Tech Giants and Self-Made Men

The recent Senate hearings of the masters of Silicon Valley have been diverted from an opportunity to expose the blatant parasitism of some of the world’s biggest robber barons into an equivocating battle of how best to control freedom of speech—an issue of tremendous importance in its own right, but one which, as with all things, is influenced by class distinctions and struggle. There’s a quote often falsely attributed to John Steinbeck, but nonetheless a concise and synoptical critique of American class consciousness; “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And now, it’s not just Americans who believe that the playing field is a level one. The undisputed hegemony of U.S. culture has ingrained in most the sense that the potential for social elevation is universal, that if one possesses the cunning, ambition, and sticktoitiveness necessary, success in the free market is ensured. 

With this in mind, I think it’s of tremendous importance to expose and dispel the myth of the self-made man; to examine the tech giants in a way the senate was unwilling and disinterested to. We must explore the backgrounds, the inheritance, the boot straps by which these titans of industry were able to pull themselves to such lofty heights.

Despite the several examples which will doubtlessly be flung in the face of anyone who even attempts to note the relationship between the wealth of one’s forebears and that person’s own economic success, the exception does not make the rule: for every Ben Carson, there are a thousand Trumps. Granted, not every billionaire stems from a noble line—especially those whose wealth has come to fruition in the tech boom of the last two decades. However, it’s not as if such colossi sprung out from the floor. Jack Dorsey for example (CEO of Twitter and one of the three lords of social media who spoke before the senate recently) grew up with an engineer father and a business-owning mother. Hardly a dynasty, but not a family without the means to pay for the IBM computer which was Dorsey’s gateway into becoming a skilled software designer and eventual business owner in his own right. These may seem like small factors, but therein lies the difference between myth and reality; in the same way that it was easier two thousand years ago to declare the sun a chariot that raced across the sky each day than to understand the compounded workings of gravity, and nuclear fusion, it’s easier to simply declare some more equipped for success in the market than others.

Another aspect of this myth is the belief that those at the top deserve their wealth, especially if they began in comparatively humble circumstances.But you don’t have to be a baron, a marquis, or a count to be undeserving of your wealth; even if you come from the lowest of the low, you beat all odds of initial caste, and through some internal source of financial wizardry become this Randian hero, you are not entitled to accumulate to such a parasitic degree as, oh, 96.7 billion dollars (Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth). Who decides how much entrepreneurship should pay? What is a justified salary for someone whose job it is to own? Ultimately, it’s not about deserving the wealth you have as a business owner, or shareholder, but how much you can get away with.

But if it’s not because most successful entrepreneurs had an environment conducive to success, or that, even if they did not, their wealth is nonetheless undeserved, it is that the accumulation of such wealth is draining on the society which allowed for its creation that the self made-man exposes himself to be if not a downright illusion, then a bloodsucker. Yes, the introduction of a large business to a community can provide and infuse a community with wealth, but such Reaganite notions of trickle down economics are at best false, and at worst mendacious. Because the wealthy, on average, tend to spend a smaller percentage of their wealth than someone who makes minimum wage—one of the reasons why some of the most fiscally conservative representatives have pushed for a spending tax as a opposed to income based one—you often have a situation where communities are tapped like oil wells for their labor, until a. the market changes and this labor is no longer needed, or b. a cheaper source of labor is discovered; for an example of either of these refer to any moderately large city in Ohio. Additionally, it’s unlikely that those extracting several figures from your town will reintroduce that money into your small midwestern community: even if the well-salaried person in question is a spendthrift.

It’s not worth enumerating all the various ways such money might better be spent- there are really too many to count. The United States, and the world it has created is one of atomization and hero worship of the selfish and fortunate; the self-made man, unlike the heroes of old does not wrestle with gods, does not slay dragons, or create objects of otherwise indescribable beauty. They are the great consumers, the collectors, and robbers. If America has any chance of developing class consciousness, it must first cast aside the icons and worship of the hoarder, and embrace something beyond attainment of things. For a person to be truly self-made, to be a giant among the small, they must be willing to sacrifice, to give instead of take, to expend instead of consume.