Climbing to 1011: globalization, digitization,shareholder capitalism and the summits of contemporary wealth

David A. Westbrook, University at Buffalo School of Law


While we may find many sorts of inequality in the United States and elsewhere, this essay is about the specific form of inequality exemplified by Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, that is, the Himalayan summits of contemporary wealth, mostly in the United States. Such wealth results from the confluence of three historical developments.

First, the social processes referred to under the rubric of “globalization” have created vast markets. A dominant position in such markets leads not only to great wealth, but the elimination of peers. Since there are few such markets, relatively significant wealth is possessed by very few people.

Second, digital markets powerfully tend toward monopoly for a number of reasons discussed below. Those fortunate enough to be the monopolists profit accordingly, both directly, by doing business, but especially by investor interest.

Third, the actors in such digital markets are generally corporations, which are in turn largely owned by their founders. As a result, a few individuals have acquired almost unbounded wealth, at least as wealth is conventionally measured, nominal US dollars.

Conversely, entire economic sectors (like “food” or “data”) are nominally under the dominance of such individuals. Political economy has been individualized, at least formally, to an astounding extent. A thorough normative political discussion of this state of affairs is beyond the bounds of this text.