Headlines over the past few years have focused on increased wealth disparity around the world. The Guardian, for example, reported in 2015 that half of the world’s wealth resided in the hands of the top 1% of the world’s population. Of course, within that one percent at the top of the wealth pyramid remains a great disparity between the upper decile of the one percent and the rest of the one percent. Akhilesh Prabhakar, in The Current Global Recession, reported that by 2016 the wealth of the small club of the world’s billionaires (just over 2300 people) amounted to $7.3 trillion. Prabhakar puts this into perspective:
“Billionaires make up .000033% of the world’s population, or, to put it in another way, there are about 3 million people for every one billionaire. Yet this exceedingly small social layer possesses about 4.5 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the population, or 3.5 billion people. All the money of bankers, shareholders, land owners, and manufacturers is nothing else than accumulated unpaid for labour of the working class.”
The recovery since the great recession (a euphemism for Second Great Depression) has occurred mostly for people who own stock in corporations, as wage growth has not kept up with the cost of living. Official measures of inflation represent only rough statistical averages and do not take into account shrinking of paychecks due to payment of past debt, a key means of transferring wealth to the upper class. The Federal Reserve itself reported that 40% of U.S. households cannot afford an emergency expense of $400. These households would then have to resort to either selling possessions or borrowing money, both of which lead to further insecurity. According to the New York Times, household debt returned to pre-2008 levels in 2017, for a total of $12.7 trillion, with debt accounting for almost 70% of economic activity. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this situation is unsustainable, and that the next collapse could happen at any time.
Given the wealth disparity and the problems that it creates, one might expect that U.S. “citizens” – if that term still applies – would be out marching in the streets for better income. And, indeed, that has happened, with the teachers’ strikes and the $15 minimum wage campaign. But rarely do the world’s billionaires ever get blamed for the basic unfairness of the economy that they have created. In fact, the billionaires of the world are worshipped like demigods while their employees suffer in squalid conditions. The net worth of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is estimated at over $140 billion, and yet numerous news reports have found that the working conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers are oppressive. Workers have been carried away in ambulances due to exhaustion from working on 30-second quotas (picking one item every thirty seconds), for ten hour shifts with no breaks. Workers routinely urinate in plastic jugs, because they are not allowed to go to the bathroom. Areas in some facilities lack climate control and can be excessively hot or cold. And then there are the itinerant workers who live in tents and RVs, going from warehouse to warehouse, the twenty-first century version of the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Somehow the connection between the beyond-insane wealth and luxury of Bezos’ lifestyle and the poverty and humiliation of his workers never gets made, and this is where we run into the mythology of capitalism, which performs a magic trick that gets us to see “innovation” instead of cruelty.
The work of socialist analysis can never be completed, because capitalism keeps changing the magic show to make exploitation appear as goodness. One trick that gets played over and over again in different forms is the ideological sleight of hand that says that we need these people to make insane amounts of money so that ordinary workers will have the incentive to keep their noses to the grindstone and perform at peak productivity. But Bezos and other tech billionaires (Gates, Zuckerberg, etc.) didn’t get to where they are by working hard: they happened to be in the right industry at the right place at the right time, in a country that no longer cares about the common good and refuses to adequately tax hoarded assets. If hard work were the only thing necessary for wealth creation, then Donald Trump’s beloved coal miners would be the richest people in the country. Sure, the pay for coal mining can start at $60,000 per year, but holding the job carries the risk of early death from black lung or industrial disaster. Meanwhile, criminal mine executive, Don Blankenship, gets away with the murder of 29 miners and has an estimated net worth of $40 million. If Don Blankenship had worked as hard at enforcing safety regulations as he did at evading them, those miners would still be alive. Of course, Blankenship is really a mere lieutenant in the billionaire Koch brothers’ agenda of fighting unions, rolling back regulations, and denying climate change (among other nefarious activities, like fighting public education). His success, like the success of the Kochs, comes at the expense of the workers who toil in extractive industries at the expense of their own well-being. Clearly hard work is not the key to immense wealth: the key is turning a blind eye to human suffering and environmental damage.
