What is it like to be a billionaire? I can imagine what it’s like to be a millionaire. I live in London, where millionaires are never very distant. A few of the people I went to school with are millionaires already, and in another decade or so, more of them will be. Millionaires are people who shop at the supermarkets I can’t afford. When they go on holiday, they stay in hotels rather than the cheapest possible Airbnbs. When they go to restaurants, they aren’t mentally subtracting every item on the menu from the amount they’ve made that month. It will probably never happen for me. But I can imagine.
If I really strain, I can imagine even larger piles of money. The cutoff for being truly rich seems to be somewhere over five million. One of the characters on HBO’s Succession shrugs: “Five’s a nightmare. Can’t retire, not worth it to work. Poorest rich person in America. The world’s tallest dwarf.” But above that threshold, once you reach the tens of millions, life is different. TV ads for the National Lottery claim to show you what it looks like. A big stately home, a stable of classic cars, a cigar constantly poking out one corner of your mouth. These people, the ads say, live a life that is basically vegetable in nature. They soak in the sun. They grow and sprawl. Mostly, they do nothing but exist. You will spend your days laughing big fat belly laughs, drinking champagne, and divorcing your wife. (Some 70 percent of lottery winners lose everything within five years.) It’s a strange kind of life, but it too can be imagined.
But being a billionaire, that stretches the imagination too far. Every so often, someone on the internet asks what people would do if they suddenly found themselves with that magic number in their bank accounts. Some responses:
I’d love to travel. So buying houses in a few countries sounds reasonable. And a plane to serve that purpose.
Being a billionaire would make it possible to hire people to cook and shop for groceries, and to clean my place.
Go skiing and snowboarding all around the world, buy a stupid ridiculous kickass 20k gaming setup, fly first class, give some to family, get a nice but conservative house in good location throw heaps of parties.
First thing I’d do is buy my parents a beachfront house in Newport Beach.
I would no longer eat fast food . . . I would hire a personal chef and have all my meals customized. . . .
get maid, laser, various skin treatment, clothes, shoes etc
These people have failed to grasp the scale of the thing. It’s like asking a moth what it would do if it inherited a lightbulb factory.
Consider that one million seconds is about eleven and a half days, and one billion seconds is thirty-one and a half years: my entire lifespan. Many dreamers talk about buying homes for their families; as I write, the most expensive property on the open market in London is a six-story townhouse in the former Chelsea Barracks, which features—along with the usual private swimming pools, bespoke balustrades, and walk-in wine rooms—walls made from stone studded with thousands of tiny fossilized marine organisms, hundreds of millions of years old. You can own your ancestors. The whole place is yours for £59 million, and let’s say you have a large family: your parents, plus eight brothers and sisters. With a billion, you could buy the most expensive house in London for each of them and still have enough left over to snap up Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold, plus a hundred million in spare change for your skin treatments and gaming setups and private jets and maids. This is an amount of money that’s simply out of proportion to any possible human desire.
One person who gave some thought to this stuff—money, desire, their relation—was Karl Marx. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx suggests that money doesn’t just enable us to do the things we want, but changes the meaning of our desires.
If I long for a particular dish or want to take the mail-coach because I am not strong enough to go by foot, money fetches me the dish and the mail-coach . . . The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between that which exists within me merely as an idea and the idea which exists as a real object outside of me.
In a sense, when you pay money to have someone perform some small, humiliating service, it’s the money that is doing the desiring for you. Most of the time, we hardly notice this. We still think that our desires are our own. But what happens when your money has the power to create so many more real, outward ideas than any one person could ever fit in his head?
What’s it like to be a billionaire? In a sense, I think it might not be like anything at all. Perhaps the people at the top are actually less than the rest of us—more pawns of their wealth than people with human-scale desires. Barely conscious: hollow, spent, fleshy appendages to huge piles of money, which dream their own papery dreams. Psychoanalysis has a word for this. Aphanisis: the exhaustion of desire, and with it the extinction of the self. Being extremely rich is a little like being dead.
