Bernie Sanders is right, billionaires shouldn’t exist
Billionaire bridge: Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, left, jokes with Bill Gates, during a game of bridge among billionaires following the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb., May 5, 2019. | Nati Harnik / AP

Since its founding, most U.S. ruling class elites have despised democracy. For example, during a 1787 debate over the construction of the U.S. political system, Alexander Hamilton, future Treasury Secretary for the George Washington administration, expressed disdain for the mass of the people. He argued that the political institutions being created should empower the wealthy minority to control the government in order to avoid the “imprudence of democracy.” So, he and his cohort established the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate as tools of the 1% as a backstop for their minority rule.

In the two decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern slaveholders, the most conservative section of the 1%, used those two institutions to maintain their minority control over the U.S. presidency and the Supreme Court, to extend slavery across the country, and to block the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of the majority of people.

Now, despite a pledge to impartiality, most Republican U.S. Senators openly pledge loyalty to Donald Trump and plan to undermine the Constitutional process for his trial.

In modern times, U.S. political elites and powerful capitalists continue to fight Hamilton’s war on manifestations of popular democracy or the collective power of the working class. In a 2010 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, expressing his visceral hatred of the democratic and free association of workers for the purpose of labor organizing, described working people who join unions as “parasitical.”

This year, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates pushed back on a reform proposal some have called a “millionaire’s tax.” Mischaracterizing the proposal, Gates implied that appropriating parts of his unimaginably huge concentrations of wealth might leave him only smaller amounts of unimaginably huge concentrations of wealth. Such a sad state of affairs would be unfair to him and might be a severe blow to the entrepreneurial spirit, he claimed.

A few days later, billionaire Leon Cooperman, privatized student-loan mogul who oversees a modern system of debt peonage, shed real tears when lamenting the possibility of a wealth tax. He accused progressive tax reform supporters of playing a class form of identity politics. “The idea of vilifying wealthy people is so bogus. They’re appealing to the masses,” he whined.

As scholar Vijay Prashad has noted, this is a society where “[t]he rich not only refuse to pay taxes, they have used their wealth and power to ensure that the idea of taxes is seen as illegitimate; we live in a post-tax society.”

While its ongoing influence on U.S. elections has been well documented, this billionaire’s boys club is panicking and threatening deeper influence over the U.S. elections.

Following Hamilton, Mackey, Gates, Cooperman, and other opponents of a democratic system rely on this elitist function of the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College to block reforms like union protections, public healthcare reforms, progressive tax policies, or to install their favorite presidents. The wealthy are in a complex battle to protect their personal wealth. And while they are ever wary of intra-class competition, they are above all fearful of a politics that would open space for a strengthened working class. Thus, their personal interests and class interests combine in a complex and often contradictory mechanism of power at the level of the state and social institutions.

For example, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos recently called for greater integration between U.S. technology capital and the U.S. national security state, identifying himself with “the good guys,” invoking discourses of white supremacy, U.S. imperialism, and domestic political repression for the sake of maximizing value for himself and his shareholders and maintaining an oppressive and deadly apparatus for protecting that wealth and power.

Powerful people like these view the rest of us as “other,” holding irrevocably different interests and cultural identities from their own, a difference which haunts them as a potential threat to their fortunes and power. More than simple personal prejudice, their words betray a preference for undemocratic power relations that favor their control of massive concentrations of wealth, political power, and cultural influence.

With their words and deeds, they express this shared theory of class. They are presenting themselves as the voice of the ruling class with what they unjustly believe is their rightful influence on the dominant social institutions.

As Marxist sociologist Neil Davidson argues, typically “common origins” of “state managers” and capitalists pull them together into “a series of mutually supportive relationships.” But the general relation of those who operate the state bureaucracies, agencies, and institutions applies to specific capitalists through no more than the simple fact that “the activities of states are subordinated to the accumulation of capital.”

While these observations do not translate to exact correlations of interests and policy between any and each capitalist or capitalist sector and each “state manager” and every state policy, it does function to reveal how capitalist rule works, how capitalist ruling-class consciousness is historically shaped and re-shaped and, most importantly, how divisions of interests, consciousness, and policy affect ruling power.

Additionally, it shows that a common cultural identity (imprinted through wealth, racial/ethnic identity, geography, education, experiences, languages of power) combines with a particular relationship to capitalist class processes to constitute the ruling class. State managers hold outsized influence over media, sway within the constitutional and ideologically legitimate halls of political power, and the ability to translate the discourse of power into policy.

If these examples, along with our experience of the Great Recession, taught us anything, it is that we can safely dismiss any claim that sharp divisions between the 1% and the rest of us, as a real, objective process, are little more than the figment of Marx’s imagination.

The richest CEOs and corporate executives, a tiny fraction of the population, earn about one-third of the country’s total income annually, while controlling 80-90% of its wealth.

Sen. Bernie Sanders says billionaires shouldn’t exist. Ever since the founding of this country, the ruling class thrived on the oppression of millions at the bottom. | J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Meanwhile, working families have seen their wages stagnate over the past four decades, have lost their homes, or struggle to pay health insurance premiums or to pay for college—which has been falsely designated as the only avenue for improving one’s lot in life.

Billionaires who expect their tax entitlements and state protections say we can’t afford free college, Medicare for All, serious public investments in public education and renewable energy, and a scaled-back military.

Despite today’s popular anger over the economy and the abuses of power by the 1%, Wall Street, Trump and cronies, the capitalist class refuses to surrender even a sliver of power for the common good. Meanwhile, 750,000 people are homeless, one in five American children suffer due to “food insecurity” each day, and record numbers survive on the meagerness of the SNAP program (formerly food stamps). More than 25% of Black men are unemployed and as many as 35% of Black youth lack jobs, while women of color earn far less in wages on the average than white women and most men.

Semi-proletarianization, over-employment or incarceration, precarious labor or hunger, stagnant wages that do not match levels of productivity or even livable needs—all of these prove essential to capitalism’s ability to survive economic crisis even while compounding the crisis of its legitimacy.

Indeed, billionaires can only exist if millions of people are trapped at the bottom.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).