. But he’s not relaxed about the prospects. “If we cannot lift most people out of poverty, if we cannot help most of the poor share technology, share the prosperity, we may be in big trouble”, he says.
As the AFR notes: “Another day, another billionaire fretting about the economic order that has made him rich”, pointing out that the interview with Ma was “a week before JP Morgan Chase chairman and chief executive Jamie Dimon told investors that the American Dream was ‘fraying for many’, and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio said capitalism needed to ‘evolve or die’”.
With working class struggle at historically low levels in many parts of the world, these statements represent a long term worry, rather than a pressing need to change course. But the potential always exists for things to shift rapidly. Just ask Jack Gance ($989 million, no. 92) and Mario Verrocchi ($960 million, no. 97), whose cut-price Chemist Warehouse chain grew to market dominance on a foundation of rock bottom wages, endemic casual work and a corporate cover-up of issues like the sickening, systematic sexual harassment by management at its Preston warehouse in Melbourne. A strike by several hundred warehouse workers earlier this year brought the corporate empire to a halt and won significant wage increases.
In Capital, Karl Marx discusses the struggle over the length of the working day – as vital a topic for 19th century capitalists as it is today for Jack Ma and his ilk. After discussing the issue from the viewpoint of capital, Marx writes that “suddenly the voice of the labourer, which had been stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises” and addresses the capitalist: “You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the odour of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast”.
All their wealth, all their power, depends on our labour. They can outsource, downsize, rationalise and “right-size us”, but that fact still haunts them. Their worry is our hope.