It is time to put the world's top tier of the oligarchic 1% where they belong: in a comic book. Rather, an almost 300-page graphic (novel) biographic exposé. British cartoonist Darryl Cunningham’s Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful (Drawn and Quarterly) chronicles the rise of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos, detailing just how these ultra-wealthy, extremely white men have come to control the world's politics and media—a new gilded age of monopolists. The book is also a chilling, vital study of how they use that control to dictate with ever more precision the way we exist in the 21st century.
The current pandemic is one example of how everything—good and bad—that happens in the world today is somehow a win-win for these bullies, increasing the wealth and equity disparity between the haves and the have-nots. As hundreds of millions of people lost their livelihoods—or worse, their lives—the privileged few grew more powerful and even wealthier. I asked Cunningham to put his subjects in context.
(For an earlier but no less comic view of America's Wall Street gang, read Art Young's Inferno.)
Darryl, why focus on these put-upon billionaires? Isn't there enough to get our collective blood boiling with garden-variety bigots and racists?
I would say in answer to that that the majority of the problems we face in the world today are a direct result of wealth-hoarding on a colossal scale by a relatively tiny number of people. The billionaire class have used their wealth to create monopolies, distort economies and buy both politicians and whole political systems. Meanwhile, vast numbers of people barely scrape by economically and the environment is being turned into a poisoned trash heap. Not all the world’s problems can be blamed exclusively on the super rich, but they are the source of many of this planet’s ills.
Do you see billionaires as a continuation, so to speak, of feudal lords of yore? Or have these "free" world capitalists (or oligarchs) actually taken a larger share of a mammoth pie?
The current period is much like the Gilded Age in the USA, a term coined by Mark Twain to describe the years between 1870 to 1900 when a small number of businessmen ran monopolies in the steel, railway and petroleum industries. That period came to an end when those great monopolies were broken up, allowing proper competition into the marketplace. The current tech giants have a such stranglehold on the industry that they are killing innovation. And media domination by a few companies means that it’s easy for a few individuals to skew news and information to their own ends.
Your (brilliantly done, I must say) book makes me wonder, laugh at, yet despair of our short time on Earth. Do you feel that you've provided knowledge, entertainment or a veritable Divine Comedy?
All of the above, but mostly information about the true state of the world. Everyone will know parts of these stories, but I’ve laid it all out so the reader can see the bigger picture.
Your research is exhaustive and adds just the right balance between journalism and commentary. Is there anything that will shock us into really, truly changing the capitalist system that produces such incredible wealth for so few people? Isn't it built into human DNA by now?I honestly don’t know. Clearly change is possible. I’m old enough to have grown up through a period that saw a Cold War, apartheid in South Africa and violent civil unrest in Northern Ireland. All situations that appeared at the time unsolvable. They were so much part of the fabric of things that you couldn’t imagine them ever ending, yet they did end. Nothing is permanent. History tells us that what seems intractable and immovable could be swept away tomorrow. You just never know. I remain hopeful.
Billionaires are not dinosaurs that roam the earth; in fact, they persistently multiply. How is that possible?The process we’ve seen over the past 40 years of wealth being Hoovered up by a minority is still continuing. Super-rich individuals and large corporations have multiple ways of not paying taxes, while at the same time, they’ve found new ways to extract money from the rest of us. Money is still flooding away from the majority to a tiny minority, and although that minority may yet expand, they are still vastly outnumbered by those on ordinary incomes. Just .8% of the world's population have net worths in excess of $1 million. That group—roughly the global 1%—controls 44.8% of the world's wealth. That’s nearly half of all the money there is.
I am not surprised that the patriarchs of our current billionaires did some terrible things—like the Koch Brothers' papa with ties to Nazi Germany. But isn't that the nature of a billionaire's supply chain and behavioral modus operandi?
I’ve no objection to people becoming rich. Let there be millionaires. Let there be success in industry, capital and the arts. People should be allowed to do well for themselves and for others without interference. But only bad things come from the existence of billionaires. Look at the stories of the people in Billionaires. Above a certain level of wealth, the rich individual seems to lose all sight of morality. Megalomania sets in. They no longer just concern themselves with making money. Instead, they begin using their wealth and power to bend society to their will, an
d that’s bad for all of us.
Do you see any irony in that the once–middle class must now be millionaires to qualify for the distinction of "middle"?
I do. It shows there is no middle. Just the very rich and everyone else.
What do you want your reader to get out of this book?
A more complete understanding of how the world works and who runs it.
What do you want to get out of this book? A billion in sales, perhaps? Or a more modest million?
It would be great to be free of money worries. I don’t need fabulous wealth. No one does.