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Why Are Rich People So Anxious?

What happens when your moral code is tied to the bottom line.

João Gustavo Rezende / Pexels

“The psychology of wealth is knotty,” writes Kerry Hannon in the New York Times. “On the surface, being wealthy can make people believe they have more control over their lives, but it can also control them emotionally.”

Hannon’s article, headlined “I’m Rich, and That Makes Me Anxious,” will probably elicit eye rolls from those of us eternally beholden to bosses and landlords and banks. We can be forgiven for failing to muster compassion. “No one gets a lot of empathy talking about these things,” admits James Grubman, a psychologist to the wealthy. But that doesn’t change the reality he sees every day: that wealth can generate immense anxiety, insecurity, and fear — even as it also provides comfort, stability, and freedom.

The observation that wealth overlaps with despair has never been entirely foreign to socialist thought. Capitalism distributes resources and power unevenly; the rich get rich in ways that bar the majority of the world’s population from accessing basic goods and exercising basic freedoms, which diminishes happiness overall.

But contentment and misery don’t map perfectly onto wealth and poverty. The multimillionaires in Hannon’s article are found to harbor intense feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and above all, anxiety that their savings will be stolen or squandered due to miscalculations or misfortunes. Are the bourgeoisie, too, held hostage by capitalism?

Socialists have considered the question from time to time, perhaps most memorably, Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a keen observer of bourgeois habits, manners, and affectations, an Irish outsider with an ironic sensibility who found the British elite both fascinating and pitiful. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” Wilde wrote:

The industry necessary for making money is also very demoralising. In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of. Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property, and really, considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him — in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living. He is also, under existing conditions, very insecure. An enormously wealthy merchant may be — often is — at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone.

This latter point is an important one. This isn’t the age of kings anymore; most wealthy people now have to hustle if they want to retain their privilege and avoid sinking into the lower classes. The bourgeoisie has created a fair amount of work for itself through its own exploitative practices, generating the very threat of exploitation that compels it to replicate and sustain those practices, seemingly in its own interest.

Capitalism forces everyone, including the ruling class, into a position of market dependence and market discipline. Here’s Ellen Meiskins Wood explaining how universal that discipline is under capitalism:

This distinct system of market-dependence means that the requirements of competition and profit-maximisation are the fundamental rules of life.… What may not always be so clear, even in socialist accounts of the market, is that the distinctive and dominant characteristic of the capitalist market is not opportunity or choice but, on the contrary, compulsion. Material life and social reproduction in capitalism are universally mediated by the market, so that all individuals must, in one way or another, enter into market-relations in order to gain access to the means of life. This unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market — its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit maximisation, and increasing labour-productivity — regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general.

Market dependence can compel capitalists to behave in ways they feel ambivalent or guilty about, or that can alienate them from others. Vivek Chibber offers a clear analysis of how capitalism structures the behavior of capitalists themselves:

Simply surviving the competitive battle thus forces capitalist to prioritize the qualities associated with the “entrepreneurial spirit” … Whatever his prior socialization might have been, he quickly learns that he will have to conform to the rules attached to his location or his establishment will be driven under. It is a remarkable property of the modern class structure that any significant deviation by a capitalist from the logic of market competitiveness shows up as a cost in some way — a refusal to dump toxic sludge manifests as a loss in market share to those who will; a commitment to use safer but more expensive inputs shows up as a rise in unit costs, and so on. Capitalists thus feel an enormous pressure to adjust their normative orientation — their values, goals, ethics, etc. — to the social structure in which they are embedded, not vice versa.… The moral codes that are encouraged are those that help the bottom line.

It’s always the poor who pay the steepest price for the transgressions of the rich. Yet that reality coexists with the constant compulsion to compete, dominate, and accumulate — or suffer the consequences. That such conditions could make even a materially comfortable person feel trapped, pressured, anxious, guilty, and depressed isn’t so surprising. That’s why Marx called the working class the “universal class” — the class whose liberation will lead to a universal improvement in the human condition.

Here’s Wood again, laying out the only solution that will work for everyone:

The best that socialists can do is to aim as much as possible to detach social life from market dependence. That means striving for the decommodification of as many spheres of life as possible, and their democratisation — not just their subjection to the political rule of ‘formal’ democracy, but their removal from the direct control of capital and from the ‘impersonal’ control of market-imperatives, which subordinate every human need and practice to the requirements of accumulation and profit-maximisation.

The primary aim of socialism is, of course, to benefit the masses — the billions now exploited, dispossessed, and controlled by a miniscule ruling class. But there is a psychological, if not necessarily material, upside for the wealthy, too. As Wilde put it:

“If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.”