Fightback against the billionaires: the radicals taking on the global elite

Written by Rutger Bregman, Winnie Byanyima, and Anand Giridharadas via The Guardian on 2/7/2019

When Rutger Bregman and Winnie Byanyima spoke out about taxes at Davos they went viral. They talk with Winners Take All author Anand Giridharadas about why change is coming

Rutger: Winnie, why did the comments you and I made about billionaires and taxes at Davos go viral? Why do things seem to be changing right now?

Winnie: Why did we go viral? I think we said things that people have wanted to hear, especially on a big stage where powerful politicians and companies are represented. And they are rarely said. People go there and speak in coded words and praise themselves and spin out the stats that suit them, but for once we spoke plainly about the challenges that people face.

R: I saw some interesting stats today from Gallup that suggest that since the end of the 1990s, the vast majority of people in the US have wanted the rich to pay more taxes. There are signs that there is a profound shift in the public mood.

W: I don’t know whether the left has been sleeping, but there has been a dominant narrative that has remained quite unchallenged in the media. This narrative suggests that there is no connection between the super-rich and abject poverty, that you can keep getting richer and richer, and this has nothing to do with people getting poorer. And it wasn’t always like that, people in the past have known that maximising at the top means you are depriving somebody else further down. It’s empowering for people to hear that truth being put on the table again.

Anand: The idea of the narrative is so important. I think that what you both found yourselves in the middle of at Davos, and what I found myself in on my book tour over the last few months, and what politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have found themselves in the middle of, is the growing challenge to a kind of bullshit narrative around wealth and poverty, access and power; it’s completely wrong and fraudulent, and it’s now crashing down. There is a second narrative about how the world is getting better and better: people in India and China and elsewhere have been coming out of poverty, and the world is the best it’s ever been. Never mind the fact that we’re perhaps 50 years away from catastrophic climate change fuelled by greed. That narrative, too, has had a free ride in the press and culture, including on the left, until now. And then there is a final narrative of companies and billionaires – as long as they are doing good things, we don’t ask what else they do; as long as they are giving back, we don’t ask how they made their money. It’s like a mafia deal: no questions asked.

R: I agree. I think that for a very long time, politicians on both the left and the right have believed that most wealth is created at the top. The brilliant entrepreneurs, the visionaries, they are the job creators. The right says we need to give them all the freedom in the world, wealth will trickle down and everything will be all right. What Winnie pointed out very well in Davos is that most real wealth is actually created at the bottom, by the working and middle classes and at the top there is a huge amount of wealth destruction and exploitation. Entrepreneurs might use the language of entrepreneurialism and hard work, but if you really delve into their business models, you’ll find that they’re not contributing to the common good. They are destroying more than they create.

A: How did the billionaires pull this off? How is it that they conquered the realm of ideas so successfully and what do you think we need to do to win the battle of ideas in the coming years?

W: I was a student in the UK when Margaret Thatcher set out to crush the unions. There was a new language at that time: the message was that if you are poor you are not working hard enough. You had to be a winner and if you were not, it was your fault. Ordinary working people were put on the defensive. But there are hardly any people now who see themselves reaching the top. The top involves a tiny number of such very rich people it’s unreal. So ordinary people are saying: “Wait a moment, we are in the majority, down here, and our lives are not like that.”

Humanism is not only for people on the left. It is for people who don’t want to be gaslit by the pretensions of the private-jet set

Anand Giridharadas

R: There is a depressing finding by researchers at the LSE: in a survey of 23 western countries since the 1980s, it was discovered that, as they became more unequal, their populations actually believed more strongly that people at the top were there because they worked the hardest.

A: I think in many ways the forces of plutocracy and of conservatism have been better than progressives at understanding the importance of cultivating ideas. And a big part of ideas is language. I want to give some examples of the conquest of language – words that everybody uses, not just plutocrats, but that end up doing the plutocrats’ bidding. One is “win-win”. That phrase sounds great. Who could be against win-win? But, in fact, win-win is a darkly powerful way of suggesting that the only kind of progress worth having is the kind that lets the winners win – in tandem, supposedly, with empowering others.

W: Yes, we were told that globalisation was a win-win. It’s a situation where everyone is a winner and no one is a loser. In America no one even wants to say they are working class. They want to be called middle class. People feel that the right thing is to identify with the winners and that has masked many problems.

