The billionaires, the cult of the entrepreneur and wealth creation

Let’s stop putting our hopes in the billionaire class to save humanity – they do not have the public welfare in mind.

In the previous article, we looked at the widespread and misplaced belief that the billionaires will create new technologies to rescue humanity from our current socioeconomic problems. In the current article, let’s elaborate further on this subject.

Two events highlight the importance of understanding why the billionaire class are not our saviours. Indeed, the current crop of billionaires have benefited from the inequities of the capitalist system, and so are incapable and unwilling to change it. Firstly, in early July, Amazon marked its 25th anniversary of operations. Why is this significant?

Amazon, and its billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos, are upheld as typical examples of the successful tech startup and model of entrepreneurship. Amazon, along with Apple, Facebook and Google, is a corporate behemoth, which has extended its operations around the world. IT is the area in which capital accumulation has resulted in the emergence of transnational corporations that are are similar to the steel and railway industrial giants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bezos has become a household name, and his elevation to billionaire-celebrity status is indicative of the esteem in which he is regarded by the corporate media. His achievement in making one of the largest corporations in the world is portrayed as the result of his unique motivation to succeed and entrepreneurial ingenuity. Bezos left the hedge-fund world, and began an early e-commerce business selling books. As of 2018, Amazon’s market capitalisation reached one trillion dollars.

The second event which is important for us occurred only in recent weeks – Amazon workers went on strike. Thousands of Amazon workers in the company’s factories – euphemistically named wish fulfillment centres – stopped work on Prime Day, a shopping holiday created by the company for its Prime member customers. While Bezos is one of the richest men in the world, his workers toil for long hours in exploitative conditions in poorly-paid jobs.

The Amazon workers strike is important because it punctures the aura of ‘human progress’ that has surrounded Amazon’s meteoric rise. The wealth that the billionaires like Bezos enjoy today, is not the result of the amazing intellect, drive to succeed or personal qualities of the entrepreneur. Amazon, and similar tech giants, became rich through the hard work and toil of thousands of workers.

Over the years, several undercover journalists have secured work at Amazon’s warehouse facilities, and have detailed the brutal, exploitive and humiliating working conditions endured by workers. Expected to perform tasks at lightning, split-second speeds, workers (called pickers) have to complete physically demanding schedules, and any slip-up, illness or injury results in accumulated penalties. Dismissal of workers is frequent, because Amazon can recruit from a large pool of unemployed.

In fact, Amazon and similar tech corporations are great at innovation – the innovation being in the area of exploitation. Amazon has updated the field of labour management – the new Taylorism. Named after the founder of worker-management techniques, Frederick Taylor, the supposedly scientific study and control of workers, the new Taylorism employs the latest technology to surveil and monitor worker performance.

Workers are monitored constantly, their walking speed measured, the seconds it takes for them to move from shelf to shelf, packing the ordered items, registering them and sending them on their way – and data metrics such as these are used to penalise those workers who are deemed too slow or inadequate.

Decades ago, Charlie Chaplin depicted assembly-line work in his comedy movie Modern Times. While Chaplin performed for comedic effect, there is an element of truth about the robotic nature of factory work – a depiction that is still relevant today. When Amazon workers demand that they be treated as persons, not robots, it speaks volumes about the continuity of ‘scientific’ Taylorism, then and now.

The cult of the entrepreneur has elevated a number of obfuscatory myths about the current process of capitalist production. Entrepreneurs are portrayed as courageous, innovative geniuses, who strive for the latest technologies and business efficiencies. This is usually contrasted with government-run industries and assets, which are routinely depicted as sclerotic, bureaucratic and resistant to innovation. The public versus private dichotomy is ubiquitous, but is false.

The technologies that tech companies use, such as Apple and Google, were developed by publicly-funded – government subsidised – agencies and departments. Marianna Mazzucato, economics professor at the University College London, wrote that government funded departments have put in the research and technological innovations underlying much of our current systems today.

It is not just the algorithms and gadgets used by Google and Apple that were initially developed by government agencies, only to be privatised later. The National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States funds medical research and innovations in the life sciences to the tune of billions of dollars. The Human Genome Project would not have been completed were it not for the support of the NIH.

Even in the prime example of government-run industries, the prior Eastern Bloc, government institutions innovated – not just in space research, but also in health care, education, and heavy industry. The Soviets were not the first to land on the moon, but they were the first – and the last – to successfully land a spacecraft in the inhospitable and hostile environment on the planet Venus. Innovation is not the exclusive preserve of the private sector – but the latter is efficient at innovating new ways to spread rapacious individual consumerism.

Before we place our hopes in another round of billionaires promising to save us, as evidenced by the new political candidates in the upcoming American elections, it is time to dispense with the myth of the super-smart billionaire saviour. While personal qualities of ingenuity and motivation are important, they are not the determining factors in wealth creation. It is the work of thousands that made Amazon – or Uber for that matter – the ultra-wealthy companies that they are today.

The billionaires are not going to rescue us

When billionaires advocate for social change, or adopt green issues, they are not doing so for the public good, but to reinforce an unequal status quo. The billionaire class, rather than providing solutions for societal problems, are themselves part of the plutocratic system that is generating civilisational dislocation.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue.

