Won’t anyone think of the poor, persecuted billionaires? When Labour backbencher Lloyd Russell-Moyle told the BBC’s Emma Barnett that he didn’t “think anyone in this country should be a billionaire” on national radio, she reacted as though the Brighton MP had floated nationalising her favourite grandmother. A Tory thinktanker spluttered that it was “all about stopping people’s aspirations”.
If the mega-rich felt they were lacking in political champions, Tony Blair took to the Financial Times to assail Jeremy Corbyn for “attacking ‘dodgy landlords’, ‘billionaires’ and a ‘corrupt’ system”, labelling it “textbook populism” that was no better than Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Challenging those with huge power, influence and wealth, it seems, is no different to scapegoating Muslims, migrants and refugees.
Britain is late to this party: across the Atlantic, US leftwing superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says: “A system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people get ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.” Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, promoted his new wealth tax policy with four words: “Billionaires should not exist.” They were met with vitriol from the US right.
Predictably, we are invited to believe that seeking to shut down Britain’s billionaire club – all 151 members – is an attack on getting ahead. That isn’t to say the left should be blind to aspiration, of course: as Polish-born US socialist Rose Schneiderman put it in 1912: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses.” The left’s mission isn’t simply to grant every citizen the basic means of survival, but comfort and prosperity, too, through collective means. Yet the existence of billionaires is irreconcilable with this emancipatory project.
The market fundamentalist ideology that dominates much of the west has attempted to indoctrinate us with a simple myth: that we all rise or fall according to our individual efforts alone; that billionaires amass vast amounts of wealth because they are entrepreneurial, plucky, go-getting geniuses. While in the first decades after the second world war, poverty, insecurity and unemployment had been understood as problems with the way society was organised, Thatcherism and Reaganism recast them as personal defects: laziness, lack of effort and plain stupidity. “There really is no primary poverty left in this country,” argued Margaret Thatcher in 1978, saying that if some were poor it was down to a “really hard fundamental character-personality defect”. It is this mentality that led a Welsh Tory candidate to suggest that people on Benefits Street “need putting down”. Here was a convenient means of justifying exploding inequality: those at the top deserved to be there, and so did those at the bottom.
Dan Riffle, senior adviser to Ocasio-Cortez, says every billionaire is a policy failure. He’s right. A billionaire is someone who has concentrated wealth that is collectively created by the hard work and graft of others. A significant portion have inherited their wealth. But even the majority who haven’t are not “self-made” by any accurate use of that term.
Here’s an example. When I defended Russell-Moyle’s argument, the former Ukip MP Douglas Carswell believed he had the perfect comeback: “What about the billionaire who created the smartphone Owen is tweeting with?”, he said on Twitter. But this was one of the worst examples he could have used. First there is the matter of iPhones being made by underpaid, exploited workers: no such company can make profit without relying on the deliberately undervalued efforts of their labour force. But it goes far beyond that. As the economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato notes, rather than being the ingenious personal creation of Steve Jobs, the iPhone brings together technologies created by the state at vast public expense. You name it: touchscreen technology, GPS, Siri, liquid crystal display, the microprocessor, the micro hard drive, signal compression, the internet itself – all were created by publicly funded research and development. Their workforces were educated by the state; their property is protected by a vast state system of justice.
But what of the great billionaire philanthropists, generously showering their wealth on worthy causes? It’s not just the fact that the philanthropy of many tycoons does not compensate for their use of loopholes to avoid paying tax. Philanthropists decide how to spend their money based on their own personal whims, rather than what is best for the social good. In the US, for example, just 12% of philanthropic money went to human services in 2015 – it was much more likely to be splashed on arts and higher education. Governments are at least democratically accountable for their spending decisions, and are under far more pressure to meet the needs of their population rather than simply indulge private hobby horses.
The existence of billionaires should sound an alarm: they are the most extreme manifestation of wealth generated by the efforts of millions of people being funnelled into the pockets of a tiny few. That wealth should be invested in improving the living standards of the majority, not locked away in the bank accounts of the world’s most exclusive club.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist
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