The Myth of the Cuddly Capitalist

I love Richard Branson. I love his happy-go-lucky approach to business. I love the way his workers can take holidays whenever they like. I love that his company is called “Virgin”, which was really naughty at the time. I love his beard and his big teeth. I love that he was on that episode of Friends and pretended to run a flower stall in London. I love the way he managed to sell Joey that hat and then Chandler fell over. I love the way he has spaceships that usually don’t explode and that one day anyone with a few hundred thousand dollars spare can carve a hole in the atmosphere and float around. I love the way he appears in his own adverts on TV, and that he can have a laugh at his own expense and make sexist commercials because irony or something. I love the way he was convicted of fraud but he’s so cheeky he just don’t care. I love Richard Branson because he’s just an ordinary guy who lives on an island, like Robinson Crusoe with a private jet.

I love Richard Branson almost as much as I love Bill Gates. I love Bill Gates because he gives his money to the poor and makes others do it too, like when he did his own boring take on the ice bucket challenge. I love Bill Gates because he wears sweaters and unfashionable glasses and saved Africa. I love the way he released Windows 8 just for a joke.

But the most love I have is for Steve Jobs. Everyone loves Steve Jobs because he was one of the crazy ones, one of the geniuses. I love the way he taught me to think different. I used to think that sweatshops in China were a bad thing, but then I thought different and realized they were innovative.

I love all these guys. They are nice people because everyone says they are. They aren’t afraid to take risks. “Screw it, let’s do it!” – that’s one of the things Richard Branson says when he’s deciding where to throw the money he’s made off privatized chunks of Britain’s National Health Service and railways.

But while my heart is overburdened with love for these cuddly billionaires, there are, of course, rotten apples that just ruin it for them. Rupert Murdoch, for example. I hate Rupert Murdoch and so do you. He owns Fox News and he hacked your phone and destroyed your union.

If you live in Europe you also hate Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. Michael O’Leary is the opposite of Richard Branson. You might not know Michael O’Leary if you haven’t travelled around Europe on the cheap, in what might just be the cheapest route to a clown shoe sized carbon footprint. Everyone in Europe hates Michael O’Leary so much that we don’t talk about anything else as we queue for hours to take his airplanes whenever we take a city break.

We hate Michael O’Leary because his customer services are bad, and he wants to make you pay to take a piss on his planes or use your phone during the flight. We hate him because he boasts about all that and apparently lives by the motto of London soccer club Millwall FC, “No one likes us, we don’t care”.

And now there’s a new jerk on the block as well, and we all hate him too. This one is Travis Kalanik, founder and CEO of Uber, the smartphone app that lets you book taxis on the cheap. His company already stands accused of screwing over drivers, threatening journalists, and making thousands of fake journey requests to rivals. We hate him more than we hate it when we can’t get a mobile signal and we want to use his app.

Kalanik was recently talking to a journalist from the Re/code website about his interest in the driverless cars being developed by Google (who we all used to love and now we all hate). “The reason Uber is expensive is not the car, it’s the other dude in the car,” he said. “When there’s no dude in the car, the cost of taking the vehicle somewhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. And then car ownership goes away.” Yeah, fuck those drivers! It’s all about the bottom line for you, isn’t it, Travis Kalanik? Not like Steve Jobs, who only did things out of the goodness of his heart, or Richard Branson who probably lives a frugal life of dry porridge oats and ditch water on that tropical island he bought. Or Bono.

Good cap, bad cap

So there we go. We have good capitalists and bad capitalists. There are the ones that late night talk show hosts use as the butt of their simplistic jokes and then the ones who front charity appeals to save the world. And both groups are doing pretty well out of that.

We love the Richard Bransons and we love to hate the Rupert Murdochs, and they both continue to make buckets of cash in the process. And both groups are as bad as each other.

“Yes but what about Bill Gates? He gives billions of dollars to charities every year!” I hear someone say in a voice in my head. “And Richard Branson came from nothing with one record shop, he’s a self-made man! And now he’s a lovable chap who donates billions of dollars to combat global warming,” it continues.

“And what about Steve Jobs?” the whiny little voice goes on. “He gave us inspirational quotes, providing vital resources to the internet meme industry. Where’s your inspirational quote? Where’s your Hollywood movie? Nowhere, that’s where. Idiot.”

