Ralph Nader is probably best known in the UK for having stood as a third party candidate in US presidential elections since 1992, gaining 3 percent of the vote in 2000. However, Nader has been active in American public life since the 1960s – as a consumer advocate, political activist and author of 34 books. He was named by Time and Life magazines as one of the hundred most influential Americans of the twentieth century.
“Only the super-rich can save us!” is an audacious attempt by the wily 77-year old to create what he calls “a practical utopia” – that is “a fictional vision that could become a new reality”.
The book opens with American billionaire businessman Warren Buffett stunned by the crisis unfolding during Hurricane Katrina. After personally providing aid to those fleeing New Orleans, the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ gathers together seventeen super-rich Americans, including retail pioneerSol Price, comedian Bill Cosby and George Soros, to “address the vast political and economic inequities” of their country.
Over the book’s substantial 510 pages (abridged from the original hardback’s 736 pages) Nader describes, in considerable detail, the actions and activities of this core group to overthrow the rampant corporate capitalism that is destroying American democracy and the environment. On the agenda of this “business rebellion against big business” is a fair minimum wage, universal healthcare, tax reform, strict regulation of corporations and the unionisation of Walmart’s workforce.
Straddling fiction and non-fiction, the book is certainly a surprising, leftfield labour of lovefrom Nader. While never scintillating or in any sense literary, his prose, direct and journalistic and often dryly funny, has a certain charm. And though the press release name checks Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck as touchstones, Nader’s social vision made me think most of Robert Tressell’s socialist tour de force, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
On the surface, Buffett’s recent call in the New York Times for the rich to pay more tax – which led to a similar pledge by a number of French billionaires – adds some credibility to the book’s vision. But while it’s a welcome admission of responsibility from Buffett, it also highlights how Nader’s fantasy has misjudged the super-rich. Because while he carefully chose the seventeen for their politics and philanthropic work, in the real world few if any of the super-rich are interested in the kind of radical change he ascribes to the group in the book. In short, they didn’t become as rich as they are by foregrounding socially conscious thoughts and actions. “None of this connects at all”, was Price’s son’s take on Nader’s representation of his father, for example.
More importantly, the implicit assumption of the book is that the general population should look to the elite for direction and energy in the fight for progressive change. At a stroke Nader has turned the history of progress – which has largely come from the bottom up – on its head. Rather, as the freed slave Frederick Douglass, once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
“Only the super-rich can save us!” is published by Seven Stories Press, priced £17.99.