Natasha Roberton, Creative Strategist @ 50 Crates
When I was about ten years old, my dad gave me Mao’s Little Red Book to read. As a joke, presumably; but I read it anyway because I’d exhausted every Enid Blyton and Trixie Belden book in the house.
Something about its strident call to arms against the “ruthless economic exploitation of the peasant class” must have stuck, because on several occasions over the last few months, I’ve contemplated picking up a pitchfork and storming the gates as billionaire after billionaire-philanthropist (lol) used their market power to monetise the misery of others.
I can’t improve on Marina’s Hyde’s brilliantly acerbic take-down of Richard Branson, so I won’t try. Just know that it’s a crisply brutal portrait an entitled rich-guy’s shameless demand for a taxpayer-funded bailout: taxes he himself refuses to contribute because, you know, tax havens happen to be nice places to live.
So, let’s wander a bit closer to home.
If you can cast your mind back to happier, gentler pre-COVID times, you might remember that just a few months ago, the country was a hellscape-inferno. Devastating in size, impact, and reach, the Black Summer fires triggered a wave of support from horrified citizens all over the planet. People dug into their pockets and gave. And gave and gave and gave. To provide urgent medical care to injured wildlife, to rebuild homes and businesses, to pay for funerals and orphaned children’s educations. All done selflessly and without expectation of gain or glory.
And then came Twiggy.
After a bit of a disastrous start proclaiming that the fires were all the work of arsonists—and not at all to do with the demonstrably warmer, drier climate that those tin-foil hat conspiracists over at the CSIRO have been tracking for, oh, just a century now—mining magnate, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest went and bought himself some good PR. At first glance, the $70M donation to fire recovery seemed generous. But the devil is, as always, in the detail. Turns out the lion’s share of the philanthropy was to his own foundation; in effect, a tax-free donation to himself. Legend.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip over some ancient history in billionaire bombast—namely Elon Musk making theThai Cave Rescue all about himself, then getting sued for calling an actual bona-fide heroic rescuer a “pedo”—and go straight to a dude that we should all genuinely be afraid of: Jeff Bezos.
Remember the strange, soporific space station Axiom in Pixar’s Wall-E? The one where everyone is stupendously fat and sort of stoned into complacency by the unceasing ease and convenience of life completely controlled by chummy corporate overlord, Buy n Large? Bugger me if we’re not on our way to that same oblivious fate courtesy of Amazon, and its relentless takeover of everything we watch, buy, and consume.
Bezos is scary rich. With a net worth of USD120B, he mints more money each second than the average worker makes in a week. And while I can’t blame the guy for being one of the few seriously wealthy people who actually got richer during the current pandemic (thanks Amazon Prime), his approach to paying and protecting the people that work for him leaves much to be desired.
Throughout March, as coronavirus spread like wildfire in the US, packers at Amazon warehouses and staff at Amazon-owned Whole Foods supermarkets complained that not only did they not have enough protective gear and sanitiser, but that sick leave could result in being served a ‘job abandonment notice’. In a show of beneficence, Bezos offered his staff a temporary $2 an hour pay rise as, I presume, a ‘danger fee’ for working during the pandemic, while directing employees to donate their paid time-off to sick coworkers facing medical emergencies. What—and I can’t stress this enough—the actual fuck.
Suffice to say the blowback has been swift, with calls to unionise on the rise and mass walk-outs planned. Mao Tse-Tung would be proud.
Über-capitalist Warren Buffett is famous for saying that when the tide goes out, you can see who’s been swimming naked. He was talking about judging investor success not by the bull market, but by the bear. Bull markets hide a multitude of sins, but when the going gets tough, there’s nowhere for those sins to hide. Particularly if those sins are greed, venality, undeserved entitlement, and stingy self-interest.
Recent events have shown that much of our billionaire class—the tech titans, the iconic oligarchs—left their cossies at home before hitting the beach. The extent to which their personal brands will recover after this storm passes relies on our collective ability to remember who genuinely helped when the chips were down, and those that stuck their noses into the trough and helped themselves.
I’ve got a sinking feeling that when all is said and done, we’re going to forget. Just like those poor chubby chumps aboard the Axiom.