The world's richest couple

January 19, 2019 (2736 words) :: Sure, MacKenzie Bezos should get half of Jeff Bezos' Amazon stock. But in an ideal world, that would be worth nothing.
Tags: liberal-feminism, big-tech, financialisation, ideology

This post is day 19 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

In the wake of the announcement that tech villain extraordinaire Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie are filing for divorce, there’s been a flurry of thinkpieces over how much money MacKenzie should walk away with.

After all, Jeff Bezos owns 16% of Amazon, which is valued at over $100 billion, and given that Washington state is a “community property” state (where assets accumuluated during marriage are communally owned by the couple), MacKenzie should technically be entitled to half of that.

But there’s a difference between “legally entitled to” and “justly deserves”. There are some pretty cruel and/or misogynistic arguments for MacKenzie getting none of it, because it’s all his wealth, and she should just be grateful she had someone to take care of her during her marriage. After all, he did the real work to make Amazon a success, whereas all she did was stay at home and raise the kids, etc. (I’m not going to link to any of these takes, because they’re all terrible.)

The main counter-argument that I’ve seen is the liberal feminist one. For example, Jill Filipovic writes for The Guardian that MacKenzie deserves half her husband’s Amazon stock, partly because she helped him start Amazon (she was an early employee), and partly because she took care of raising the kids in her husband’s absence (making sacrifices in her own career to do so).

There’s definitely some merit to that argument. It’s true that the waged work/domestic work split, which is highly gendered, is also highly unequal - the former is considered “productive” and valued both materially and ideologically, while the latter is seen as not deserving of pay and often denigrated as a result (think how “welfare mom” is used as a slur). Obviously, both production and social reproduction are necessary for capitalism to function; without the latter, there is no workforce of tomorrow, much less in 20 years’ time. But one is valorised, while one is not, even within an individual household. So arguing that MacKenzie Bezos deserves half her husband’s share of Amazon is, if nothing else, a way to push back against flawed and sexist beliefs around what work deserves to be materially compensated.

But it’s also liberal feminism, and I do mean that as a criticism. Even as it contests the idea that MacKenzie played no part in her husband’s success, it doesn’t challenge the much more insidious claim that they as a couple deserve to be “worth” over $100 billion. Like, it’s 2019; we all know that economic inequality is really horrendously bad right now. And we also know the dark human costs of Amazon’s meteoric rise. Surely it’s irresponsible journalism to so much as mention Jeff Bezos’ net worth unless you also acknowledge the injustice and illegitimacy of that wealth.

And yet there is an entire Guardian op-ed pontificating on how Jeff Bezos and his wife should split their $100+ billion amongst themselves, without even a passing thought on what that money represents. It’s taken for granted that 16% of Amazon is theirs, and they just need to figure out how to divvy that up between themselves. Like, sure, recognising women’s work is important, but if that’s the beginning and end of your argument in a context where you’re literally discussing the richest man on earth, then it’s not worth the HTML page it’s displayed on.

It’s infuriating, because it’s a distraction. MacKenzie Bezos doesn’t need or deserve more money, and she doesn’t deserve our sympathy, either. Sure, let her have half of her husband’s share of Amazon; at the very least, that would reduce inequality somewhat. Still, that’s hardly worth applauding. Jeff Bezos owning 16% of Amazon is little more than a blatant exercise of power: as founder and CEO, he was able to retain a large part of his founding shares while also setting the terms that resulted in the vast majority of his workers geting barely any. There’s no innovation or ingenuity to be lauded here; it’s just plain old exploitation.

What makes this whole thing tricky to reason about (especially from a Marxist perspective) is the fact that most of this wealth is in shares. The stock market is a complex thing to grasp, in Marxist terms; it’s not exactly surplus value, but it is related to it, though in a non-linear way. Amazon didn’t actually turn a profit for a really long time - its strategy was to reinvest in expanding its business - but its stock did pretty well even then, because investors were on board with the strategy (and realised that its successful pursuit of growth was bound to pay off eventually). So whatever the net worth of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon stock, you can’t say it was directly stolen from workers through good old-fashioned Marxist exploitation; instead, it’s more like an approximation of that exploitation. It’s a function of that exploitation that incorporates a whole bunch of other variables, not all of which are strictly rational.

