Updated: Mar 12, 2021
When you think about it, everything in the modern world can be boiled down to a story. It’s not the products we buy, or the people we are being asked to support- everything comes down to the narrative that has been constructed around it. This is why marketing gurus are paid so much to find a gap and fill it with just the right story that will sell us the product, the person and the ideology.
The narrative surrounding billionaires and the accumulation of extreme wealth has been so ingrained into our understanding of morality and how the world works that many of us never questioned it, until Kylie Jenner’s controversial “self-made” Forbes cover launched the topic into the stratosphere. The cover became a rallying cry for the “girlboss”, of the payoff for the “hustle”, but there was a glaring hole with the level of wealth this particular “girlboss” was accumulating. We started to ask “what exactly is a billionaire?” and began a widespread conversation about how impossible it is for any one person to earn that level of wealth through their own labour, without the extreme exploitation of others’ work and quality of life. So then we started to ask: how exactly does Kylie Jenner, and every other billionaire, deserve wealth at this capacity?
The Billionaire as The Aspiration, The Role Model, The (Astaghfirullah) god on Earth
Let’s begin by unpacking the idea that accumulation of extreme wealth can be “deserved”. That being wealthy denotes worthiness or value to society. In our capitalist world it makes sense that we’ve been taught to aspire to Being Rich, and can justify skimming over the fact that we have not one example of a billionaire whose wealth has been gained ethically. Wealth disparity is at the most horrific level it’s been since the 1930’s. The 26 richest people on the planet have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. This statistic alone should mean we are all collectively mobbing the gates of every billionaire’s heavily guarded mansion as we speak, and forcing them to account for their existence French Revolution style.
So why aren’t we? Allowing billionaires to exist goes against every other pattern of human nature that people follow- we are literally in support of the protection and hoarding of extreme wealth for another person, when that wealth would otherwise be redistributed to directly benefit ourselves. Not in a vague way where our quality of life could maybe be improved, but in fact would be made better drastically in every single way.
It all comes down to the tale that’s been spun. The story of the billionaire, and the narrative running the world today, is that wealth and the hoarding of it are not dirty things, but something every person is capable of reaching and more importantly “deserves” to reach. It’s why the average Joe, who works a 9-5, roots for the billionaire. Because one day that might be him. If we just work hard enough, if we quit whining, embrace the hustle and earn our success. Packaged nicely and sold to us as the Australian/ American /Immigrant Dream, you name it, that’s how it’s marketed, as the dream we can all reach.
But Pal, you might argue, they did earn their money. Yes, now they’re profiting off their workers, but that’s what we strive for isn’t it? To do our hard work and then get to a place where other people can work hard for us, thanks to that early work we put in. Bill Gates created the computer software that we use today and have for the last decade, Oprah worked her way up from nothing to become the name in daytime television. People deserve to be able to reach for the stars in terms of their goals in this world. Thank you, reader, for hypothetically raising this point.
The rich have tried to sell us the myth that billionaires gained their money through good old fashioned, hard work. And of course, people deserve to be rewarded for their work. But in fact, there is actually no possible way to become a billionaire through your own work. It necessitates the exploitation of the work and quality of life of masses of other people. People are not billionaires because they are good at something- the accumulation of such enormous wealth can only exist in a structure wherein rampant injustice and inequality reigns, which is what we’re living in today.
The Myth of The Good Billionaire
Why do billionaires love philanthropy and hate taxes? Something we can thank eternal douchebag Jeff Bezos for is his almost complete lack of desire to even play at the pretence of being a good person. The guy just doesn’t care. He doesn’t try and fall into the PR-friendly category of “the nice wealth-sharing billionaire” and for this one thing we can thank the soulless man who denies his thousands of workers a living wage. Because in his demonic wealth-gaining existence, we can see how effective the usual spin around billionaire philanthropy is.
Bill Gates, the “cool” billionaire who has fun with Ellen (a measly multi-millionaire) is known for dedicating a portion of his fortune to fighting infectious diseases, consistently giving to charity and creating programs in the tech space to benefit many communities. He is the poster boy for the “good billionaire”. But there is a dark underbelly to his philanthropic efforts. The fact is that he directly benefits from the outcome of his philanthropy, and herein lies the problem. Bill Gates, like many other billionaires, is known for using these charitable donations to avoid or pay meagre amounts on his taxes because there are financial systems in place for the already disgustingly rich that allow him to do so.
In an episode of Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj exposes how billionaires actually give money. Big philanthropy, he states, is not the same as you or I making a donation through Change.org. Big philanthropy actually allows billionaires to pay less on almost every kind of tax. Their donations are also almost never in cash form but through something known as a Donor-Advised Fund. Hold your horses for this absolute financial clownery.
