The real looters in the US today aren’t those smashing their way into Target and scoring themselves a pair of jeans, designer sneakers or some toys for their kids. American capitalism was built, from the ground up, on theft. Not petty theft by the poor, but systematic, everyday theft by the rich, whose immense wealth and power was built on the back of a history of slavery and exploitation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis, the scale of the theft has soared. According to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, America’s billionaires have, collectively, grown US$434 billion wealthier since the pandemic took off in mid-March. While tens of millions of American workers were being thrown into unemployment, not knowing how they’ll make their next rent payment or buy groceries, hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed into the hands of some of the world’s richest individuals.
One of them, Amazon CEO and world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, has increased his wealth by US$30 billion. Those unlucky enough to be working in Bezos’ warehouses during the pandemic have had to strike for paid sick leave as well as basic personal protective equipment and social distancing measures. Already, more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases have been documented by activists in Amazon warehouses – a direct result of the “profit at all cost” business model that has generated Bezos’s billions.
Despite the disruption to global supply chains, Nike co-founder Phil Knight has also been a beneficiary of the crisis, gaining US$10 billion in the last two months. Knight has previously admitted that “the Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse”. Despite attempts to clean up the brand's image, Knight owes his US$37.7 billion net worth to the very practices he wants to distance himself from.
Heirs to the Walmart fortune, Alice, Jim and Rob Walton, have seen their fortune increase by US$3.6 billion each. When online sales surged, these notorious anti-union crusaders reaped the rewards. Not content with forcing workers to subsist on starvation wages, Walmart has moved to scrap the measly US$2 hazard pay increase it granted to some of its employees at the outset of the pandemic.
The retail empires of capitalists like Bezos, Knight and the Waltons are dependent on those compelled to work in dangerous and degrading conditions in their stores, warehouses, and factories. These parasites have amassed their obscene wealth by looting the surplus value created by the labour of the workers they exploit.
“Capital”, Karl Marx wrote, “is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. When people accuse looters of hurting their own communities, we should remember that Marx’s metaphor can apply both to the individual worker and to the communities in which they live. Capital is a vampire that “lives” by draining the lifeblood of both.
No amount of looting and “violence” from the protesters on the streets in the US today can compare to this everyday crime of capitalism. The looters aren’t destroying their communities – they’re just taking back a small fraction of what has been stolen from them. One day soon, hopefully they’ll take back the rest.