I understand that this is not the way we usually think about the very rich. It’s certainly not the way they think about themselves. But at the top of the pyramid of global wealth—no longer the richest man in the world, maybe, but the canonical modern billionaire, the billionaire’s billionaire, the great exemplar of his kind—there is Bill Gates.
There are two types of things people believe about Bill Gates. The first is that Bill Gates is a kindly genius who made a lot of money from computers, and then decided to give it all away to eliminate malaria. This is the opinion I encounter most often in the ordinary world. A few years ago, I did some work on a project that involved digging around into his charities, and when I’d mention it to people at parties—people who ordinarily have a fairly dim view of capitalism, and the ultra-rich, and big companies—they’d smile. Oh, they’d say, but he’s quite good, isn’t he? And then I’d have to say that no, actually, he isn’t. Which always felt cruel, like telling a child there’s no Santa Claus.
I would point out that under U.S. law, charitable foundations need to pay out 5 percent of their assets every year to maintain their tax-exempt status. But the assets of the Gates Foundation Trust are mostly in stock, including investments in some of the companies that contribute to the same problems the foundation is supposed to be fighting—and stock prices are not limited to a 5-percent annual return. In one year, I’d say, entirely apart from any actual donations, the value of the Foundation’s assets rose by nearly $10.5 billion. That’s more than three times the total net worth of Donald Trump. The Foundation is making far more money than it gives away, and all that income is completely tax-free. It’s a scam, I’d say, the biggest scam in the world. It’s a clever trick used by large amounts of money to maintain their size. And then the mood would turn glum, and at the end of the night all of us would return, feeling vaguely hollow and unfulfilled, to our small and squalid homes.
The second type of thing that people think about Bill Gates is mostly found online. After I had my first dose of the Covid vaccine last year, I started joking that I was experiencing some strange side effects. A sore arm, a woozy nausea that lasted for days—and a burning, urgent desire to buy and consume Microsoft products. In my sweaty bed I had delirious visions of Excel spreadsheets, of myself as a speck of data tumbling down the columns of cells, giddy and growing. I had an itch over every inch of my skin; I needed to be rubbed down with a Surface Duo dual-touchscreen device with Qualcomm Adreno 640 GPU. I was jonesing, like an addict, to load some search terms into Bing. The joke was, of course, that a lot of people believe that the Covid vaccine is part of an evil plot by Bill Gates to plant mind-control chips in our brains, or sterilize us, or simply kill us outright, as part of his crusade to end overpopulation. For certain conspiracy theorists, Bill Gates has become a kind of demiurge, the invisible enemy putting on the vast theater of our world. He is the one who created every virion in your lungs. He painted the sky.
This account is a little more convincing, but in the end it too is a comforting fantasy. Like the nice liberals, the conspiracy theorists want to believe that this man has a plan, that he is using his enormous wealth for ends other than itself. Even an evil plan will do.
In 1994, the New Yorker’s John Seabrook, interviewing Bill Gates over email, asked what had driven him to become the richest man in the world. “I wonder how it feels to win on your level. How much do you fear losing? How about immortality—being remembered for a thousand years after you’re dead—does that excite you?” Gates’s response was strangely anodyne. He didn’t really care about winning per se, he just liked solving problems and working with computers. He wasn’t particularly concerned about how he’d be remembered after his death. Seabrook had also suggested that very successful people were sometimes pushed on by some essential lack, a trauma or wound. He was trying to invent a psychology for the man, but Gates shut him down:
I don’t remember being wounded or losing something big so I don’t think that is driving me. I have wonderful parents and great siblings. I live in the same neighborhood I grew up in (although I will be moving across the lake when my new house is done). I can’t remember any major disappointments . . . There were a few girls who turned me down when I asked them out.