One way to think of it as a metaphor. I just started reading Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life by Max Haiven (really excellent, by the way - a good blend of academic sources & gorgeous, not-too-dense prose), and the first chapter suggests thinking about the worth of financial assets in terms of metaphor:

[…] just as the meaning of a metaphor is suspended between and part of a linguistic ecology made up of multiple claims to meaning, so, too, are the prices of financial assets suspended within financial markets made up of multiple competing claims to value. While all financial assets may claim to be a real representation of underlying “real-world” values, they are, in fact, inter-referential within their own economy of meaning. So, for instance, a share in British Petroleum (BP) ostensibly represents a given fraction of the underlying assets and productive capacity of BP. But, in reality, the price of that share will also (perhaps predominantly) depend on what potential investors imagine the future of BP might be. It will depend on the geopolitics of oil and of the probability of environmental regulations or political instability. More generally, it will depend on the fluctuations of markets more broadly. (p.22)

It goes on to say that financial assets can never be said to refer to real-world values in an accurate and unproblematic way. Similar to how pre-tax income is an imaginary concept (since it assumes the absence of the conditions that are necessary for income to be made), measuring someone’s net worth in terms of the value of the shares they own is also imaginary.

That’s not to say that it bears no resemblance to reality; the resemblance is just very indirect, very nebulous. And it gets more hazy as the net worth increases. Imagine if Jeff Bezos were to liquidate all his shares tomorrow, for whatever reason (a religious epiphany, say). The price would drop like a rock. He would not be able to sell all 79 million shares at the current buying price of $1,600 a share. Where would the buyers come from, and why would they choose to buy shares of a company whose CEO had just decided to abandon it?

So net worth is more like an asymptote than a real figure. An analogy to the observer effect in physics is useful - trying to accurately measure someone’s net worth would require actually selling all that stock, which would itself have the effect of changing the value you are measuring.

I mean, we all kind of know this - it’s fairly intuitive - but it’s useful to make it explicit now and then. We behave as if these numbers have meaning (think empty rituals like Forbes’ billionaire rankings) but they only have meaning in a semiotic sense. That’s true of money in general, really, but when it’s in the form of stock market wealth, its virtuality is even more apparent. And once you recognise the virtuality of this wealth, and its ubiquity in our increasingly financialised economy, it becomes harder to accept. You start to question the legitimacy of the stock market, and the way it enables some imaginary numbers to be created out of thin air by corporate fiat which then end up having very real effects on the world. Finance may be a fiction, as Max Haiven argues in his book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real:

[…] fictions can be among the most powerful forces in human societies. Indeed, it is through shared fictions that we reproduce social and subjective life itself. (p.6)

In this case, the fiction of the stock market has created the world’s richest couple, seemingly out of nowhere. The structural violence that produced their wealth - through the actual work of their underpaid, overworked, and forgotten employees - is occluded, made irrelevant through the magic of financial instruments. It’s taken for granted that the 4 top individual shareholders of Amazon are all white men, THREE OF WHOM ARE NAMED JEFFREY. And Jeff(rey) Bezos owns like 100x the shares of the next highest individual shareholder (Andrew R. Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services), who himself owns 50% more than the next two Jeffreys.

The people who did the bulk of the daily work that makes Amazon possible - how many shares do they have? Very few, unless you happened to get in early with a role that’s considered high-value. That’s just how it works in this system.

Whence does this system derive legitimacy? It doesn’t, ultimately. It’s not designed as an instrument for delivering justice; it’s an apparatus for administering power while also concealing its true function. It’s a brilliant innovation, really: wrap a shroud around the existing system, which both enhances its effects, while also making it hard to see, and thus hard to contest.

To conclude. “Net worth” is a dumb concept built on a house of sand, especially when it consists mainly of stock. It’s a telling indicator of how far removed money has become from any useful purposes. But it’s so frequently used, and so accepted within common parlance, that even if we know it’s fictitious, it still shapes the way we view the world. We know that the people who benefit the most from this ideology are not the ones who either need or deserve more wealth, but still, the dominance of financial assets as a metaphor for wealth has the effect of conflating value derived from shares with the value people deserve. And even though the system is so flimsy - so obviously imaginary - the world behaves as if it is real; we are punished, or rewarded, according to how well we follow the dictates of the system.

