Wealthy youtubers and the essence of capitalism: questions and answers

22 January, 2021 · Marxism> Foundations

It leaped from Twitch to social networks and from there to the news and the international press: a celebrity youtuber, El Rubius, said he wanted to move to Andorra in order to pay less taxes. Big discovery: over a third of the resident population in the small Pyrenean state are Spaniards and a good part of them define themselves as tax exiles. A flurry of false debates ensued. Are those departing wealth creators? Do taxes redistribute wealth? Do we have less health care or worse schools because of tax evaders? Would the system be better if more taxes were levied?

What is wealth

Printing euros at the Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre.

In pre-capitalist societies wealth was measured and accumulated in different ways than today. During Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the ruling classes accumulated wealth by tesaurizing it, that is, by making treasuries, physical accumulations of luxury items, and precious metals. Many treasuries reached today’s archaeologists because they buried them as a form of preservation. In not a few clan-ordered agrarian societies, such as the Maori, wealth was measured until the advent of capitalism in fetishes, specific objects, differentiated from each other and to which a characteristic spirit was attributed.

That is, what wealth is, what it consists of, how it is accumulated and what it is used for, is determined by the way in which each society organizes its own productive system. And today, the mode of social production under which Humanity lives is capitalism.

In capitalism wealth is an accumulation of value. But neither does value mean the same thing as in other historical formations, nor is it accumulated in the same way or for the same purposes. Let us begin:

Obviously, value is not a physical property of things. It is not added by labor to raw materials through production. It is a social property that serves as an indicator of the amount of socially necessary labor required to produce something. That amount of value is measured in money. And when value/money accumulates in this system, the result is not a treasure, but rather a capital.

What is the accumulation of value? It is a social process. And this is how we need to understand it, not starting from the sum of individual accumulations by companies, individuals or groups of investors, but the other way around: understanding the process as a whole in order to understand how and why each part, each mass of money invested, accumulates.

As a whole, it is a cycle permanently going on in society in its entirety: exploiting labor to produce commodities, selling them for an increased value, a value higher than the one employed in producing them, distributing the profits of the whole system through the capital market and, finally, reincorporating the profits into social production as increased value, as expanded capital.

Seeing it this way, we can understand what is the essence of money, something which has nothing to do with currency: currency is basically a tool of exchange, money is that value which is reproduced and increased. And for the same reason we can understand what is value under a new perspective, as the measure of the capacity of each piece of property to direct and appropriate the labor of others. And also what capital is for each individual investor or capitalist: a right to organize and exploit a certain amount of social resources and labor power.

Neither does currency become money spontaneously nor does capital appear naturally. Money and capital are forms that are only possible within a very particular system of exploitation: capitalism, which ensures that those applications which contribute most to the increase of global unpaid labor have a greater proportion of resources and labor to exploit in each cycle.

So no, capital is not simply an accumulation of stuff, no matter what this stuff is. A historic building that cannot be sold or used commercially is not capital. Nor is it something as simple as holding euros or dollars. The salaries we earn are not capital. A good salary, even if it makes life relatively comfortable, does not allow us to accumulate capital. To have capital is to have money on a sufficient scale and in a context allowing one to arrange social resources and labor power to produce profits and expand them in each cycle.

The accumulation of capital is the social force which organizes the increase of production and wealth in each cycle of production. It is the way in which, in this society and at this historical moment, wealth is created through the exploitation of human labor.

So, finally, what is wealth? The product, accumulated and accumulable, of labor appropriated by the exploiting class or by its state.

Do entrepreneurs create wealth?

Workers at a Foxconn electronics factory in China

All exploiting classes in history presented themselves – and justified themselves to the population they exploited – as necessary to create wealth. The underlying argument is the same for ancient slaveholders, the Inca, the mandarins of the Ming era, the feudal nobility or today’s bureaucrats, corporate managers and individual capitalists: they organize production and guarantee social order, without them nothing would exist, without their will and their values society would crumble, and thus without them there would be no production and no wealth, but chaos.

There is no need for a deep critique of the history of the modes of production and the(alienating) ideologies with which they justified themselves in order to realize their magical character. The class which organizes production – to its own benefit – equates social labor with its form of organization, i.e., production with the particular form of exploitation it exercises.

But the magical character of the exploiting classes reaches a new level in the bourgeoisie and its deepest religion: the religion of the commodity. According to the omnipresent discourse of freedom and equality, a free society guarantees that all people can freely exchange commodities thanks to a state that ensures the legal equality of the conditions of exchange. Given these conditions of freedom and equality, the circulation of money – spurred by the ingenuity of some entrepreneurs endowed with a singular genius – would increase value, would magically generate wealth in a sort of continuous and eternal miracle of the loaves and fishes.

