Ethical Billionaires? – Is Exploitation A Necessary Component Of Wealth?
Artwork by Alesya Kuzmenkova - @forelesss on Instagram
Throughout history, the accruement of wealth has always stood alongside exploitation of human bodies, whether this be through slavery, over-working, under-paying or simply reducing working conditions to the bare minimum required, or often less, in order to increase profits for an increasingly concentrated group. Yet, when we discuss wealth, time and time again there is a sense of inspiration extended to the super-wealthy, a perception that vast riches have been acquired through intelligence, entrepreneurial abilities and more often or not, hard work. When viewed objectively, it can easily be understood that this idea is yet another facet of capitalist propaganda, thus allowing for the continued manipulation of working people in favour of the 1%. However, in this article I will attempt to give a relatively brief overview of the history of wealth and its historical correlation to mistreatment whilst along the way delving into a few other capitalist arguments that attempt to justify the increasing number of billionaires.
Although the concept of mega wealth is often associated with the 20th and 21st century, there are a few, albeit limited, examples of what some might call ‘pre-capitalist’ billionaires, though exact figures regarding their wealth are mostly estimated using the best historical data available and may not be entirely accurate. Despite the potential numerical inaccuracy, historical examples give us a chance to recognise the inherent hierarchal differences that have long existed alongside capital, whilst also understanding the necessary conditions of exploitation that have long occurred and are today repeated in comparable manners.
The Malian Empire is perhaps the most well-established example of ‘pre-capitalist mega wealth’, with Emperor Musa Keita said to be worth an estimated $400 billion dollars if inflation were to be adjusted. Whilst the Malian Empire is known to have spanned a large section of Western Africa, packed with natural resources such as gold and copper, the emperor did not obtain such riches without enslavement of approximately 12,000 people. Besides the understanding that such riches were obtained using slavery, what else does this knowledge help us understand? In short, we can see, though briefly, our first example that when mass wealth is accumulated, even before the system of capitalism that we currently understand existed, exploitation of human bodies had to occur; it is as we carry on through history that we can see the pattern begin to repeat.
With the Industrial Revolution leading to the monopolisation of labour sources, and thus the ownership of capital through the means of production, wealth concentration began to become more commonplace throughout society during the 18th and 19th century, but it was around the start of the 20th century that the normalisation of mass wealth advanced. With characters such as John D Rockefeller being remembered more for their skyscrapers and philanthropy than mass exploitation, it is easy to see how this system, over a century, helped in shaping the current day perception of wealth, most often without the understanding of the unethical measures taken to obtain such riches, including, in Rockefellers’ case, the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which 20 workers were killed during a strike that demanded eight hour working days, union representation and safer worker conditions. Rockefeller is yet another historical example that repeats the pattern of obtaining wealth using unethical methods, suggesting further that this is a necessary component of such a system. However much wealth Rockefeller may have given away in a charitable sentiment during his later years does not detract from the fact that an ethical trade-off is necessary in which exploitation of workers must occur in order to gain the wealth required to not only maintain power, but the ability to be philanthropic, a privilege that most working people are not afforded, instead being subject to poor working conditions and a life of being unfairly paid whilst also being victim to many of the societies crisis’ without the influence to make fundamental changes.
The case of Rockefeller leads onto an interesting consideration; whilst it has been established through analysis of two historical examples that affluence cannot be obtained ethically on such a large scale, the idea that this can be justified through potential philanthropy and the necessary ethical trade-off that has to occur brings up further problems in the modernised perception of billionaires. I will be using one example to reiterate this point, Elon Musk, who is admired as progressive on the most part, without his methods of wealth accumulation being considered. Musk is viewed by many as a world-changing billionaire, someone who, through technology, is able to rapidly transform the automotive industry into predominantly electric vehicles that have the power to change the way we as a society view and use transportation, alongside this he also has business interests in space travel and constructing a hyper-loop under Los Angeles in an attempt to resolve the nightmarish traffic problem that plagues the area. This view of Musk may produce feelings that he himself is changing transportation and space exploration as we know it, but again, it ignores the basic understanding of how Musk obtained his wealth – through the exploitation of others. Firstly, Elon obtained a large amount of his wealth through inheritance via his father Errol who amassed part of his wealth via the ownership of an emerald mine in Zambia- I will presume that I don’t need to explain how problematic and exploitative this practice is. Secondly, small amounts of research will reveal that Tesla employees are often subject to strenuous and poor working conditions at wages lower than the standard for automotive production lines, on one occasion having to work in makeshift, unsafe tents that extended into the parking lot of the Tesla factory, thus giving more room for production, and ultimately, Elon’s wealth increase. Rather than repeating the same conclusion as previous examples, I shall leave the Elon's case open for consideration, especially with the knowledge that many idolise the practices of Tesla and Space-X. If interested, it is worth researching Musk's involvement in the 2019 Bolivian lithium coup, something he has recently admitted on Twitter, though I have left this out of the article for the sake of length.
Next, let's hypothesize that the super-wealthy pay their dues, whether this be in taxes, charitable causes, philanthropy or by creating world changing technology, does this then make their riches justified? Well, put simply, in my opinion, no. The same pre-existing conditions for exploitation have to occur for such wealth to be amassed, and this is entirely the problem I am attempting to discuss. In Musk’s case, for example, his ‘world-changing’ technology has become a luxury product of the affluent, with regular working people unable to afford to buy into Tesla and make potentially revolutionary changes to transport as we know it. In fact, with Musk funding his projects using government subsidies, there is even more evidence that regular tax-payer money is being funnelled into projects that will ultimately end up benefiting a group of people who largely tend to avoid tax whilst exploiting the working class. In a similar example, discussing the previously mentioned Malian Empire, Musa Keita is famed for giving away vast riches in gold, but still this does not justify his usage of slavery to firstly obtain the riches required to change the gold economy of West Africa.
Furthermore, it must be considered as to what a philanthropic billionaire may offer and whether this is only necessary due to the capitalist system that is exacerbated via their wealth hoarding; consideration of this argument creates an interesting contrast. I will quickly use the example of Bill Gates and his programs to alleviate the worlds poverty crisis. Whilst I cannot discount the benefit of such actions, the question remains as to whether these obstacles would exist in the same capacity without the actions of corporations such as Microsoft, who participate in the unethical process of sourcing cobalt for all of their portable products, thus profiting from child labour as well as keeping many in poverty due to poor wages, unstable work and deprived working conditions. Equally, should solutions to the world poverty crisis be considered as something that only those who exploit can resolve as a tool of justification for their unethical practices? In trying to figure out an answer to such a vastly complex question, it becomes evident that poverty also is a necessary condition for the super wealthy to exist and that should such issues genuinely be resolved, there may no longer be the same level of accessibility to cheap, exploitable labour sources, thus telling us all we need to know about ‘benevolent’ attempts to alleviate such issues.
The stark reality remains that a system of capitalism that allows billionaires to exist does not prioritise fulfilling basic worker’s rights over that of its own profits, and consequently, the ever-increasing number of super-wealthy people. It is time to start understanding the exploitative conditions that are necessary in the creation of wealth as well as seeing through the paper-thin propaganda that allows for the idolisation of the super-rich. I am yet to hear of a single billionaire who has gained wealth ethically, and I welcome anyone who is able to show me an example; though with the evidence provided serving as generalised examples and a base of knowledge that follow a consistent pattern, I truly do not believe that this exists.