I, for one, believe him. Bill Gates was born into a nice family of perfectly ordinary local aristocrats: lawyers and bankers, the country-club crowd, local Republican Party grandees, a family that liked the name William Henry Gates so much they’d given it to three generations of men. As a child, Bill was short, squeaky-voiced, and arrogant; a few girls probably did turn him down. When he failed to do particularly well academically, his parents moved him to Lakeside, Seattle’s most elite private school, which was not anywhere near a lake but which did have—unlike almost any other school in the country in 1968—a computer.
It was the Teletype Model 33 ASR, a big cream-colored machine running on lightly greased tape. No screen, no cursor, just a whirring typewriter capable of printing out ten characters per second. Some people simply gravitate toward computers; maybe in a previous age you would have found them gibbering in a dark corner somewhere, flicking at the beads of an abacus. Bill Gates gravitated toward the computer. Classmates remembered him bent over the machine at all times, rocking back and forth on the edge of a tall chair with his feet swinging in the air. By the time he finished high school, he had founded two companies. He told his friends that one day he was going to be a millionaire.
Most of the early tech magnates came out of the 1960s California counterculture. People like Steve Jobs grew up reading the Whole Earth Catalog; they thought that computers could help create a decentralized, cybernetic utopia, a digital supplement to LSD. Bill Gates had a more prosaic vision: There should be a computer in every household, and all the computers should run on software sold by him, Bill Gates. When he co-founded what would become Microsoft out of the computer lab at Harvard, his immediate aim was to supply the operating system for a new line of Altair computers. (Professor Tom Cheatham, who ran the lab, later recalled the sulky undergraduate who’d used up vast amounts of expensive computing time on his personal projects: “He’d put people down when it was not necessary, and just generally not be a pleasant fellow to have around the place.”) The manufacturers had initially assumed that computer hobbyists could program the Altair machines themselves; Gates had a better idea. He would supply a ready-made software architecture called BASIC, without which the machine would be unusable—and instead of getting a flat fee for his efforts, everyone who bought a computer would have to buy a copy of his code, with his company getting a $30 commission on each. This has been Microsoft’s business model ever since.
The problem was that most people did not want to pay for Gates’s code. Thousands of computers were being sold every month, but only a few hundred copies of the software that made it run. His program was being pirated, which in 1975 was a much more laborious process than today: You had to copy out the code manually on a reel of paper tape, punching holes in the same spots as in the original. Gates’s response was to confront the pirates directly where they lived, which at the time was in the pages of the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter. In the January 1976 issue, the entire second page was taken up by an open letter in which Gates denounced the injustice of stealing software and announced: “I would appreciate letters from anyone who wants to pay up.”
Most of the early computer geeks wanted to live in a world radically transformed by computer technology, in which code would flow like water through every crack in the soil. (We’re living in it now, and I’d argue that it’s a nightmare, but that’s another matter.) Bill Gates wanted to get rich. Which he did, in fairly short order. For each new generation of computer systems, Microsoft was on hand to supply the default code. He learned from his experience with the pirates. Now, most of the time, consumers didn’t have a choice: Microsoft was simply already there. Revenue surged.
The young Bill Gates was a man still enchanted by all the things his money could do. These were the years of the Revenge of the Nerds fantasy: Gates unshaven, unwashed—and, by most accounts, distinctly malodorous—trawling Seattle-area strip clubs for women to swim naked in his pool at Microsoft parties. As he commented to one attendee, “you feel like you’re really in the decline of Roman civilization.” Which is, when you think about it, a strange thing to say. In its first decade, Microsoft had gone from being a small gang of pushy nerds to an indispensable part of our planetary infrastructure; their software was running on just about every computer system in the world. But already, something was coming to its end.
The problems for Microsoft began with the internet. For the first time, there was a significant shift in computer technology that Bill Gates hadn’t already greased himself into. To access the internet you need a browser, and in the mid-1990s the browser of choice was Marc Andreessen’s Netscape Navigator. Andreessen thought he could dethrone Microsoft in a single blow: In the future, people using computers would be doing so in their browsers, and all the Microsoft software sitting on your hard drive would retreat into the background.
