On July 3 and 4 2023, screenshots of a headline (“Cartier boss with $7.5bn fortune says prospect of the poor rising up ‘keeps him awake at night'”) spread in three popular iterations on Twitter (and in many scattered tweets):
Google Trends data demonstrated a spike in searches for “Cartier boss poor rising up” on July 4 and 5 2023. Two of three versions showed the source (British newspaper The Independent). Of the three, the second included the following subheading:
Says he is concerned about robots creating ‘structural unemployment’
On Twitter and Facebook, the headline circulated almost entirely in the form of a screenshot without a visible date. Both Reddit posts linked directly to The Independent‘s “Cartier boss with $7.5bn fortune says prospect of the poor rising up ‘keeps him awake at night,” which was published eight years earlier, on June 10 2015.
At the top of the page, the article indicated that four comments were left on the June 2015 article — and all four of those were left in late June and early July 2023. It reported that the “multi-billionaire owner of luxury jewellery company Cartier has revealed his greatest fear … robots replacing workers and the poor rising up to bring down the rich,” citing remarks made by Johann Rupert at the “Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco.”
That article appeared to reiterate reporting by Bloomberg.com, and it continued:
[“Cartier boss” Johann Rupert] said he had been reading about changes in labour technology, as well as recent Oxfam figures suggesting the top 1 per cent of the global population now owns more wealth than the other 99 per cent.
“How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare?” he said. “We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”
The Independent linked to a June 8 2015 Bloomberg.com article, “Billionaire Cartier Owner Sees Wealth Gap Fueling Social Unrest.” Bloomberg.com’s reporting included the “that’s what keeps me awake at night” quote, and the article began:
Johann Rupert, the South African who has made billions peddling Cartier jewelry and Chloe fashion, said tension between the rich and poor is set to escalate as robots and artificial intelligence fuel mass unemployment.
“We cannot have 0.1 percent of 0.1 percent taking all the spoils,” said Rupert, who has a fortune worth $7.5 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “It’s unfair and it is not sustainable.”
A search for Rupert’s precise remarks at the 2015 “Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco” did not return additional coverage of or context from the remarks he made. Rupert was quoted in a June 15 2015 Chicago Tribune editorial, “California drought a prelude to ‘poorpocalypse,'” but not in a manner that included context:
Like most Americans, I spend the majority of my days pondering how to best position myself for the coming apocalypse … lately I’ve focused predominantly on “poor rising up to rebel against the wealthy.” According to a report released [in May 2015] by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: “We have reached a tipping point. Inequality in OECD countries is at its highest since records began.”
The richest 10 percent of the population in the OECD now earn 9.6 times the income of the poorest 10 percent.
At the recent  Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco (I was unable to attend because my solid gold tuxedo was out for its annual buffing), Johann Rupert, chairman of the Swiss-based luxury goods company Richemont, said: “How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare? We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”
The Bloomberg report in which he was quoted didn’t suggest that Rupert offered any of his billions to remedy the problem, presumably because he’ll need the cash to build an impenetrable mountaintop fortress for when the rebellion comes.
Between the first iteration (Bloomberg on June 8 2015) and the second (The Independent on June 10 2015), the framing of Rupert’s commentary was inconsistent. In the first version of the article, it appeared that Rupert said wealth concentration would “affect” the wealthy in an unfair way; Bloomberg’s quoting seemed to imply that Rupert claimed that the concentration of wealth itself was what was “unfair” and “destroying the middle classes.”
Rupert was the subject of a brief biographical Wikipedia entry, which possibly supported the latter viewpoint:
In 2008, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Described as “reclusive” by the Financial Times and Barron’s, Rupert rarely gives interviews and shuns public events. He’s nicknamed “Rupert the Bear”.
Rupert has declared his sympathy for and belief in the idea of a universal basic income.
Between paywalls and the rapid deterioration of social media and search (also called “enshittification” per writer Cory Doctorow), we ran into trouble during the once-straightforward process of locating credible information about Johann Rupert’s remarks. Rupert’s “belief in the idea of a universal basic income” appeared alongside a paywalled citation with an archived copy of a May 2017 Financial Times article, “Richemont founder backs universal basic income.”
Johann Rupert, wealthy founder of Swiss luxury group Richemont, has said he backs governments introducing “universal basic incomes” for all citizens to cope with economic upheaval. He also announced his son and a former top Google executive would join the company’s board to help it adjust to new technologies.
The chairman of the group behind brands such as Cartier and Montblanc warned changes in industrial processes and the rise of artificial intelligence would leave many people unemployable. “I’m a proponent of universal basic income,” he told journalists [in May 2017]. “We have to give time to people to re-skill themselves for a new economy.”
