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America has an Oedipus complex Trust-fund radicals want to marry Mother Earth

Rex (Alex Wong/Getty Images)


August 23, 2022   5 mins

As in Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Rex, we are witnessing a generational drama in which inheritors kill their proverbial father to marry their mother, in this case Mother Earth. The psychology behind this pattern is above my pay grade, but many of the richest people on the planet, and their heirs, now seem anxious to disparage the economic system that created their fortunes. With few exceptions, the new rich, and particularly their children and ex-wives, embrace a racial, gender and environmental agenda that, while undermining merit and economic growth, still leaves them on top of the heap.

The ideology of the mega-rich will shape our society for the next generation, in large part through philanthropy. The non-profit sector, the primary vehicle for inherited wealth to be laundered into political influence, has been growing rapidly; in the US, non-profits’ assets have grown nine-fold since 1980. In 2020, non-profits brought in $2.62 trillion in revenues, constituting over 5.6% of the US economy. Increasingly, much this money came from the new tech elite: among the most prolific donors were Jeff Bezos and his ex-wife, Mackenzie Scott; Bill Gates and his now-discarded wife, Melinda French Gates; Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and Laureen Powell Jobs, the Left-leaning publisher of the Atlantic and the widow of Apple’s founder.

This rise of non-profits is reminiscent of feudal times, when the rich and powerful donated to the Church to ensure that its message wouldn’t threaten their power. Indeed, our society is becoming more like the Middle Ages all the time, with entrepreneurial success becoming more difficult and property and wealth becoming ever more concentrated. “Inherited wealth”, notes Thomas Piketty, is making a “comeback”. In the US, according to the consulting firm Accenture, the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers will gift their heirs up to $30 trillion by 2030 and $75 trillion by 2060.

Of course, the use of inherited wealth to push Left-wing causes is nothing new. As Heather Mac Donald demonstrated in 1996, big-money foundations in the US have been bankrolling far-Left politics for several generations. But the rise of the tech oligarchy seems likely to accelerate this move to the gentrified Left. Many of these billionaires are still in their 30s and 40s but have accumulated more cash than anyone since the Gilded Age. And unlike their early 20th-century counterparts, today’s robber-barons — with a few notable exceptions, such as Peter Thiel — are decisively aligned with the Left. In 2020, five of the top eight donors to Joe Biden came from people tied to tech firms.

This is partly explained by Trump’s toxicity, which engendered something of an oligarchical jihad to overthrow a man who was both needlessly crass and potentially threatening to their monopolies. Particularly critical in the 2020 election was the weaponising of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which poured over $300 million into state and local election administration to stoke turnout. Conservatives claim, with some justification, that these efforts were concentrated in highly Democratic areas of swing states, and therefore may have tilted the outcome. But what is beyond question is that Zuckerberg and the others participated in what Time — owned by yet another oligarch, Marc Benioff, co-founder of Salesforce.com — gleefully described as “a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes”.

But at least you could make a compelling argument that it was a good idea to get rid of Trump. On other issues, however, such as race, policing, education, and gender, oligarchs and their non-profits continue to agitate for what are often societally disastrous policies.

The ultra-rich have been particularly attracted to draconian climate positions. By 2017, billionaires such as Tom Steyer — and powerful foundations like Rockefeller, Doris Duke, Walton, MacArthur, Hewlett, and George Soros’s Open Society — were sending hundreds of millions to leading environmental  groups. By contrast, the largest Right-wing foundation, Heritage, was attracting 50% or less than the biggest green non-profits. Jeff Bezos, amid his pandemic bonanza, announced $10 billion in gifts aimed mostly at progressive and green non-profits. The oligarchs’ philanthropy also provides a cushy home for climate bureaucrats, with the inheritor of the Jobs fortune now welcoming California’s chief regulator to head up her climate-focused $3 billion Waverley Street Foundation.

We can expect that this radicalisation will become even more obvious in the next generation of tech and finance heirs, such as the socialist offspring of the founders of Qualcomm, featured in a New York Times profile on “the rich kids who want to tear down capitalism”. Born into the gentry Left, these young trust-funders will be able to subsidise the most extreme elements of the progressive agenda without having to worry about how that agenda might affect a business they had nothing to do with building.

This rise of a small class of ultra-rich, yet non-productive, social influencers does not bode well for the future. In a profoundly dysfunctional political culture, the rich and their massive non-profits will enjoy an extraordinary power to set the public agenda by funding notionally grassroots activist groups and manipulating an increasingly gullible media, parts of which they already own or control.

