The coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown us all the underlying rot in the economic systems in many parts of the world. By this, I mean that if you aren’t aware, the world’s billionaires have gotten richer while the rest of the world has been impoverished. According to the BBC, the wealth of the world’s billionaires has risen by 27% during the pandemic. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw his net worth grow by US$13 billion. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison collectively witnessed their already incredible wealth increase by $101.7 billion between March 18 and June 17 2020 and by accounts, their wealth continues to rise.
As Gerald Posner, author of Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, explains to the Intercept, this global crisis “will potentially be a blockbuster for the industry in terms of sales and profits… The worse the pandemic gets, the higher their eventual profit.”
Vice reported that, “since the beginning of the pandemic, income inequality has continued to rise: while the super wealthy make even more money.. households in the poorest fifth as measured by their pre-crisis income have been hit hardest in terms of earnings, with a fall in their median household earnings of around 15%.”
I think most of us can agree that the issue with all this isn’t necessarily about becoming a multimillionaire and living one’s “best life”. The fear that these statistics instill is that a small group of people are now the ‘winners’ controlling the lion’s share of global wealth, power, political connections and control, while the vast majority of the population are losing out and are barely getting by. It gets even more concerning when you consider that even under business as usual, our society and governments by their general lukewarmness in relation to this issue, pretty much guarantee that there will always be losers.
Now more than ever, the calls for a more socialist economy- or in informal terms “to eat the rich” rings far and loud. This phrase is popularly attributed to the late French social theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau who once stated that “when the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” This saying was in the context of the years when Parisians were suffering and starving after having deposed their King in the Revolution. Over 200 years later, these words remain relevant and have inspired the global conversation on the ills of ‘the rich getting richer’ at the expense of the poor. Throw in the emotional and financial strain of the current pandemic and you will easily understand why a lot more people are pissed off by this status quo.
The expression “eat the rich” is not literal and as far as I know, does not in any way allude to cannibalism. It is quite simply a call for a more equitable society because to a large extent, the state within which we live should be in charge of the distribution of capital to everyone. Now a popular interpretation of this call is that our governments should be able to take charge of the state’s financial resources and give out money to “those who need it”. Personally, I do not think this will achieve much, in the same way that giving all the pupils the same test scores will not make everyone equally smart.
There is no denying that capitalism is broken. However, calling for its total destruction is akin to what my people would call throwing away the baby with the bath water. Perhaps in an ideal society, we would all be equally rich, equally smart, equally attractive and equally content with all that we have. The reality though is that the rich class will always emerge regardless of whatever economic system (whether capitalist, socialist or feudalistic) is being practiced in the region. The difference lies in whether they have to hide it or not.
My concern is that the outcry to blame all our woes on the rich, as with most such things are often spurred on by politicians (who rob us all blind by the way) to shift our focus from their ills and shortcomings. When the politicians and our governments fail in their responsibilities to us or are too corrupt to deliver on their promises, they work hard to sell the message that once we dethrone the rich, all our problems will be solved. You know what else sounds similar? Stopping immigration and immigrants to solve the unemployment problem. Never seems to work does it?
The call to “eat the rich” stems from our belief that these millionaires and billionaires are responsible for our problems and should solve them. Most times, it comes from a place of entitlement, this expectation that the rich should solve all our problems because they have the ability to do so. The real question though is why should they? From housing to health, these are issues that the government literally exists to provide for the people. The absence of those things is a failure of our elected officials and governments and not a function of rich people. So why should we hold the latter accountable for the missteps of the former?
Going further, if we truly interrogate our feelings, we might find that this call also has something to do with our emotions; we think some are more deserving of their money than others. A pointer to this is that when we think of “eating the rich”, we think of the “bad guys” like Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, not the ‘good guys’ like Oprah, Tom Hanks or Tyler Perry. But really who are we to judge? You probably don’t consider yourself rich but what if to me you are? You are locked down, scrolling through the latest model iPhone (that you really don’t need) and ordering in your daily meals. On the other side of the planet, I live in a place where people could not stay in their homes because they would rather contract the virus than die of hunger at home. So since you are looking very rich from where I am standing, you will probably be on my menu when the time comes to eat the rich. Eating the rich is not looking too appealing now is it?
In researching for this article, I came across an article where the writer was calling for us to “eat the rich” and pointing out how they are responsible for climate change. Halfway through the article, the blogger offers up “eat the rich” lapel pins for sale at $6 apiece. Now, we can argue that what the blogger is doing is to “survive” and that is not going to be a billionaire off that, so her commercial venture is fine. But can we really say that if she had the chance to sell 10 million pieces of that pin, she wouldn’t? Whether you blog or you set up an ethical fashion line from your sitting room; you want your blog to be the most read. You want as many customers for your brand as possible and that is a reality we choose to deny.
I am not as naive as to think that the rich and wealthy are innocent bystanders. Far from it. What I firmly believe though is that the government exists to make sure that our collective interests are protected from any inimical forces, billionaires included. A sustainable solution would be to create government systems that actually work and will protect us from whatever extortions that the rich may try with their vast wealth. We need a reliable system that makes the richer members of our society contribute more to the general good in the form of taxes. While it might be nice and the morally right thing for billionaires to be good people and who try not to exploit their workers or the environment, the truth is that it is not their job. It is the duty of the governments that we collectively elected to protect those workers.
Just one year of the pandemic has shown that when employed correctly- when the government exercises its power to guide its nation’s economy, having the rich in any society can be a good thing. With astonishing speed, businesses worldwide have accomplished remarkable feats, most notably the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies trying to fight the virus. They have kept the grocery store shelves stocked in the wake of COVID restrictions on trade, and redeployed factories to make ventilators and personal protective equipment. My point in all this is simple. Even the most ‘capitalist societies’ need to have a healthy degree of government intervention and the lack of this is a more serious concern than calling to ‘eat the rich’. We need a more just society if we are to get even the basics in life without being exploited and a just society is not a society devoid of millionaires or billionaires.
It is a society where the elected leaders do their jobs and ensure equity for everyone.
Especially if it means keeping the rich in line.
Photo by wsquared photography/Creative Commons.