There’s No Such Thing As A Self-Made Billionaire

People like Kylie Jenner and Jeff Bezos aren't self-made billionaires; they're new royals, as out-of-touch as those bloodily deposed in the French revolution.

Kylie Jenner

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Earlier this week, Kylie Jenner became a billionaire.

At the age of 21, she is now the youngest person in history to hold such a distinction, beating Mark Zuckerberg by a whole two years. She is also, at least according to Forbes magazine, who published the news, a “self-made” billionaire. This is because, Forbes argues, she did not inherit her wealth, or her business.

This is debatable. Jenner might not have inherited a billion dollars, but she inherited something of considerable value — her family name.  Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered when Kylie was 9; she was born to an Olympic medallist; and her family, one way or the other, has been in the media spotlight before she was even conceived.

In business, there is nothing more valuable than a name brand. Kylie has had access to one of the most popular and respected name brands on the planet since pre-pubescence — a privileged afforded only to the children of Prime Ministers, royals, and the most famous of celebrities.

But, despite this clear head start, Kylie has long made a claim on a dubious rags-to-riches narrative. In an interview with Paper magazine, Kylie tackled criticisms of her “self-made” status head-on, arguing that she had to spend “every last dime” on her Cosmetics company.

“The self-made thing is true,” Kylie told the magazine. “My parents told me I needed to make my own money, it’s time to learn how to save and spend your own money, stuff like that. What I’m trying to say is I did have a platform, but none of my money is inherited.”

This is, of course, a distinctly reductive take on what it means to inherit money. Kylie might not have been given liquid cash by her parents, but from them, she gained access to a world that costs the rest of us significant amounts of time and money. Her family knows people, and people want to know her. Any room she walks into will work to fulfil her wishes, whether it be a boardroom, or a marketing agency, or a university classroom. She bypassed steps in a game that capitalism forces the rest of us to play for many years, and she bypassed these steps because her parents are wealthy.

But the problem goes beyond Jenner; beyond even the Kardashians, and the complicated and multi-faceted media companies devoted to propping the dynasty up. It’s not just the case that Kylie’s family and their wealth bars her from being a self-made billionaire; it’s that the term ‘self-made billionaire’ is itself a paradox.

There are no self-made billionaires. It is not possible to amass more wealth than one could ever feasibly spend in a lifetime on one’s own. Mark Zuckerberg, born to an unknown dentist and a psychiatrist, is not a self-made billionaire. Nor is Jeff Bezos, with his net worth of $90 billion, who grew up poor, his mother a teenager; nor is Bill Gates, nor is J.K. Rowling, nor is Elon Musk, nor is Uber’s Travis Kalanick.

These business leaders got to their position of considerable wealth and influence thanks to the underpaid and undervalued workers at factories and offices around the world. Their fortunes are built on the back of an expendable workforce of nameless drones who will never make a Forbes list, and who continue to live in conditions just above the poverty line.

At Bezos’ Amazon factories, workers allegedly avoid drinking water, leaving them dehydrated and sick — they cannot afford to drink because they cannot afford the time it takes to go to the bathroom. Musk, long a campaigner against unions, presides over a corporate structure that prioritises those who will work long hours for dismal pay over those demanding a fairer go. And Kalanick has carved out a fortune thanks to an entirely casual workforce that he does not have to grant health benefits or holiday pay.

These people are not ‘self-made’. They are lucky individuals, rewarded by a broken system of capitalism that ensures the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. At worst, they have actively sought to profit from a desperate workforce willing to take any employment that they can get. At best, they are willfully ignorant autocrats who devote a great deal of time and energy to ignoring what happens to the people in their employ.

To call them anything but what they are — new royals, as exploitative and out-of-touch and dangerous to democracy as those bloodily deposed in the French revolution — isn’t just wrong. It’s an active insult to the millions of workers around the globe who actually make their money for them.