No one in my head is defending Bono.

Richard Branson has a personal net worth of $4.9 billion, Steve Jobs was worth $8.3 billion, and Bill Gates unsurprisingly comes top of the list with $81 billion. To put this in perspective, if Gates was a country, he would be the 64th richest country in the world, between Ecuador and Oman. It would probably be a pretty boring country too, where everyone is forced to wear Christmas sweaters 365 days a year, and all computers come pre-installed with Internet Explorer (um, wait). And, in case you were wondering, Bono is worth $1.5 billion, making him richer than Liberia. As a first step to making Liberia know it’s Christmas time during the ebola crisis, perhaps Bono could give them all his money rather than just fucking singing about it.

They all raise awareness about important issues, I know that. But it’s on their terms. And let’s be clear about this: they did not “make” this money themselves. They used thousands upon thousands of workers to create their pile of cash, many of whom are paid poverty wages. Conditions in the factories that produce Jobs’s Apple products are appalling, with horrific safety conditions and pay so terrible that it would take the lowest paid workers months to afford even the cheapest iPad. Last year, one factory in the Shenzhen region of China even installed safety nets under the windows following a spate of suicides that left 18 employees dead.

“You go in this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” said Jobs of a factory producing Apple products in the Guangdong province of China in 2010, following 10 worker suicides there in just a year. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.” And that netting! Beautifully woven.

Exploitation with a smile

The bottom line in all this is the bottom line – profits. You don’t end up the billionaire owner of a multinational corporation without exploiting your workforce as much as possible to produce the wealth you then control. The image of the cuddly capitalist is just that, an image. In a way, the likes of O’Leary, Murdoch and Kalanik are just being honest when they talk about screwing over their workforce, giving their customers a shitty deal or trying to manipulate elected governments. The Bransons of the world take it to the next level, conning us into thinking that they are a genuine force for progress in the world.

As for the charity, that just gives them, and the system that’s given them everything they have, respectability. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given millions to the poorest countries on earth. But why should these titans of industry decide that? Where is the democracy? They take the wealth of the world through environmental and human exploitation, and then decide where a part of that is directed through charity. And all the while, their jolly grins get plastered all over the media as if them giving away their riches is the same as a pensioner putting a much needed slice of their income into a collection tin at Christmas.

Since the global economic crisis began in 2008, the number of international dollar billionaires has doubled. The wealthiest 85 people on the planet saw their fortunes rocket by $150 billion just last year. If these people were forced to pay only 1.5% of the money they made past the first billion dollars it would raise more than $72 billion, enough to pay for health services in all of the world’s poorest countries and provide every child with a place in school. But the problem is, it would force them to do it – it wouldn’t be up to them whose name goes on the oversized charity cheque, and their cheesy grins wouldn’t adorn puff profile pieces in fawning magazines and newspapers.

The happy-go-lucky billionaires of the world are quite happy with the present regime because it makes them look like saviors rather than the problem. And the politicians like it because they rely on these rich scoundrels to cough up on election day.

Our world, and the innovation and sheer sweat employed to make it what it is, for all it’s faults, comes from those of us at the bottom of the pile. Our smiling samaritans, with their jokes and their donations and their god awful charity records, are part of the problem.

It’s a problem because it gives us faith in a massively unfair system, rather than doing what we can to change that system to genuinely benefit those who suffer as a result of it – and that’s most of us.

People love these guys (and they usually are guys) for mostly the right reasons. Charity and technological progress and even just seeming to be nice are all things that appeal to our humanity. And, to be honest, if it wasn’t Richard Branson and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates doing all this it would just be other people – and to be successful they would also need to employ what might be considered dodgy practices. That’s why we should look at this on a structural level rather than a personal one.

Or maybe I’m just jealous I don’t have my own tropical island. Maybe I should be a James Bond villain. I bet Murdoch would help me. And O’Leary could probably fly me there on the cheap.

Photo Credit Montage created by the author, featuring images by Elin B, Noel Reynolds, David Shankbone, Claudio Toledo, Waiting for the World.
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About The Author

Patrick Ward

Patrick Ward

Patrick Ward is a journalist in London with interests including global social issues, politics and conflict. Like many dreamers he would like to see the world become a better place through mutual understanding and endeavour. Unlike many dreamers he doesn't get much sleep.


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