It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good documentary on the BBC, let alone an essential one. But for those who haven’t seen it, I really recommend Jacques Peretti’s outstanding series on the super-rich, which you can still see on podcast here. I watched the first of its two parts this week and it’s a really powerful piece of work; elegant, disturbing and reminiscent of Adam Curtis, in the way that it combines archive footage, clever choice of music and striking imagery to create an infuriating, mesmerising and oddly bewitching exploration of the conspicuous consumption of the one percent.
Peretti is an excellent presenter, coolly ironic, intelligent, attentive and amused as he drifts in and out of garden parties, millionaire houses, and joshes with salesmen flogging watches worth a quarter of a million pounds. But Louis Theroux he isn’t. And his programme isn’t one of those fascinated and half-admiring ‘gosh look how much the rich spend’ pieces that you regularly find in the Daily Mail. On the contrary it’s a forensic and remorseless analysis of how Britain was transformed into tax haven for the super-wealthy with the collusion of successive governments.
Inequality is sometimes described by some of its mainstream critics as if it were an unfortunate but accidental process. Peretti shows how both Conservative and Labour consciously used the ‘nom dom’ tax loophole to convert the UK into a tax haven and converted the London property market into a dumping ground for speculative international capital.
The story he tells amounts to a real-life Hunger Games dystopian fable, in which ‘trickle down’ economics became a pretext for a vast transfer of wealth upwards; in which a tiny economic elite was able to amass unimaginable wealth while the majority of the population saw its incomes fall or stagnate; in which the property market boosted prices to the point when Londoners on low or median incomes cannot afford to buy a home or rent property; in which officials from Inland Revenue went on to advise millionaires and celebrities on how to reduce their tax bill.
Interviews with economists like Ha Joon Chang and the social geographer Danny Dorling add real weight to what is effectively a tele-essay on the disastrous consequences of an economy organized for the benefit of a super-rich class that is unaccountable and uninterested in anything but its own interests. Along the way there are some priceless and essential quotes, from the American millionaire who tells Peretti that the UK is one of the best tax havens in the world, to these chilling observations from Peter Rees, former head of planning at the City of London:
‘We have a housing bubble in London that is fuelled by an almost limitless swathe of international capital. There’s no end to that supply. It’s constantly being generated from Russia, and China and the Middle East….Investors in the residential real estate market in London is perceived even better than gold bricks, which you have to hide in a gold vault and you can actually keep an eye on them. But inside these things are just containers for this capital that you would otherwise put in a bank vault, which is why I refer to these as safety deposit boxes.’
Peretti’s analysis of London and Thatcherite economics reminded me of the early 1980s, when I wrote one of my first ever pieces for the now defunct Labour Party magazine New Socialist, about the gentrification of Docklands. That piece will forever be associated in my mind for the immortal response from the magazine’s editor when I asked him if I would get paid for that piece, only to be told ‘ The Labour Party doesn’t pay little people.’
But what I also remember was how the new quango created by Thatcher to oversee the gentrification/regeneration of Docklands with luxury flats and private airports was looking even then, to reconfigure London as a pole of attraction for foreign investment to take its place alongside Hong Kong. This was what globalisation meant, and the plans were already in place for the transformation whose consequences Peretti analyses so well, even before the word was being used
Not all the millionaires and billionaires who Peretti interviews are comfortable with the results. Some of them like the amiable director of Phones4U are quite happy to pay taxes. Others share the anxieties of Dorling, Ja Joon Chang and others that inequality has reached dangerous and economically and socially destabilising proportions. One American compares inequality to watering flowers – a little bit helps them grow while too much drowns them – and then speculates that the ‘pitchforks’ might be coming for men like him.
Others clearly couldn’t care less and are quite happy for the situation to continue just the way it is. Like Kevin Green, king of the buy-to-let market, who owns 700 properties and holds ‘wealth seminars’ for wannabe property owners, and would have had to be made up if he wasn’t real already. In one jaw-dropping but comical scene he tells his audience how he gets up each morning and self-motivates by telling himself ‘If I wasn’t me, I would so want to be me’, before getting them to chant the same slogan, like Tom Cruise’s deranged sex guru in Magnolia.
Green means it and his audience clearly want to be him too. Watching Peretti’s film did not inspire this particular viewer to want to become Kevin Green at all, but whether in the end the situation that Peretti analyses isn’t just a question of whether the rich are obnoxious or appealing individuals. What the gilded world that he describes so well is the product a systemic transformation in society, and it is difficult to watch his documentary without a growing sense of outrage and revulsion that it was allowed to happen.
And that’s precisely why anyone concerned with the kind of world we have built ought to watch this brilliant and illuminating contribution to a debate that will ultimately determine whether or not we are able to achieve a better one.