The reality cannot be surprising. What is called increased wealth is the increase in the product of exploited labor. What is called free exchange is, for the vast majority who form the world’s working class, the forced sale of their labor power in the face of the impossibility of selling anything else. The equality provided by the market, is the reduction of one’s capabilities to a commodity to be sold at market price, as if it were any inanimate object.

Obviously here we are in the realm of commodity fetishism: bourgeois religion presents the relationships between humans divided into classes as if they were relationships between things (commodities) mediated by money.

Obviously, money does not create value by multiplying equivalent exchange, it is the exploitation of one class’s labor by another. One class, the bourgeoisie, keeps part of what is produced and attributes it to the magic of exchange.

Religion entry in our dictionary

With a little distance, there is not much complication: wealth is the social labor appropriated by the ruling class in its exploitation of the labor force. Who creates wealth? The exploited.

Do youtubers, singers, athletes and so on create wealth?

Rubius, Cristiano Ronaldo and Shakira

By definition, the mass of wages paid by capital, i.e. the market it creates, cannot buy the whole of production. The product of labor appropriated by the bourgeoisie must be sold to others. At first the missing buyers remained within the very frontiers of the countries where capitalism developed: independent peasants selling part of their production on the market, artisans and guild groups, and so on. But, as capitalism expanded into more and more branches of production, most of the peasants became day laborers and the craftsmen became workers.

Capitalism suffered a violent and sudden call to adventure: the world was to be explored, non-capitalist markets opened. Thus the system expanded. But, when it docked at a port, it immediately began to penetrate and eventually transform local forms of production. The shortage of non-capitalist markets ceased to be, relatively soon, a problem of the countries where capitalism had been born and became globalized with it. Especially when the globe was gradually closing and fewer and fewer human masses remained outside the capitalist domain.

Capitalism then entered a phase we call Imperialism, which led in a few decades to a true civilizational crisis. Capitalism had gone into decadence. There is no point now in going into what this historical period, ours, means for the very composition of capital and its manifestations – for instance state capitalism – and for the tactics of communists in such important areas as national liberation, turned reactionary, or the trade unions, absorbed by the state.

The important thing now, in order to understand why there are youtubers who are making hundreds of thousands of euros, is to point out that the lack of markets compresses capital as a whole. In states, increased militarism appears as an expression of that growing aggressiveness necessary to snatch markets away from rivals. In businesses, capital attempts to overcome in its own way the desperate character of competition by creating monopolies and oligopolies restricting competition in order to increase its profitability. But even so, even among oligopolies, the market never grows large enough for the firm to absorb into its capital – at a profit – the very profits it generates. A whole new industry emerges: advertising. And as the competition to maximize profitable capital becomes sharper sector by sector and country by country, advertising -that militarism between companies – gathers more resources, entails increased spending by advertisers just to maintain the shares they already have in a global market that is growing at a slower rate than the companies would need.

Decades after starting the process, that desperation to reach new customer segments, to reach the youth demographic, etc., coupled with certain characteristics with which capital itself has shaped the Internet -basically centralization, concentration and monopoly- led to some people who recorded themselves while playing video games eventually becoming tremendously valuable to some companies.

Why were they valuable? Not because they created value, that is, not because they directly exploited anyone; but because those who do — the advertisers — were willing to sacrifice a portion of their profit, negligible compared to the total but huge compared to a salary, just so they could attract the attention of a few hundred thousand potential consumers.

The same goes for athletes, singers, various celebrities and actors, but on different scales. For many companies they are valuable to the extent that the entertainment and opinion industry makes a lot of people pay attention to them.

Are there other youtubers who didn’t manage to make themselves as valuable to companies because they didn’t get as much attention? Of course. Following the power laws which capital itself puts to work in everything it arranges, a few accumulated the lion’s share of followers. Differences in likeability, ability to generate controversy or mere technical quality may have been the determinants of success in followers under those rules. But that does not turn them into brilliant wealth creators. Their ability to collect certain sums from advertisers is not based on their contribution to production or to the system, but rather because of the barren fight between competitors, where they are just another small expense, a colorful cherry on top of the immensity of the costs generated by competing against each other. They are part of the resources that the system as a whole uses in self-consumption.

Coming soon

In the follow-up to this article we will answer questions about the meaning of taxation, social spending, the functions of the state and the existence of tax havens such as Andorra.

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