Indeed, the power of these organisations could grow so great that the only real solution may be to check their influence through removing or altering their privileged tax status — non-profits generally pay 15% or less on their income than corporations — and forcing them to eschew politics. They may consider themselves, as progressive author David Callaghan suggests, the “enlightened rich”, but their bank accounts make them natural targets for redistribution. In some cases, the funded minions of the rich are morphing from grateful supplicants into something like the Jacobins of the French Revolution. Already, more Democrats support socialism than capitalism, with socialism particularly popular among the young. Much like their counterparts in the run-up to the French Revolution, our elites appear to be embracing revolutionary ideas that end up threatening, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “their own rights and even their existence”.

The adoption of self-destructive ideologies by the idle rich is nothing new; in fact, it’s a recurring pattern in modern history. In the 20th-century, members of the upper classes often embraced communism and even worked for the Soviet Union, whose founding credo was the annihilation of their own class. But while Stalinism may be out of fashion, charges of hypocrisy are not — and agitated young activists won’t long tolerate billionaires who lament climate change but fly their private jets to discuss the “crisis” in places like Davos. After all, if the world is on the verge of a global apocalypse, how can the luxurious lifestyles of so many of the world’s most public green advocates be acceptable?

Fearing the potential whirlwind, some tech titans and Wall Street oligarchs are already making emergency escape plans in case of civil unrest. But the real danger may be confiscation, as people recognise the enormous gap between oligarchic posturing and the reality of class relations. As the World Socialist Website puts it: “Charity and philanthropic patronage are aristocratic forms. They are a symptom of an unequal society in which resources have pooled to an irrational degree at one pole of society.”

Yet while the current oligarchs deserve opprobrium, the ultimate danger posed by the non-profit tsunami lies in their feckless embrace of a policy agenda that undermines the very essence of competitive capitalism. Like feudal lords, this new elite, emboldened by a common ideology, may continue to thrive in a world of frozen social relations, but only by destroying the very system that brought them their own good fortune. And, just as with Oedipus, it’s only a matter of time before that backfires in a disastrous fashion.


Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)

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Bob Null
Bob Null
1 year ago

But at least you could make a compelling argument that it was a good idea to get rid of Trump.” Most certainly! Look at how much better things are in America now that Joe Biden is President. (Note for the sarcasm-impaired: this is a sarcastic comment.)

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Null

LOL. And remember the apoplexy exhibited over the “power” and influence that the Koch Brothers had at once time? They are now mere pikers in this billionaire’s game. Oh, the hypocrisy of it all!

Lynne LeBlanc
Lynne LeBlanc
1 year ago

I’m not sure of the rationale behind supporting big tech and billionaire money to get rid of a problem one agrees with (i.e. “get rid of Trump”) yet decry everything else. This highlights the impossibility of our current dilemma: “get rid of Trump” even if it is done by illegal means. It just doesn’t work that way. Selling one’s soul for one thing keeps it in a cage for everything else to be bought (for the right price).

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Lynne LeBlanc

The Vietnamese vilage analogy: Destroying democracy in order to save it. From Trumpian toxicity which is not limited to Trump. They really wish for all those proles in the hinterlands to shut up, comply, and drink Victory Gin.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago

“Bill Gates and his now-discarded wife, Melinda French Gates” Um – she discarded him because he’s a sleazy little pervert. He was using her to play the “good husband & father” for the public. He’s a creep.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Being a creep doesn’t matter when you are worth that much money. The starry-eyed receivers of all that cash are complete and utter hypocrites.

Last edited 1 year ago by Warren Trees
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Like Democrat politicians Spitzer & Cuomo as well – both of whom cheated on lovely women for side dishes


Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago

“the real danger may be confiscation, as people recognise the enormous gap between oligarchic posturing and the reality of class relations.”
It’s impossible to maintain a stable society with the level of income inequality we currently have (at least in the USA).
If the wealthy oligarchs want to preserve their own freedom, they need to advocate for living wages, affordable housing, and universal health care.
Otherwise, they will have to live behind iron gates in constant fear of the kinds of violent overthrows that have occurred in the past.
It is in the best interests of the oligarchs to redistribute enough wealth that people are not so enraged that they “burn it all down.”
The best way to save capitalism is to put a floor underneath how desperately poor the population can become.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

I don’t care about people being much richer than myself. What I do care about is how the wealthy use their money to buy politicians.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

What are talking about? Many of them already live behind iron gates and weaponized security guards. It was a good laugh several years ago when Nancy Pelosi advocated for no walls on the southern border as pictures of her walled residential compound circulated online.

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Equating “income” with wealth as you have done is actually one of the best scams the elites ever came up with. An entrepreneur or professional who takes on enormous debt and has a negative net worth but finally achieves a high income will give up most of that money to taxes. In Canada I pay 54% of my income in taxes, plus another 13% of nearly everything I spend. But the truly wealthy only pay tax on their “income”, and their accountants have figured out how to ensure that they don’t book their income in any jurisdiction that will tax them. As the cry for more wealth redistribution grows louder and louder, watch what happens – as always it will be income and not wealth that gets targeted. Thus ensuring that the rich get richer and no one can claw their way up. Meritocracy has all but given way to nepotism and the new feudalism.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

If you wish to preserve your wealth and influence, go unnoticed. That is what I do.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I hope you lose both. Be careful.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

I was joking. I done never had any of either.

