“We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing to really achieve a revolution.” – James Baldwin, 1963.
The accumulation of capital and stunningly opulent lifestyles lived by today’s billionaires is beyond the bounds of human imagination. Keeping in mind the levels of abject poverty that still define people’s lives across the world, one must practice a sort of cognitive dissonance to resolve the two lived experiences into one vision of humanity. Yet the status of ‘billionaire’ is the ultimate sign of accomplishment in the age of global capitalism. Depressingly, with the UN coming out recently and warning that the 2020s may be a ‘lost decade’ economically, such divides are set to widen. This is not some accident of fortune either. With the advent of global capitalism and the worldwide influence thus granted to those who hold massed capital, those at the top of the food chain – billionaire elites – are able to maintain their positions by directly or indirectly keeping those below them in destitution. All this may sound a bit dialectical, but such is the state of the world’s current wealth disparities.
Jeff Bezos, as of August 26, has a net worth of USD204.6 billion; debates can be had over the liquidity of this figure but it still stands as the sum of his capital assets. The median yearly wage for those working full-time in the UK is approximately USD 38,770. It would thus take around six million and seven hundred thousand years for someone on that (pretty substantial) salary to build up a net worth equal to Jeff Bezos’. However, given the currently buoyant state of global stock markets he will likely have gotten a fair few billion richer by the time this article is published. We can surmise, then, that if one could get into a time machine and grant immortality, a decently paying desk job, and an understanding of currency to one of humankind’s Ardipithecus ancestors they may by now be laughing (or possibly grunting) with delight all the way to the bank as the wealthiest being on earth. Sadly, taxation on salaried income may slow our prehistoric friend’s progress – not something Bezos or his billionaire buddies have to worry about.
The existence of absurdly wealthy individuals is of course nothing new, but globalisation has boosted their power immensely. Mansa Musa of Mali or Charles V of Spain had monopolies on capital beyond today’s billionaires’ wildest dreams. However, they lacked the worldwide financial frameworks through which the super-rich can now spread their influence across all seven continents. Europe and North America together have populations comprising 20% of the global total, but hold around 67% of the world’s total wealth. This wealth gap is reflected in those regions’ share of the world’s billionaires, with the number of European and North American billionaires almost doubling the number of billionaires in the vastly more populous Asian region. As global capitalism’s agents of change, western billionaires and the companies through which they operate uphold systems of western dominance aided by the legacy of colonial exploitation the world over – Amazon’s incursions into the Indian market are a prime example.
In 2018, Amazon overtook Flipkart (a domestic rival) as the largest ecommerce retailer in India. In that same year, to the horror of Indian smalltraders, a controlling stake in Flipkart was acquired by the Walmart corporation (controlled by the Walton family – a billionaire dynasty to rival the Habsburgs or Von Hohenzollerns) and Ebay relaunched operations in the country. Foreign capital has thus come to dominate a crucial emerging sector in a country with 1.35 billion potential domestic entrepreneurs. Africa faces a similar loss of its crucial infrastructure to foreign capital; much is made of China’s massive investment in the continent’s physical infrastructure, but Google’s dominance of its web infrastructure stands only to be challenged by another Western player – Facebook as headed by Mark Zuckerberg. The West’s relative capital advantage, built on the foundations of colonialism, thus stands to allow the dominance of western capital for decades to come. The extravagant lives lived by billionaires may be sickening when compared to the plight of the world’s poorest, but the exploitative financial systems from which they benefit and through which they exercise their wealth are even worse. A Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo would have nowhere near the level of opportunity afforded to their western counterparts. In fact, they may end up mining for cobalt aged six aiding in the production of smartphones on which we lucky few can poke our pals or shop for Chilly’s bottles. Billionaires, and western billionaires in particular, thus stand as wretched totems of global capitalism; if you can put aside all humanity, wrestle the other hogs away from the trough, and get your snout deep enough into the swill, you too could be a billionaire living high to the detriment of millions.
As I write this, I can already hear screams of protest from apologists for this absurd state of affairs. Philanthropic efforts on the part of billionaires get a lot of media attention and can aid in the achievement of great things; The Gates Foundation’s part in the battle to eradicate polio in Africa has seen a lot of success, and the exceptional case of Chuck Feeney – who recently finished giving away his entire USD 8 billion fortune – suggests his being an extremely generous soul. But why is the ability to achieve positive change being left to the whims of individuals? Someone with access to the unrivalled resources of a billionaire could just as easily pursue ego projects like Elon Musk’s SpaceX as solve global hunger. Additionally, altruism isn’t the only motivation for a billionaire to set up a charitable foundation. It can also act as a useful extra element of their tax dodging arrangements, and provide positive PR to those seeking to add themselves to the ranks of our new plutocratic overlords. Why is Bill Gates, a man who made his money off selling computers, now a key player in the global response to COVID-19? The payrolls of charitable foundations are often packed with billionaires’ offspring on massive pay packets with ample travel opportunities (25% of privately chartered flights are by philanthropic organisations). Altruism in fact stands as anathema to the systems which put billionaires on their perches. It is continued consumption on the scale that has taken our planet’s ecosystem to the brink of disaster and helped keep millions in poverty that allows for the induction of businesspeople worldwide into the billionaire classes.
Despite my whining, billionaires are not at the heart of the sickness; rather, they are surface tumours. It is the global capitalistic system that has taken us to this surreal epoch in which 10.7% of humans are malnourished while less than 0.0001% hold the resources to live a thousand lifetimes. In which around 2100 individuals have more capital than the poorest 60% of the world’s population. If the system doesn’t go, we will. Our patterns of consumption – upheld by those at the top to the detriment of those at the bottom – are set to destroy us. Of course, once the super-rich are bored of their slowly melting playground, they will doubtless have the funds to make it up to Elon Musk’s shiny new Mars colony. To utilise James Baldwin’s idea, until we apprehend the danger we are in, nothing can be done about it. The sooner that happens the better.
Author wishes to remain anonymous.
Image by Steve Jurvetson