Communism failed in the 20th century, but is allowing the super-rich to dictate to the rest of humanity the only alternative system? Perhaps we need to design a socialist system, which also recognizes achievement.-Slavoj Zizek, "Is it true that only progressive billionaires can save humanity?"
Bill Gates, the second-richest person on Earth, has repeatedly criticized capitalism. Back in 2015 he explained his reasoning was based on a simple ecological calculation: the use of fossil fuels has to be radically reduced if we are to avoid a global catastrophe, and the private sector is too selfish to produce clean and economical alternatives to fossil fuels, which means humanity has to act outside market forces. Gates himself plans to spend $2 billion of his own money on green energy, even though there’s no fortune to be made from it, and he called on fellow billionaires to help make the US fossil-free by 2050 with similar philanthropy.
From an orthodox Leftist position, it is easy to make fun of the naivety of Gates’s proposal. However, the more these reproaches are right, the more they render palpable the misery of the genuine Left: where is THEIR feasible proposal on what we should do?
Because we know words matter in public debates: and even if what Gates is talking about is not “true Socialism,” he does talk about the fateful limitations of capitalism – and, again we can ask, do the self-proclaimed Socialists of the present have a serious vision of what Socialism should be today?
Thus, the paradox of our predicament is that, while the resistance against global capitalism seems to fail to undermine its advance, again and again, its opponents remain strangely out of touch with many trends which clearly signal capitalism’s progressive disintegration.
And it is as if the two tendencies (resistance and self-disintegration) move at different paces and cannot meet so that we get futile protests in parallel with talk of imminent decay, but there seems to be no way to bring the two together in a coordinated act (such as capitalism’s emancipatory overcoming).
How did it come to this? While (most of) the Left desperately tries to protect the old workers’ rights against the onslaught of global capitalism, it is almost exclusively the most “progressive” capitalists themselves (from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg) who talk about post-capitalism – as if the very topic of passage from capitalism, as we know it, to a new post-capitalist order is appropriated by capitalism itself.
As a consequence, a new group of “organic intellectuals” is thus emerging: and they exemplify the privatization of our commons. The figure of Elon Musk is emblematic here, and he belongs to the same class as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and others: all ‘socially conscious’ billionaires. And they represent global capital at its most seductive and “progressive,” in short, at its most dangerous.
But can then these ultra-rich save us?
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk would not be Sloterdijk if he did not draw this provocative conclusion: previously, we thought that only the (united) poor could save the world, but the twentieth century has shown the catastrophic consequences of this attitude and the destructive violence which is engendered by universalized resentment.
Now, in the twenty-first century, we should finally have the courage to accept that only the rich can save the world, and we can argue that exceptionally creative individuals, who give generously, like Bill Gates and George Soros, have done more for the struggles for political freedom and against disease than has any state intervention.
Sloterdijk’s diagnosis should not be confused with the usual conservative-liberal rant against the so-called “resentment Left.” Because the central idea that sustains this rant is that we have had enough of the “welfare tyranny” that abounds in our “democratic despotism”; as in the Middle Ages, personal pride is today the greatest sin, and our fundamental right is more and more simply the “right to dependence.”
“Welfare is today a drug on which more and more people depend. A good human idea turned into a kind of opium for the people,” as Norbert Bolz, another German thinker, explained.
But what makes Sloterdijk different is that he understands his proposal as a strategy to secure the survival of modern Europe's greatest economic-political achievement, the social democratic Welfare State. According to Sloterdijk, our reality — in Europe, at least — is “objective” social democracy as opposed to “subjective” social democracy. And to keep it alive, we should create a “new semantic,” a new space of hegemonic ideas in which the culture of pride, and the recognition of the achievers (not only fiscal but also moral), will have its proper place.
But can this work? I don’t think so. Let’s return to Bill Gates, he correctly locates the ultimate cause of our (ecological) problems in capitalism, and then, instead of proposing changes to the system itself, he appeals to the common sense of individual capitalists.
Yet, wouldn’t it be much more appropriate to try to create a non-capitalist system, which recognizes achievers? Are these two desires really irreconcilable?