The world’s richest man, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has increased his wealth from $130 billion to $186 billion during the pandemic. US billionaires in general have gained by about the same. Meanwhile poverty in the US has exploded.
Thirty years ago US billionaires owned less wealth than the poorest half of US society. Today they own four times as much.
It’s the same basic picture in the UK, and worldwide. The number of billionaires in the world has increased by a third in the last year. Those 2,700-odd people now control combined wealth of almost £10 trillion, up from £6 trillion a year ago.
This rocketing wealth is the flipside of deepening poverty and insecurity, runaway climate change, and the trashing of even the limited political democracy and social rights won over decades.
Those who want an equal, sustainable and democratic society need to make the staggering facts about inequality as widely known as possible. We need to demand emergency changes to unwind its growth, by taxing the rich and taking socially vital industries and corporations under public ownership and democratic control, so wealth can be used to create a better life for the majority and tackle the climate crisis.
But how did this situation come about? How is it possible? How did the billionaires get their wealth, and the astonishing power which allows them to increase it?
Jeff Bezos will have a thousand ways to increase his wealth through trickery, but it does not appear in his bank accounts by magic. He is the head of a corporation which “employs” approaching a million and half people — a number which has increased by half during the pandemic, as logistics and delivery industries have burgeoned.
During the recent attempt to establish a trade union at the giant Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, which the company defeated through a campaign of intimidation, we learned about things like drivers pissing in bottles and shitting in bags because they were too scared to take toilet breaks. Such are things which have multiplied Amazon’s profits and with them Bezos’ wealth.
Amazon workers are far from the worst off in the US, one of the world’s richest societies. Spiralling wealth worldwide has come about through appalling suffering and denial of human rights for hundreds of millions, at the sharp end of suffering for billions.
Even to win alleviations, workers must organise. It’s with good reason that Bezos and his ilk fear any growth and strengthening of trade unions. But in many countries, including the UK, changes won by workers’ movements to make things less brutal — higher wages, better working conditions, health services and welfare — are being demolished step-by-step.
As long as the rich remain in control of the big concentrations of wealth, corporations and banks, and the human labour which creates them, they will always push for more.
The only sustainable answer is for workers to take control of the main systems for producing wealth away from the plutocrats, converting them into the common property of society and creating a new system run not for profit but human need.