The scandal surrounding Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein shows that corruption and extreme privilege are closely intertwined.
Prince Andrew’s infamous Newsnight interview from last month is a treasure trove of insights for psychologists or social scientists who wish to understand the aristocratic mindset. The interview, in which the prince faced questions over his friendship with the billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, was packed full of bizarre statements, the most outlandish of which have naturally grabbed the headlines (his supposed inability to sweat back in 2001, the ‘Pizza-Express-in-Woking alibi’, etc).
Yet these particularly absurd moments shouldn’t detract from what is really an invaluable social document that reveals much about the modern-day plutocracy. Indeed, the prince’s interview with Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis is startling because it strips away the pomp, ceremony and secrecy that normally shield those at the very top of society. It shows how people like Prince Andrew actually think, and thus why they’re able to wreak havoc in the lives of others. In opening himself up to interrogation, the prince has inadvertently opened Pandora’s box.
That’s why the interview has had such a profound cultural impact. It doesn’t sound right to the average viewer, but more importantly it doesn’t feel right as Prince Andrew’s unthinking lack of empathy for Epstein’s victims hits home like a sledgehammer. Watching the prince say he doesn’t regret his association with a convicted sex offender because he was able to access Epstein’s elite social circles isn’t just outrageous – it’s troubling on a visceral level. It shows a lack of basic humanity, as though the prince’s bubble of obscene privilege has rendered him a dangerous alien species.
But that’s the reality of the world we live in, where plutocrats like Epstein don’t just own private islands – they own people. This week’s Panorama programme, which saw Prince Andrew’s accuser Virginia Giuffre describe the abuse she faced while being trafficked by Epstein, is full of details which underscore the restless sense of entitlement that comes with stratospheric levels of wealth and power – and which in turn breeds rampant exploitation. At one point it’s told that Epstein had sex on his private jet in full view of the other passengers.
Last year a report by Oxfam showed the inequality gap widening, with 42 people holding as much wealth as the 3.7 billion who make up the poorest half of the world’s population. As the plutocrat class becomes ever more wealthy and powerful, it also feels increasingly emboldened to operate above the law. This helps to explain the rising tide of corruption scandals in countries around the world.
In one of the more mundane moments in Prince Andrew’s interview he refers to “a straightforward shooting weekend”, not realising that what’s normal for him isn’t even in the lexicon of the average person. It’s another absurd moment that on the surface raises a scornful laugh, but deep down we know it’s more troubling than ridiculous. Like many of the prince’s revealing utterances, it speaks to the otherworldly nature of extreme privilege, and its perverse and corrosive impact on society.