Fri Feb 03, 2023
February 03, 2023

Why does the PSTU want to expropriate the billionaires?

The PSTU’s programme in the national elections proposes the expropriation of the fortunes and properties of billionaires and of the 100 biggest companies in the country. It is normal to be surprised by this, after all, we have been conditioned to think that, if we work hard, study and have enough talent, we can get rich and “succeed in life”.

By: Diego Cruz

Since there are no longer feudal estates or aristocracies (at least in liberal democracies), nothing, in theory, would prevent any of us from accumulating fortunes, right? Then, if you are unemployed, struggling to make ends meet, or if you are not an Elon Musk, the fault is solely yours, because you didn’t try hard enough. This is the ideology increasingly spread by “coaches” on the internet, who sell the idea of positive thinking, or even of supposed “DNA reprogramming” or “quantum” therapies in order, actually, to increase the bank account.

All kinds of mysticism are used to hide a rather inconvenient truth: capitalism is a system founded and maintained through theft. When we talk about expropriating billionaires, many are outraged that this is theft, but the reality is that it is you who are being robbed. However, this misconception is so permeated that we are not dissatisfied with the reality presented to us, but with its revelation. Like the character in the Matrix movie, who prefers to live in a world of illusion, albeit a false and limited one.

How to become a billionaire?

According to Forbes Brazil magazine, the country currently has 290 billionaires (the super-rich with assets of more than R$ 1 billion (US$ 200 million, approx.); and according to Forbes World, which ranks those amassing more than US$ 1 billion, there are 62 tycoons (according to the list published last April). The vast majority simply inherited their fortune. In other words, the “work while they inherit” caricature has never been more real. The big job this select group did to enjoy an absolutely disproportionate share of society’s wealth was simply to be born.

Of these 290 Brazilian billionaires, 15 are identified by the magazine as “self-made”, i.e. super-rich people who supposedly built their fortunes on their own. One of the best-known names in this group is Luciano Hang, the “old Havan”, with a net worth of R$24.5 billion (US$ 4.7 billion), and one of the most inveterate Bolsonaro supporters, who spares no effort to expose himself to ridicule in order to flatter the “Myth” (an allusion to Bolsonaro).

But how did he grasp this wealth? Hang’s story is much more than that of a young entrepreneur who started a retail chain from scratch. The Pandora Papers scandal of 2021 revealed that the Havan old man kept a fortune in tax havens for at least 20 years, completely free of taxes that, if collected, would take more than 30% of his wealth. Hang opened a company in the Virgin Islands, under the name Abigail, from where he invests in debt securities of companies such as Vale, privatised in 1998, and Petrobras. All tax-free.

Now, if it is not exactly abnormal for a big businessman to evade taxes in tax havens, as Finance minister Paulo Guedes says, the same cannot be said of the beginning of Hang’s career. And so reports Abin itself, the intelligence agency linked to General Heleno’s Institutional Security Cabinet (GSI), that investigated Hang’s life when he approached Bolsonaro, in order to prevent possible scandals. And what they found ranged from smuggling, usury, tax evasion and a series of crimes worthy of an Al Capone from Brusque (the town where he was born).

Even Brazilian Eduardo Severin, co-founder of Facebook, can’t exactly be an example of everyone having equal opportunities. If he helped in the “brilliant” idea of the creation of the social network, he did it from the economics course at Harvard, one of the most exclusive and expensive universities on the planet.

Returning to the Havan old man, who stands as the ultimate exponent of meritocracy in capitalism, is the true example of how great fortunes, when they are not inherited, are accumulated through pure theft and simple exploitation.

In capitalism, the worker is already expropriated

In one meme, the proud boss shows the employee the brand new car he has just bought and says: “If you work hard, don’t miss a day, and give it your all, at the end of the year I’ll buy another one.” Nothing better to show how, under capitalism, most of the wealth produced by the working class goes to the bosses. Or rather, to a select group of super-rich and billionaires who, together, dominate most of the economy.