A: A couple more examples. Take “thought leader”. When you were both in Davos, you were surrounded by thought leaders, who are actually people who don’t say what they truly think: they are the ones who say nice things about the powerful and keep getting invited back. Why you two made such a splash is that you refused to be thought leaders, you behaved like thinkers, which is something those people don’t expect. Another instance is “doing well by doing good”: it sounds positive but it really is about putting the people who are trying to make money in charge of changing a status quo they have no interest in changing. And then there are terms such as “social impact” and “social venture capital” and “impact investing”. They are ways of encouraging us not to use words like “power” and “justice” and “dignity”. They are an attempt to make us not speak about unions and taxes.

W: I have been attending climate change negotiations since 2007 or 2008, and am always frustrated that you can not use the term “climate justice”. You can talk about “climate change”, but you cannot say it is an injustice, even though the people who are facing the worst consequences are poor people. And they are not the ones who caused it. The negotiators prefer “climate action”, and the idea that we all have to do it together, that kind of happy happy language. We don’t place the responsibility where it lies.

R: I really like your point about the importance of ideas, especially on the right. People often focus on Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, but what we often forget is that this thing called neoliberalism actually started in the 1950s. Figures such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek gathered as part of the influential think tank the Mont Pelerin Society and, back then, these were the real radicals; almost everyone else was a socialist or a social democrat. So they said to themselves we have to start developing ideas. We are the resistance now, we need to start building institutions, develop a new narrative, and wait for a moment when the current system crashes – or at least doesn’t work as well any more. This is exactly what happened during the 1970s with the oil crisis, with inflation, with strikes by workers in the west. More and more people began to think that the economic system wasn’t working. And that’s when Thatcher and Reagan came on stage with these supposedly new ideas that had in fact been developed over 30 years.

When, after the financial crash of 2008, it became obvious that neoliberalism was founded on a huge amount of bullshit, the problem was that there seemed to be no alternative. The left was against a lot of things: austerity; homophobia; racism; the establishment. But you also need to know what you are for. A few years ago I argued that we needed to have a Mont Pelerin of progressives, to start developing ideas that might seem utterly utopian now but could become a reality in the future. I didn’t expect back then to be invited to Davos, of all places, to talk about basic income, nor that I would go viral with a speech about taxes, taxes, taxes. It has been really interesting how quickly things have changed.

Again, in relation to the past, there is the importance of the cold war, capitalism v communism. I’ve often thought social democrats in a way depended on there being communism further to the left. Then, with the defeat of that communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the “end of history” was proclaimed, and politics was just going to become technocracy – win-win. What has been happening now is that there is a new generation that’s not traumatised by the cold war. I’ve heard this in Davos as well: you talk about taxes and some of the billionaires say, “Oh that sounds like Venezuela” – Michael Bloomberg recently said it. But now there is a new generation that says: “Whatever.”

You have a huge class of people who haven’t done any real work themselves – they were just born into certain families

Rutger Bregman

A: I’ve met more people on my book tour in the last five months than I’ve ever met before in my life. And the big thing I’ve found is that the conversation no longer revolves around capitalism v gulags. When Bill Gates was asked in Davos about my book, he seemed to insinuate that I was a communist, even though he had blurbed it a year before. I think most people now understand that this “There is no alternative” talk is bullshit. An understanding seems to be rising that it’s not about left v right or communism v capitalism any more, but about humanism v plutocracy.

I think we need to really claim this mantle of humanism because it’s not only for people on the left. It is for everyone who does not want to be gaslit by the pretensions of the private-jet set. I really sense, even with people on the right, that there is anger about monopolies, political corruption and crony capitalism. There is anger about companies that talk a big game about belonging to communities, but actually make their decisions based on factors that have nothing to do with those communities. What we have yet to see is political leadership that is able to speak to those not only belonging to the left but also to that 10 or 20% of the folks on the right who are also against plutocracy, even if they may like markets. Such people may like business and may like the idea of making £100,000 with their own barber shop one day, but they don’t like Amazon being the only retailer in the US, they don’t like Facebook controlling democracy and abetting ethnic violence.

