Zen and the art of wealth amassment


There is a suburban myth about the genealogy of class in migrant families that I heard as a teenager. It goes something like this. The first generation step onto the soil with two pennies in their pocket and toil for their whole lives so they can send their children to the best schools they can afford.

The second generation – flush with sophisticated educations – become professionals. The third generation – benefiting from the financial and cultural privilege of professional parents – well, they become artists.

I heard this story in the migrant suburbs, and while I can see its logic, it doesn’t really account for many of the family stories in my orbit, including my own. What it does speak to is the narrative of capitalist affluence: We toil so that we can be free.

All hard work pays off. It has to.

But what happens when you toil and toil and get your payoff, and your children reject the values you toiled in the name of? That’s a question you can ask Gina Rinehart.

The wonderful and outrageous spectacle of the Rinehart family drama delivers a mild sense of justice to the middle and working classes, who are, relatively speaking, unpoisoned by wealth.

Justice, because the Rineharts are deranged. Mild, because they are still billionaires who are able to influence government for the benefit of their own wealth. The matriarch’s interview on Australian Story revealed her children’s failings: 'They say that if you give your children too much, they don’t get the joy out of work, they just want unearned things to keep falling from the sky. I think I’ve been the fortunate one.'

Is that what the purpose of amassing wealth? To produce children who will be free from work, free from the obsession that productivity inspires, but who will inevitably fight bitterly with their parents and siblings for their share of the empire in some real-life adaptation of King Lear? That’s great news, because it means that the money I will never have was toxic all along. You can’t fire me, I quit.

Like all dynasties, the Rineharts are destined to one day represent the crusty relics of former glory. That’s fine, schadenfreude is a beautiful thing. And apparently, 65 per cent of family wealth is lost by the second generation, and 90 per cent by the third generation. I mean, why would the beneficiaries of other people’s obsessive toils and struggle work, if they didn’t have to? Isn’t accumulating wealth supposedly for buying the luxury of freedom and the ability to wear white linen?

The tremendous social mobility, or maybe it is rather movement of people and resources, of the past century, has created profound class and culture difference between generations. The old models pertaining to the genealogy of wealth and class do not make sense any more, because even without income difference, cultural difference between generations trumps all. Cultural difference is marked by consumption habits, material identifications, and political realities.

I am always speculating on the pseudo-psychological origins of people’s personal choices, to my own folly. This practice is supposed to help me determine what choices to make in order to become the best version of myself, if that is possible. How can I become more charismatic like my friend X, or more generous like my friend Y? Was it their birth order, or their parents’ wealth, or is it something I can implement in my own life? But then there is the inevitable roadblock to any person’s greatness: their terrible, crushing flaws. Generous Gemma might also be chronically lazy. Charismatic Chrissy might be, I don’t know, bad at keeping secrets.

While culturally there are people I have more in common with – and therefore admire more than I admire others (i.e. not Bianca Rinehart) – this practice of looking deep into the lives of others to better myself falls short, because everyone is almost equally brilliant and deranged, just in highly specific ways. When I think of the ‘good’ parents and the ‘bad’ parents – although almost all are probably good-enough – as my friends remember them, all of them, in the end, produce similarly wonderful, and specifically damaged offspring. There is no solution to the problem of being human.

Every person who decides to raise children does so with the intention of making up for the sins of their literal fathers. But, having surveyed the museum of living evidence, I can say absolutely that none succeeds. About the best they can expect is to raise children to become living adults who might not sue them over their trust funds.

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.



Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Gina Rinehart, wealth, biography, values, mining, migration



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Existing comments

In its introduction, Pirsig explains that, despite its title, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either?

AO | 16 July 2015  

Maybe I have missed the point of this article, but your assertion that "The old models pertaining to the genealogy of wealth and class do not make sense any more, because even without income difference, cultural difference between generations trumps all" really does need some evidence to support it. Indeed, when it comes to class and culture, the evidence is overwhelmingly that wealth informs culture, political affiliations, consumption habits and material identifications. This has been highlighted by so many reports detailing global inequality and by thinkers from Marx through to the current Pope and by many of the writers on this website.

David | 17 July 2015  

Like so many others, I have watched the Rinehart family dispute unfold via media. I don't perceive John Hancock and Bianca Rinehart's motives to be primarily about money. It's more likely to be about something much more personal, much more important. There's not much point in judging them when we all have mirrors in our own houses. There's something very sad about the chasm that has developed in the family. Sometimes the best we can hope for is to be able to be in the same room with each other. Without a professional lawyer in sight.

Pam | 17 July 2015  

Ellena seems to be here engaging in a game of Mix and Mismatch, in what is already a very complex issue. Zen seems to be as relevant as comparing a landed aristocracy with a poor migrant family. The attitudes of succeeding generations of children can be the result of a multitude of influences. There is a natural desire of children to follow and please their parents, but also a natural reaction to perceived flaws in their parents' views. The saying "What is in them will come out", also plays it's part. When it comes to wealth, it' s also true that "It is said that some people possess great wealth. But equally, sometimes it is true that great wealth possesses them; for often the wealth becomes an obsession, and their whole world becomes guarding it, seeking to increase it, and worrying about it, and trying to ensure that 'others' do not get their hands on it.

Robert Liddy | 17 July 2015  

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