Three episodes into the fifth season of Billions, the Showtime drama centered on a brash tech billionaire (Damian Lewis) and a hard-charging prosecutor (Paul Giamatti), Lewis’s character shows up at his son’s elite boarding school. He’s furious. The school is punishing his son for taking down a wide swath of the electric grid with a Bitcoin mining stunt, and Lewis can’t believe the headmaster’s temerity. He browbeats the bow-tied leader into dropping the punishment — blackmailing the man over a Syrian refugee program he secretly green-lit — and forces the headmaster to allow him to address the entire student body.
Lewis, clad in billionaire-cool-guy attire (jeans, black Nikes, zip-up sweatshirt), speaks from the stage of the school’s auditorium:
Your headmaster was kind enough to cede me the mic for this morning’s lesson, and I’m here to give you a little bit about what the school has been holding back from you: the goddamn truth — about Darwin, scarcity, and the world you actually live in. It’s not the warm, swaddled place your headmaster and your parents have told you about. It’s populated by people like me, who will tear you apart.
Nature didn’t select me — I selected myself, by harnessing my nature. My son wasn’t pulling a prank. He was trying to earn. And if he broke the school’s code, it’s because the code is wrong, asked him to go against the DNA which is telling each of you to be greedy, yes, be hungry — subjugate and conquer. Because that’s who we are. That’s what we are.
Capitalism harnesses that better than any other economic model on earth. Everything we have is because of capitalism, cause someone had an incentive to get up off his ass, to out-invent, to out-earn, yes, and to subjugate others — less capable, less intelligent, less ambitious, less lucky. To make those capitalistic dreams come true.
Lewis is an extremely unlikable figure in the show, a modern-day robber baron more apt to humiliate a subordinate than display a nonpsychotic attribute. But as the speech suggests, his character gives us the advantage of clarity, since he personifies capitalism in its most unvarnished form.
Capitalism posits a trade-off for workers: relinquish your liberties on the job, forget about having meaningful control over the political process, and we’ll deliver you a bounty. Hierarchy might be your lot, but you’ll have a nicer TV and cheaper food to show for it. The innovators, the business titans, will make their unfettered impression upon the world, bestride the planet seeking “to out-invent, to out-earn, yes, and to subjugate others,” and the rest of us will be materially better-off.
Let’s say we accept capitalism’s defenders’ claims, acknowledge that, for the first time in human history, capitalism created mass economic growth and pulled countless people out of poverty. The socialist’s wager is that we have nonetheless reached a point in human development where we can rid ourselves of capitalism’s relations of hierarchy and domination without inviting immiseration. Rather than anointing private property king, we can put a different principle at the heart of human relations: the idea that collective endeavors shouldn’t be set up so others are at the beck and call of a single person, or a dominant class.
Lewis’s character is right. The world is not a warm, swaddled place. It is populated by people that, to a greater or lesser degree, will lord their power over others. That’s all the more reason to make sure they don’t have the chance.