Bernie Sanders loves to antagonize billionaires, even if it hurts their feelings. Usually, Sanders rails against the way they have used our political system to enrich themselves at the expense of the working class. Over and over again, Sanders points out that politicians like Pete Buttigieg oppose pro-worker policies like Medicare for All, because their campaigns are funded by billionaires and insurance company executives.
But at the February debate in Nevada, Sanders suggested a deeper reason that “billionaires should not exist.” After Michael Bloomberg asserted that he “worked very hard” to earn his more than $60 billion fortune, Sanders responded: “You know what, Mr Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers had some role in that as well, and it is important that those workers share the benefits.”
We don’t hear this kind of rhetoric very often in American politics, on prime-time TV. But Bernie is right: Bloomberg’s gains are ill-gotten. In fact, all the wealth that the ultrarich hoard and leverage in their own interests has been stolen from the working class and from the planet we share.
The Vampire in the Workplace
The most fundamental way that the very wealthy obtain their ill-gotten gains is through the exploitation of labor.
Capitalism is an economic system characterized by a conflict between two major social classes. On the one hand, there are capitalists, a tiny minority of bosses, bankers, and landlords who own almost all the productive property in society; on the other, workers, the vast majority of whom own almost nothing.
Yet workers are the ones who do almost all the productive labor: building our cities, producing the food, teaching our children, nursing the sick, maintaining the electrical grid, programming our computers, and constructing and transporting goods from cars to clothes to medicine to iPhones. Whether or not they like their jobs, workers have to do this work because the wages they get in return are the only way we can buy what we need to survive.
Capitalists do none of this labor. But they have one huge advantage over workers: in order for workers to do the labor they get compensated for, they have to use the productive property, or the capital, that the capitalists own — factories, machinery, trucks, office buildings, raw materials, farms, restaurants, expensive software, even intellectual property like patents and copyrights. It is the synthesis of these two factors, labor and capital, along with the natural environment from which both draw, that is the source of all of society’s wealth.
Capitalists like Michael Bloomberg would agree with the picture so far: Bloomberg provides one half of the equation, and the hundreds of thousands of workers whom he, his contractors, his suppliers, and his investments employ provide the other half. That he gets compensated more than his workers — in fact, more than all of them combined — is fair, he would argue, considering that he is contributing so much capital.
But, as Karl Marx explained in Capital 150 years ago, this exchange is anything but fair.
First of all, while workers are compensated for their time, their pay rates do not reflect the amount of value they produce for their employer. Think about it: if workers were fairly compensated for everything they provided to their boss, where would the boss’s profits come from? And why would their profit-obsessed boss hire them in the first place?
To illustrate this unequal exchange, take the example of a bakery. A baker making ten cakes a day might get paid $160 for a day’s work, or $20 an hour. This wage is enough for the baker to live on, and it seems fair compared to other jobs. The baker could do a lot worse.
But if each cake sells for $50, and the raw materials and business overhead only account for $10 of each cake, the baker’s labor is producing $400 for the company every day. After paying wages, the company’s owners take in $240 in profit per worker per day!
This additional value, produced over and above what the worker needs to survive, is called “surplus value.” This surplus value is, in effect, stolen from each worker, every day and every hour — and this, not Bloomberg’s hard work, is the primary source of his fortune.
Instead of allowing it to be sucked up by a small number of capitalists to enrich themselves, socialists believe that this surplus value should be used for the social good, as determined democratically by the whole society. Ending exploitation doesn’t mean distributing the surplus entirely to individual workers — some of the wealth workers create must be invested in future production, some of it must be used to fund public goods that benefit everyone (like roads and medical research), and some of it must be used to provide for the non-working population. But socialists object to letting a few individuals get enormously wealthy off of socially created wealth and letting them tyrannically decide how that wealth is used.
