One billion dollars is a huge amount of money. Indeed: One billion dollars is such a huge amount of money, that there has recently emerged a whole sub-genre of images specifically designed to help us get our heads around how huge it is. If you, for instance, had earned a million a year, every year since the Battle of Hastings (that’s 1066, for non-Brits), and not spent any of it, you still wouldn’t (interest notwithstanding) be a billionaire. If you earned an annual salary of $43,000, you might eventually become a billionaire (again, not accounting for expenses or accumulated interest) — if you waited over 23,000 years.
And none of this is even accounting for the still more extreme amount of money that Jeff Bezos has managed to accumulate over the course of his lifetime: $110 billion dollars, according to one recent estimate. The other day, I overheard a couple in the pub, students I think, arguing about how much a billion was. One thought it was ten million. The second bet that it was actually a bit bigger: one hundred million. When they realized that a billion is in fact either one thousand million (“short scale,” sometimes thought of as an “American billion” by British people) or one million million (“long scale,” used officially in Britain until the mid-1970s), they couldn’t stop laughing. People actually have that amount, like that amount of currency — in money? And they’re just allowed to sort of... have it?
People don't have a strong intuitive sense of how much bigger 1 billion is than 1 million. 1 million seconds is about 11 days. 1 billion seconds is about 31.5 years.— Paul Franz (@Paul_Franz) August 3, 2018
“Money as a measure of value,” Marx tells us in Capital, “is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time.” Money, then, is for Marx a form of sedimented time. But if this is true, then having one billion dollars (or pounds, or whatever) takes one completely beyond all human time.
One billion dollars is far, far more money than anyone could realistically spend, on their needs, within the span of a human lifetime. If you have one billion dollars, you are completely shielded from all ordinary human concerns: Never again will you know hunger, or lack shelter, or suffer from inadequate medical care. Of course, there may very well be lots of comfortable, middle-class people who will also be lucky enough to never know those wants again, but the difference is that the billionaire is isolated even from the possibility of experiencing those wants. They are like the Christian who has been saved from despair in Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, who is eliminating the possibility of despair at every moment. If you have in your possession one billion dollars, then almost literally anything you desire — anything anyone might possibly conceive of desiring — can be yours, just as soon as you happen to desire it. But with no real friction between desire and reality, how does wanting even function? Can someone who lives like this even be said to know desire, anymore, at all?
And just as nobody can spend a billion dollars in their lifetime, nobody can earn it either. People have taken to saying “every billionaire is a policy failure”, because that sort of money makes nakedly obvious the truth Marx tells us about all wealth accumulated under capitalism: that it’s part of a process that is only possible because the people who own the means of production are, effectively, stealing it from their employees, by paying them a wage worth less than the value said employees’ labor bequeaths unto things. If you find yourself in possession of one billion dollars, and keep it, then you are wilfully refusing to stand in solidarity with the whole of the rest of the human species.
We often think of new technologies as maybe allowing a new sort of humanity to emerge: “post-humans” like the artist Neil Harbisson, legally recognized by the British government as a cyborg, who has an antenna planted in his brain which translates color into audible sound. But who needs microchips in your brain, when you’ve a billion dollars in the bank? Having a billion dollars makes one far less connected to the ordinary flow of human wants and pains and needs than any transhumanist modification ever could.
So it’s telling that billionaires and their defenders have met a dawning suspicion of their right to horde wealth with cries that insulting billionaires is somehow dehumanzing. Earlier this year, the short-lived presidential campaign of ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz kicked off a controversy about “anti-billionaire bias” after he insisted on calling billionaires like himself “people of means,” as if openly referring to their wealth was a slur. And like most awful American things, this Billionaire Discourse is now being imported to the UK. One of the ways it’s kicked off has been with BBC presenter Emma Barnett responding, in an interview, to Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s assertion that “I don’t think anyone in this country should be a billionaire” with an incredulous: “Why on earth shouldn’t people be able to be billionaires?” “Some people aspire to be a billionaire in this country,” said Barnett. “Is that a dirty thing?” Cue the right-wing press reporting on the exchange as if it made Russell-Moyle’s party look crazy and unelectable. Billionaires — they’re a good thing. And don’t let those woke snowflake PC thugs tell you otherwise! If we didn’t have billionaires, we would all be Venezuela. And so forth.
Billionaires are powerful, and some people are just psychologically conditioned to be toadies.
