Guido Alfani is professor of economic history at Bocconi University, Milan. His latest book is "As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West" (Princeton University Press)
Your book covers the period from the Middle Ages until today. How has Western society’s view of the wealthy evolved over that time?
In the Middle Ages, the perception of the wealthy (or at least, of wealthy commoners) was rather negative: they were regarded as greedy sinners. As such, they did not have a proper place in a Christian society, and they were required not to show their wealth.
Today, becoming wealthy is a shared aspiration across large strata of Western societies, and some exceptionally rich individuals are regarded almost as heroes, to be admired and imitated.
In between, we have many centuries of social and cultural development during which the wealthy became increasingly accepted and socially respectable. This process began in the late Middle Ages, when in the most prosperous and economically advanced areas of Europe – for example, central-northern Italy – the wealthy had become so rich, and so numerous, that they could no longer be easily dismissed as sinners. So they were assigned a role to play in society, which primarily consisted of acting as private reserves of money into which the community could tap in times of dire need.
How much has wealth inequality changed over that time?
We now have, for at least some parts of Europe, series of inequality measures that go back six or even seven centuries. Over this period, we find an overarching tendency for wealth inequality to grow, a tendency which was only interrupted by major catastrophes: the Black Death in the 14th century and the World Wars in the 20th … In Britain, the richest 1 per cent might have owned about one-quarter of all wealth in 1520, rising to about 55 per cent at the turn of the 19th century and peaking at almost 70 per cent on the eve of the First World War [it then slumped because of the two World Wars]. Compared to that peak, the wealth share of the British one-percenters today is modest, at about 23 per cent in 2020, but it has been growing steadily from the early 1980s. This resumption of wealth inequality growth is a common trend across the West and there is no reason to think that it will be easily restrained.
In researching the book, what did you learn about how the wealthy see their role in the world?
As always when human beings are concerned, motivations are disparate. Some among the super-rich accumulate for the simple pleasure of growing even richer – what I dub “the curse of Smaug”, after the dragon guarding his treasure in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Others believe, or claim to believe, in some sort of social responsibility or in the need to make a good use of one’s wealth. As the American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie stated in 1889, “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced”, and he acted on this using most of his fortune to found various benevolent institutions. Interestingly, Carnegie is also well-known for his rather rapacious attitude to business and for having exploited his employees: the super-rich are as complicated and imperfect as any other human being.
How were the wealthy seen in a religious context?
From a medieval Christian point of view the wealthy were sinners. Their sin was avarice or greed, which, according to the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, consisted in an excess in retaining things (leading to a lack of humanity and mercy) and an excess in taking things (leading to violence and treachery). This led the wealthy to be scorned and generated in them a constant worry about the afterlife, which often induced them to leave substantial bequests to charities and religious institutions …
Two or three centuries later, under the Reformation, wealthy businessmen understood their material success as having a religious significance: what the German sociologist Max Weber called beruf, or “the calling”. But the re-interpretation of the wealthy as virtuous individuals began well before the Reformation. For example, in the 14th century, a Florentine, Francesco Pegolotti (a merchant and banker himself), in a foreword to his treatise on commercial practices claimed that a “just and authentic merchant” had to possess many virtues, including righteousness, trustworthiness, good manners, honourable behaviour, caution, friendliness, and should be regular in his religious practice and in giving alms and avoid usury and gambling. This is clearly no longer the portrait of a sinner, not even a repentant one.
Is the way that the wealthy are viewed in the West today shaped by a Christian past?
When the wealthy were freed from their sins, so to say, by giving them a proper place in society, they were still expected to give something back: to help their communities, especially in times of major crises such as a war, a plague or a famine. This “good use” of riches is what made it possible to accept the idea that the wealthy could be good Christians. The wealthy, by and large, did perform this role across the centuries – and rather clearly, there is still an expectation that they do so today.
What did you learn about the relationship between wealth and politics?
An important lesson is that Western societies have always looked at the political involvement of the wealthy, and especially of the super-rich, as somewhat troubling. The title of my book is a paraphrasis of the 14-century French philosopher Nicole Oresme, who stated that “The super-rich are so unequal and exceed and overcome the others regarding their political power so much that it is reasonable to think that they are among the others as God is among men. … The cities which are governed democratically … should send them in exile or banish them, as such cities try and pursue equality of all”.
Oresme himself was translating and adapting Aristotle’s Politics. So there is an ancient tradition in Western culture that strongly suggests that the political involvement of the super-rich is not desirable, as they risk capturing the institutions. This is precisely what happened in 15th-century Florence with the rise of the Medici family. In the book, I argue that today's Western societies are, from a historical point of view, exceptionally accepting of super-rich individuals who turn politicians and who sometimes ascend to the position of heads of government. Silvio Berlusconi, who was first elected prime minister of Italy in 1994, is an early case. The problem here is whether the political success of the super-rich has also been obtained through their exceptional command of economic resources; that is, by acting as gods among men.
You talk about the “social role” that the rich are expected to play during crises. What is that role, where does it originate, and how do we see it changing today?
Helping their communities in times of crisis is the main role assigned to the rich from the late Middle Ages. This was apparent, for example, during wars, when the rich had to accept paying exceptional taxes and to provide loans, either voluntarily or by means of “forced loans”. They continued to perform this role at least until the World Wars, when they were called on to subscribe various emergency loans. If they balked at this, then they had to fear being forced to comply. For example, in Britain in 1917 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Andrew Bonar Law, explicitly threatened financiers with the confiscation of bank and insurance company assets should the capital raised by a new War Loan not meet a minimum amount. But in the 21st century, faced with a long series of crises, from the Great Recession to Covid-19 and beyond, across the West the wealthy have been exceptionally reluctant to contribute more, even on a temporary basis, and have successfully opposed reforms meant to increase their fiscal burden.
Is there anything we can learn from the past that can inform how we perceive or manage wealth as a society today?
From my point of view, the position of the wealthy in Western societies is intrinsically fragile. When applied to the current situation, this conclusion appears counter-intuitive, given the high level of command of economic (and social, cultural and political) resources which has been achieved by the wealthy in recent decades. This is, however, an unavoidable conclusion if we consider the broader historical picture, and there are even some signs that an awareness of the delicate position of the wealthy is growing – including among the wealthy themselves, as shown by the ongoing "In Tax We Trust" campaign (a petition signed by the rich to tax the rich).
If the wealthy persist in rejecting their traditional role, actively trying to avoid being made to contribute more during crises, then there are many historical reasons to think that this might lead to widespread anger, social unrest, and even anti-rich violence.