R: One thing I’ve been doing is to use a different kind of language, one that centres on basic income for everyone and higher taxes on the rich. Often people on the left use the language of care, or they say something is just immoral or this is unjust. And yes, there is a certain part of the population that is receptive to this kind of language. But there is another part of the population that doesn’t really like that language. Also, impoverished people never like being talked down to.

One thing to do is to take back the win-win language and use it for something else. For example, doing something about poverty – there’s a lot of research that shows eradicating poverty is an investment that pays for itself. You spend less on healthcare costs, you spend less on crime, kids will do better in school, so that is a win-win policy. Also, history shows the most fundamental innovation has come about through government spending. The iPhone is a perfect example: every fundamental technology that has gone through the iPhone touchscreen, the battery, the mobile technology – it has all been invented by researchers on the government payroll.

In the 1980s and 90s it became fashionable to think of the government as inherently wasteful. But new research has been conducted by two Dutch economists, who asked 27,000 people in 37 countries: do you think your job is actually valuable? It turns out a quarter think their job doesn’t add anything of value. And four times as many people think that in the private sector as in the public sector. The more valuable jobs, such as caring for other people, police officers, fire fighters, you name it, are in the public sector. It’s possible to take the whole narrative of wasteful jobs and turn it around.

The super-rich use their money to buy the public voice, buy the media, buy impunity from justice

Winnie Byanyima

W: Yes, at Oxfam we call it a human economy, and we try to paint a picture of what that could look like. We begin with what is wrong now, showing that the super-rich don’t just spend on priceless works of art, but also use that money to buy the public voice, buy the media, buy impunity from justice, buy the policy process, to bribe congressmen and women. I call it bribing, they call it lobbying. We show wealth at the top is being used to take away your voice, your rights, the policies that would work for you. I find that this shocks people – they start by thinking that the rich are just enjoying their money, snorting cocaine. Then they actually realise they are using that money to disempower ordinary people. For example, we can express the amount of money governments lose from billionaires’ tax dodging in terms of the number of nurses. Supposing we said: “x-billionaire dodged some 50,000 nurses”. We use that kind of language – it’s emotive, it has an impact on people.

A: In the US the right has been better at using the kind of emotive language you describe. For example, the estate tax, which in any version of it only affects a very small number of estates at the top: it was brilliantly rebranded as the death tax. If you call it a death tax you create the feeling among people that their very mortality is being interfered with by the government. People who want more equality and more justice need to get more imaginative with language.

R: Here’s an idea: I think we should call it a laziness tax. That’s basically what it is. You have a huge class of people who haven’t actually done any real work themselves or contributed in any meaningful way to societies. They were just born into certain families. I’ve also been trying to reframe basic income as pro-work. It’s “venture capitalism for the people”, to use a Silicon Valley phrase. Everyone wants the ability to make different choices, to move to a different city, start a new company. I dislike the left v right axis, but you often can’t get around it.

A: I was listening to an extraordinary conversation Ocasio-Cortez had with the American writer Ta‑Nehisi Coates in a church a couple of weeks ago for Martin Luther King Day. Ocasio-Cortez made the point that elected officials like her are really followers rather than leaders. She said: “Part of the job of elected public office is translating public will into the law of the land. Who shapes, who directs and who moves that public will? Writers, journalists, activists, artists.” And that is so true. It was the job of Upton Sinclair to show what the slaughterhouses were actually like, and what labouring conditions were actually like, and then politicians made laws to improve things. It has been such a grim time for journalism, for books and many of these other things, in part, because of plutocrats and the monopolistic world they have built. But I come to this conversation so optimistic about the power of ideas and books right now. I feel like what we are witnessing is a profound cultural turning point in relation to these issues, caused by activists, artists and writers who are changing what the public wants by telling honest stories.

W: Stories are my biggest weapon. Oxfam works in more than 90 countries around the world, and people respond to stories very strongly.

R: I’m 30 years old. I’ve been writing for seven or eight years now. And never before have I had such a strong feeling that the zeitgeist is really shifting and now you can talk about things that were simply not possible just a couple of years ago. It seems like the window of what is politically possible is just opening up, or that what they call the Overton window is shifting. Ideas, according to theory that originated with political scientist Joseph Overton, are seen as somehow acceptable to discuss at a certain creative time, and the real political challenge is to move the window. The people behind such a shift are never politicians or mainstream writers, they are the radicals – those who are often seen as naive or bizarre, people who make you uncomfortable and angry. And they often pay a high price for doing this hard work. There are many examples throughout history, whether we are talking about the fight against slavery, or women fighting for the right to vote, or the establishment of the welfare state. Ideas that were first dismissed as ridiculous or too expensive or dangerous became the bedrock of civilisation.