Why does Billionaire Discourse of this sort exist? Obviously, there are brute material reasons. Rich people own newspapers and other media organizations, so it is in their interests to make questioning the right of the wealthy to possess their wealth look dangerous and/or weird. That in itself can’t quite explain why there are people who feel compelled to agree with them — but then again, I’m sure that if they’d had social media in the Middle Ages there would have been plenty of Brutal Feudal Overlord Discourse as well, with various uppity yeomen flooding your mentions to defend droit du seigneur. Billionaires are powerful, and some people are just psychologically conditioned to be toadies.
But I think the Billionaire Discourse is indicative of something far more spiritually profound. Particularly important — for Barnett, for example — is the idea that one might aspire to be a billionaire: that being in possession of a billion dollars is an ambition every bit as legitimate as wanting to learn an instrument, or visit Australia.
Suppose my ambition is to learn a musical instrument. This seems pretty anodyne — although of course, not everyone who possesses this ambition will be lucky enough to be able to fulfill it. To successfully learn a musical instrument, I must possess (for instance) enough of an ear for music, and enough of the right sort of mechanical ability, to be able to play and learn the instrument with some degree of fluency and expertise. I must also be lucky enough to be able to afford the money and time that learning the instrument of my choosing will take. But the luck involved here is not remotely miraculous — countless people successfully learn instruments. And my experiencing this success is unlikely to deprive anyone else of the opportunity to learn an instrument themselves.
Becoming a billionaire is not at all like that. Becoming a billionaire is a matter of extreme luck, often experienced not by any one individual but rather spread out, over generations — it is, after all, a lot easier to accumulate one billion dollars if you start out, as Kylie Jenner did, with family wealth (and a family media platform). And what is more: your good luck, in becoming a billionaire, must simultaneously be felt — often directly, and perhaps very violently — as the bad luck, of possibly hundreds of millions of others, whom your wealth exists as theft from.
In capitalism, even if atonement — and salvation — is denied to God, it is not denied to billionaires.
So why, given this, would anyone defend “becoming a billionaire” as an aspiration? When Russell-Moyle suggested that Labour were going to stop people from becoming billionaires, Barnett responded almost as if he had been a priest, and suggested that the church were thinking of doing away with heaven. There is something almost religious about the idea of “aspiration” being touted here: in a capitalist economy, the aspiration to become a billionaire must be defended, because it is in extreme wealth that capitalism locates the possibility of salvation.
“A religion may be discerned in capitalism,” Walter Benjamin tells us in a 1921 fragment, “Capitalism as Religion.” “That is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay that same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.” But capitalism is, for all this, a strange religion: “purely cultic,” as Benjamin puts it, with “no specific body of dogma, no theology.” Everything in capitalism only makes sense in relation to capitalism — to the economy — itself. This cult is also pure because it is permanent: under capitalism, “there is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper.”
The point of capitalist ceremony, according to Benjamin, is to “make guilt pervasive.” Indeed, capitalism is “probably the first instance of a religion that creates guilt” for its own sake, not for the sake of atonement. According to Benjamin, guilt under capitalism — the feeling that one is wretched, lazy, undeserving, never doing quite enough to justify one’s own existence — is so pervasive that even God himself is included in “the system of guilt.” “God’s transcendence,” Benjamin writes, “is at an end. But he is not dead; he has been incorporated into human existence.” Under capitalism, the whole universe is in despair — and so God must feel guilty for having dared ever create it.
There is certainly something to this thought. But I’m not sure it’s quite right. Because in capitalism, even if atonement — and salvation — is denied to God, it is not denied to billionaires. The fact is, today’s billionaires really do have everything that Christ once promised those who follow him: through their wealth, they can feel assured of eternal life — their names forever resplendent on those of higher education institutions; new wings of hospitals; art collections. Through their wealth, they can afford to access — although perhaps few do — something like paradise on earth.
And yet, for all this, the possibility of salvation that “aspiring to have one billion dollars” represents is an essentially absurd one. The billionaire’s salvation is almost everyone else’s damnation. “The Christian doctrine of death and immortality,” Adorno posits in Minima Moralia, in the aphorism “Monad,” where he writes about how weak atomistic individualism has made us, “would be wholly void if it did not embrace humanity. The single man who hoped for immortality absolutely and for himself alone, would in such limitation only inflate to preposterous dimensions the principle of self-preservation.” The billionaire is essentially someone who has managed to complete, per impossible, this particular conjuring trick: They have transcended the ordinary limits of human finitude not through Christ (who is of course also the Holy Spirit — thus the religious community), but through their own selfishness alone.
Every billionaire is thus more than a simple failure of policy. Every billionaire is evidence of a basic glitch in the fabric of the moral universe: their lives, and acts, ring out with the gospel that only what we call evil will be rewarded — that the selfish get to live as angels, and all good people will be damned. Challenging capitalism also means challenging its religion.