“A DONOR-ADVISED FUND, or DAF, is a giving vehicle that allows donors to make a charitable contribution, receive an immediate tax deduction and then recommend grants from the fund over time. Donors can contribute to the fund as frequently as they like, and then recommend grants to their favourite charities whenever makes sense for them.”
The billionaire’s love of charity and simultaneous hatred of taxes is the difference between spending money to show that they are helping “the less fortunate” while directly benefiting themselves, versus fulfilling their obligation or responsibility as a citizen functioning in a democratic society. The point is that wealth redistribution would make this philanthropy unnecessary in the first place. Their version of charity is unethical, immoral and places them in a position to be the arbiter of right and wrong, what is just versus what is not.
To quote The Guardian, “there’s a statistic floating around social media that if you made $5,000 a day every day, starting in 1492, when Columbus arrived in America, you would still have less money than Jeff Bezos, who is worth a net $110bn post-divorce.”
They are now able to wield a level of power that is largely unregulated, and they actively shape the world that we live in today to make it the best place for the billionaire to make more money. Their influence in our social systems is the reason we even feel the need to discuss the concept of the billionaire rather than destroy it outright. We wouldn’t accept a vigilante deciding who gets to die and who does not, so why in the world are we entrusting billionaires with the exact same thing?
Billionaires are the parasite and symptom of a bigger problem.
The same group of people who has lobbied for, fought for and clung to an economy of injustice have marketed themselves to us as saviours, as in fact the solutions to the very problems they are still busily causing. - Anand Giridharadas
The capitalist structure romanticises the existence of the billionaire as fundamentally imperialist because it allows nations of the Global South to be drained of resources for the profit of private corporations headquartered in the Global North. An example of this is Bangladesh, one of the most deregulated nations in the world. This means there aren’t proper regulations protecting workers from exploitation, making it now a hotspot for modern slavery.
This is why billionaires are a parasite of a bigger problem. They use every form of modern slavery available to make more money for themselves to hoard, and when occasionally the horrible truth of their wealth accumulation makes itself known, they make a charitable donation or sweet PR stunt to create a smokescreen, giving people something nice to focus on. An example is the rise of the recent #PayUp controversy, wherein Bangladeshi workers were not paid for garments they created during Covid19 by the companies they made them for, like Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s clothing line. It has been estimated that the $420 dollars a Bangladeshi factory worker is likely to make in a year is what Kylie Jenner makes in just over a second.
Capitalism and colonialism have their roots intertwined. The idea that this is in any way acceptable is a direct result of systemic racism and white supremacist structures that for so long have ruled our world. It essentially boils down to already wealthy white people reaping the monetary benefits of disadvantaged black and brown people’s work. There is no “well at least they’re getting paid something, right?” They are stuck in this inescapable cycle because of the racist capitalist structures in our world that make it okay for non-white lives to be sacrificed for the monetary gain of a few in the Global North. The same system that creates the billionaire keeps these people who work the hardest living below the poverty line.
Billionaires shape our governments, our education systems, every single social system that we interact with during our lifetimes has been moulded by the ultra rich to keep the money and power flowing directly into their own pockets at the expense of everyone else on the planet. It’s the reason we don’t feel truly educated by our school system.
Writer Anand Giridharadas states, “we have made choices as a society, to be more friendly to the Robert Smiths of the world, than the 400 kids he helped”. A person’s billions don’t just buy them mansions to die for or space programs, they also buy them influence, and they wield it in ways we ordinary folk don’t get to see behind-the-scenes of.
A Final Note
By now you’ve figured out that the examination of billionaires was really a way to trojan horse in the bigger issue of wealth disparity. To refer back to a snippet of the ever-incredible Patriot Act, the billionaire behind GoPro states, when confronted with the controversial truth of his “charitable donation”: “that’s how the world works. Ultimately, it’s not whether it’s fair or not, it’s just how you manage it, and I try not to get too caught up in all of that.”
The turd is right. It is the way the world works. And so long as we are okay with the world working this way, it will continue to do so. The fight against racist power structures goes further than the systems that are immediately apparent to us and we need to keep learning about these narratives in order not to buy into them and to question them. There is no “success” element to making our money off the backs of others, and to create a fairer world we need to ensure we don’t partake in unethical mass money-making practices when we are eventually in positions to do so. Instead we actively fight to dismantle them, by lobbying for fairer policies, more intense regulations and heavier taxation on immense wealth. Or we could, you know, just eat the rich.
Editor: Mariam H.