Since the beginning of the pandemic, the collective wealth of the ‘Billion-Dollar Club’ has risen by more than a trillion dollars. Despite not experiencing the gruelling economic toll that the rest of the world has been put under, the large respect for and veneration of billionaires from the general populace, but also from media, have experienced minimum negative impact. Billionaires have constantly been championed, whether be it through ‘rags-to-riches’ stories or innovation that confirms their genius. However, in the fervour surrounding them, their enormous political and financial power has been overlooked. Their tax cuts, political privileges and labour violations have all been condoned. Many cite their miserable contributions to the economy whilst others argue that hard work and innovation should be rewarded. This diference is only enabling a select group of the uber-rich to make profoundly impacting political and financial decisions that threaten to eclipse whole democratic bodies. Ordinary people need to stop defending billionaires.
Many billionaires operate as special citizens in their political power. Instead of holding the regular political power of voting, protesting and petitioning, their wealth allows profound interference in democracy. For example, Elon Musk donated almost $40000 to the Republican Party’s ‘Protect the House’ campaign in 2018 and Michael Bloomberg pledged $100 million to Joe Biden’s campaign in the recent election. It would be ignorant to assume that billionaires are independent from political processes, playing a significant part in providing the funding that helps promulgate political messages.
A large proportion of the richest and highest profile corporate billionaires are Big Tech entrepreneurs which include the leaders of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Tesla. At the time of July 2020, they made up half of the Nasdaq 100’s total value. As employers, Jeff Bezos, soon to be former CEO of Amazon, and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla have appalling labour rights records. The former has made little efforts to put in place social distancing measures for his employees and the latter forced workers back to work after furloughing them and cutting their pay. These violationshave not occurred exclusively during the pandemic to the pandemic. Bezos ran what can best be described as premium sweatshops in China and Musk broke US labour laws through illegally shutting down unionisation efforts on the part of his workers in 2019. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, have faced scathing accusations of data protection infringements and misinformation; the former in his partnership with Cambridge Analytica that interfered with the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum and the latter through his anti-trust infringements that have the potential of misusing private data. Billionaires are clearly not completely benevolent neither to those they employ nor to those they offer their services to.
Despite these continued violations on the part of Big Tech billionaires, people continue to defend them for mainly two reasons. The first is philanthropy: Bill Gates is the first to come to mind. After Bill Gates stepped down as Microsoft CEO in 2000, he and his former wife, Melinda Gates, founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has given more than $50 billion to a variety of charitable causes including funds to make the Covid-19 vaccine affordable to low-income countries. In total, 209 billionaires had given $7.2 billion in the fight against Covid-19 between March and June 2020.
However, it is worth remembering that Bill Gates originally founded his charity to rebuild his reputation after Microsoft’s anti-trust charges during the 1990s. In reality, these charitable acts by billionaires act as a smokescreen to justify their enormous wealth. Perhaps my take is a bit too cynical, but even the head of the Gates Foundation, Patty Stonesifer, said that, “Our giving is a drop in the bucket compared to the government’s responsibility.” As a result, a defence of billionaires claiming that they are philanthropic is neither unconditional across all billionaires, nor entirely effective. Instead of glorifying billionaires, how about arguing for an increased wealth tax to augment the government’s capacity to achieve a fairer and more equitable society?
The second reason why people defend billionaires is more complicated, since it involves the way that ordinary people perceive themselves and how billionaires present themselves. Tech billionaires struck an unlikely balance of appearing both exceptional and relatable. Steve Jobs was extremely charismatic and after his death, numerous articles, biopics and books have analysed his leadership style, his ideas and his thinking. His charisma gave Apple a personality, something that Tim Cook, its subsequent CEO, would not have been able to replicate.
Elon Musk is arguably the new Steve Jobs. Being even less ‘corporate-conventional’ than Jobs, he has created a persona which is grounded in the real world with ordinary people, despite being the richest man in the world. Whilst his boundary-pushing inventions have inspired many followers, he has gained a following through doing away with corporate etiquette and barriers, particularly seen in his support of amateur traders in the Gamestop row. Through this, he has distanced himself from the corporate interests that are at the heart of his company and made it very easy to forget his labour violations. Elon Musk’s following is largely attributed to his participation in popular culture, through certain vernacular, memes and exchange with other social media users. His mobilisation of social media has seen the cryptocurrency ‘Dogecoin’ rise as a rival against Bitcoin. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk represent billionaires who built their popularity on their charisma and ability to stand out as visionaries, at the same time detaching themselves from the capitalist structure of their companies and seeming more allied with the people who consume their goods. People must begin looking past this tactic and understand that billionaires are not the same as them, their wealth allowing them to wield an enormous amount of power that will always hurt someone regardless of their impact.
This obsession with and veneration of corporate billionaires has gone so far that they have the ability to vastly influence stock markets through a single tweet. The rise of social media has overshadowed traditional press so much so that people are now influenced by those with a blue tick next to their Twitter handle. For example, Bitcoin also rose by 20% after he simply added the hashtag, #bitcoin, to his Twitter bio. Billionaires’ hold over markets undermines free-market forces as they are able to mobilise large swathes of people to help carry out business interests that these people do not necessarily share or understand. When coupled with political lobbying by big tech firms, excluding Tesla, worth more than $60 million in the USA alone in 2020, billionaires are becoming new political forces to be contended with. However, they are not politically elected. This is extremely dangerous as if corporations continue to grow and influence people on this level they could very well begin to eclipse entire democratically elected bodies. Both the government and the press need to take action to ensure that people are informed sufficiently, although dependence on these corporations makes this very difficult.
A certain quote of Elon Musk’s particularly stands out – “I think it’s possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.” This quote embodies the core problem that billionaire defenders do not seem to grasp. Saying that people choose to be extraordinary homogenises the political and economic power of different types of people. In the economically-developed Western world, it is too easy to assume that liberal democracy allows its citizens to become whoever and whatever they want to be. Meritocracy, the idea that people should get what they deserve solely based on merit, is not the same as democracy where fundamental barriers such as economic position, race, gender, location and more are present. Inequality still exists in the Western world and for some, determination and the desire to make something of themselves is not enough to overcome systemic disadvantages. However, many mistake them to be the same and consequently defend billionaires through the belief that, with the right ideas and enough work, anyone can attain their status, including themselves.
It is time to stop championing billionaires as success stories of rugged individualism or allies of ordinary people. They should be held accountable to the same laws and criticism as everyone else, especially due to their political and financial power, that must not stay uncontested. The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences have presented the opportunity to reform how we think about wealth, billionaires, inequality and opportunity. Its spotlight on systemic flaws in the current system should be capitalised on to in order to solve said flaws. However, first, billionaires need to stop being defended, as whatever their glamour, charisma, visionary ideas or trendy rhetoric, they are being allowed to operate with a special set of rights that needs to come to an end.