Wealth Supremacy: How the Extractive Economy and the Biased Rules of Capitalism Drive Today’s Crises

By Marjorie Kelly. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2023. 256 pages. $22.95/paperback or eBook.

Anyone who feels the weight of White supremacy—or sees the danger signs of growing inequality or cares about a livable future on this planet—would do well to take heed of Marjorie Kelly and her new book, Wealth Supremacy.

Kelly speaks of how we are living in a trance in a reality we cannot see. Unnamed wealth privilege has been embedded in our cultural psyche for centuries, yet we have stepped out of other trances. Though the work is far from over, we have declared sexual and racial bias to be illegitimate. Still, the bias toward capital remains sacrosanct. The silent encoded message says that wealth is to be revered above all else. The rest of reality—workers, communities, small businesses, and the environment—is all implicitly subordinate.

Though just introducing the word capital makes me nervous, as it conjures a requirement to take sides between an imperfect capitalism and the horrors of state socialism, Kelly is not interested in this debate. She instead speaks of moving toward a still undefined “next system”: a democratic economy. With decades of experience in ethical business, she understands the need for some profit but not for a system that requires profit maximization and lies at the heart of the linked crises of racial injustice, growing income inequality, and climate collapse.

Our financialized system has become less about manufacturing stuff and more about manufacturing debt. We see how the system swallows up and defangs ethical businesses like Ben & Jerry’s, and co-opts efforts at corporate responsibility, such as the consideration of ESG factors (environmental, social, and governance). We see private equity pouring its profit-hungry investments into pension funds; fossil fuels (after institutional investors divest); and real estate, turning housing from a social good into a wealth extraction vehicle. It’s sobering. But Kelly sees the power of creating a shared understanding that capital bias against people and in favor of wealth is illegitimate.

In the section on myths of wealth supremacy, I was taken by her treatment of “fiduciary duty.”  We believe as a core truth that those entrusted with the management of wealth have a sacred obligation to maximize its returns. Yet it turns out that fiduciary duty is legally defined as an obligation to pay attention and to be loyal. This opens up the possibility of also paying attention to the context within which wealth is embedded and being loyal to a larger common good.

Her take on the income statement was thought-provoking as well. In the income column—where you want as much as possible—is profit. In the expense column—where you want less—is mostly the cost of labor. We can see the trajectory of these values over time, with good manufacturing jobs moving first to the nonunion South, and then overseas. Automation is the current threat, and an estimated 40 percent of U.S. labor is in the gig, “contingent” workforce, as measured in 2015. “That count is outdated,” Kelly points out, “because we lack the reliable metrics of our economy to make precarity visible.” In painful irony, the historic White working class is being pushed into the arms of the conservative Right, with their offer of the psychological benefit of feeling better than those at rock bottom.

In the very immensity of this challenge, Kelly sees opportunity. The naming in itself becomes an act of power, holding out the possibility of something different. She looks to science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin on this point, who observed that although the power of capitalism seems inescapable, “[s]o did the divine right of kings.” What if we all could be on the same side with this one?

She describes seven pathways for moving from wealth supremacy to a human-centered democratic economy. These brief sketches—on energy transition financing, community banking ecosystems, reclaiming the Fed, shifting investment from Wall Street to Main Street, debt jubilee, wealth taxes and baby bonds, and restraining financial extraction—focus on getting to the roots, and provide real-life models and guideposts for the road ahead.

I loved the closing chapter on taking it local. Community wealth building brings many of the facets of a democratic economy—progressive procurement, just use of land and property, fair work, locally rooted finance, and inclusive democratic enterprise—into one place, offering synergy and a chance to scale up. First launched in Cleveland, Ohio, by the Democracy Collaborative, the model spread to Preston, England, with enormous success. It is being applied in cities throughout the United States and is now part of Scotland’s economic development strategy.

Quakers’ long and deeply held concerns for community, justice, integrity, and stewardship require us to name the evil of wealth supremacy and stand for an economy that centers the common good. This book is an excellent place to start.

Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. Author of Money and Soul, her newest titles are Tending Sacred Ground: Respectful Parenting; The Promise of Right Relationship; and a third volume of poetry, Tending the Web: Poems of Connection. Her blog and podcast can be found at pamelahaines.substack.com.

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2 thoughts on “Wealth Supremacy: How the Extractive Economy and the Biased Rules of Capitalism Drive Today’s Crises

  1. While I guess Wealth Supremacy speaks to a certain element of young readers I must confess it speaks of a certain Marxist perspective that fueled a great deal of liberation theology in the 1980s. I wish those on the left of the left which many Quakers are to get past pointless class envy to see the futility of merely flipping the social order or divesting. True revolutionary economic change may not be pretty let alone peaceful. The kind of confrontations required to escape wealth supremacy may destroy the kind of capital needed to invest in world healing in the first place. Certainly that was what the characters of John Reed and Emma Goldman discovered in Warren Beatty’s 1980s era film Reds. I for one appreciate seeing a finger at least pointed towards the wealthy for a change by naming the obvious… teachers make how much in comparison to Pro-football quarterbacks? If the difference was obscene in 1980 what can be said of 2024? The chasm has become a Grand Canyon, so revisiting the perversity of the riches today as a basis of social change is an idea whose time has come again.

    1. Concern about Wealth Supremacy is appealing not only to the young nor exclusively based on envy. Many retiree with disproportionate means also believe the issue needs acknowledgement and challenge. While not all great change happens exclusively by force, Friend Lucretia Mott advised in 1853 “any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege”. And great change is desperately needed to more faithfully align with the Gospel directives.

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