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Death of a billionaire

Why they praise Steve Jobs

Published Oct 12, 2011 4:45 PM

When you’re worth $8.3 billion, it’s only natural that you get endless, gushing tributes in every capitalist media outlet when you die. There is no higher accomplishment in this society than amassing riches. Naturally, then, when a very rich person dies, he’s lavished with over-the-top obits.

Here’s the thing, though. I find it a telling reflection of the dead rich guy’s media savvy, and of the overwhelming, ubiquitous grip of bourgeois consciousness, that ordinary people are also getting sucked along into the lachrymosity. Bouquets of flowers laid in tribute at Apple stores all over the globe. Heartfelt tributes posted on media websites and blogs, mournful tweets flowing through cyberspace and so on. And why? What did Steve Jobs contribute to society that so many people should be convinced that his death is a loss to all of us?

Maybe the extreme few who can afford his company’s products feel that his keen marketing sense and his sharp taste in mechanical design improved their lives. Others — many others upon whose relationship to computer and communications technology the Mac and Apple products have had an impact, and that’s most of us by now, regardless of which company’s hardware and software we use — might likewise believe we owe him a debt of gratitude.

All such ideas are mistaken. All are expressions of that bour­geois consciousness from which it is so hard to break free.

Steve Jobs was no more a hero than was Henry Ford, another industrialist who became rich off the labor of others and is nevertheless to this day presented, to schoolchildren and aspiring entrepreneurs alike, as one of the Great Men of U.S. history. Ford was Great at exploiting workers. So was Jobs. That is axiomatic: You do not become a billionaire any other way. He made his profits off the stolen value created by the people who manufactured his products. Most of them, at this point, are unbelievably low-paid and super-exploited workers laboring in overseas factories for dozens of other companies that are subcontracted to create the various component parts that go into making an iPhone or a Mac, an iPod or iPad.

Where ‘Great Ideas’ really arise

There’s more to the story than this, though, more than Jobs’ extraordinary facility for reaping profits off the labor of other people. Not only were his billions stolen money. His Great Ideas were, at worst, stolen; check out how he “invented” the mouse. But even when not directly ripped off from the actual innovators, anything and everything he came up with was not the result of some private individual aha moment, but rather arose from collaboration with many other people.

The New York Times obituary more or less says this when it points out that his skill wasn’t technical or scientific or even mechanical or decorative. Rather, he was good at recognizing other people’s good ideas, and by recognizing is meant understanding what would make money and then using others to do the work necessary to get the profits rolling. So, O.K., give him credit for what he deserves to be remembered for: Steve Jobs was a brilliant marketer, smartest of all at self-promotion, as today’s outpouring attests.

What he did not do was invent anything, or even come up with a new idea. Rather, he built upon others’ inventions and facilitated others’ ideas. Then others — tens of thousands of others — created the products to which those inventions and ideas led. And others, millions, bought the products, from the sales of which Jobs became a billionaire, while the actual creators, the workers who made the products, got just enough to stay alive another day.

Even if it could be shown that Jobs did actually do something — design a particularly elegant piece of circuitry, say — the fact remains that he did not do it himself. Some of capitalism’s greatest lies are promulgated regarding science and technology, where we are told that the Great Man and the Lightbulb Over the Head are responsible for every advance. It just ain’t so. Here’s a succinct rejoinder from Clifford D. Conner, author of “A People’s History of Science.”

“We all know the history of science that we learned from grade school textbooks: How Galileo used his telescope to show that the earth was not the center of the universe; how Newton divined gravity from the falling apple; how Einstein unlocked the mysteries of time and space with a simple equation. This history is made up of long periods of ignorance and confusion, punctuated once an age by a brilliant thinker who puts it all together. These few tower over the ordinary mass of people, and in the traditional account, it is to them that we owe science in its entirety.

“This belief is wrong. ‘A People’s History of Science’ shows how ordinary people participate in creating science and have done so throughout history. It documents how the development of science has affected ordinary people, and how ordinary people perceived that development. It would be wrong to claim that the formulation of quantum theory or the structure of DNA can be credited directly to artisans or peasants, but if modern science is likened to a skyscraper, then those twentieth-century triumphs are the sophisticated filigrees at its pinnacle that are supported by the massive foundation created by the rest of us.”