In response, Gates decreed that all new computers running Microsoft operating systems would come pre-packaged with Internet Explorer, his own browser. The software wasn’t particularly good, thrown together out of scraps of code pilfered from older versions of Netscape. But it was mandatory. Even if the manufacturers didn’t want it on their machines, it didn’t matter: Gates threatened to revoke their Microsoft licenses if they wouldn’t take his browser. And if the users also didn’t want it on their machines, that didn’t matter either. The code for Internet Explorer was woven into the entire operating system; you couldn’t get rid of it without making your computer inoperable.
Capital tends toward monopoly. You don’t need Karl Marx to tell you that; Bill Gates will do. Computers were becoming more standardized and interoperable, he told a group of Microsoft executives. “I really shouldn’t say this, but in some ways, in an individual product category, it leads to a natural monopoly.” Bill Gates the programmer had been in some sense creative, but Bill Gates the tycoon was simply doing what tycoons do, which is to expand to fill any possible niche. If he hadn’t been there, someone else would have done the exact same thing. He had become a machine for maximizing his net worth.
But there was a reason he really shouldn’t have said what he said. What Gates was doing with Internet Explorer might have been the inevitable result of certain market forces—but it was not, as it happened, entirely legal.
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice, along with twenty individual states, sued Microsoft for breach of anti-trust laws. Gates had never been particularly well-loved, but the case turned him into one of the most despised people on the planet. The monster who wanted everything, this slimy twerp in his khakis and his polo shirts, his dull empire of spreadsheets and command functions. What kind of a world are we living in, if this is its richest man? By the 1990s, computers were no longer a technology for visionaries: They were the beige box waiting for you on your desk when you went to work. The internet seemed to offer something new, but Gates was already grabbing for it with his clammy little hands. When he was called to make a deposition, he seemed surly and unresponsive, refused to give straight answers, and at one point tried to quibble over the definition of the word “we.” The trial had become a disaster, and the government was talking about splitting Microsoft into two separate companies. Everything was finally falling apart.
Shortly afterward, Bill Gates announced that he would be donating one hundred million dollars to fund vaccines for children.
Ordinarily, we treat money as a universal equivalent among things. This is a very old notion; it’s what Heraclitus was referring to when he wrote that “all things are an interchange for fire, and fire for all things, just like goods for gold and gold for goods.” This does raise some problems, though: How is it, exactly, that completely different objects—an egg, a painting of a sad clown, a container ship—can be measured in the same way? It shouldn’t make sense to say that the container ship is equivalent to three million paintings of a sad clown, but this is exactly what money does.
More worryingly, the shimmering power of coins keeps swallowing up things that we tend to think should not be fungible at all: a person’s loyalty, or his sexual consent, or, with depressing regularity throughout history, the person himself. It tends to be treated as an aberration: money seeping into areas that are not, properly speaking, its rightful domain. This underestimates the power of Mammon. Money is only distantly concerned with objects; the heart of its power is the ability to make people do things they would otherwise not want to do. Like giving over their labor-power in the factories that produce your commodities, or swimming naked in your pool. (After all, when you buy something with money you’re really just buying a portion of the daily drudgery of some distant stranger you’ve never met.) Money demands to be used: to be put into circulation, to be exchanged, to take on other forms, to find new ways of manipulating human beings. It has its own power, and its own ends.
As soon as Marx introduces the concept of the money-commodity in the second chapter of Capital, he’s forced to break off from his economic analysis and quote directly from the Book of Revelation: Illi unum consilium habent et virtutem et potestatem suam bestiae tradunt. “They have one mind, and shall give their strength and power unto the Beast.”
