A brief defense of AOC’s critique of billionaires


Every once in a while I like to poke my head over the disintegrating ramparts of the Boston Herald to see what reactionary night soil they’re spewing at their rapidly shrinking audience of aging South Shore incels. 


With so few paid reporters left, its editors are leaning rather more heavily on whatever syndicated content they can inexpensively reprint. So I was unsurprised to see that they ran a column by right-winger Ben Shapiro on Monday inveighing against one of their biggest bete noires, AOC. Insultingly titled “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needs crash course in economics.”


It seems the internet celebrity was unhappy with a statement that the congresswoman from NYC made at an MLK Day event with Ta-Nehisi Coates: “No one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars.”


Truer words were never spoken by an American politician. But they are not words that are typically allowed to go unchallenged by media specialists working in the service of the rich and powerful. So a loyal conservative flack like Shapiro felt it was necessary to leap to the defense of the global elite. The goal apparently being to squelch any funny ideas that working-class readers might get about questioning their “betters” like AOC did. Herself a working-class Latina with a college education who was, until her recent elevation to the national political stage by people just like her, a bartender.


During the MLK exchange, Coates, in the role of “Joe Billionaire,” said “…[T]hose billions of dollars are mine. Why am I the enemy of healthcare?”


To which Ocasio-Cortez replied, “You sat on a couch while thousands of people were paid modern-day slave wages,” and stated that billionaires make their money “off the backs” of undocumented immigrants, people of color, and single mothers who are all “literally dying because they can’t afford to live,” according to Business Insider.


Shapiro, in his dispatch, responded precisely as anyone with any experience dealing with capitalist apologists would expect him to. “This, of course, is nonsense,” he wrote. “Voluntary exchange of labor for wages is, as stated, voluntary, and the fact that there are many people willing and able to labor in the manufacture of widgets is presumably responsible for lower wages. Companies that refuse to pay their workers market wages will soon watch those workers migrate to other businesses or other industries. It is a patent violation of free market principles to utilize force in order to compel someone to work for you; blaming the free market for coercion is like blaming free speech for censorship. Exploitation in labor markets is typically accompanied by government subsidies, regulation and interventionism.”


As usual with commentators of his ilk, one has to ask oneself if he actually believes this tripe because he is the pampered offspring of well-off LA parents and simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be a member of America’s beleaguered working class, or if he is unwilling to admit that he’s cherry-picking his arguments because they suit his line of attack.


Either way, he does a serviceable job of channeling the same nostrums that corporate leaders and their publicists have been spouting since Milton Friedman and other neoliberal thinkers concocted them decades back as an excuse to crush the labor movement and increase profits for their corporate masters. With a hearty assist from the mass media said masters own at all levels, as I mentioned in my column of last week, “Sins of Omission: Mainstream News Media Must End Its Anti-Socialist Bias.”


So I must retort with a simple fact that every person who has tried to survive in the savage battle royal that is the labor “market” of 21st-century America already knows from painful personal experience: There is absolutely nothing “voluntary” about working the bad jobs that the economy controlled by the billionaires in question create for them.


Shapiro’s basic conceit, like that of many right-wing libertarians before him, is basically that if working people don’t like the deal they’re getting at a particular job, they can go get another one.


Yet, increasingly, most of the jobs available to workers in most parts of the US are equally terrible—temp, day labor, contract, part time, and independent contractor gigs with no long-term (or even medium-term) security and few, if any benefits.


The options for too many workers—especially those who can’t afford college thanks to diminishing public support for higher education—are choices between these bad contingent jobs with heartless conglomerates like Amazon, Walmart, and Uber. That is, no options at all. They all suck. They are all unstable. Their outrageously powerful owners all use tricks backed by pro-boss legislation passed by bought-and-paid-for politicians to sustain the legal fiction that their workforces are a bunch of independent businesspeople who are not their employees—and are therefore owed nothing more than companies are willing to pay them. Mere pittances that they do everything in their power to keep artificially depressed. All in the interest of fattening the bottom line for themselves and their shareholders. 


Such billionaire proprietors work people until their health fails or they get injured or killed on the job (at which point they do their level best to duck responsibility for those mishaps and force any resultant catastrophic financial consequences onto the backs of the families of the victims).


So, far from any imaginary “free market,” today’s economy is structured from top to bottom to serve the interests of a tiny percentage of rich people and exploit the multitudes of working people—including the downwardly mobile group of mostly white educated workers formerly known as the middle class.


This situation, this war between labor and capital, has been going on for as long as capitalism has existed, and it can only change for the better for working people if our federal government is forced to heavily regulate the corporations that wish to do business here by moving the US toward a European-style social democracy of the type that Bernie Sanders and AOC call for (and Shapiro explicitly rejects), or if we move toward a democratic socialist system where working people own the means of production. Built on the solid foundation of—among other popular institutions—worker co-operatives of the very type that Ocasio-Cortez spoke positively of in her conversation with Coates, and Shapiro unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss in his column… by mischaracterizing the travails of the famed Mondragon co-op in Basque Country as it tries to keep a democratic enterprise going in a capitalist economy.


Otherwise, let me add that—my concerns about the continued suppression of socialist and social democratic political ideas in the corporate media taken as given—the times are (a-)changing enough (to invoke the title of Sanders’ recent viral video featuring Ocasio-Cortez) that a sitting congressperson can forthrightly criticize billionaires and get that vital message in front of a mass audience for the first time in a half-century. If only because she is amplified by the massive social movement now propelling Sanders toward the presidency and inadvertently echoed by the ever more shrill and out-of-touch right-wing punditocracy desperate to preserve the economic status quo that has benefitted them so handsomely.


May we see more progress advancing such monumentally important ideas into the mass consciousness in the campaign year to come.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.