We are told by the devotees of the Singularity, the coming technophilic utopia, that the wealth of the billionaire class is necessary for innovation. Look! Elon Musk made a super-cool rocket that can be reused! This will change everything! More people should ask whether private individuals should even have the sort of wealth normally associated with nation-states, which were, at some point, at least nominally accountable to their citizens. We can have space exploration and tech innovation without the Elon Musks of the world. Indeed, private space exploration capitalizes on research initially conducted through public funding. Now public money flows directly into the hands of SpaceX, which would not exist in the first place without NASA. Once again, the public good is given away at cut rates so that billionaires can have cool toys. All of this comes with the promise that one day, everyone will be able to travel to space. This is the trickle-down theory of innovation that comes along with technological futurism. The billionaires get it now, but the rest of us will have to wait–perhaps forever. Maybe next time, instead of sending a crash test dummy into space in a Tesla car, Musk could send the body of a miner who died of black lung. Behind every successful billionaire lies a mass of working people and a government subsidy. The public research that built the internet made Musk wealthy and then gave him his hobby of boutique space exploration.
The next argument for the existence of the billionaire class is that we need them because they provide money for philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would no doubt be the poster child here for the good that private money can do. So let’s just set aside for a second the monopolistic practices that made Gates wealthy. Let’ set aside the fact that he made most of his important discoveries early in his career and then turned to rent-seeking behavior. Surely the good outweighs the bad, right? Well, no. Billionaires rob with one hand and then give a token amount to charity with the other hand. David Harvey, in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, calls this practice “conscience laundering,” in which the wealthy justify their existence through public relations giving. This is not to say that the Gates Foundation does not do good work in the world, but here we have a private foundation making major decisions about public health. This furthers the degradation of the public sphere and accelerates the shift in the balance of power from everyday people to powerful oligarchs. The notion of the public good has all but vanished from the world, as runaway capitalism devours everything in its path.
Just to address one more defense of the billionaire class, libertarians and free market types will argue that billionaires don’t just have their money sitting around in huge piles of cash in a vault somewhere or put into huge mansions. Yes, they do have piles of cash and multiple homes, but the bulk of their wealth goes into the stock market. The theory goes that this invested cash ultimately benefits everyone as it buoys the economy. However, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2016 (drawing from Gallup data) that the percentage of stock owners in the United States continues to decline, with only 52% of households invested in the market. Drilling down a little further, “Eighty-nine percent of families with incomes over $100,000 have at least some money in the stock market, compared with just 21 percent of households earning $30,000 or less.” The status of the stock market does not matter at all to most working people, either because they have no investments or those investments do not offset household indebtedness. While the stock market continues to rebound from 2007-2008, wages have barely budged, as corporations have sat on their gains or used windfalls (like the recent kleptocratic tax cut), to buy back their own stock. Corporations have doled out some one-time bonuses, again as a public relations tactic, but the wage situation continues to stagnate, despite increased worker productivity.
So, in a nutshell, the world doesn’t need billionaires. This class of oligarchs, who live their lives divorced from the realities that everyday working people face, steal their status from their employees and from the public sphere. No doubt billionaires have created innovations, but they do so early in their careers and then coast on that success through monopolistic practices and rent-seeking behaviors (see Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century for details). Billionaires represent a sign of economic dysfunction, not economic success. They are like cancer cells in the body politic, growing at an abnormal rate at the expense of the healthy tissue. Keep in mind that this is not about billionaires as people: I am sure that they could be perfectly nice in person. It is just that hoarded wealth prevents ordinary people from obtaining economic security. The wealthy may give away money, but they will never give away enough to significantly offset their outsized influence. That outsized influence prevents politics as usual (in the U.S. political duopoly and in similar situations throughout the world) from doing anything about the corruption of governance. Only revolutionary change can correct the power and wealth imbalance, and that demands robust and unapologetic socialism.
Devi Dillard-Wright teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She writes about animal ethics and philosophy of mind and is the author of a popular series of meditation books.