Another thing people often say when they’re asked what they’d do with a billion dollars is that they’d give it all away. The line is often delivered with a hint of smugness: I have managed to resist the temptations of a big pile of money. I would not give my strength and power unto the Beast. Are you sure? A person who gives ten or twenty dollars to someone in need is doing charity. A person who gives away a hundred million is doing philanthropy, which is very different. With charity, you’re focused on some small human ends; with philanthropy, on an abstract humanity. Somewhere along the line, actual people become pawns.
Today, Bill Gates is the lightly inhuman face of global philanthropy. Since he stepped down as Microsoft CEO in the midst of the anti-trust scandal, he has disbursed some $50 billion through his foundation. The “giving pledge” he founded with Warren Buffett has now been signed by some of the richest people in the world, all of whom have committed to giving away at least half of their net worth. This leads to some incredible headlines, like “Amazing Human Being Alert: Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Joins The Giving Pledge.” HRH Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud has been noted for his other charitable ventures, too—such as the time he generously offered to buy a hundred Bentleys for the pilots dropping bombs on hospitals and refugee camps in Yemen.
This is a very old story. From the plutocrats of the Gilded Age on, people who make enormous amounts of money tend to spend a few years buying things—palaces, yachts, armies—before suddenly devoting themselves to philanthropy. Maybe it starts as a way to launder their public image; it almost certainly did for Bill Gates. Before the anti-trust scandal, he’d shown almost no interest in philanthropy. A version of the Gates Foundation had existed since 1994, but in its earlier incarnation the entire staff consisted of Bill Gates, Sr., sitting at a desk in his home, opening the hundreds of letters from charities begging for spare change, and forwarding the ones he liked to his son—who generally signed off on them without much thought. But, ultimately, I think the super-rich turn to philanthropy because wealth inevitably burns through all mediating trinkets, and reverts to its primordial purpose, which is to control human minds and deeds.
There’s a story from an earlier era of philanthropy: In the 1950s, a team funded by the Rockefeller Foundation traveled to a rural region of Punjab to carry out a study among the local women. They distributed thousands of pills in seven villages, and kept returning to ask questions about the women’s sexual habits and menstrual cycles. When the women eventually understood that the pills they’d been given were oral contraceptives, they were furious. They didn’t want fewer children; the Rockefeller Foundation had simply decided that for them.
Similar stories seem to hang around everything the Gates Foundation does. In the mid-2000s, for instance, they decided that they were going to improve agriculture and food security in Africa. Various international bodies duly signed on to the program, and Kofi Annan was on hand to serve as its chairman, but it soon became clear that what the Gates Foundation was after was a better financialization of African agriculture. Farmers would get more access to credit, so they could buy fertilizers and machinery, and to markets, so they could sell their crops for a profit. A new class of “agri-dealers” would be formed, middlemen between smallholders and the currents of global finance. Subsistence farmers would become entrepreneurs. A hungry continent would be transformed into a breadbasket.
What this program often ended up doing, though, was trapping poor farmers in increasing amounts of debt, while burdening them with technologies that work better on industrial-sized farms than on small family plots. But maybe that was the point. Plenty of smallholders ended up selling their land and moving to shantytowns in the cities; data from the Land Matrix shows that since 2000, nearly 10 percent of the continent’s arable land has been bought up by large-scale commercial farmers.
Meanwhile, this marketization was turning subsistence crops into speculative commodities. Shortly after the project launched, global food prices started to surge. The cost of wheat rose by 136 percent, rice by 217 percent. Why? Afterward, the United Nations commissioned a report on the crisis. Its Special Rapporteur on Food, Olivier De Schutter, concluded that agricultural commodities had started to attract serious attention from big investors as other sectors of the economy started to fail. “Other markets dried up one by one: The dotcoms vanished at the end of 2001, the stock market soon after and the U.S. housing market in August 2007.” So hedge funds and big banks started pouring billions into crop futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and as prices started to rise, more capital flooded in. Rich countries hardly noticed the price surge, but food riots broke out across Africa. The problem was never that there wasn’t enough food to go around. The problem was a surfeit of money.
