As the German playwright Berthold Brecht once said: «Two men—one rich, one poor—come face to face. Said the poor man with a twitch: Were I not poor, you wouldn’t be rich.»
The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t been bad for everyone. The wealth of billionaires increased more during the pandemic than in the past 14 years — the biggest surge in billionaire wealth since records began.
As we mark International Workers’ Day in celebration of the achievements of the labour movement worldwide, the case for abolishing billionaires has never been clearer.
At a time when Europeans are going through a severe cost-of-living crisis, with fuel and food prices spiralling, it is immoral to allow a minority to amass unprecedented amounts of wealth through greed and exploitation, threatening our rights and democracy itself in the process.
The European Union loves to tout its championing of social rights. A year ago, the EU even hosted a Social Summit, ostensibly reaffirming its commitments to the so-called European Pillar of Social Rights.
However, we must judge EU governments by their actions, not words.
The EU has failed to meet its 2020 target of lifting 20 million people out of poverty, something the UN called «a defeat for social rights».
117 new European billionaires
While Europe’s 628 billionaires grew $1 trillion (€950bn) richer in the first year of the pandemic, including 117 new members added to the billionaires’ club, a huge proportion of Europeans edged towards poverty.
In 2020, 96.5 million people in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion — that’s one in five Europeans. Almost a quarter of children in the EU are at risk of poverty.
These shocking figures only worsened with the pandemic. Two-thirds of EU citizens consider that their current financial situation is worse than before Covid-19, with 68 percent reporting difficulties in making ends meet.
The EU unemployment rate stood at 6.2 percent at the beginning of the year. But what this figure does not show are the many millions with jobs but earning salaries that are not enough for a dignified living.
Families unable to pay their bills and who cannot afford secure and stable housing or childcare. The phenomenon of the working poor has reached alarming levels in the EU.
So what do billionaires have to do with it? They and their corporations have persistently worked to weaken and undermine labour rights to maximise profits.
In other words, billionaire wealth accumulation is directly linked and could not exist without the persistence and pervasiveness of labour exploitation and social inequalities.
Billionaires have aggressively lobbied to weaken EU legislation aimed at protecting workers’ hard-earned rights such as dignified wages, health & safety standards, social welfare safety nets, and collective bargaining.
They have also gone on a buying spree of the most influential mass media outlets and engaged in political financing, notably to the benefit of the far-right, causing strife and pitting workers against each other.
All the while they have been allowed by governments to divert much-needed funds from public coffers through aggressive tax planning and tax evasion.
In 2016, the offshore wealth of EU residents stood at a staggering €1.5 trillion. Corporations like Amazon, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, earned €44 billion in 2020 in the EU but paid no corporation tax.
Faced with these attacks, workers have not stood idle. Growing discontent with the billionaire class and the political forces defending their interests has led to inspiring mobilisations.
Amazon workers and campaigners have led outstanding protests under the «Make Amazon Pay» banner to address the corporation’s labour abuses, tax evasion and environmental crimes.
Recognising the role the company plays in the global economy, they have staged coordinated strikes and protests to stop the company’s operations in their tracks and put pressure on governments to act, even in the face of intolerable repression.
Workers in France, Belgium, Germany and Spain are resisting increases in the retirement age.
Faced with shrinking public budgets, governments have used working people as scapegoats instead of forcing big companies to make a fair contribution to pensions.
Notably, in France, workers succeeded in forcing the government to halt the increase thanks to organised protests.
Workers’ struggles are too many to count.
Their lessons from centuries of resistance to oppression are that when workers come together they can change the prevailing order and the system.
The proliferation of billionaires and that phenomenon’s reverse dark side, the working poor, calls for a historic mobilisation on a global scale.
Workers are pushing in the right direction. On the road to equality and justice, making billionaires pay is a mandatory stop.