It is a telling sign of the capitalist culture of our system where we look to billionaires as inspirations for meaningful social change. The inequities of our times seem so intransigent, that billionaires are presented in the media – the corporate media – as agents of public good who will put up their money to solve today’s problems.

Let us consider two typical examples that illustrate this type of naive expectation of billionaire-saviours. CNN reported in 2014 that billionaire hedge-fund tycoon Tom Steyer was funding candidates that were pro-science and in favour of environmental issues to confront the heavily bankrolled and strong Republican candidates who were anti-science, global warming denialists and generally hostile to green causes. We can see the results of that effort – in 2016, the United States elected a global warming denier as President.

The other more recent example comes from the pages of Truthdig magazine. The latter is a wonderful magazine – but we have to be honest, and state that sometimes they get things wrong. In an article earlier in July 2019, writer Ilana Novick published a story commending the efforts of George Soros – a supposedly liberal billionaire – and Charles Koch, a conservative billionaire, in founding a new think tank to oppose the endlessly militaristic policies of successive American administrations.

Both billionaires have expressed opposition to American foreign interventions, and so what could be wrong about two politically-opposed billionaires teaming up to fight against these destructive predatory wars? It is the height of political naivety to believe that the billionaires will change, in any meaningful way, the very system which enabled them to achieve plutocratic status in the first place.

For a start, the ultra-wealthy are hoarding their riches in a vast network of tax havens, out of reach of public regulations, taxation authorities and governmental scrutiny. The billionaire class does its utmost to avoid paying taxes – the latter theoretically intended to subsidise public infrastructure, health care and education for the public. In fact, it is the ultra-rich who are most likely to use offshore tax havens and accounts, not the average citizen.

Taxation, and in particular progressive taxation, is one of the ways that a democratically elected government has – in principle – of raising revenue to fund the basic infrastructure of a society. Whether that process is effective is a matter that is up for constant debate. The political efforts of the conservative Right, and their billionaire supporters, is to wage a campaign demonising taxes as an undue burden, and push for tax cuts for the already-wealthy.

Of course taxation should be a matter for debate; that is part and parcel of a democratic process. The corporate billionaires conduct a politically-expedient anti-tax offensive to reduce the tax rates on the ultra-wealthy, and shift the discourse of supporting society onto philanthropy. Deploying their money to influence the political process, and buy political allegiances in the halls of government, remains out of the public eye – though this corrupting influence of the financial oligarchy is gaining attention.

Capitalist philanthropy is nothing new

Ben Brooker, writing in Overland magazine, makes the point that today, billionaires have become household name and have achieved a certain celebrity status. (Hat tip to Brooker – the title of the current article comes from his). Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Zuckerberg, Branson, Bill and Melinda Gates – these billionaires have attained a kind of heroic, liberal-celebrity status – talented, intelligent, driven to succeed, and creators of philanthrocapitalism.

The idea of capitalist philanthropy is nothing new – indeed, it is as old as the rise of the robber barons themselves. Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate and one of the first ultra-wealthy industrialists of the 19th century, had the foresight to admit that he was hoarding wealth, and thus contributing to the creation of a social order that produced teeming masses of working and unemployed poor.

His proposed solution was philanthropy; donating a small portion of his riches to found university libraries, endowed chairs at educational institutions, and establish pensions and annuities for friends and acquaintances. He never left the corporate world, and his philanthropic measures were but a drop in the ocean as compared to the astronomical fortune he acquired through industrial production.

Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and previously Secretary of State under US President Donald Trump, supports the development of geoengineering solutions to climate change. What could be wrong about adopting new and innovative technologies to solve today’s problems? Injecting sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere will scatter sunlight and thus reduce the impact on Earth.

This solution, while deceptively appealing, does nothing to challenge the destructive impact of the extractive industrial practices and polluting output of the oil and energy corporations. Drawing or deflecting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere allows the energy companies – of which Tillerson is part – to continue using fossil fuels, and cause harm to the Earth’s atmosphere. Rapacious and predatory consumerism can continue unhindered – and the oil multinationals can continue to promote climate change denialism.

Ben Brooker, in his Overland article, quotes Naomi Klein as follows:

Trump’s assertion that he knows how to fix America because he’s rich is nothing more than an uncouth, vulgar echo of a dangerous idea we have been hearing for years: that Bill Gates can fix Africa. Or that Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg can solve climate change.

The Gates foundation, Howard Buffett and others can contribute money to privatised projects in Africa as much as they like, but until the systemic inequalities that keep African nations in a state of poverty are addressed, no amount of philanthrocapitalism will seriously address these stark inequities. Ghana is an independent nation in sub-Saharan Africa, but 98 percent of its gold is controlled by multinational corporations.

We can blame corruption and greedy politicians, but focusing on these factors serves only to distract our attention from the rapacious corporations – and their billionaire owners – who are extracting natural resources to generate super-profits. In fact, in this age of tech giants, such as Apple or Amazon, wealth creation and the hoarding of profits is not all that different from the practices of the steel, iron and industrial concerns of the 19th and 20th centuries.

We will explore those subjects, and the Amazonisation of the economy, in the next article. Stay tuned.