Comment Writer Gwydion Elliott argues against the glorification of billionaires, arguing that no billionaire is ‘self-made’, rather they profit from the exploitation of their workers
It is hard to quantify just how much a billion dollars is. Take Jeff Bezos’ net worth (201.9 billion USD at the time of writing) and divide by the minimum hourly wage in the US ($7.25/hour). Divide by 8 for the eight-hour working day, and by 365, and you will be left with the number of years it would take to accrue Jeff Bezos’ level of wealth. Nine and a half million years. You would have started this job around the time that our ancestors split off from gorillas on the evolutionary tree. 98% of this time is before anatomically modern humans emerged on planet Earth. This begs the question, does anyone deserve that much money?
Many would say yes. If Jeff Bezos has created Amazon – a service that revolutionised shopping – should he not be rewarded? He may have billions of dollars, but is the amount of wealth he is generated for society not so much more than that? While others were being lazy, Bezos worked day and night, grinding and hustling to achieve the impossible. This is the story of the archetypal self-made billionaire, one which our society does not hesitate to celebrate.
Billionaires, Elon Musk chief among them, are also seen as the future of our society. He is very widely adored, Forbes has him tied with Bezos as ‘America’s most innovative leader.‘ The self-styled ‘techno-king’ is the face of AI, sustainable transportation, and humanity’s quest for the stars. Jeff Bezos is on a similar quest to make humanity an interplanetary species, while his wealth grew by 75 billion dollars in 2020 – enough to give each and every one of his workers a $105,000 bonus and still be as rich as before covid. The myth of a ‘self-made’ billionaire, and the idea that these figures will guide humanity towards a brighter future, are both symptoms of a deeply problematic glorification of billionaires.
‘Starting Amazon was a gamble for Bezos: He left a stable job at a hedge fund in New York City and moved to Seattle to start Amazon out of his garage’ reads an adoring article from CNBC, ‘Obviously it all worked out for Bezos. Amazon went public in 1997, and today, the company has a market cap of about $1.7 trillion.’ It is the perfect example of a self-made billionaire story, but there is something huge missing – see if you can catch it. The story jumps straight from Amazon’s humble founding to present day statistics about its success, without any thought paid in between to what it actually means to build a company like Amazon. Putting aside the fact that Amazon was actually given a huge head start via an investment of almost $250,000 by his parents, Bezos’ wealth is built mainly off of one thing – exploitation.
CEOs everywhere generate their wealth by one method – by paying workers less than they are owed for their labour. Paying workers a fraction of the money they bring in is how a company generates the profits that they hand over to shareholders. The ownership of assets – businesses, shares, properties – allows the rich to expand their wealth far beyond what they deserve for any role they play in investment and leadership. Meanwhile, workers are left with less and less to show for their hours of work – the very work that is the actual foundation of any business or institution. In the case of Jeff Bezos, the company that made him the richest man in the world sees its workers urinating in plastic bottles rather than taking a break to go to the toilet, while pregnant women are forced to stand for hours on end, their performance tracked by an algorithm that can flag them up to be fired. This is capitalism in full force, a system that seeks at every turn to exploit the working class and transfer the wealth generated towards the privileged few. This is simply the most efficient way of generating profit; the existence of child labour laws is a reminder of what capitalists would resort to if given the chance.
No billionaire is ‘self-made’ – their wealth comes from the ownership of other people’s labour. Furthermore, the unjust conditions these billionaires perpetuate cast quite an unforgiving light on their utopian dreams. Living in one of Bezos’ giant space colonies sounds somewhat less appealing given his track record of union-busting, tax avoidance and his prioritization of profit over the wellbeing and dignity of the millions who work for him.
Billionaires have too much power over our lives. They are at the epicentre of countless important decisions that our society should be making together, from solving the climate crisis to tackling poverty and public health, and the very functioning of our democracies. Billionaires love to donate money; take for example Bezos’ 10 billion dollar fund to help climate scientists and activists. Sounds impressive, right? Less so when you do some maths and find that this amounts to 0.51% of his wealth given away each year. While billionaire philanthropy looks good on the surface, it’s a poor way to fund the causes we need. If you are a non-profit funded largely by Bezos, how likely are you to want to criticise his exploitative practices, or indeed the capitalist system which is hurling us towards climate catastrophe? Do that, and you might just lose your funding. By exerting this control over those trying to initiate change, and by using these donations to veneer over their dirty practices and gain public support, billionaires protect themselves from social change – maintaining a status quo that places them at the top of society and ordinary people floundering at the bottom.
It does not have to be like this. We do not have to live in a world built for the elite, we can build one where all of us can thrive. We can expand the rights and powers of ordinary people, moving towards true democracy and away from our oligarchy of billionaires. We can build societies that value the right we all have to live a good life and expand our communities and connection with nature as we use our newfound power to tackle the existential challenges we face. To do this, we have to recognise that billionaires will not save us and that they should not exist at all.
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