Straight from the Billionaire’s Mouth

Social critics, from Ida B. Wells to Noam Chomsky, recognize that the elite press can serve as the best tool against the elite.  Today’s business magazines have no problem “naming the system,” and they write with clarity and frankness on the inner workings of capitalism and imperialism.  My good friend and correspondent Skip recently sent me the Forbes special issue on “Billionaires: The World’s Richest People” (March 26, 2007).  After Skip updated me on his farm’s apple and peach bloom (a familiar topic in our ten-year correspondence), he suggested that I review the enclosed Forbes magazine as “an innocent look at Capitalism and Free Enterprise.”  Innocent, in that the world’s business leaders write with freedom from any moral wrong, free from harmful effect or cause, without guile or cunning.  Rather, the articles celebrate the victories of those who successfully maneuvered the structures of a system that offers extreme reward to a few, never acknowledging the resulting misery to the masses.  A look at the U.S billionaires mirrors the observations of MR editor John Bellamy Foster that we are witnessing the financialization of capitalism (Monthly Review, April 2007).  In addition, it demonstrates with clear and precise language how the capitalist class must construct their ideology on issues of environment, imperialism, and corporate control. 

Financial Fortunes

Forbes‘ lead article claims that the 946 billionaires in the world, with a combined net worth of 3.5 trillion, have had a busy year in the fortune-hunting business.  The authors report with pride that two-thirds of the billionaires are richer than they were last year, partly due to strong equity markets combined with rising real estate values.  Since the new economic relations of monopoly-finance capital have their epicenter in the United States, a closer inspection of the 415 US billionaires proves useful for understanding just where all that cash comes from.  Along with the usual suspects raking in the dough from mega-corporations like Wal-Mart, Google, and Nike, and another handful actively building on inheritances, a substantial group of the billionaires are contributing to capitalism’s ever-increasing accumulation and expansion by making their money in the financial economy.  Nearly a third of all US billionaires categorize their source of wealth as coming from investment, hedge funds, mutual funds, money management, leveraged buyouts, real estate, or banking.  As Foster reports in his MR Review of the Month, “ownership of very substantial financial assets is clearly the main determinant of membership in the capitalist class.”  James Petras offers extensive analysis of how U.S. economic policy created billionaires in other parts of the world, often through theft, corruption, and violence.  He explains that they key factor contributing to billionaires’ wealth in both Russia and Latin America was the vast privatization and de-nationalization of successful public enterprises.

Global Warming and Witchcraft

In addition to illustrating the mechanism for how capitalism continues to avoid stagnation — with the support of an extremely wealthy class investing surplus capital into financial markets — the Forbes special issue gives its readers a special dose of capitalist ideology.  Editor-in-chief Steve Forbes explains why capitalists need not worry about climate change: it’s all hoax!  He states that although much of the media treats this idea of climate change as catastrophic fact, it’s merely another unproved theory comparable to witchcraft.  He reassures the readers in the last paragraph to not fear this new form of green socialism, and offers these sentiments:

Thankfully, despite all the widespread misconceptions about weather, we are not going to submit to Gore-ite socialist global government regulations.  In fact, some good may come out of this: a major push for nuclear power.

It is hard to believe that such a sham of an argument could be printed in the most widely read business magazine, especially in light of current IPCC reports issued by the world’s leading 200 climate scientists.  However, when the stakes are high for a fossil fuel-dependent economy, illusionists like Forbes will come to the rescue (temporarily) to convince investors that nothing can rattle the system.  The ideology of continually increasing affluence in spite of ecological limits must be constantly reinforced.

Cashing in on Terrorism

War makes profit.  This concept is nothing new; however, the pages of Forbes are eager to share the latest investment advice for technology that will “protect” against terrorism.  The Forbes article titled “Defensive Stocks” makes it plain upfront that capitalists don’t care whether Republicans or Democrats have control, there will always be a way to make money off the war strategy supported by both parties.  The article’s lede reads, “A Democratic Congress likely will shift spending priorities for homeland security.  Here’s a way to cash in on the change in direction.”  Sell that stock in airport screening technology and buy into the electric eye that can read random patterns in a person’s iris.  Who cares which party is making the decisions?  Just keep the war bonanza going so that surplus capital will have outlets for new technology deemed necessary by the constant threat of “evil” terrorists.  Reinforcing the economic opportunities that arise due to imperialist invasion abroad is a sure way to justify military aggression at any cost.

When Corporations Rule the World, and Run for Mayor

Of course, Forbes doesn’t only focus on the world hegemon.  It also gives its readers a quick slice of how capitalism is faring abroad.   The article “Crouching Tigers” announces that the Czechs and Poles are discovering the virtues of capitalism, with Germany right behind.  France, on the other hand, poses a problem since it is “hostile to entrepreneurs and employers, crawling with socialists.”  Even so, France still knows how to make money.  It’s the “corrupt Third World governments” that Forbes writers are most worried about.  Here to solve the problem with a “radical” idea, Eric Werker (professor at Harvard Business School) states that it’s time for corporations to be allowed to run for office in local elections.  This is not just the privatization of services, the article asserts.  Instead, private corporations could actually hold a local position, such as mayor, offering credibility and, of course, making a profit from the taxes.  Just so American citizens don’t feel left out, Werker states that the theory could also work in the U.S.  While many may argue that we already have such a system in place, the deliberate substitution of human thought and action with profit-seeking entities further extends the ideology that all human interaction be based on exchange rather than social good.

The dominant business media, such as Forbes magazine, offers a clear look at the capitalist class.  Petras summarizes the Forbes glamorization of the world’s richest people by declaring, “The making of billionaires means the unmaking of civil society — the weakening of social solidarity, protective social legislation, pensions, vacations, public health programs and education.”  It also necessitates the continued repetition and expansion of beliefs that reinforce principal components of capitalist growth: denial of ecological constraints, importance of imperialism for stimulating new investment, and the intrusion of profit-seeking corporations into all spheres of social organization.

Rebecca Clausen is a doctoral student studying Environmental Sociology at the University of Oregon.

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