Li: The uprootedness of the rich

Grant Li, Assistant Opinion Editor


Simone Weil’s “The Need for Roots”  describes the human need for rootedness through one’s involvement in “a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” Writing this book in the midst of World War II, Weil was reflecting on the uprooting taking place at the time and considered uprootedness as equal to any of humanity’s problems.

Weil defines uprootedness as being cut off from the needs of the soul. The needs she lists out — such as order, liberty, obedience and responsibility — include fairly debatable ones, especially in the context of contemporary moral frameworks. Regardless, Weil argues these needs are just as vital to our being as food and water. Most of them boil down to place, community, purpose and a sense of connection to a past and future. We can probably substitute in some needs of the soul contingent to our own lived realities.

Weil then argues that aside from the obvious uprootedness that takes place when a population is geographically displaced from its land, the factory worker and the peasant were also uprooted. The subject of pay forever occupied the attention of the factory worker, while peasants labored their lives away on land they didn’t own. The unemployed have it worse even today, without a sense of belonging outside or inside of the factory. 

But if we permit ourselves to take a liberal conception of uprootedness and perhaps stretch Weil’s definition, we find that uprootedness is also a condition of wealthy elites. To recycle an analogy I used in a previous column, the rich have apartments in high-rises strung out across the globe. They island-hop between the isles of their archipelago of properties with ease and whimsy, while the rest of us seem tethered to one place we always seem to go home to on school breaks. What connection do they actually hold to any of the communities in which they happen to reside at any given moment? 

This disconnect from place, in its own curious form, is a lack of roots that produces ill effects the rest of us are left to deal with. The elite effectively never have to touch the earth with their apartments as high off the ground as possible. When they leave their building, they get chauffeured. Their children then go to schools where they might never interact with someone of low income.

In hardly ever interacting with anyone but their own kind, the wealthy end up with politics that regard nobody but themselves. It’s a lot harder to have compassion for people you never meet. The rich perhaps engage in local politics when their taxes increase or when someone wants to build something blocking their precious view. Otherwise, they lack stakes and are thus apathetic to whether the rest of the community succeeds or suffers when the effects don’t touch their bottom line. If developments do start to encroach too far on the bottom line, the wealthy will just move their assets to the next tax haven. 

On a larger scale, negative effects are more apparent. Our government often seems captured by the rich, who dictate the most policy in a self-aggrandizing fashion, while the people who need the most get the least say. 

We also see this outside of politics when the rich pursue follies that would have been avoidable if they kept more in touch with reality. One of the most recent examples is Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Not that Twitter was a particularly wonderful platform before, but it certainly has not done any better with Musk at the helm. He recently announced that he would be stepping down as CEO of the social media site to focus on Tesla.

Another example is Quibi, the short-form streaming platform conceived by former Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. When soon-to-fail Quibi ads flooded every corner of the internet during the pandemic, Katzenberg and his investors probably thought they knew exactly what the masses wanted, when they really did not have a clue. 

The average person could easily see that these ideas weren’t the wisest, but a severe case of detachment from reality will do that to you. In any case, a lack of roots, whether among the poor or the rich, will wreak havoc on society. It’s hard to make someone with so few roots in a community — whether it be their local government or the U.S. as a whole — care about it to any meaningful extent. 

Meanwhile, the well-being of particular communities matters much more to those who are rooted in them. Where rooted, we keep in contact and coexist with fellow community members who are equally or more vulnerable than we are. We ultimately come to depend on one another and the community outcomes that impact us and our friends.

Although the latter two examples of rootlessness certainly harmed plenty of people, for the most part they were more funny than bad. And at least they failed, perhaps to our collective benefit. Yet we should be wary, as not all manifestations of uprootedness among the wealthy are so benign. 

Grant Li is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.