At first sight, red traffic lights appear to have little to do with socioeconomic inequality. Looking at them more closely, however, may alter this picture. In 2020, Amazon requested a longer duration of the green traffic light cycle at a turn-off at one of its warehouses in Alabama. The argument to county officials was that traffic to and from the warehouse was congested at peak hours due to a too long red traffic light cycle at a turn-off. Union members, though, believed the real reason was another. The warehouse was a battleground for the unionisation of Amazon employees, with Amazon, and its major shareholder, the richest man in the world Jeff Bezos, strongly opposing unions. With union members using the time Amazon employees had to wait for the red traffic light to convince them to join the union, decreasing employees’ waiting time by shorting the cycle would evidently benefit Amazon.

Amazon without doubt objects this storyline, and maybe the grounds for its request were different, indeed. Yet not only is it suspect that it happened at a time of a heated battle over influence with unions, but it also fits wider patterns of how the rich ‘engage’ with societal concerns about inequality. Instead of openly debating concerns about inequality, they often aim to find ways to divert the attention, while virtually always refraining from mentioning their material self-interests – as Vladimir Putin’s denial that he is the owner of an immense, pompous property, as Alexei Navalny revealed in a documentary, equally illustrates.

Further fitting this pattern, is that the wealthy at the same time often convey an image that they are committed to society, such as through making huge charitable donations. In addition to influencing traffic cycles to avoid discussing fairer (re)distribution, Bezos’ pledged $100 million to food banks in the wake of COVID-19. There is nothing new to this, of course. Andrew Carnegie’s company was involved in a bloody clash with workers in 1892, the Homestead Strike, just a couple of years after he had published Gospel of Wealth, in which he argued that it was the duty of the wealthy to return their riches to the community.

It is seldom the case that wealthy elites publicly admit that they are purely egoistic or insensitive to society and the plight of others. Even in the case of ideologies that openly sustain degrees of inequality, references to commitments to the common good still appear essential. The praise of self-interest made famous by Adam Smith and seen in concepts such as Homo economicus and ‘trickle-down economics’ functions insofar as it presupposes self-interest eventually benefits society at large.

Even if socioeconomic inequality may be inherent to human society, this illustrates that the pursuit of equality endures. More than acknowledged, the wealthy have to respond to this pursuit, this to avoid jeopardising their advantages. They cannot sit back and hope everyone shares their convictions about the organisation of society, despite the dominant role that Thomas Piketty attributed in Capital and Ideology (2020) to ideologies that justify and/or obscure inequalities and wealth. Regardless of said ideologies, elites are often expected or pressured to respond to societal demands to provide support and healthcare to the poor, pay higher taxes, and so on. Or they need to draw attention away from their advantages and/or commitments to society, for example by influencing the cycles of traffic lights – with success, as the unions did not manage to convince enough employees to join them.

31 March 2023
Macht? Macht nix! (virtuelle Workshop-Reihe)