Maybe the clearest example of the Gates Foundation’s dumb power is its “small schools” fiasco. In 2000, the foundation announced a brilliant new policy fix that could instantly repair the American education system: American schools were simply too big, and the solution was to carve them up. Melinda Gates started excitedly pointing to research showing that of the best-performing schools in the country, with the least violence and vandalism, a disproportionate number had four hundred students or fewer. Over the next decade, the foundation threw two billion dollars into shrinking public schools. Principals and school boards were promised huge sums of cash in return for splitting their schools into multiple smaller establishments. How could they refuse?
Manual High School in Denver had once been a central institution in the city’s black middle class; by the time the Gates Foundation arrived it was in serious decline. Instead of reading Shakespeare, students were shown a film adaptation so they could get a vague idea of the themes; in one year, twenty students were suspended for bringing a deadly weapon to school. By some measures, Manual was the worst-performing school in the state. Under the foundation’s guidance, it was sliced up into three separate institutions with names like “Leadership High” and “Millennium Quest,” all sharing the same building. Almost immediately, the infrastructure started breaking down. The three new principals had to squabble over access to the schools’ shared facilities—the cafeteria, the library. They started calling the police on one another’s students; when a shipment of new textbooks arrived at the schools’ shared front gate, scuffles broke out over who would get to take them.
It should have been obvious that trying to fit three schools inside a single school building was a stupid idea, a circus gimmick concocted to secure a big grant, but the experiment dragged on, year after year. After Manual finally closed for good in 2006, a research team from the University of Colorado followed up with some of its students. Before the foundation arrived, the school had a dropout rate of 6 percent; by the time the school closed, the rate among former students had nearly tripled.
Afterward, a Wharton School statistician took another look at the figures, those seeming to show that smaller schools academically outperformed larger schools. That much was true. But smaller schools were disproportionately represented among the worst-performing, too. The obvious reason was that when there are fewer students, a couple of particularly bright or particularly slow kids will do more to nudge the average test scores up or down. Thousands of young people were going into the world with dramatically diminished prospects, and all because Bill Gates—the numbers guy, the world’s biggest nerd—didn’t care to read a chart.
Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the second-largest overall donor to the World Health Organization, supplying 10 percent of its annual budget, behind only the U.S. government. And unlike the U.S. government, the Foundation has a single voice. Gates essentially sets the agenda for international health policy; if he decides tomorrow that the most urgent problem we face is irritable bowel syndrome, the whole clunky mechanism of global governance will turn, slowly, ponderously, but with great weight, toward helping you have a nicer time on the toilet. Something like that is happening now. In Pakistan, villagers ask the people doling out vaccines: “What is polio? We’ve never seen it—why are we worried about it? Our children are dying of measles.” But the Gates Foundation wants to eliminate the last vestiges of polio, so that’s where the funding goes, and the NGOs with it.
But in a sense, things are even worse than that. For the most part, the Foundation does not express the idiosyncratic beliefs of its founder. It simply expresses the stupidity of the way our world is already structured. Land in Africa gobbled up by commercial interests, schools in America subjected to a litany of one weird tricks. Health policy that revolves around communicable diseases—as opposed to heart disease or cancer, illnesses linked to firms in which the Foundation is heavily invested, such as Kraft Heinz or Coca-Cola. As writers like Linsey McGoey have pointed out, a disturbing amount of the money that Gates gives away for poorer countries seems to end up in the hands of corporations and universities in richer ones. In 2021, she noted in the New York Times that the Gates Foundation had brokered a deal between the vaccine research team at Oxford University and the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca. The Oxford Covid-19 vaccine had been developed with public money from the British state; the university had promised to give away the rights for its vaccine to anyone with the means to produce it. The process for manufacturing the jab had been kept as simple as possible, using “seed viruses” that would enable smaller labs in poorer countries to churn out millions of doses at a low cost. But with the intervention of the Gates Foundation, it became the exclusive intellectual property of a single firm.
