Image: George Pagan (Unsplash)
Ever so often we read headlines centered around “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer”. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much more than just the way the world views health and social interactions. Small businesses have gone under with very small percentages of survival, whilst large businesses have dominated markets and made some of their biggest profits yet. Amazon is the world largest e-commerce platform, on which sales skyrocketed in 2020. Amazon’s CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, has accumulated a net worth just short of $200 billion. In 2020, Bezos was faced head-to-head with Tesla’s Elon Musk to become the richest man alive. Meanwhile the lower 99% of the world, faced the struggle for survival. A quick glace at where capitalism began, can help us see what has led to the concept of economic extortion and how capital began to grow in the hands of the few.
In an interview with Michael Brooks, the economist Richard Wolff describes the process of capital accumulation. We understand that, to ‘accumulate’, businesses and individuals need to invest profit back into the business, so as to gain more profit. As theoretical thinkers however, we need to think about how such profit was made in the first place. In simple terms, how did one person come to have more than another in the first place?
This process is called primitive accumulation- the original accumulation of profit. Of course, the foundation of our thinking in this sense, is Marxist. We are assuming that at the beginning of the process, around the 16th century, everyone was equal. Everyone had the ability to feed their family by means of the common meadows, where the animals could graze and people could hunt and farm for themselves. By seizing property, one removes the people’s means of living. Often times this could happen by court ruling or merely in an illegal ‘grabbing’ manner. By taking the property from one part of the population, the other part of the population become the upper class, as they not only have the property but also have those under them, who are now desperate to remain alive and so become cheap labour. Labour drives profit.
It is interesting to draw possible parallels between what happened when Karl Marx was describing primitive accumulation, and what has led to people such as Jeffrey Bezos amassing extreme amounts of capital. Let me begin with the argument taken from the magazine ‘Pacific Standard’: “Bezos is so rich precisely because his workers are so poor.” Amazon has been faced with charges of underpaying yet overworking their employees. Whilst a liberal theorist might defend capitalism in saying that this society provides the most jobs for people and that those with such wealth have earned it through hard work and talent, the breakdown of value versus wages proposes a contradiction of liberal’s claims. The multinational corporation has over 500 000 employees internationally, with an annual turn-over of $125 billion, and yet they pay wages of $15 per hour. Do the maths. Businesses such as these thrive on cheap but high value-adding labour. The rise of unemployment and shutting down of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to catapult corporations, allowing them to dominate markets to an even further extent. The lockdown in many countries has led to an even larger rift between upper and lower classes. There is a clear trend that capitalism proves to profit those that can best extort. Primitive accumulation has had its second wave of infection.
Jeffrey Bezos might be an intelligent and hard-working man, but his success is far to be attributed to this. The struggle of the working class and employees of Amazon exposes the situation of many multinational corporations of today. Dear Liberals, tell me, do Amazon employees work so much less than Mr Bezos to be earning so much less? Or could it be that the ‘Big Bosses’ of these firms have been able to take full advantage of capitalist structures and use the backs of the labouring class to build their success upon?
Mara, grew up in a German household, living in South Africa she has been confronted with many identities and sees the study of Politics and International Relations as a way to categorise and analyse how she is being shaped by the world around her.