Grandiose Narcissism of the Billionaire Class

Are we witnessing the slow, inexorable decay of the human spirit?  A human life–or rather, its degraded facsimile–has become cheap, even contemptible, in 21st century American “society,” an aberrant place where freakish celebrities are role-models and sociopathic mega-billionaires are revered. Wealth-concentration has now reached such extremes that, in the U.S. alone, over 500 billionaires ride roughshod over the hapless, wage-frozen populace, a populace largely condemned to lifelong indebtedness in its elusive (illusive?) quest for long-term financial security. Even so, a single ray of hope penetrates such gloom in the newly energized, militant resolve of labor organizing on-the-move.

By now, it is widely recognized that, over the past 40 years or so, the disastrously fraudulent “neo-liberal” economic policies, by drastically reducing taxation and regulation of big corporations and their major shareholders, have won a one-sided class war–whereby some 90% of citizens have been forced to accept inadequate wages, uncertain job security, and even the eventual likelihood of being made obsolescent by “labor-saving” automation and/or outsourcing (offshoring) of their jobs to low-wage workers.  Moreover, young people, starting out in life with hope and optimism, now not only find themselves saddled with enormous student debt, but are also disillusioned by the realization that they are mere commodities–disposable production-units that can readily be replaced by less-costly automated systems or sweatshop labor-pools overseas.

As history repeatedly shows, it is under deteriorating social and economic conditions that the most unscrupulous, the most opportunistic–i.e., the very worst people–end up on top. And because they are the worst, they demand even more, take even more, and abuse and intimidate and/or bribe anyone who stands in their way. Such persons, sociopathic narcissists with clearly sadistic predilections, keep trashing laws and institutions, and re-designing the remnants of a half-shattered society into a criminal enterprise serving their insatiable, people-destroying appetites.  Their self-aggrandizing narcissism (or even megalomania), with its usual contempt for those who do not satisfy their “needs,” abhors real intimacy and self-sacrificing love. What they crave is power, the power to force underlings to do their bidding (with the added satisfaction of mocking and humiliating them in the process).

But the shocking, greed-addicted vulgarization of American society in recent decades is not only about Trump or Murdoch or Bezos or Musk. It is the age-old theme of moral corruption, of those who seek and seize power, not only for unlimited self-aggrandizement but to revel complacently in the suffering of others. Today, as millions starve in places like Yemen, we see, right before our eyes, self-aggrandizing mega-billionaires who shamelessly strut upon the world-scene, scorning the hundreds of millions of the hungry, war-desolated, and despairing. In a phrase: gleefully rubbing the face of humanity in the dirt.

As described by economist Thorstein Veblen during the so-called Gilded Age over a century ago, the railroad and oil barons of that era sought public envy and reverence by means of their awe-inspiring status-displays: palatial mansions, vast estates and endowed parks and museums, a fleet of yachts, and an army of servants.  For the Vanderbilts and Stanfords and Rockefellers, to name a few, that may have been enough.

Not so for today’s ultra-elite: like demi-gods, they feel compelled to ascend to the heavens, demonstrating the ultimate capacity to defy all earthly limitations.  Grandiose fantasies of a new colonialism–even on lifeless, airless, featureless Mars–are even shared with their awestruck (if puzzled) acolytes. Above all, one’s name must be emblazoned, metaphorically speaking, across the heavens: Jeff Bezos! Elon Musk! Richard Branson! Yet, like Icarus, their hubris has its limits: as their “rockets-to-nowhere” fall back to earth, they sense uneasily the pointlessness of such momentary glory.  Meanwhile, a struggling humanity looks on, baffled and appalled by the conspicuous waste involved, but suspecting that such rockets will one day take jaded, billionaire-sybarites on luxury tours of lifeless, barren destinations which mirror their emotional void within.      

Image credit: Khalil Bendib at

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.