Are Activist Billionaires the New Public Intellectuals of Today's Post-Hegemonic World?

10/17/2017 01:29 pm ET

There’s a lot to worry about these days – the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, the growing North Korean threat, ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe (not to mention certain presidential tweets in relation to these sensitive issues). We have also been collectively questioning our political leadership, our economy and even our identity for awhile now. This is a major turning point in our existence as we deal with a rather distinct global crisis of legitimacy in today’s post-hegemonic world. Who will lead us through?

First, try not to panic. Second, recognize that today's global crisis is in fact an opportunity to reshape our future thanks in part to new political influencers. The rise of the more informed, reactionary, tech-savvy citizen in recent years cannot be denied – at times the activist citizen has challenged government policy (e.g. austerity in EU, judicial reforms in Poland) and even, for better or worse, brought down entire regimes (e.g. South Korea, Brazil, parts of MENA). But we are also witnessing the rise of a new political influencer who has become more public in challenging policy and, again for better or worse, is also trying to shape it directly – the activist billionaire. Perhaps activist billionaires are the new public intellectuals of today’s post-hegemonic world?

Let’s investigate:

What is a public intellectual?

Historically, the public intellectual was male and a philosopher or some kind of academic. He was known for sharing his critical thinking about society and would offer his solutions for policy problems – especially at times when we were notably divided (eg Vietnam war). Today, we don’t see too many fitting that mould (except maybe Noam Chomsky, Ian Bremmer and Fareed Zakaria); instead we have thought leaders who have a specific view of the world that may be tied to their business or book. We also have many critics suggesting, in the era of the Internet, there are no real experts anymore (their failure to predict Brexit and the US election results didn’t help). Should we believe these critics or the experts? Either way, we have fewer role models or effective political leaders. But this has seemingly created an opportunity for new voices to guide us – including that of the activist billionaire.

What policy issues are activist billionaires speaking out about?

Today’s activist billionaire is spotting trends and sharing his views publicly more than ever. Many of these billionaires are techies and are seeing it as their responsibility to remind us of the negative impact technology will have on society, including more unemployment. For instance, as Alibaba’s Jack Ma put it, "In the coming 30 years, the world's pain will be much more than happiness”. This has sparked a recurring policy debate among activist billionaires about how universal basic income (UBI) might help us cope with tech-related unemployment in the coming years. Slack’s Stewart Butterfield suggests “giving people even a very small safety net would unlock a huge amount of entrepreneurialism.” Virgin’s Richard Branson takes the policy suggestion one step further – AI will wipe out jobs but will create extreme wealth that can be reinvested in part in UBI. Activists billionaires (and other CEOs) have also spoken out about climate change, specifically US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accords. Twitter and Square’s Jack Dorsey tweeted how it was “an incredibly shortsighted and backwards move.” Dorsey also tweeted against President Trump’s ban on the transgender military ban, saying “Discrimination in any form is wrong for all of us”, as did many others.

But how are activist billionaires shaping policy?

They are putting their money where their mouth is. Yes, we’ve seen this for awhile – think of investor George Soros and his democracy-focused Open Society Foundation or Bill Gates’ inequity-focused foundation (and yes, they both have their critics). But in the last year, we have witnessed a new wave of billionaires becoming more aggressively activist in influencing policy. Think of UBI – Y Combinator’s Sam Altman decided to take the ongoing debate between activist billionaires to the next level with a pilot project to see what might work. According to his team’s blog, their next experiment is to see if people’s motivation to work and quality of life improves with UBI. In climate change, Michael Bloomberg pledged $15 million of his own money to the UN and has also facilitated “a new coalition of cities, businesses and universities” to take a lead role in fighting this global challenge. Other billionaires, led by Gates, have put their funds into a $1 billion venture fund for clean energy tech to fight climate change. And more recently, Tesla’s Elon Musk offered to rebuild Puerto Rico with his solar power battery packs, after Hurricane Maria (and President Trump’s tweets that aid cannot continue “forever”).

So, move over a little, Bremmer, Chomsky and Zakaria – a new category of public intellectual has emerged – the activist (largely tech) billionaire who not only shares his views on major issues with the masses, but is also aggressively trying to shape policy. He is filling a void perhaps as politicians muddle through to combat major problems amid a global legitimacy crisis. It’s not easy. But we must consider this – where are the female public intellectuals to help make sense of how things are changing? Where are the social scientists? There is definitely room for more voices as we navigate today’s post-hegemonic world.

And what about you, Reader, what role will you play?

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