People of wealth

February 11, 2019 (522 words) :: On Howard Schultz's recent suggestion to refer to billionaires as 'people of wealth' instead.
Tags: class-struggle

This post is day 42 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Really short post today, about something really dumb said by the first universally unpopular presidential candidate: Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, suggested on the campaign trail last week that we should ditch the pejorative ‘billionaires’ and instead use ‘people of wealth’.

This feels like the epitome of the hollowness of modern-day liberalism. Socially progressive, fiscally conservative; use progressive-sounding language to imply that the world’s least oppressed class is, in fact, oppressed. A good lesson in the analytical (not to mention moral) vacuity of pure identity politics unmoored from any class-based grounding.

I’m not going to belabour the point about why billionaires are not actually oppressed, for any meaningful definition of ‘oppressed’. A few years ago, a similarly wealthy idiot - Tom Perkins, cofounder of the prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers - compared the treatment of the rich today to Kristallnacht. (Perkins was the inspiration for Gavin Belson, the megalomaniacal CEO of Hooli in HBO’s Silicon Valley, who said that billionaires today are being treated worse than Jews in Nazi Germany.) That was also met with a huge collective eyeroll from everybody who is not a billionaire.

I’m kind of curious, though. Do these people actually feel this way? Do they genuinely not understand that having money is power? Do they really think the minor social backlash they might face holds a candle to the prospect of being able to buy anything, or anyone, they desire? And if it’s actually that much of a problem, do they not realise money can be given away, ideally in the service of transforming the system that leads to such a lopsided distribution of wealth in the first place?

In any case, the designation of “people of wealth” feels like a clear strategic misstep. The point of the coinage of “people of colour” is to draw away the stigma associated with other terms, many of which have had more checkered pasts. “Colour” here feels neutral, almost clinical. Race is reduced to a puzzlingly random attribute, which seems far removed from past justification of institutional racism. It’s not a perfect term by any mean, but its goal is to reduce the semantic stigma, and I think it succeeds in that.

What does “people of wealth” do? The very usage of the term automatically conjures the spectre of its opposite. If there are people of wealth, then there are people not of wealth. People with no wealth, who are forced to spend their waking lives in the service of those with wealth. All while the latter earnestly complains about how tough they have it, even as they’re taken seriously as a candidate for the highest level of political office in the nation despite having no visible support base.

Howard Schultz is not going to be president as long as he keeps up this “people of wealth” drivel. And if he really wants people to adopt that moniker for him, he should be prepared for them to fill in the blanks afterward: “people of wealth derived by stealing surplus value from untold workers” is a bit of a mouthful, but way more accurate.

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