Stories of the ridiculous escapades of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (and his fellow celebrity billionaires) now regularly make news headlines. Barely a week goes by when they’re not reinventing the bus, flying into (and unfortunately returning from) space, promising to solve the ecological emergency, or manipulating financial markets by tweeting. The latest story involving Bezos has him reportedly asking the local council in Rotterdam to temporarily dismantle the historic Koningshaven Bridge.
This is so his brand-new superyacht, which is being manufactured in the port city, can go through. It’s too large to pass through the bridge (the only route to the sea) normally, which seems like something he might have considered before commissioning it — not least because the bridge was originally constructed in 1878 and later rebuilt after the Nazis bombed it in 1940. It is now a national monument.
After the bridge was renovated in 2017, the council promised that they would never dismantle it again. There have been more recent claims that the application has not actually been made yet, but it’s in the cards. That’s obvious to anybody who has compared the size of the nearly completed superyacht and the iconic bridge.
Either way, local residents of the working-class industrial city are understandably unhappy that an entitled billionaire is throwing his weight around with complete disregard of local culture and heritage.
This is just the latest egregious example of billionaires playing by their own rules, using their extraordinary wealth and power to boss around communities with whom they have an exclusively extractive relationship. This particular instance — a billionaire literally dismantling public infrastructure to serve his most superficial whim — feels like a metaphor for our current stage of capitalism. The last few decades have seen an exorbitant rise in inequality. Billionaires continue to see their wealth grow, including during the pandemic, in which the ten richest men doubled their fortunes. In the same period, real wages for the rest of the population have gone down. This is on top of more than a decade of cuts to services, underinvestment in public infrastructure, and the institutions of working-class culture fast disappearing.
The most powerful economic actors are no longer nations or municipalities but the companies that have been the vehicles for these billionaires’ wealth. Facebook, Amazon, Tesla, and Microsoft are not only expert at evading public accountability but also at influencing politics so that the rules of the game are written in their favor. This very deliberate concentration of wealth and power for a tiny elite has occurred in parallel to devastating deindustrialization and extreme inequalities of consumption. Fortunately, we may be seeing the embers of real resistance.
The historic port of Rotterdam has continued to experience growth over the past four decades, but that wealth has not been spread evenly across the city, which remains relatively poor. Growth for capital has been accompanied with low income, high unemployment, and limited public space and culture for the many.
In defense of the construction of Bezos’s superyacht, Rotterdam’s local politicians have deployed long-standing but increasingly unevidenced claims that the success of the port translates to success for the wider city. The mayor’s office, for example, has highlighted the jobs created by the superyacht’s construction. A local Labour Party councilor, Dennis Tak, is quoted defending the decision to temporarily dismantle Koningshaven Bridge on the basis that the city wouldn’t be paying for it and the jobs created in the process make it worthwhile.
These arguments indict a tired social democratic approach to industry that desperately justifies the creation of any jobs as a source of prosperity. In this politics, there is no room for industrial strategy or economic transformation. It is one of collecting the meager crumbs falling from capital’s gluttonous dinner table. In this crucial decade in which we must rapidly decarbonize through green reindustrialization, we cannot afford to orient our economies around the opulence of the elite. Instead, we should make demands for good, green, socially useful jobs that contribute to the energy transition. And we should demand that the wealth we generate is shared equally, not sucked upward.
In the midst of various socioeconomic crises of climate, housing, and bills, working-class people are often moralized to about what they should and shouldn’t consume: buy organic, ditch plastic, stop flying, go vegan, cancel Netflix to buy a house, buy less stuff! At the same, billionaires travel in private jets and carbon-intensive superyachts. The highly publicized polluting conspicuous consumption of the elite is a perverse joke to most of us. With our purchasing power diminished and culture eroded, this is clearly not a state of affairs many people are willing to abide.
Bezos’s plan to dismantle the Koningshaven Bridge, for example, has provoked a backlash from residents who have petitioned against it: “Rotterdam was built from rubble by the people of Rotterdam, and we don’t just take that apart for the phallus symbol of a megalomaniac billionaire.” Many have also pledged to throw eggs at the superyacht as it passes through. This may seem indicative of a relatively weak civil society. While Bezos gets his way, again, the people are left with only symbolic protest.
This is not the story across the board, though. Bezos may get his superyacht, but workers in his US warehouses are fighting back with their unionization efforts. Amazon is doing all it can to stop it, because it knows that a unionized workforce would be an existential threat to the hyper-exploitation that functions as the basis of the company’s profits. The latest round of ballots comes after Amazon was found to have broken the law when opposing unionization last year.
An organized workforce is only the beginning, but it is a necessary foundation for any effort to rebalance the economy so that wealth and power is taken back into the hands of workers. Whether it’s pay and conditions at work, a green industrial strategy, or respect for local culture and heritage, Amazon workers’ campaigns to unionize are an inspiration to us all, as they strike fear into the hearts of the billionaires and capitalist class.