“You locked us up. You’ve created a system that, you know, doesn’t include us. We said fine. We took our alternate route. We created this music. We did our thing, you know, we scrambled, we fucking killed each other to get into this space. And, you know, now it’s like, you know, you know, ‘Eat the rich,’ and, man, we don’t stop, so this evolution comes, you know, from us.
They were those of rapper Jay-Z words in a Twitter space on Wednesday, where he criticized his status as a billionaire. The rapper took issue with being called a capitalist, even going so far as to liken it to racial slurs. It’s a stretch and one that shakes the responsibility of the ultra-rich. But it also underscores a tension between mainstream anti-capitalist critique and identity politics.
Jay-Z’s comments then point to a problem that the “eat the rich” slogans haven’t addressed: they paint an uncritical and ahistorical picture of wealth that ignores the intersection of class with race, gender or other identities. In a way, they caricature the wealthy in a way that turns criticism of capitalism into one centered on individuals, rather than the system itself.
Billionaires indeed pose an urgent threat to human well-being: their wealth can ease the pain and suffering of thousands, if not millions, or others. The criticism against billionaires is that it is unethical to hoard resources that can instead be used to save and improve other lives – moreover, no individual is realistic Needs as much for themselves. There is then an easy crop of billionaires to hate: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and even Bill Gates, all represent the type of billionaires who accumulate despite their birth and inherit privileges on almost every axis of identity. They are all white, cis men – already at the top of the social hierarchy and subject to very little structural oppression even before they have acquired untold wealth.
Then there are those who do not fit these identity markers, but who run destructive and inherently exploitative enterprises of people, land, resources and the environment. The rise of Gautam Adani to the rank of third richest man in the world is an example of this.
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But then there are those who have achieved status ostensibly without exploiting others in the same way: Rihanna, Jay-Z and LeBron James are all individuals whose wealth is the result of their art and sport. “We’re not going to be deceived of our position,” added Jay-Z. These individuals are much harder to hate – they don’t seem as bad; in fact, some, like Rihanna, have been called “good billionaires.” It is with this class of billionaires that the current mainstream criticism fails: it links a global criticism of wealth to the qualities of an individual. It turns what should have been a structural conversation into a personalized conversation – and “eating the rich” becomes a catchphrase that comes with caveats about exactly which rich people we’d like to eat.
When Jay-Z is able to draw on experiences of marginalization by race as a defense against criticism of his wealth, it points to a gap in the criticism itself. When we focus too much on demonizing people (as satisfying as that sounds), we fail to understand how and why they became who they are. And the idea of the “good” or even the “decent” billionaire does not allow us to ask questions of an economic order as a whole: why can some have so much while others are starving? The easy answer would be to blame individual greed, but that leaves room for the notion of trouble-free billionaires like Rihanna — a notion that, arguably, shouldn’t exist.
Researchers have further addressed the intersection of other forms of identities with class, which weakens Jay-Z’s passionate defense of himself. Philosophers like Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò called it “elite capture” – on how identity politics have been usurped by elite interests to keep the status quo intact. In simpler terms – there is a model of racial capitalism at play that makes it feel liberating for a few black (or otherwise systemically marginalized) people to enter the halls of power, rather than abolishing the rooms themselves.
Billionaires shouldn’t exist. Fixating on the morality of individual billionaires can undermine this broader ideological commitment. It asks for the good conduct and intention of people endowed with staggering wealth, without questioning the ethics of all that wealth concentrated in the hands of one person. Popular slogans like “eat the rich” then fail to qualify thinking about wealth inequality – instead, they are undermined by their own insistence on focusing on a few people in a fundamentally broken system.