Geekwire claims that Jeff Bezos’s current net worth, which passed $105 billion on Monday, makes him, the CEO of Amazon (the tech corporation that is for this decade what Apple was for the previous one, and Microsoft was for the one before that), the "richest person in history." Nothing at all is said about how this claim was determined. But we are informed at end of the piece that Bill Gates's worth at the "peak of the 'dot-com bubble,'" $100 billion, would, if adjusted to inflation, be $148 billion today. So, Bezos may not be the richest person to ever exist. It still could be the other billionaire whose corporation (or the corporation he founded) is on the other side of Lake Washington.
But what the "adjustment to inflation" already reveals is that the notion of wealth and its scale is historically specific. What was Alexander the Great's worth? And what about the wealth of persons who are deep in China's history? What was the worth of Shaka Zulu?
Shaka, who dominated Southern Africa in the early 19th century, did not have a dime to his name. But he had an enormous amount of social power; and those who believe that money is anything but a form or measure of social power are under a spell (cast by money) that makes them see the metaphysics of money in money itself and not human sociality. One thing for sure: we can't adjust the wealth of most persons in the past according to inflation because, as the most celebrated economist of our times, Thomas Piketty, made clear in his spell-breaking (it broke the spell of neoclassical economics) book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there really was no inflation until the 20th century.
Money at the beginning of the 19th century in, say, England or France, pretty much had the same worth at its end. Inflation is a new thing. It took off after the First World War. But we think it has always been there because we also believe that capitalism as it is today has always been there. And the statement that Jeff Bezos is the "richest person in history" is also based on the belief that the economic system that organizes our lives and means of existence in this and the previous century is continuous with other modes of production. This, of course, gives the current system its justification. It's also why the Iron Lady once said with great confidence, "there is no alternative."
If we can compare the wealth of Bezos with that of all others in human history, it means we find nothing strange or radical about the way our society is organized. This perspective naturalizes or normalizes the otherwise very strange fact that wages (payment for work) determine whether we have a place to live or not, or if we eat or not, or if we enjoy or not enjoy other aspects/gifts of a human sociality that evolved over millions of years. But even 400 years ago, someone might have found our present situation as strange as seeing monkeys on Mars. They would have also been amazed to learn that wealth in the future (non-existent) has become more valuable than wealth in its present form (existent). Angels flying through the clouds would have been much more believable to them than the pieces of paper that makes Bezos purportedly richer than all who have entered, are in, and exited this pale blue dot.
Jeff Bezos has made an extra $6.6 billion so far this year (yes, it's the 9th day of the year). The city of Seattle's entire budget for the year is $5.6 billionhttps://t.co/7WZ8soIsQqhttps://t.co/uVvXSxh28M
— Mike Rosenberg (@ByRosenberg) January 9, 2018