A basic Twitter search for “Cartier boss” returned myriad tweets featuring the screenshot. One of the tweets featured a brief video of Rupert’s partial remarks (with captions):
In the clip, Rupert said:
The next wave of unemployment is going to be even bigger than the current one, and these people will be unemployable. The robots [are] gonna steal your job, and don’t worry … it’s … you’re gonna be … it’s gonna be cool, but I would urge you to look at this.
It’s gonna be more important than e-commerce and clicks vs bricks. Hopefully we will survive it, because we’re planning for it. It’s really what keeps me awake at night, how is society going to cope with structural unemployment?
And the envy, hatred, and the social war — uh, social warfare … Because the people with money will not wish to show it — if your child’s best friend’s parents go unemployed, you don’t wanna buy a new car or, you know, anything showy.
And folks, we are destroying the middle classes at this stage, and it will affect us, and it’s unfair.
So that’s what keeps me awake at night.
June 2015 news reports indicated that Rupert’s remarks occurred at “Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco,” an annual event staged to discuss the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of “luxury goods.” In that context, it looked less like a cynical attack on impoverished people and more as though Rupert was warning others at the summit — correctly — that the risks posed by ever-increasing income inequality posed several larger threats to their market than “e-commerce and clicks vs bricks,” using the example of a “child’s best friend’s parents” dealing with “structural unemployment.”
Rupert’s remarks resurfaced in late June 2015, spreading on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit eight years after the summit. They appeared to recirculate without any clear reason, but they diid reappear right around the same time that the high-profile Titan submersible failed to surface in June 2023. The oldest iteration we located was dated June 28 2023, one day after Canada’s CBC published “Here’s why people are being so mean about the Titan going down”:
They had it coming. They deserved it. Who’s stupid enough to pay $250,000 for a ride in a tin can operated by a video game controller? Why should we be footing the bill for the rescue?
These sentiments flooded social media as countless people sounded off — and even said much, much worse — about the missing Titan submersible even before its fate and that of the five people trapped inside was known. And they didn’t stop even after news emerged that the vessel had imploded and the victims’ families began grieving.
When a news story has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood thriller — billionaire characters, a mysterious adventure gone wrong a massive search as the clock ticks down to zero oxygen — it is difficult to look away. Some say the tidal wave of cynical sentiment and bad jokes in social media that accompanied the coverage, and still persists, is schadenfreude, or pleasure people get by celebrating others’ misfortune. Other experts say it’s driven by wealth inequality, or that the response ultimately reflects a lack of civil discourse.
The internet has been swamped with memes about the submersible in what has been a very strange yet defining cultural moment – and it got me thinking about why.
Of course, there is a collective disdain for billionaires amongst the general population. Rightly so, as has been pointed out many times over the last week [in June 2023], no-one becomes a billionaire without the exploitation of others.
To reiterate, it is not the loss of human life that’s the source of the humour. It’s the sheer injustice the event is enveloped in – and the collective rage – that inspires it.
It’s the vast wealth injustice causing more people in Britain to experience poverty and insecure housing than ever before, while billionaires are dropping the cost of a house for a seat on a glorified bath toy – to explore a mass grave that claimed the lives of primarily poor people.
Broadly, editorials ranged from chiding to interpreting backlash through a lens of rapidly dwindling public tolerance for wealth inequality. None of these pieces had anything to do with Rupert’s viral remarks on the surface, but together they looked like they might be two sides of the same socioeconomic coin:
One main reason given for the perceived glee or dismissiveness with which the [Titan submersible] incident has been met with is summed up in a German word: “schadenfreude.” As defined by Merriam-Webster, “schadenfreude” means enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others — generally this enjoyment is reserved for those considered by individuals to be “above” themselves.
In this case, the fact that the people aboard were wealthy (or at least wealthy enough to afford the $250,000 per passenger ticket cost), appears to have made it easier to joke about for some. In recent years, Americans’ views about billionaires have changed significantly.
While 2021 Pew Research showed a narrow majority of Americans saying billionaires were neither “good” or “bad,” the share of people who said billionaires existing is “bad” rose 8 points (to 42%) in just one year … Other research points to increasingly negative attitudes toward the uber-wealthy as sparked by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement. As reported by Vox and Data for Progress, 52% of Americans polled said it’s “unfair” the richest Americans got richer during the pandemic. Additionally, about 49% of Americans (of all three majority political affiliations) said they had negative feelings about billionaires.
In late June and early July 2023, screenshots of a headline (“Cartier boss with $7.5bn fortune says prospect of the poor rising up ‘keeps him awake at night'”) circulated on several social media platforms, depicting a June 2015 news story. The remarks had been made eight years previously by South African billionaire Johann Rupert, chair of Richemont, the parent company of Cartier. Rupert’s remarks appeared to recirculate as part of broader reaction to the Titan submersible disaster, and in context, Rupert appeared to warn fellow attendees of a “luxury goods summit” that the “unfair” concentration of wealth posted a larger risk to their businesses than “clicks and bricks.”