When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued a system that ‘allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health’, she was quick to clarify her perception that the immorality is located not in individual billionaires but in how the economy has been structured. ‘I don’t think that necessarily means that all billionaires are immoral,’ she added. ‘It’s not to say someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet are immoral people.’
There are, however, quite a lot of billionaires who are immoral. Step forward Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and the richest person in the world, worth $134 billion. In 2018, Amazon made an $11.2 billion profit but paid no federal tax in the US. In the UK it paid just £1.7 million in corporation tax, despite profits of more than £72 million.
Amazon is essentially a glorified distribution and logistics company with a crappy website. It has increased market share at the expense of its staff, with its warehouses among the worst places to work, offering poverty wages and horrific conditions. As a recent Tribune article detailed, Amazon workers in Britain have spoken about having to urinate in bottles due to fears of taking time off for a toilet break. Ambulance visits to its warehouse in Rugeley are all too common, often owing to accidents caused by excessive stress.
The movement against Amazon has been growing internationally. Here, in Britain, the GMB has led the campaign, in Germany it was Verdi union on strike. In America, Bernie Sanders made Amazon the centre of his ‘CEOs vs. workers’ events, eventually forcing Jeff Bezos to concede a $15 wage to a minority of workers. He even proposed a Stop Bezos Act, which would have forced corporate giants like Amazon to pay the cost of social services for their low-wage workforce.
At the time, Bezos said Amazon had ‘listened to its critics’, but across the world it continues to suck up vast public subsidies — pitting cities against each other in races to the bottom for its warehouses — while rejecting the prospect of union recognition. The PR stunt hasn’t worked.
There are few better illustrations of the contradictions in capitalism than the case of Amazon. Jeff Bezos might pay his workers a pittance, and treat them terribly, but he still wants affluent consumers; ones who will have the money to buy stuff they probably don’t really need on Amazon.
As Amazon’s market share expands exponentially, while it plans takeovers of different sectors of the retail economy, you have to ask: what is the endgame for billionaires like Bezos? I’m not entirely sure they’ve thought through the consequences of taking over the entire economy while continuing to pay poverty wages.
The social contract of the last century rested on a mixed economy, with decently-paid workers, strong unions, and a state ready to curb the excesses of the market. It emerged as an alternative to the ‘extreme’ solutions many in the ruling elite feared after the Second World War.
But today it is the billionaire class who are helping to bring such a crisis about. After undermining the social compact with decades of neoliberal policies, neoliberalism’s primary beneficiaries are unwittingly fomenting its collapse not only by exacerbating inequalities but by driving down the wages that prop up consumer sentiment.
There is another perspective, though. Perhaps Bezos has thought this through. Maybe the billionaire class are actually secretly socialism’s fifth column, making capitalism so unbearable that something transformative must be done. This theory would certainly make more sense of what was going on at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where billionaires flew in on private jets to talk about climate change, or waxed lyrical about philanthropy, while continuing to avoid taxes wherever possible.
Billionaires like Bezos are accelerating the demise of an immoral social and economic system, their behaviour making the case for something new and transformative. And when that comes — as it will — they will have taken a load off our minds. We’ll know exactly where to buy the gifts.