CORONAVIRUS, MANY IMAGINE, is the great equaliser. Anyone can fall ill, from Prince Charles and Boris Johnson to Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, so we’re in this together. And “big government” is back, intervening to protect our livelihoods through initiatives like the furlough scheme. On the surface, it appears that the pandemic has made us a more compassionate, caring society.
However, new figures from Oxfam, published on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s “Davos Agenda”, paint a very different picture. As our incomes deteriorated, the combined wealth of the world’s ten richest men rose by $540 billion during the pandemic. That amount, says the charity, is more than enough to fund a Covid-19 Vaccine for all and ensure that nobody is pushed into poverty by the pandemic. Total billionaire rose to $11.95 trillion, equivalent to all spending by all G20 countries on the pandemic recovery.
For all the rhetoric of national unity, the economic consensus is that coronavirus will leave our societies more unjust. This finding is based on Oxfam’s survey of 295 economists in 79 countries, among who 87 percent expect an “increase” or a “major increase” in income inequality. Oxfam estimates that after 2020 an extra 200 to 500 million people are living in poverty.
Inevitably, tech giants are the major beneficiaries. Consider Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. His wealth jumped so much that he could have given each of his 876,000 employees a $105,000 bonus while remaining as wealthy as he was before the pandemic.
The roots of this lie in new corporate business models. As the rest of us scrabble for scraps in the Darwinian jungle, today’s masters of the universe invent their own rules. “Competition is for losers”, said Paypal founder Peter Thiel. Intellectually, our corporate titans confound the usual ideology of capitalism and make a spirited defence of the principle of monopoly.
Thus, when said billionaires trumpet their philanthropic efforts, there are good grounds for scepticism. Last year Bezos donated $125 million to the coronavirus effort, but such giveaways are a small price to pay for untrammelled monopoly power, effectively amounting to a tax on the public. Once we add in the various ways that public spending contributes to tech monopolies, perhaps the familiar term “socialism for the rich” will have to become “communism for the rich”.
Indeed, as their wealth grows, so does their power and especially their control of information. The Washington Post, chief newspaper of the anti-Trump “resistance”, whose strapline is “democracy dies in darkness”, is owned by, you guessed it, Jeff Bezos. Last year, the Democrats were faced with a choice between Bernie Sanders, who said billionaires should not exist, and Joe Biden. Little wonder, then, that Forbes was reporting, “the billionaires seem to love Joe Biden”, and much of his funding came from that source.
Remember that the Washington Post and Joe Biden are the chief institutional representatives of what passes for “the left”, that is, the people who have the institutional role of defending the voiceless, marginalised and poor. The people, in other words, who lose out when the rich get richer. Yet both are bought and sold by billionaires. While Biden may play to leftist sensibilities, minding his pronouns, making weepy intersectional pleas for planetary justice, he’s unlikely to bite the hand that feeds him, which renders the rest, if not redundant, then of far lesser significance.
So this pandemic has played out according to the old cliché: the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. The poor compete with hundreds of others for jobs on meagre pay, the rich sneer that competition is for losers. The poor complain of elite control, the rich call them ignorant, and serve up liberal pieties about their contributions to a compassionate society. And what passes for “the left”, institutionally, is rather often complicit, putting up the banner of “social justice” to disguise their growing dependence on monopolists and plunderers.