Many of us, complaining of the poverty that befalls us or other ordinary people living here, have gotten the patronizing lecture from the armchair economics expert: If you're in the US you're actually in the top 1%. Yeah, take that, you whining, millennial bernie bro! This is certainly true when we're "looking down" at the rest of the world, who are indeed effectively enslaved to us in the first world and provide us with our clothing, our home goods, our electronics, and our toys. They are often in devastatingly squalid conditions, and it can feel unethical buying nearly anything in our society, because it's just about certain that someone suffered for it to be there on the shelves.
However, when we look up, the view should infuriate us even more: If the global 1%, who make around $50k, a typical middle-class income in the US, tower over the global 99%, then the billionaires orbit our planet. A hell of a lot of people are worse off than we are, but this is to increase the wealth of a small group of people. Capitalism produces wealth for some by witholding wealth from the rest, using the held wealth, or the promise of it, to subject people to the whims of those who hold it.
On the left is someone's house, and it's such a big deal, it has a name: Antilla. This house is 27 floors (though since each floor is the same height as two floors in a normal building, it's closer to 60), has more total floor space than the Palace of Versailles, and cost $1 billion to build. Six of those floors are devoted to the owner's luxury cars, and the seventh has a car service station. The house is a residence for a family of five, and has a full-time staff of 600 people. It has three helipads (and a floor below them for air traffic control), nine elevators, several swimming pools, a health spa, salon, ballroom (of course, what mansion is complete without a ballroom?), 50-seat movie theatre, yoga and dance studios, and an ice cream room. Oh, and a snow room, which is literally a room where it snows indoors. Did I mention this place is in Mumbai?
Most of us will either rent our house for our entire lives or will take on near-lifelong debt to get a single-family home, if we're lucky enough to have a good job that isn't slated to disappear in the coming years. Mukesh Ambani, owner of Antilla, didn't need to ask the bank for permission to buy this house. It's only 4.5% of his net worth of $22.4Bn. None of us will ever even see a billion dollars, unless we live in Mumbai and look up at this goon's mansion. But like, I'm just a hater.
There are 1226 billionaires in the world. That's about the same as the number of people killed by police last year and also the number of people who will fit in a large ballroom. "The Network of Global Corporate Control" is a study in PLoS One that analyzes one million of the ownership relationships between 600,000 transnational corporations (TNCs). The authors find that the nucleus of the network is about 1400 TNCs. It's not made explicit there, but it seems likely that the 1226 billionaires are owners of these companies. Not all billionaires are equal, though: "only 737 top holders accumulate 80% of the control over the value of all TNCs".
If a billionaire (someone who has at least $1 billion in investible assets) were to invest his billion and achieve a modest 5% return, "he would have to spend $137,000 every single day in order to" lose wealth, according to a 2014 presentation by Tim Di Muzio which reports most of the facts here (and he then invites us to think about this in relation to the philanthropy billionaires get praised for). The rich compete with one another on who has the most expensive yacht. The one Tim reports has 3 swimming pools, 2 helipads, a submarine and a missile defense system. Since then, a bigger, more expensive one has been built.
But it gets far more ridiculous and problematic when we step back from the individual things that they have: The ultra-wealthy have created essentially an entire economy that is just for them, a group of companies that sell nothing but luxury goods and services for them. We peasants will never get anywhere near being able to afford a single item from one of those companies, and will probably never even see any of those things, except in pictures. If one of us even got close enough to get our poor on it, we would probably be tazered and dropped in the street puddle in front of the building. That's not all, though: These companies are traded on stock markets, and they didn't just get the modest 5% return, they got an 18% return. Billionaires invested in these companies would need to spend half a million dollars, every single day, in order to get any poorer.
Billionaires are primarily older, and over the next 2 decades, they will be transferring $1 trillion to their children. When we say we're against capitalism, this is exactly what we're against: This isn't a rational mode of human organization and progress, it's a dynastic system of rule. If you ever hear about "the Illuminati", this would be the closest thing to the real Illuminati. It's not an evil conspiracy, though, it's what the structure of capitalism inevitably produces. A system where the only real social responsibility is to accumulate wealth will inevitably lead to a small group of amazingly wealthy people and a lot of people being left behind. These people will get wealthier until the rest of us get fed up and revolt.
But even if we revolt, even if we go full-on French revolution and murder every billionaire, and wash the streets with the blood of the rich and take away all their money, it still won't fix the problem in the long term. As long as we have capitalism, we will end up with millionaires and billionaires controlling everything. They'll be getting more or less whatever they want from other people, while the rest of us are happy just to live in a house and have a couple hours a day to eat, drink, be outside, play video games, or do art. Most of us would rather have more leisure time, and it isn't physical or social realities that are preventing this from happening; we're restraining ourselves by following a myth that capitalism will make us all richer, when it really stifles our potential in service of a tiny minority, who get richer by virtue of nothing more than being rich already.
A lot of us are dissatisfied with the system, but don't know what to do. Some of us chose to believe in an anti-establishment narrative given to us by an opulent billionaire who lives in a place much more like Antilla than our house, and who will definitely not be doing anything to challenge the establishment. The establishment isn't just "Washington insiders" or corrupt politicians, the establishment is the structure of the system that leads to political insiders and corruption. We need to resist the establishment, but not just resist; we need to build our own social order, taking care of one another to ensure that all of us can do what we want to do, rather than what someone with the money that we need to survive wants us to do.
We are not choosing to oppress the global 99%: our range of choices within capitalism reflect the necessity for those on top to exploit those below them. We can, however, choose to work with one another to create an alternative. If the ultra-wealthy want to create their own economy and become trillionaires, we will need to create our own that neutralizes the power of their money and privilege. We can rule ourselves, provide for ourselves, and decide for ourselves what it is that our industry should produce. We can decide based on ethics and not money, and so we can then choose not to enslave, oppress, or exploit 99% of the world in our own favor.
Podcasts for Smashies
- Srsly Wrong: Two Canadians discussing all the nuances of political topics. srslywrong.com
- At the Barricades: Jason Yawn of Trial by Fire and Free Children of Earth interviews well-known lefties like Abby Martin and Lee Camp. atthebarricadespodcast.com
- PhiloChat: Brand-new podcast by one of our contributors. Informative conversations about philosophy. philochat.com
- Chapo Trap House: Three dirtbags talking shit about pundits and Turkish politics, couched in 7 layers of irony. Find on Soundcloud