Second, the capital that the capitalist contributes to the labor process, such as buildings, machines, and roads, is itself the product of workers’ prior labor. That the capitalist owns this product of yesterday’s labor and uses it to extract more surplus value from today’s workers is an injustice in itself. As Marx wrote, “Capital is dead labor that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”
Defenders of capitalism claim that capitalists are rewarded for risk-taking. Billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, the story goes, put it all on the line when they invest in a new business: if the business fails, then much of their capital vanishes. Profits reward successful risk-takers who put up capital for ambitious or innovative business ventures.
But this rationalization assumes what it needs to show: that capitalists are entitled to their capital in the first place. In fact, the capital they wager on markets is itself the product of stolen labor.
They are not entitled to rewards from risking that capital, any more than a gambler is entitled to their winnings on a bet they made with stolen cash. And, regardless, no one deserves to be rewarded with billions of dollars while millions of people suffer in poverty.
Vampire-like, Bloomberg has made billions by exploiting the living labor of millions of anonymous workers around the world whose blood, sweat, and tears helped to build his empire and have given him the opportunity to buy the Democratic presidential nomination.
Money for Nothing
Besides the direct exploitation of labor, capitalists enrich themselves by exploiting people and the planet in many other creative and devious ways.
First, they leverage their ownership of capital to extract payments from workers, governments, and other capitalists in the form of rents. These include the rent you pay for housing, interest payments on your mortgage or student or medical debt, the premiums you pay to your insurance company, and the huge fees you pay to AT&T for internet access. In each case, you are paying a capitalist for the right to use something that you need to get by.
And since they have a near monopoly on that thing, they can charge way more than what it costs them to provide. In other words, simply by owning capital (paid for with wealth they stole from workers to begin with), they buy the ability to continue making exorbitant profits at our expense.
Bernie’s campaign has focused on an especially egregious example of rent-taking: by buying the rights to produce insulin, and by lobbying Congress to maintain an unregulated monopoly over the market, giant drug companies like Eli Lilly are able to charge diabetics ten times what insulin costs in Canada.
Second, capitalists secure huge windfalls for themselves with the help of neoliberal governments by raiding the public sector. This is called privatization.
An example dear to Bloomberg’s heart is the privatization of public schools. Bloomberg and other billionaires spend millions each year electing pro-charter politicians and school boards across the country, who in turn have helped to transform K–12 public education into a partially privatized enterprise in many places, including Arizona, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland (all sites of major teachers strikes since 2018).
What does Bloomberg get in return? Charter schools are mostly nonunion, weakening the power of the labor movement overall to fight against billionaires like him. Nonunion teachers get paid less in wages and benefits, allowing billionaire-bought politicians to slash the tax burden on the wealthy (whose kids don’t go to public schools). And privately owned, publicly funded charter schools provide great opportunities for grift of all kinds — for instance, companies can get lucrative contracts with billionaire-bought school boards to sell overpriced and ineffective educational products.
Finally, capitalists get rich by extracting value from the natural environment, often to devastating effect. Companies have burned down huge swaths of the Amazon to make room for farming in Brazil. Companies pollute lakes, oceans, and the air we breathe because doing so is profitable. And because it’s extremely profitable for oil and coal companies and the billionaires who invest in them, our political system maintains our reliance on fossil fuels, killing our planet and endangering billions of people across the world.
While Bloomberg has recently talked a big game on the environment — after personally profiting from fossil fuel investments for decades — he and other billionaires will never support the action needed to solve the climate crisis: a Green New Deal that impinges on the rights of capitalists to pollute and nationalizes major sectors of the economy.
Bernie Sanders’s platform calls for inspiring reforms like Medicare for All, which would redistribute wealth, end the rent-collecting grift of for-profit health insurance companies, and make provision of health insurance the responsibility of the state. But we’ll eventually need to challenge the capitalist system in which, as US Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs said a hundred years ago, “it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
To rid our world not just of income inequality but also of the legalized, daily theft of millions of workers by the ultrarich, we need to go beyond capitalism. We need to win a democratic socialist society, one that does away with the capitalist class structure that gives rise to so much exploitation, injustice, and environmental devastation in the first place.