So the stock market as a means of distributing wealth is broken, unjust, illegitimate, etc. You probably already knew that. I guess the question is, what can we do about it? For me, the end goal is the abolition of the stock market in its current form, but given that it’s a manifestation of capitalist logic (and a key part of financialisation), you probably need to embed that within a larger anti-capitalist vision. I don’t know enough about finance to speculate any more on this (I’m waiting for Grace Blakeley’s book on the topic).

While we wait for the finance industry to be abolished, we should probably consider interim suggestions. One that’s gained steam lately is to expand worker ownership of shares, which has been proposed in varying forms by John McDonnell and Elizabeth Warren. The original version of the Swedish Meidner plan, first proposed in the 70s, was probably the most audacious variant, as it would have eventually allowed these worker-owned funds to control much of the Swedish economy.

Such initiatives are definitely a step in the right direction. The imbalance between who owns shares and who should own shares is so extreme that Jeff Bezos could give $60 billion worth of shares (with the obvious caveats around share “worth” discussed above) to all 600k full-time employees, spread evenly, and it would mean each employee getting $100k. For most employees, that would be a huge amount of money, maybe even life-changing. And Jeff Bezos would still be a billionaire!

But I worry about policies that deliberately demand only small, incremental changes and then just stay there. If workers are going to own shares, the amount they should own should be “consonant with their contributions”, as Shuja Haider wrote in response to Jill Filipovic’s op-ed. They shouldn’t be satisfied with just a little extra wealth simply because it’s better than their current (super shitty) situation - they deserve more, and they would be justified in fighting for it.

I’m reminded of a great quote by Dan Hind on the topic of constitutional design, which turns out to be weirdly relevant here. In a paragraph about social democracts who behave like well-meaning aristocrats, working “within the terms of the prevailing order”, he writes:

[…] They are content to submit polite requests for a slightly larger piece of the pie on behalf of those who have a good claim to all of it.

Labour is the source of all value, and the people who break their backs or go hungry working for Amazon should 1) earn way more money than Jeff Bezos does and 2) have enough control over workplace conditions that they don’t have to work that hard. The stock market is a scam, designed to persuade us that capital is the real protagonist of history, thus eliding the plight of labour. As long as it exists, the actual distribution of wealth will never quite resemble a reasonable distribution of wealth, because there’s always a gap between who owns and who should own. We can’t abolish it overnight, but the first step is to see through the smokescreen and understand it for what it is.

I’ll leave you with a graphic I made for this post, which you may have seen in the social media previews. Any resemblance to actual corporate branding, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

an innocuous graphic

[Edit, the next day]: Just for the record, this isn’t a call to set up a guillotine painted in the colours of our favourite corporate behemoth. The guillotine as a symbol - and maybe even a meme - has seen a resurgence lately; I personally see it all the time on Twitter, in the replies to basically anything illustrating just how bad inequality has gotten (like the 2017 tax cut bill, and recent revelations around the Sackler family). As a symbol, it’s a reminder that these current dark days of frankly unbelievable inequality have occurred before, and they’re not interminable. The guillotine, as the most potent symbol of the French Revolution, is a visual distillation of the urge to resist. It represents a challenge to the implicit structural violence undergirding any system of inequality, by depicting the possibility of fighting back.

Sure, violence isn’t a great thing, even when depicted in jest, and in an ideal world there would be none at all. But in the current situation, there is already tons of violence - it’s just embedded within a diffuse structure that helps render it invisible. It would be naive to think that “violence” is an objective concept - what is deemed “violent” according to the social norms of the prevailing order is itself a function of that order. After all, any ruling class sets the terms by which their rule can be contested, and anything that challenges the legitimacy of a system can be characterised as violent - and thus deemed illegitimate - within the confines of that system. It’s a construct, in other words. And it’s often used by those wedded to the status quo as a means of quelling dissent, in a misguided belief that everything can be resolved through “civility” (because all violence is equally bad, except structural violence, which doesn’t exist).

This is all just a long-winded way of saying that I think the guillotine symbol is good, actually. Symbols of resistance are powerful, and they’re important. I’ll end with my favourite quote from science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.

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