W: I hope that’s true.

R: I think that hope is exactly the right word, because I never really like the word optimism. Optimism gives you the feeling that, “Oh everything will be all right, just sit down, enjoy the ride – all the trains are good.” But hope is fundamentally different, another world is possible but not inevitable.

W: Do you think the racists, the misogynists, feel that they are being pushed back or do they feel they can assert themselves and make their reality the norm?

A: My view from the US, and I bet it’s true in Britain to a certain extent, is that you have two big things happening to a lot of white working-class communities. On the one hand, they have been victims of a great plutocratic theft, like everybody else over the last generation. To the extent that they feel like they can’t raise children who will have a better life than them, they can’t get the kind of education that gives them a piece of the dream, they can’t have the kind of healthcare that allows them to not think about healthcare all the time, they feel that theft.

The problem is that those people also feel a second theft, which is not actually a theft, which is the rise of women and minorities, and immigrants and African Americans. In fact that’s not a theft at all, it’s a wave of rising equality; it is justice. But I think we have to accept that the psychological experience of this change may also be felt as a theft. What Donald Trump did is to exploit the pain caused by the real theft, and to divert blame for it on to the non-theft. He made it all about the cultural ascendancy of others – they are the ones who stole the dream from you.

And instead of encouraging people to punch up at the powerful, he encouraged them to punch out, at women and minorities and the Other. I think the political challenge for us is to go to those communities and not to pander but to speak compellingly to both of those experiences of feeling wary of the future, and to identify the real reasons why it has happened.

Ask people what kind of country they would like to live and almost everyone says: 'Somewhere like Sweden'

Rutger Bregman

Now, before we go, I want to see if the three of us can make a case for hope. All three of us have been pushing a certain rock up a hill, and suddenly the slope seems to be becoming more hospitable. What do you want to see happen?

R: If you ask people from around the globe in what kind of country they would like to live, almost everyone says: “Somewhere like Sweden.” Much less inequality, more rights for workers, higher taxes on the rich, it doesn’t really matter whether you are asking people on the left or right, it’s pretty much the same everywhere. So there is huge potential. You only need to find a way to draw on that political energy. There was one political advertisement by Bernie Sanders, in 2016, that I really like, called Together. In it he says: “We should not allow them to define us.” The whole purpose of the campaign was to bring people together – black, white, men, women, that doesn’t matter. I think this is the very simple message that we need to keep on communicating: don’t allow them to divide us.

W: We must go out and mobilise and create new norms, and say, for instance, that it’s wrong for people not to have help when they are sick, they should have free healthcare. That idea was alive after the second world war. Everyone all over the world understood and agreed that healthcare should be a right. What I’m hopeful about is there is such anger at the few who are running away with wealth and power, these monopolies, these big tech companies taking our information, not paying their taxes. So much concentration of wealth and injustice by those few at the top. That is going to help us to shift the norm back to what is good for society, a human economy that works for all, a society that cares for all, including those who may not be able to work and earn. We are now a movement building.

A: I do feel tremendously hopeful, which is strange because my country has the most dangerous leader it has ever had, and things are very fractured around the world. I was recently in Britain in the House of Commons when they took that chaotic vote [on Brexit] a couple weeks ago, so it may seem strange to be hopeful. But there are cycles in history, and I believe we are at the natural end of a 40-year cycle, defined by the religion of money, defined by the veneration of entrepreneurs and markets. And instead of just saying, “That’s wrong”, I think it’s more empathetic to ourselves as a society to say that the last 40 years has been an experiment, an era defined by entrepreneurs as heroes, markets as gods – just as a century ago there was the industrial revolution and the first gilded age, a time of great fortunes. I think we are living in the death pangs of an era that has done tremendous good, but has also done tremendous harm, that has lifted a lot of people out of poverty, but also put the planet in mortal jeopardy. And I feel hope that another era has to follow this era because that is how history works. As well as the death pangs, there are birth pangs right now. I believe that after the age of markets will come the age of reform and the age of solidarity.