Last year, during the peak of the global pandemic, the world created more than seven hundred new billionaires. In the year since, another five hundred have been created — but the total wealth on the Forbes list has increased from $5 trillion to $13 trillion, the largest increase ever recorded in any one-year period. China topped the list for the highest number of new billionaires, with the United States coming in second.
Meanwhile, global GDP shrank by 3.3 percent in 2020 and unemployment rates are around 1.5 percentage points higher than they were before the pandemic in most economies. This doesn’t simply raise moral questions about the distribution of wealth during a pandemic — it requires us to ask exactly how those at the top are doing so well while demand in the global economy is so subdued.
The main reason for the explosion in billionaire wealth over the course of the pandemic has been the asset-purchasing programs undertaken by central banks. In the wake of the financial crisis, and following in the footsteps of the Bank of Japan after its crisis a decade earlier, central banks set about creating new money to purchase long-dated government bonds and some other assets in order to reduce yields (previously, they had primarily dealt in short-dated bonds as a way to influence interest rates).
The idea behind what is now commonly known as quantitative easing (QE) was that pushing down yields on long-dated government bonds would encourage investors to purchase other assets, like equities. Some argue that this was simply a measure designed to increase lending and investment; others argue that central banks were actively attempting to increase asset prices, enriching the wealthy based on the assumption that that wealth would “trickle down” to everyone else.
Whatever the original intentions, central bank asset purchases have unquestionably led to significant asset price inflation and increased wealth inequality. If that trend was not obvious in the run-up to the COVID-19 pandemic — US equities had undergone their longest bull run in history and many observers were pointing to a bubble in high-yield corporate debt — then it is certainly obvious today.
Saying that central bank asset purchases have increased wealth inequality is another way of saying that the state has intervened directly in order to increase the wealth of those at the very top. In this context, the idea that billionaire wealth simply represents a reward for effort and innovation — the size of which is determined by the “market” — is clearly absurd. These billionaires didn’t earn the massive increases in their wealth seen over the last year — they were effectively handed this wealth by the state.
And QE is not the only form of upward redistribution promoted by capitalist states today. Even before the pandemic, the United States had a massive problem with so-called corporate welfare. Special interest groups — from oil to agriculture to aviation — received huge direct handouts from the US state in the form of tax breaks and subsidies.
The response to the global financial crisis could itself be considered a form of corporate welfare. Some of the largest banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions received massive direct or indirect bailouts for undertaking activities that many of their senior executives were aware were incredibly risky.
These bankers no doubt knew that their organizations were “too big to fail”: they knew that their collapse could bring down the world economy. The trump card held by these large organizations is a form of structural power inherent to the functioning of capitalism: as long as a small number of people control most of the world’s resources, they’ll be able to blackmail even the most progressive governments.
The pandemic has seen a massive revival of corporate welfare — only this time, rather than bailing out their financial sectors, governments are bailing out the entire capitalist class. On top of the $9 trillion worth of QE that’s been undertaken since the pandemic began, governments all around the world have spent trillions on loans and subsidies to big businesses, financiers, and landlords. Most have also provided some support for workers; yet without breaks on debt, rent, and bills, much of this has ended up in the pockets of the wealthy too.
These are only the indirect channels through which capitalist states support the global billionaire class. Oxfam identified in 2015 that a third of billionaire wealth comes directly from crony connections to the state or monopolies. Whether through outsourcing, subsidies, or privatization, state policy has created many billionaires over the years — as should be clear from the fact that state-capitalist China created the most new billionaires this year.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the dramatic increase in the wealth of those at the very top of society would have been impossible without the direct intervention of capitalist states all over the world. Those who attempt to justify the extraordinary levels of inequality on the basis that they are the natural result of the operation of the free market would do well to remember this.
But so would those on the Left who see state intervention as the answer to all of capitalism’s problems. More often than not, capitalist states undertake policy in the interests of capital. This is not because states are mere instruments of the ruling class; it is because the balance of power between capital and labor has shifted decisively in favor of the former in recent years, which has influenced the class struggle taking place within state institutions.
It may be possible to imagine a world in which public power is used to support the interests of labor over capital, but there is no way this can be achieved without class struggle within and — crucially — outside of the capitalist state.