How odd that as we hurtle toward the future we seem to be tumbling into a nearly medieval past, a world divided between the divinely privileged and those who are, shall we say, not. Is it true that Mark Zuckerberg (net worth: approximately US$70-billion) requires one of his employees to blow-dry the anxiety sweat from his armpits, as a new book alleges? A king might have a groom of the stool; Mark has a peon of the pits.
Speaking of toilettes, there’s an odd thread that unites other billionaire-saviours. Jeff Bezos (net worth: US$130-billion) and Michael Bloomberg (net worth: US$62-billion) both enjoy accruing capital and naming things after themselves, but they share another trait, which is the belief that bathroom breaks are the enemy of capitalism. “Don’t ever take a lunch break or go to the bathroom,” Mr. Bloomberg said in 2013, summing up his recipe for success. Amazon, the empire over which Mr. Bezos presides, allegedly prioritizes customers’ calls over nature’s, and limits the amount of time employees can spend in the bathroom according to warehouse workers (one former employee is suing over this practice).
I never imagined we’d be living in a world where plutocrat’s pit-dryer and cross-legged factory serf were viable career paths, but here we are. At the same time, these three men are presenting themselves as saviours of a world they have each, in their own way, helped to break. Mr. Zuckerberg wants to be the saviour of truth; Mr. Bezos of the environment; Mr. Bloomberg of the republic. Because they are billionaires, they’re not proposing to do it through collective action or challenging structural injustices. They want to muscle in, aim some money at the problem and heroically effect change in ways that will salve their own egos – while maintaining their own lucrative interests, and the system that allows them to flourish.
Mr. Bezos just pledged US$10-billion over an unspecified period of time to combat climate change through the We’re All in This Together Fund (who am I kidding, it’s actually called The Bezos Earth Fund.) Various climate scientists applauded this generous infusion of cash, especially coming from a man whose company, in its first environmental audit, was shown to pollute at roughly the same level as a small country.
Others were more critical of Mr. Bezos’s gesture, pointing out that if he wanted to make the world a better place, he could start with Amazon itself, which has a troubling safety record in its factories, consistently works against the unionization of its work force and pays a shockingly low – and yet somehow still legal – amount of tax. A group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice points out that the company provides support to the fossil fuel industry through its cloud computing service, and says that Amazon has threatened to fire workers who speak out against its climate policies. “We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy,” the group writes, “but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.”
This “philanthrocapitalism” is exactly what U.S. journalist Anand Giridharadas warned about in his book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In his view, wealthy donors are attempting to control the levers of social change without actually changing society – or threatening their monopolistic positions. They run high-altitude elite gatherings, they seed foundations that bear their names and above all they look for market-based solutions that tinker with the edges of the problem while maintaining the status quo. In so doing, they subvert the will of the collective by suggesting that government is broken and only the wisdom of individual billionaires can solve intractable problems.
“What is at stake,” he writes, “is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests.” He adds, “Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact the defence of stasis.”
Since I’m not a billionaire, I can only assume that standing on such vast stacks of money goes right to the head. Maybe there is an undiagnosed condition called Superhero Syndrome. How else to explain Mr. Bloomberg’s candidacy in the U.S. Democratic nomination race? Here’s a man whose political past as mayor of New York is littered with stupid, damaging policies, from targeting African-Americans and Latinos with stop-and-frisk policies to secretly spying on Muslim communities. His company has been accused by numerous women of sex-based harassment and discrimination, and he has joked – as Senator Elizabeth Warren magnificently reminded voters during this week’s Democratic debate – about “fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.”
Somehow, Mr. Bloomberg vaulted into the middle of the Democratic pack, polling well enough to earn a space on that debate stage. He’s got this far thanks to US$400-million he’s spent on ads and social media and not on the strength of his convenient Damascene conversion to enemy of Wall Street. Perhaps Americans have been nurtured so long on the idea of wealth equalling competence that they can only imagine a blowhard billionaire being toppled by one who blows even harder. Thankfully, that idea was neatly pierced by Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is so far from a billionaire that she once had to eat a salad with a comb: “I don’t think you look at Donald Trump and say, ‘We need someone richer in the White House.’ ”
Perhaps we’ve been ruined by superhero movies. All those stories of billionaires such as Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark swooping down from their steel-accented lairs to knock bad guys’ heads together and save the day. Life is much messier, though, and requires real heroes – not paper ones.
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