The US is a sanctuary for the richest billionaires on the planet. Some see this as a progressive development, crediting the great productive capacity of the US capitalist economy with the achievement. Bourgeois economists have long peddled the absurd notion that such massive private accumulations of wealth can exist alongside abundance for the masses. Such exuberance for the individual gains of the planet’s profiteers is designed to distort the reality of capitalist economics at this stage of development. Forbes magazine recently released its annual billionaire list. The list begs the question as to how billionaires actually acquire their wealth.
Forbes’ findings are staggering. Bill Gates, Microsoft‘s capitalist magnate, is the world’s richest person with a net worth of 86 billion USD. Eight of the ten richest individuals are based in the United States. Many of the world’s richest capitalists became even richer in 2016. Gates accumulated 11 billion USD more than he the year prior while the most improved billionaire, Jeff Bezos, added over 27 billion USD to his coffers. Bezos is the owner of Amazon as well as the Democratic Party oriented Washington Post.
The 8 richest billionaires have as much wealth as half of the world’s population. This was verified by the annual Oxfam report on global wealth inequality. However, the study contains a major flaw. Oxfam equates the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population with that of the richest capitalists. While still staggering, this subtle manipulation of language renders the dialectical relationship between the exploiter and exploited classes invisible.
The Marxist commentator and author Michael Parenti critiqued Oxfam in 2014 when the NGO reported that 85 individuals held just as much wealth as half of the planet. That number has shrunken to six. Parenti challenged Oxfam’s assertion that the poorest half of the world could have as much wealth as the richest 85. Indeed, the capitalists that control the world’s wealth have far more assets than the poorest half. Capitalists own the means of production. They wield control of capital in the form of stocks, bonds, corporations, and real estate. And most importantly, capitalists own the labor that produces the enormous wealth at their disposal.
Under capitalism, the tenants of private property reign supreme. Dispossessed of the means of subsistence, workers must sell their labor to the capitalist to survive. Capitalists then pay workers a fraction of the value of their product necessary to keep the worker alive. The rest is usurped as surplus value by the capitalist in the form of profit and reinvested capital. As the capitalist expands operations, so too does the political economy of exploitation become more acute and universal.
The current period of capitalism was labeled by Vladimir Lenin as the epoch of imperialism. Imperialism is the last stage of capitalist development dominated by monopoly and finance capital. Finance capitalists wield control over the monopolies and entire nations through usurious activity and the leveraging of debt. Imperialism’s drive to expand the influence of finance capital led to the complete partition of the world by the end of World War I. The world was essential divided into three subsections: imperialist countries, colonies, and semi-colonies.
A century has passed since Lenin’s theory of imperialism was elucidated yet it remains more relevant than ever. Capitalism’s imperialist stage is far more concentrated and overrun by finance capital than at any point prior. The five largest banks in the US control nearly half of the nation’s total assets. A handful of corporations dominate nearly every sector in the global capitalist economy. So it should come as no surprise that only a handful of individuals own over half of the planet’s accumulated wealth.
How did conditions get to this point? The tendency of monopolization is driven by the competition of private capitalists. Capitalism’s insatiable lust for profits inevitably leads them to join forces to grab a greater share of the total market. Monopoly enables greater control of pricing, distribution, and losses. However, monopoly also increases the rate of exploitation of workers and oppressed people. Today, seven out of ten people globally make less than ten dollars per day. This increase in the rate of exploitation explains why so many billionaires have arisen in the midst of the unprecedented concentration of capital that exists today.
Under capitalism, the rate of exploitation is heightened in a number of ways. Capitalists increase labor time, which in effect increases the productivity of the enterprise. At times, wages are periodically reduced. However, working class struggle and the need to pay workers what is socially necessary to maintain their existence place inherent limits on these methods. The internal contradictions of capitalism compel the capitalist class to intensify the rate of exploitation by way of automation.
Labor-saving technology fulfills two purposes. Technology reduces the number of workers necessary for production. It also helps the capitalist speed up production by simplifying the production process. Technology greatly enhances the profitability of capitalism in the short term but poses a great problem in the long term. As capitalist enterprises compete and advance technologically, unemployment becomes permanent. And permanent unemployment eventually becomes a drag on capitalist accumulation.
Why? Because as technology permanently replaces labor, so too does the ratio between profit and expense begin to turn unfavorable for the capitalist. Short term profits give way to the long term misery of the working masses. The system becomes flooded with unsold commodities, slowing production and eventually leading to collapse. It was announced in late March that 3,500 department stores would eventually close their doors around the country. The combination of online shopping and low sales has forced the retail industry to contract. These conditions are felt throughout the US capitalist economy.
The US is the home of billionaires but it is also the home base for global capitalism’s steady decline. This decline will inevitably lead to an economic collapse. And like past collapses such as 2000 and 2008, the ruling class will seek to resolve the crisis off the backs of the workers and poor. Crises in the system illuminate the parasitic relationship that the billionaires possess with the impoverished masses. They signal that the fight for a different system, a socialist system, is not the way of the future, but a necessity for the present.