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N°26 – Money, money, money…


Vienna, 19th May
When you’re really, really, really rich, you don’t talk openly about money. There’s an expression in German which says: “We don’t talk about money, we have it.” In my family, it’s like that, we’re not very transparent about it.

I was born into an ultra-rich family. It became very clear when I turned 18 and my mother said to me: “OK, now your signature has real value, not just symbolic and legal value.” At that moment, for the first time, she explained our finances to me, without mentioning exact amounts.

A little later, in 2019, when I was told that one day I was going to inherit a large sum of money, a multimillion-dollar fortune from my grandmother, I could no longer distance myself from it. I could no longer say, that’s their problem. It wasn’t just my family’s money any more, it was going to become mine. And so all the ideas of social justice that I already had, that I was and still am formulating, were meaningless if I didn’t turn them into action.

I was born rich, but no one is responsible for their birth. I don’t agree with the idea that birth is the most important factor in defining the trajectory of a person’s life. That’s feudalism. As a democrat, I believe that birth privilege should be abolished.

All the issues of social justice, ecological justice, etc. are linked to problems of resource management. How we distribute them is a fundamental economic issue. I think that taxes can solve a lot of these problems.

The current taxation system favours inheritance over work. Work is always taxed, but if we want equality, we have to look at heritage and the right to own resources. We need to ask ourselves whether it’s right for all our resources to be owned by private individuals who have no democratic mandate, no responsibilities and no obligation for transparency.

The redistribution of resources is also the redistribution of power. The richest one per cent of the population own almost everything, and so they can create realities without having been elected to do so. And that’s anti-democratic.

The other question we need to ask ourselves is where does the money come from? How do we accumulate wealth over time? How is it passed on from generation to generation? Often behind the great fortunes, there is a history of exploitation.

In 2022, when I inherited, I would have liked my inheritance to have been heavily taxed. But that’s not the case (Austria abolished inheritance tax in 2008, ed.). So, myself and other people who were interested in these issues, looked at other ways of redistributing the wealth.

For me, philanthropy is not an option. It’s just a way of manifesting the power dynamics that are already in place. Another way for the rich to make decisions for the world. And you only have to look at the results today…

The conventions or citizens’ assembly approach seems to me to be much more interesting. If I don’t think it’s up to me to decide what’s important, and if I want to distribute things democratically, then why not invite the people who will be affected by the decisions to the table where they are made?

So, I went to the Foresight Institut and said: “I want to redistribute my fortune, I think there’s inequality and not enough discussion about it. Can you find me a citizens’ council that will decide how to use my 25 million euros?” They were like, “What? Normally, it’s the State that does this sort of thing.”

Last year, we finally set up the Guter Rat (the Good Advice in English, ed.) : an assembly of 50 people to whom I entrust my fortune. I was told that the selection process was a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though completly scientific: random invitations were sent out to 10,000 people. One thousand four hundred and twenty-four responded positively and the institute used statistical methods to identify 50 people who best reflect the composition of the Austrian population.

From mid-March to the 9th June, over six weekends, these 50 people will meet to discuss the distribution of heritage, what we can do as a society and, in practical terms, agree on the best use of my money to implement these ideas. In fact, it’s hardly my money any more. I have no contact with the participants and no influence on the outcome.

I don’t know what they’ll decide, but at the end of the year, if all goes well, the redistribution will be total. I won’t be ultra-rich any more.

I’m going to go from the richest 1%, feudal, disassociated from the rest of society, to the 99% who work, pay taxes and create a system from which I also benefit and in which I want to participate with my future job and taxes. Mind you, I’m not romanticizing these 99%, I don’t think their lives are any better, but morally and politically, for me, it’s an ascension in democracy.

But, we mustn’t forget that, even after redistributing 99% of my fortune, I still remain privileged. I’ll continue to have access to powerful, wealthy and influential people. And I still come from an ultra-rich family… Unless they decide to redistribute their fortunes too!

Marlene is 32 years old and one of the ‘extremely rich’, having inherited her multi-millionaire grandmother’s fortune. For years, she has been thinking about how to redistribute this wealth. In 2021, she got together with other wealthy people to form the association taxmenow, which in 2023 created a petition calling on the European Commission to introduce a European tax on large fortunes. and in 2024 she officially launched the Guter Rat: an assembly of 50 citizens pulled out of a hat to decide together on the best ways of democratically giving her fortune back to society.

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