By Lindsay Mimir
Paul Allen, one of Seattle’s foremost business leaders, philanthropists, and rapacious capitalists died on October 15. Like many of the outrageously wealthy, he was widely celebrated in the media. He was a co-founder of Microsoft, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in back-to-back years (2007 and 2008), owner of the Seahawks, part-owner of the Sounders, and chairman of the mega-company Vulcan Inc. Allen’s net worth was above $20 billion, and he is credited with donating more than $2 billion to philanthropic efforts over his lifetime.
Of course, we on the radical left often have instinctive negative reactions when one of these robber barons dies. We have to ask ourselves, should we risk alienating friends and coworkers by celebrating the death of a member of the exploiting class, or should we stay silent? Should we bow our heads in conformity with the liberal establishment that asks us not to speak ill of the dead, or should we critically evaluate the life and legacy of capitalism’s most obvious agents of wealth inequality and abuse?
I for one will not apologize for celebrating the death of monsters who caused immeasurable suffering during their time on Earth. Steve Jobs exploited slave labor in Africa and Asia to build his tech empire. The oil and petrochemical kings of the US have helped decimate this planet’s ecosystems. And in the words of Killer Mike, “I’m glad Reagan dead.”
However, grave dancing will not help us win labor struggles or overcome centuries of entrenched ideology which teaches workers to venerate the billionaire class. Our immediate backlash to the fawning media portrayals should be sober, nuanced, and pointed. “Screw him, just another exploiter billionaire!” always feels good in the moment, but accomplishes nothing more than a brief second of catharsis. But if someone brings up a billionaire’s philanthropy—as has been the case with Allen and others like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or even Jeff Bezos—we should respectfully yet firmly use the opportunity for agitation and education. Ask questions about why our society seems to rely on the “good” billionaires to provide basic services like clean water. Ask why philanthropists threaten to withdraw their donations when taxes are proposed, which has happened with multiple billionaires in Seattle alone. Ask why billionaires hoard their wealth and make token philanthropic gestures while their employees have no healthcare, make below minimum wage, and are forced to work unpaid overtime. This shifts the focus from the death of the billionaire and turns the conversation towards political education.
We are all familiar with our coworkers who earnestly mourn the loss of entrepreneurs and businesspeople. The reaction should not be to spit in the faces of our fellow workers and demand they change their beliefs. The reaction should be to help them see that the existence of billionaires—and the possibility for reverence of wealth—is part of the problem and contributes to the rampant inequality in our society. This approach can make a positive act like philanthropy into a questionable practice that is part of the larger class struggle.
We should try to get people to think about what philanthropy means. Paul Allen’s museum famously celebrated the life and work of Jimi Hendrix. I wonder how many more Jimi Hendrixes there are in the world who will never become famous because they spend eight or ten or sixteen hours a day working for wages just to survive. Instead of practicing guitar or writing songs, they stock shelves at Target or taxi around tourists for Uber. How many more Nirvanas, Sound Gardens, Blue Scholars, or 7 Year Bitches would there be if otherwise talented and driven people weren’t stuck slaving away so a few people can be extremely rich?
If we are to build a movement of laborers, our biggest task is just convincing people to join the labor movement. And as fun as it is to celebrate another dead member of the ruling class, it can feel alienating for our fellow workers. Focus on political education now so that when we do have our cathartic moments of elation in the future, we will have more allies who can grave dance with us.
[This post was originally published in the fourth issue of the Seattle Worker, available now!]