George McLellan
George McLellan
1 year ago

Was it Lenin who said â€œwhen it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract”?

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
1 year ago

Lenin was asked how did 11000 Russian communists conquer Russia and he replied ‘because the educated left were a bunch of useful idiots’.
Instead of class based marxism we now have green and race based marxism and both have the same bunch of ‘useful idiots’ supporting them without ever asking themselves would happen if BLM or XR actually became their govt

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

A very good analogy, and enjoyable to read. The sort of writing I look for on Unherd. As missionaries led to old style colonization, I fear we are seeing a merely updated version of the cross and the sword, the recolonization of the world by the self-anointed multi-national “great and good” under the banner of the Green (quite primitive and totemistic, really) Religion. They require a staggering degree of suspension of disbelief and individual discretion, in exchange for promises of survival, in a condition of increasing bondage.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  E. L. Herndon

Explain ‘..quite primitive and totemistic..’ as epithets for what you call the ‘Green Religion’ – most advocates of climate-friendly policies base their views on widely accepted scientific studies that have been subjected to quite fierce review. Or do you just mean to criticise the wealthy but hypocritical?

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago

…fierce review ? You’ve got to be joking Andrew. Any one who applies normal scientific skepticism to claims of climate catastrophe is immediately cancelled. “Widely accepted” means nought. Galileo was the exception to the widely accepted, but he was right.

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

Plato recognized that nepotism was one of the greatest threats to any meritocratic society. His radical solution in The Republic – the only way to avoid the wealthy using their power to tip the scales to give their (often less able) offspring unfair advantage – was to take children from their parents at birth and have them raised in institutions. Everyone starts at zero but gets the full enjoyment of the fruits of their own talent and effort during their lifetime, amassing whatever fortune they can. But no one gets to inherit anything – no one gets a leg up or to live off the success of another. I wouldn’t go as far as Plato proposed, but I would start taxing inheritance much more than income – to better incentivize productive activity and penalize sloth. Somehow we got it exactly backwards – taxing income and not wealth. It’s almost like the wealthy elites make the rules.

Saul Sorenti
Saul Sorenti
1 year ago

will simony ever be sinful to the woke ‘church’?
I have a dream that one day hipsters will consider the neo-liberalising of their souls as cringe, and all will live happily ever after

Brian Kullman
Brian Kullman
1 year ago

Philanthropy in the 19th and early 20th century provided goods and services to low income members of our society. Those roles have since been taken over by government, whose resources dwarf those of philanthropists. Philanthropy thus has redirected its energy and money into influencing government rather than to direct action to aid the poor.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 year ago

I appreciate this article is about America not the UK – but there is an interesting comparison between your view and the philanthropy of the rich & successful in victorian times that build many of the great cities in the UK.
Of course names like Colston built grand architecture and donated to local organisations to engender their own power and influence – but in those times government was smaller and taxed less, leaving the space for philanthropy.
Not for profit was largely beneficial in that era.
And now we are tearing down his name & image because posthumously we have taken a dislike to the way he made his money (and many like him, he’s merely an example here)

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

I doubt any of these elites could identify any plant or animal – they don’t really know any about Mother Earth at all


Neil Hollingsworth
Neil Hollingsworth
1 year ago

How can any conspiracy behind the scenes be good in any democratic nation? You have been listening too much to Sam Harris and his bad ideas about Trump and elections.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

the new rich embrace a racial, gender and environmental agenda that, while undermining merit and economic growth, still leaves them on top of the heap.”

The culture wart makes a lot more sense once you realize it’s just the same old class war wrapped up in fancy clothes.

Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago

Sorry to fawn, but this is an excellent piece. Nice research and reporting of a dismal trend.

Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago

Sorry to fawn, but this is an excellent piece! Thank you, Joel.
I have been following this dismal trend and recording the instances I found but this lays it out in all of its grotesque reality. Marked up and saved.

Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar
1 year ago

You need to be aware that the rich are becoming richer under the New Normal rules, so they have not jettisoned the concept of their own wealth, merely jettisoned the concept that their wealth is aided by the prosperity of many others.

Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago

Thank you Joel for this excellent reporting.

Richard Barrett
Richard Barrett
1 year ago

I have 2 words for Mr Kotkin: Koch Brothers.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

Seriously? They are no more than flies on an elephant’s bum, for heaven’s sake, compared to the level of wealth named above. Shall there be zero defenders of freedom in your world?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

Koch stayed married to a lovely woman for 25 years until he died (no talk of cheating either)
he did wonders for NYC – gave millions to the Metropolitan Museum to rebuild their front fountains & galleries and to numerous other NY groups as well..great guy