This, not any fantasy of global depopulation, is the real dirty secret of Bill Gates’s involvement with the Covid vaccine. But it wouldn’t be right to call any of this a plan, an attempt to use the health emergency for concrete ends. It’s simply a huge concentration of wealth doing what a huge concentration of wealth always does: privatizing public goods; turning everything, virus-like, into a machine for making more of itself. Just as with the Internet Explorer debacle, any other billionaire in Gates’s position would probably be doing the same thing. You cannot reform philanthropy; all of this is baked into the model. It is Newtonian and inevitable; you can predict the movements, like those of mindless rocks colliding in space.
In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Søren Kierkegaard describes two kinds of madness, the inward and the outward. His model of inward madness is Don Quixote: someone who is seized by a bizarre idea, bursting at the seams with an intense subjective experience that nobody else can understand. And as for the second, outward kind:
This kind of insanity is more inhuman than the other. One shrinks from looking the first one in the eye, lest one discover the depth of his frantic state, but one does not dare to look at the other at all for fear of discovering that he does not have proper eyes but glass eyes and hair made from a floor mat, in short, that he is an artificial product. If one happens to meet a mentally deranged person of that sort, whose illness is simply that he has no mind, one listens to him in cold horror. One does not know whether one dares to believe that it is a human being with whom one is speaking, or perhaps a walking stick.
Today, Bill Gates appears less like the founder of Microsoft, and more like one of its products. Beige and bland and inescapable; a man who seems to believe sincerely that Bono is an edgy and dangerous wild man of rock and roll, that word-processing software is actually pretty cool, and that all the world’s problems can and should be solved by a billionaire and his money. If he’s not capable of thinking outside the parameters of present society, it’s because he is those parameters.
The new tech billionaires are different. Flashier, more saturated, more Web 2.0. Jeff Bezos blasts himself into outer space simply because he can; he’s photographed with his arm draped around the thick thighs of a TV host. Peter Thiel reads René Girard and throws money at any teenager with a sulky glare and a reactionary posture. Elon Musk appears to have gone genuinely insane, in the Kierkegaardian inward sense: For five years now he’s done nothing but act out in various ways, picking stupid fights, announcing stupid inventions, giving his children stupid names. But all I can see when I look at these people is the great darkness rising around them from all sides. Already, Elon Musk has his artificial hair. Already, Jeff Bezos’s eyes are going glassy. They are disintegrating into mere things, blind mineral existence, and every stunt, every political crusade or show of obscene wealth, is just a frantic effort to claw back some human individuality, some hope that their wealth can serve their desires rather than the other way around. They are still in Gates’s strippers era, the time of fading empires. I exist! I want things!
In the end, resistance is futile. Money makes its demands. And if the horde becomes large enough, it consumes its owner. Warren Buffett, at least, knows what he is: He off-loaded billions onto his pal, Bill Gates, releasing him from the need to do anything with it himself. He doesn’t have to pretend to be anything other than a fleshy contraption for making still more money. Meanwhile, Gates careens from one world-saving idea to another, panting for opportunities to make “good use” of his vast wealth, a slave to the billions and their insistent voice: “Do not let this great power go unused.”
Sometimes I’m asked what I think billionaires should do, if I don’t like them making great sums of money, and I don’t like them giving it away either. There’s a standard answer to this question among my comrades on the left: Nobody should have this much wealth and power; it should be seized from them. Not philanthropy, but redistribution. Then, the human being underneath can live a better, humbler life. As always, my comrades are far too optimistic. The billionaires already don’t exist. Something else, some deathless and abstract thing, has scuttled like a hermit crab into the shell of what was once a human being. The real question, the difficult question, is how to get rid of that.
Sam Kriss writes from London.
Image by Kuhlmann via Creative Commons. Image cropped.