A survey carried out by the Latin American Institute for Socio-Economic Studies (Ilaese) shows that the 100 largest companies operating in the country control 61% of the economy. Of these, 72 companies that are publicly traded have a gross income equivalent to 53% of the GDP. Of this amount, 19% goes to 2.5 million workers (salaries, rights, etc.), while a small group of mega-shareholders pile up profits equivalent to 31%.

This is not just a question of an unequal or disproportionate distribution of wealth. The point here is that everything that exists is produced by the working class. From what is most apparent, i.e. their own wages, to profits that are appropriated by the companies. And even more, the tax collected to support the state, either directly (since the country has a brutally regressive tax system), or paid by the bourgeoisie itself (proportionally smaller in relation to its fortune, of course). Even the means of production, which Marx called “constant capital”, i.e. the factory, the equipment and everything else, are built by the workers. But the working class itself usufructs the smallest fraction of what is produced.

In other words, a Vale mine worker receives one of the lowest wages in the sector and faces degrading working conditions, while the company’s shareholders, who have never set foot in a mine, will share R$ 16 billion in dividends (the profit distributed among the shareholders). Among them, is Luciano Hang.

If we could represent the proportion of what is distributed among these 72 companies as a year’s work, the worker would produce his own salary in just two months and seven days. The rest of the year he works for free for the bosses, the bankers and the state.

Capitalism is a system that expropriates the working class of everything it produces, and concentrates this wealth in the hands of less than 0.1% of the population, the big capitalists who own the means of production, either directly or by shares (the “shared” ownership that guarantees them the right to appropriate part of the profit). This exploitation takes place in labour, in the proportionally higher taxation of the poorest, and in inflation. When you pay dearly for gas, the profit goes into the pockets of a few billionaires, among them, once again, the Havan old man. In other words, the big capitalist property is the means by which this expropriation takes place.

And this mechanism can only work because you have, on the one hand, a mass of workers who own only their labour power, which they are forced to sell in order to guarantee their subsistence through a wage, and on the other hand, a parasite class which appropriates the lion’s share of the wealth without lifting a finger. In other words, the great capitalist property only exists because the great majority of the population has nothing. As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto:

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”

That is why Marx even affirms that “by appropriating the property of others, capitalist private property is the first negation of individual private property“.

Do you see how this is contrary to the propaganda spread by the right wing, that the communists want to take away your house, your car, your motorbike? In truth, it was capitalism that almost extinguished individual property, and this was fundamental to the concentration of large property in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The one who threatens small property, from the corner bar to the little market in the neighbourhood, is the big capitalist.

Anyone who has been in downtown São Paulo in recent months has been confronted with the overwhelming proliferation of OXXO, a network of mini-markets that has been expanding in São Paulo city, transforming local groceries and traditional bakeries into standardised shops with ultra-processed products. OXXO is owned by the beverage giant Femsa Comercio (a Mexican group that owns the Coca-Cola trade in that country, managing several franchises around the world, and in Brazil also controls brands such as Kaiser beer and Dell Valle juices). The small trader does not stand a chance against this overwhelming tsunami.

The revolutionists, on the contrary, do not want to “take over” the small property, the bar, the bakery, the small market or the small agricultural production. On the contrary, their programme includes helping and assisting these sectors, whose way of life is increasingly closer and even equal to the great majority of the working class’s standard of living.

The expropriation and subjugation of the so-called petty bourgeoisie, the class of small traders and landlords, i.e. those who manage their production on a small scale, is a constant feature of capitalism. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, peasants were driven off their land and forced to become wage labourers, usually by brutal violence. Other categories were also stripped of their tools and conditions of labour to increase the industrial army.

Marx recounts this transformation in Capital (The Secret of Primitive Accumulation):

“The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers.”

The expropriation of the workers’ social means of subsistence and the subjugation of the dispossessed to capital through wage labour set the tone for capitalism. Work, formerly individual, family or communal, i.e. for oneself and one’s own needs, gave way to collective, alienated labour for the profit of the bourgeoisie. It was necessary to transform the small owner into a wage labourer at the disposal of capital.

