Bill Gates had his first extended moment in history at the end of the 20th century. He regularly appeared as the richest, but also the nerdiest, man on earth. His rarely eclipsed top ranking lasted for at least two decades. Perhaps bored by the idea of holding wealth, he eventually decided to leave the management of Microsoft — the source of his ever-growing fortune — to others as he carved out for himself a different place in history, a far nobler one.
This new role, nevertheless, depended on him being one of the richest men on earth. He now wanted to be seen as the most virtuous wealthy man on earth, the one who only thought about what his money and wisdom might produce for other people. After shamefully neglecting philanthropy for the first 20 years of his professional rise to the top, Gates suddenly embraced it. You could say he took possession of it, just as, when he was still CEO of Microsoft, he would sometimes take possession of companies with competing products to drive them out of the market.
Thinking about what he could do for others and giving them the means to meet their needs or achieve their ambitions clearly wasn’t enough. Gates would not be a passive philanthropist. His contribution would consist of telling people what they must do and how they must do it. Although to some, such as Anand Girardharadas or the Daily Devil’s Dictionary itself, it has been evident for some time, acute observers are just beginning to understand the extent of the damage produced by Gates’ commitment to spending billions of dollars for our collective health, education and welfare.
Bill Gates and the Zero-Sum Vaccination Game
In yesterday’s column, we cited Alexander Zaitchik’s detective work in his New Republic article with the title “How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines.” Gates would probably argue that without the prospect of earning untold billions in the future thanks to their control of intellectual property rights, the incentive consisting of being paid generously to develop a global solution in the interest of humankind would simply fail to motivate the pharmaceutical giants who control the marketplace of critical drugs and vaccines.
Gates tried his hand at education and failed miserably. His role in defining the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 vaccine program produced a fiasco that could have been avoided. Gates is now focusing on agriculture, becoming, as a member of the Sioux nation, Nick Estes, reports in The Guardian, the “largest private owner of farmland in the US.” Gates is now particularly active in India’s agriculture, which is currently undergoing a major crisis.
In all these cases, Gates steps in with cash and convinces others, especially public authorities, to support his projects with government funding that will be used to fulfil his, rather than the public’s, agenda. He runs his experiments, always designed as top-down management ventures. He then watches them fail and walks away, presumably a wiser man. Worse, the public only remembers that he put up the cash, not that he played Dr. Frankenstein or the sorcerer’s apprentice. The devastation he creates remains. In the best cases, the damage is local. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, it has been global.
Dr. Joseph Mercola on The Defender, a website dedicated to “Children’s health defense,” interviewed the Indian scientist and ecological warrior, Vandana Shiva (a Fair Observer contributor) concerning Gates’ foray into Indian agriculture. In his summary of Shiva’s points, Mercola cites this one: “Through his company, Gates Ag One, Gates is pushing for one type of agriculture for the whole world, organized top, down. This includes digital farming, in which farmers are surveilled and mined for their agricultural data, which is then repackaged and sold back to them.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The transformation of an essential human activity aimed at feeding humans into a profitable activity aimed primarily at feeding the bank accounts of shareholders in agribusiness monopolies.
Shiva and Mercola advocate for an intelligent, ecologically sound return to the human culture of farming. This implies more than following the mechanical rules of industrial processes. Like all cultures, it is a bottom-up creation that grows from human experience. It includes not only the respect for natural techniques and processes but also the maintenance and development of traditional relationships that imply human rather than purely technological control of farming.
Without denying science — Shiva has a PhD in quantum physics — she understands the very real cost of dehumanizing agriculture. India’s Green Revolution permitted a rational leap forward after the disorder of colonial rule, but it also set the stage for a disastrous transformation of the environment, which, if pursued, will transform India’s breadbasket into a desert.
Should we listen to Shiva rather than Gates on the relationship between science and farming? After all, she is the scientist; Gates is an industrial promoter. Shiva justifiably exclaims: “My god, what kind of stage has the world reached that absolute nonsense can pass the science?” Historians may end up calling that stage in our economic and cultural history the “financialization of everything.”
Shiva seeks to counter the crushing weight of corporate power and monetary might in a hyper-industrialized, artificially intelligent economy that reduces human activity to the management of mechanized assets. The corporate powerhouses and sainted post-industrial gurus like Bill Gates definitely have data on their side. They live and breathe data. Data is literally their wealth and the only thing they seriously believe in. To prove that their policies are right, whether while manipulating the media or giving a TED Talk, it is data that they cite, not human accomplishment.
Their monetary wealth now focuses on monopolizing data and codifying it as intellectual property, which in turn inevitably extends their existing wealth. Data is, after all, an asset with low overheads and infinite capacity for duplication. That is the unique, nasty secret to the historical success of Microsoft. Bill Gates and the corporate world of which he has become the emblem represent the concentrated wealth with the power to influence governments and dictate policy.
Mercola compares Gates to John D. Rockefeller. Though he doesn’t mention their names, he remembers the maestros who founded the art of public relations: Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Those two men were called in to successfully transform Rockefeller’s public image from a grasping, evil robber baron to that of a munificent benefactor of humanity. Lee and Bernays did more than save Rockefeller’s tattered reputation. They inserted the meaning that was missing from the myth of capitalist acquisitiveness. Capitalism is not just about producing goods that become available to the mass of consumers. Thanks to philanthropy, it’s also a system designed to encourage a new type of virtuous behavior.
Rockefeller’s, JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie’s capitalism developed unhindered through the late 19th century until a few political actors — two of them named Roosevelt — looked for largely imperfect but nevertheless reasonably effective ways of reining them in. That was a period in which manufacturing sat at the core of the economy, set the tone for the management of prosperity and produced the wealth that spread through the growing consumer economy.
At that point in capitalist culture, through most of the 20th century, what counted tended to be tangibly material. In recent decades, financial games have overtaken all other forms of economic thinking. Bankers, industrialists and politicians depend on it for its so-called “productivity” — producing profits out of thin air. There may still be a tenuous link with the real economy since financialization seeks to establish and control monopolistic production and distribution. But the logic behind the production no longer has anything to do with human needs and even less with human culture.
Bill Gates is not alone, but more than any other public figure he has successfully positioned himself as the man who knows what everyone else needs and has the money to write the rules of the game on a global scale. Does this make him the new Satan? In one sense, Gates is simply the product of his times. Better than the visionary inventors — Steve Jobs or Elon Musk — Gates has always known how to appeal to the idea of pragmatic seriousness. MS-DOS, not Macintosh, conquered the world of business in the 1980s. But it has become increasingly obvious that thanks to his money, the world has become a poorer place.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.