Eat The Rich: The CEO SleepOut Is Capitalism’s Absurdity Laid Bare

The CEO SleepOut is a perfect advertisement for late capitalism in all its crass glory: having bled the sun, the moon, and the earth dry for resources, having sat atop a global pyramid of upward wealth extraction, the One Percent now deigns to offer the crumbs of that exploitation back to the poor. But even that supposed act of charity is laced with narcissism and a desire for possession: until it was taken down, there was a real offer for a rich person to spend the night in Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island for $250,000. The end is nigh. Surely it is.

There are many interpretations of what late capitalism is (and do read the economist Ernest Mandel if the technicalities interest you) – the increasing industrialisation and commodification of ever-more inclusive sectors of human life is one telling symptom. How the gig economy means that no part of human life is exclusively yours anymore, it all belongs to capitalist production, with all the attendant absurdities and affronts to human dignity. The disappearance of all public spaces. And the commodification of a very painful history in South Africa, in the form of the CEO SleepOut on Robben Island.

For an opening bid of R3.5 million, one very rich person could spend the night in Mandela’s cell. The news caused an immediate furore, something this organisation, that essentially turns poverty into a zoo that the wealthy can piously enjoy for a night, is very used to by now.

It turns out that apparently the curators and keepers at Robben Island were not told about this. A spokesperson for the museum Morongoa Ramaboa said to TimesLive that the auctioning the cell was out of the question.

“It was a shock. We would like to commend South Africans for calling them out,” she reportedly said.

“It’s completely impossible. You can’t auction any cell for that matter. We are a World Heritage Site and accountable to Unesco [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] and it is the heritage of South Africans. Why would we do that to ourselves?”

She added: “Our heritage is not some piece of carrot that can be dangled to people who have their own financial interests in mind.”

Why on earth was she not consulted before the auction was announced? And how were the organisers so blind to the absurdity and the offence of auctioning off a site and memory of such historical importance? Did they subliminally know?

Many are offended by the effrontery of the idea in the first place: rich people cosplaying poverty instead of just quietly donating to charity like a normal person would. Many more will be offended by the murky financial model of the CEO SleepOut, which it turns out is not a charitable organisation, but a for-profit initiative. Last year, Moneyweb’s Ryk van Niekerk attempted to peer behind the curtain. What he found was unsettling, to say the least.

While the idea is terrible on many different levels, the idea that some members of society get to be this gratuitously wealthy in the face of systemic poverty all around us is something that is less remarked upon, but this is the true source of the problem. Wealth in South Africa, and globally, is concentrated amongst a tiny fraction of the very wealthiest. The economic system these people sit atop of extracts wealth upwardly, mostly through wage theft and tax chicanery.

The drivers of all of this are the captains of industry, these venerated chief executives. The howling wolves of late capitalism.  

CEO Sleepout: making a difference or poverty porn?

South Africa has one of the most glaring examples of wage theft in the world: according to Bloomberg’s Global CEO Pay Index, the pay-to-average-income ratio in 2016 was 541. Its result showed that CEOs in South Africa earn around $7.14m (R97.5m) per year, compared to the $13 194 (R180 243) the average South African earns in the same period, Fin24 reported.

Keep in mind that most South Africans live well below the average yearly income, and that poverty and inequality are racialised thanks to our history of colonialism and apartheid.

This is how we find ourselves in this situation, where the desperation and misery of millions is turned into a spectacle for the very people controlling the system that engenders that misery in the first place.

CEO SleepOut 2017: poverty porn with an empathetic face

When critiquing these things, let’s ask ourselves how so few people control our economic destinies like this. Ask why it is just and fair that wealth should be so unevenly distributed in our society that one person can decide to play around with the equivalent of 18 peoples’ annual salaries at the site of Mandela’s imprisonment. Consider if that sounds like an efficient distribution of resources. Consider if this is moral at all.

The good thing, if such a thing can be said of this grotesque nonsense, is that the wealthy have apparently lost all pretense. They’re laughing while the rest of us slowly suffocate to death under the contradictions and cruelties of the capitalist system. More and more people are less willing to put up with it. The end is nigh. Please tell me it is nigh…  

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.