This process generated a contradiction: collective labour made possible an unprecedented increase in productivity. Never has humanity been so capable of producing and transforming nature as under capitalism. On the other hand, the increasing exploitation and concentration of capital generate poverty, misery, inequality and all the major ills we know, including environmental ones. This is because while labour is collective, and production serves the market, the appropriation is strictly private. This is the second expropriation.

Technological development, contradictorily, further increases exploitation, when it could, and should, provide more employment and fewer working hours, and more wealth for society as a whole; but because of profit and capital accumulation, it generates the opposite: more unemployment, increased pace, intensity and working hours, and lower wages and incomes for workers. We see this in the gig economy, where working hours and conditions are equivalent to those of the 19th century.

Labour reform makes employment relations even more precarious and, in general, forces the worker to split into endless underemployment. Even in formal work, which comprises less than half of Brazil’s workforce, has one of the longest working hours in the world. According to the OECD, Brazil is the tenth country with the longest working week, at 39.5 hours per week, above the world average of 36.8 hours.

The countries at the top of this list, such as Colombia (47.7 weekly hours), Turkey (47) and Mexico (45.1) are not at the forefront of development and economic growth – quite the opposite. They are countries as unequal as Brazil. In capitalism, working more does not mean being a richer worker, but guaranteeing the bourgeois a brand new car, as the meme goes. More than that, it means enriching the imperialist multinationals that exploit labour in the peripheral countries and the international capital that controls a large part of the companies.

Expropriating big capitalist and imperialist property means, then, recovering the means of production, the factories, the enterprises, returning them to the hands of those who in fact built them, the workers; and also guaranteeing the sovereignty and development of the country. It means “expropriating the expropriators”, as Marx said.

And jobs, wouldn’t they vanish?

This is one of the main accusations when talking about expropriating companies and billionaires. And it is understandable, after all, we see every day big businessmen boasting about “giving” uncountable jobs as if it were a philanthropic action and not the subjugation of a worker who has no choice but to be exploited and “give” most of his time and of what he produces to the bourgeoisie.

More than that, it is the big capitalist property that maintains a permanent industrial reserve army, a huge mass of unemployed, or underemployed, whose function is to exert pressure on employed workers, forcing them to accept ever lower wages, fewer rights and thus more exploitation. Billionaires and big businesses do not create jobs, but, contradictory as it may seem, they are responsible for perpetuating, along with the capitalist state, mass unemployment.

The only way to put an end to unemployment, poverty, hunger and misery is to put an end to this mechanism whose pillar is the big capitalist property, responsible for the plunder of the working class and for keeping it in an ever more degrading situation as its profits increase. It is by guaranteeing the collective ownership of means of production and their management by the working class, who actually built and maintain them, managing how and where these enterprises will operate to meet the needs of the vast majority of the population.

The expropriation of the enterprises and their operation, oriented not towards profit but the people’s needs, would ensure the reduction of the working day, making possible the incorporation of millions of workers into the formal labour market, as well as higher wages. Therefore, the end of the billionaires means more wages, jobs and rights. That is why the PSTU wants to expropriate billionaires and big businesses.

“Do you want dictatorship?”

Another accusation appears frequently and, although more grounded in reality, is no less false. “You want everyone to become state officers, to dominate everyone, while a top echelon maintains all the privileges.” Unfortunately, this fallacy is supported by the Stalinist regimes which, despite having expropriated the bourgeoisie, like in Cuba, turned into brutal dictatorships where a small parasitic and authoritarian bureaucracy accumulated wealth and privileges, while imposing a series of deprivations on the working class.

And, therefore, just as the workers themselves must control the big enterprises, the means of production, it is also the working class, with the organised poor people, the indigenous people, the quilombolas and all the marginalised sectors in this capitalist society, that must control the state itself and govern through workers and people’s councils. That is why the PSTU defends a working-class socialist government, with workers’ democracy. A step forward is the unmasking of exploitation in capitalism, pointing out the role of the big companies and multinationals, defending a socialist and revolutionary alternative, advancing the self-organisation of the working class, its consciousness and the building of a revolutionary and socialist party.

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