Capitalism has always been about the accumulation and the concentration of wealth. Marx and Engels first described that phenomena in their 1848 Communist Manifesto. Thomas Piketty has also reminded us of that. But what they never focused on was the personalization of wealth in capitalism and what that means for society. The latest rankings of the richest individuals in America reminds us of the persistence and personalization of wealth.
Forbes just released its ranking of the richest individuals in the world. Topping the list is Frenchman Bernard Arnault of LVHM, the fashion and cosmetics empire, with a net wealth of $211 billion. Yet if we focus simply the ten wealthiest in the world, seven of them are located in the US, with a combined wealth of $786 billion. The ten richest Americans, including the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg, total $1 trillion dollars. And this list does not even include the Waltons who own the Walmart empire or the Koch family. Of the twenty-five richest individuals in the world seventeen are American.
For some this is God Bless America! It is the story of the American dream where any of us can become billionaires, or if all else fails, at least millionaires. Yes while the US has the greatest number of billionaires in the world and perhaps the greatest density of billionaires per capita, it’s Gini coefficient, which measures economic inequality on a scale of 0 (totally equality) to 100 (extreme inequality), has fallen from 039 in 1970 to 0.43 in 1990 to 0.49 in 2022.
While the US was never an economically egalitarian nation, at least in recent history, it has fallen to become one of the least equal among any countries in the world that likes to consider themselves democracies. Combine this with the decline in social mobility in the US that is getting progressively worse by generation, and it is hard to conclude that the American Dream does exist except for a few.
Capitalism has always been personalized, especially in the US. It was once the story of the Vanderbilts, Duponts, Carnegies, and the Rockefellers who made money in railroads, finance, or oil. They made billions at the expense of the workers whom they exploit, and then we lionize the latter as heroes and beg for their money when they created charitable trusts or foundations. We view them as benevolent and generous, forgetting how they made their money. They were literally the faces of nineteenth and twentieth century American capitalism.
Today’s personification is Silicon Valley, social media, and tech. In addition to Musk, Bezos, Ellison, and Bloomberg, it is also Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Larry Page, and Steve Ballmer. It is still an American plutocracy, except the nature of the capitalist wealth and their faces have changed.
But we should not forget the other faces of American capitalism These are the faces that John Steinbeck talked of in his Grapes of Wrath to Michael Harington’s The Other America to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to apropos Faces of Povertythe documentary. We have nearly thirty-eight million people officially in poverty, each a story of how the American dream is merely a dream for them.
It is no coincidence that there is a connection between poverty and billionaires. The more that a fewer and fewer number of individuals are rich the greater the number of individuals who will be poor. Compare the $1 trillion in wealth for ten Americans to the fact that the bottom fifty percent of Americans—roughly 165 million individuals—have a combined wealth of $4.1 trillion. If your net worth is between $43,760 and $201,800, you are in the middle class. Once you get below the middle class, there is no net worth—individuals are in the hole and owe more than they own.
Donald Trump and January 6, made many question the viability of American democracy. Perhaps its viability should have been questioned even before that. The problem with billionaires is not only that they are different from the rest of us—to paraphrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald—because they are rich, but also because they are using their economic power politically to keep themselves rich.