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It is easy to feel furious about billionaires



Emma Gleeson reflects on living in an unelected plutocracy and suggests an answer


In 1970 American spoken word poet Gil Scott-Heron released the following lyrics into our culture, where they have remained as classics.

A rat done bit my sister Nell.

(with Whitey on the moon)

Her face an’ arm began to swell.

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Was all that money I made las’ year

(for Whitey on the moon?)

How come there ain’t no money here?

(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)

Whitey on the Moon, Scott-Heron’s furious and pained protest against the poverty which his community was experiencing while the American government spent millions getting to space, rings just as true and urgent today. With Elon, Jeff, and Richard heading off to other planets in very unsubtly-shaped rockets whilst millions of people remain in dire poverty, you’d wonder if Scott Heron would think we’d made any progress at all in the last 50 years.

It is easy to feel furious about billionaires. The world is on fire and the mega-rich continue to fly around in their jets and yachts, accruing more wealth than any one person could ever rationally need whilst the rest of us try to live as best we can within our brutal capitalist system. At best we sulk whilst doing our mostly useless recycling and fret over the morality of a yearly flight to somewhere sunny. At worst we fall through the cracks of a society increasingly interested in privatisation over social care.

We are living in an unelected plutocracy. Real power is held in fewer and fewer hands. The people in charge are handcuffed by campaign donations and other bribes from this small group of selfish individuals who want to, literally, watch the world burn as they fly off to wreck another planet. The mega-rich barely even hide the fact that they do not pay their taxes, wish to exist completely outside the democratic system, and do not pay or treat their workers fairly. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explains, no one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars”. The whims of the rich are indulged at every turn and they believe they have some sort of god-given right to decide what exists in the world and what does not. Deep narcissism seems a minimum requirement to live like this, and sociopathy is a distinct advantage if you want to get mega-rich and leave the rest of us for dust. 

I’ve read and listened to the main arguments in favour of allowing billionaires to exist. Some think that they provide consumer value through the products they develop, and that they increase the wealth of economies overall with their presence. But the time has long passed since the theory of trickle down economics, and the assumption that what’s good for the mega-rich will ultimately benefit us all, made any sense. Billionaires don’t contribute positively to the global economy. They are, frankly, weird hoarders who probably need psychological help in the same way someone who saves all their junk mail or old tea-bags needs help.

Some people argue that the mega-rich are good philanthropists. One look at their track record of abandoned or ill-thought out projects squashes this idea. The arrogant belief that the mega-rich somehow instinctively know what society needs or does not need rarely works in practice. They continuously fail to actually learn about the issues they claim to support or even ask the people and communities affected by them. This story from Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road has always stayed with me:

“I took a course in geology because I thought it was the easiest way of fulfilling a science requirement. One day the professor took us out into the Connecticut River Valley to show us the ‘meander curves’ of an age-old river. I was paying no attention because I had walked up a dirt path and found a big turtle, a giant mud turtle about two feet across, on the muddy embankment of an asphalt road. I was sure it was going to crawl onto the road and be crushed by a car. So with a lot of difficulty, I picked up the huge snapping turtle and slowly carried it down the road to the river. Just as I had slipped it into the water and was watching it swim away, my geology professor came up behind me. “You know,” he said quietly, “that turtle has probably spent a month crawling up the dirt path to lay its eggs in the mud on the side of the road—you have just put it back in the river.” I felt terrible. I couldn’t believe what I had done, but it was too late. It took me many more years of [activist]organising to realise that this parable had taught me the first rule of organising. Always ask the turtle.”

Always ask the turtle. Mega-rich “philanthropists” rarely if ever do this. The result is at best misguided and at worst actively harmful.

Another pro-billionaires argument is that they inspire innovation and drive in others.

We have this idea of the “tech-bro” hero who might one day save us from climate breakdown, or develop new ideas to save millions from poverty and disease. The callous attitude adopted by the wealthy during the pandemic surely put paid to this idea. I’m not a Communist. I believe a certain amount of competition is healthy and inspires new ideas. I understand why, for some people, someone like Elon Musk represents hope for the future. But if I met someone who thinks this I might ask them, “a better future for whom?” The hero narrative is as old as human story-telling. It’s very masculine, very individualistic and very patriarchal. It’s definitely time for a different story.

So do we just…not allow billionaires to exist? Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeyns argues for what she calls limitarianism. Robeyns says that just as we recognise a poverty line, below which no one should fall, we should also recognise a riches line, above which no one should rise. A radical idea indeed.

I do not understand financial regulation. What I do understand is greed and selfishness, and how they manifest if allowed to run unchecked. Greed is very human, and at its heart lies fear and vulnerability. I’m reminded of that story about Alexander the Great, who was said to have wept once he realised that he had no more worlds left to conquer. I can imagine Elon sitting on his camp bed on Mars shedding a silent tear that all his bluster couldn’t fill the void inside.

It’s easy to feel helpless and furious. My humble offering of what might help is this – think  collectively. We are pickled in the idea of individualism. The shifts must happen within ourselves as well as at government level. Neoliberalism, the economic model which has given rise to the mega-rich circle, has been questioned since the financial crash of 2008. But I wonder if we have fully unpicked what that system has taught us about ourselves? Neoliberalism was not just an elite project, as historian Gary Gerstle argues in his new book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. We all wanted more freedom – women, people of colour, queer people etc. But Neoliberalism allowed us to think that personal freedoms also meant free markets and increased privatisation of public services.

The idea of humans as fundamentally selfish creatures  – a Darwinian survival of the fittest – has also been seriously questioned in recent years. Rutger Bregman argues in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, that a view of humanity as instinctively altruistic is closer to the truth of our nature than the brutality of Darwin’s legacy. Bregman’s views might be simplistic and too idealistic but the book struck a chord with people who are tired of the old way of looking at humanity. Some of us are selfish, yes, but many of us are not. Rebecca Solnit writes with hope about human nature too, particularly in her analysis of how the citizens of New Orleans helped each other in the brutal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It isn’t natural for us to live cut off, individualised lives. We want to work and live collectively, we just need to remember how. Stronger community ties, more support for workers and unions, growing grassroots activism, all of this helps rewire our brains towards a gentler and fairer way of running society. We might not be able to take Elon’s cash away but we can teach our children a better way to live by living that way ourselves.

In Ireland, Neoliberalism is still the ideology that underpins how our society operates. We need to vote for politicians who think collectively instead of remaining devoted to a system which has proven consistently to increase the divide between rich and poor. In order to change our politics, we have to change how we see ourselves.