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Opinion – idolising billionaire bosses is a risk to worker rights

A new, lengthy article by Rolling Stone has outlined Kanye’s culture of bullying, pornography, and emotional abuse at Adidas. Alongside Elon Musk’s chaotic Twitter takeover, it’s time we stopped idealising billionaire bosses and prioritised worker rights.

Kanye West is back in the news again this week after Rolling Stone published an exclusive article outlining years of emotional bullying and extreme, sexually charged meetings at Yeezy.

It follows on from an autumn of rampant antisemitism and hate speech from West. He lost his Adidas deal, long-term management contract, and many close friendships as a result, dismantling his legacy and doubling down on unacceptable, hateful rhetoric.

West’s abusive behaviour, obsessive capitalist ambitions, and unempathetic approach demonstrate a fundamental flaw with our pedestalling of billionaire CEOs, a reality that has also been exemplified in recent weeks with Elon Musk’s appointment at Twitter.

A $44 billion USD purchase placed him firmly at the steering wheel of a fifteen-year-old business, and his presence was felt immediately.

Hundreds of employees walked out in protest of a new ‘extreme’ regime, servers have been at risk of shutting down, working from home is no longer acceptable, and remaining personnel are expected to relocate and adjust to a sudden shift in conduct.

Elon’s introduction of ‘Twitter Blue’ – a subscription service that gives users a blue tick equal to a verification badge – was immediately backpedalled after rampant misinformation and misleading brand tweets exploded in popularity. Elon is sticking to his guns, meanwhile, proudly announcing that Twitter’s engagement has ‘never been higher’ and re-activating Trump’s account.

All of this carnage is the result of an unsympathetic billionaire, a man who puts profitability and growth above all else, even if it means annihilating an entire work force’s well-established ethos in a matter of weeks.

The narratives surrounding both West and Musk show just how damaging reckless rich bosses can be. By championing creative genius and prioritising commercial gain, we run the risk of damaging fundamental human rights.

Profit and ever-widening margins are used as a justification to mask bullying and destructive practices, and as long as shareholders are receiving a return on investment, we will continue to dismiss very real concerns of everyday workers. In an era where expansion and limitless growth is damaging our planet beyond repair, this extreme ‘hustle’ ideology is outdated and archaic.

What are the patterns of behaviour with Musk and West?

It might seem somewhat contrived to pair Musk and West together, particularly as they operate in such different spheres. The similarities are vast, however.

Both men represent the peak of capitalist success, amassing a huge amount of personal and capital wealth in the pursuit of greatness. Their ambitions were never inherently evil – at least initially – and both have broken barriers down within their respective fields.

West has been a huge cultural influence in music, diversifying hip-hop considerably and expanding the potential of creatives within fashion. Musk too has advanced the development of electric cars with Tesla, brought substantial public interest back into space travel with SpaceX, and shown that it is possible to further push the boundaries of humanity beyond our own planet. These are huge achievements.

Equally, both men have demonstrated a notable lack of empathy, understanding, and compassion for their fellow man. As they’ve risen the ranks into social elitism, Musk and West have pushed their ideas and work at the expense of nearly everything else, including the mental and physical health of the labourers who’ve made their accomplishments possible.

According to the Rolling Stone article, West has frequently related sex and pornography to creativity, subjecting his employees to adult films of actresses and himself, on occasion. He’s cited as being ‘aggressive’, ‘intimidating’, and ‘erratic’. Adidas staff members anonymously wrote an open letter accusing the company of enabling West’s behaviour and pandering to profit, as Yeezy brought in $2 billion USD annually before the public split last month.

This comes after a string of headlines accusing West of praising Hitler and citing Naziism as inspiration as far back as 2018. He has consistently blamed Jewish people for his mental health breakdowns and refuses to back down, instead aligning himself with extreme right-wing political commentators.

His leadership style is described as ‘unprofessional’ and ‘emotional’, with screaming fits and ‘mind games’.

By comparison, Musk has run amok at Twitter, supposedly gathering human-resource executives in a ‘war room’ and immediately announcing ‘widespread layoffs’ that would eventually slash the company work force in half. According to The New York Times, those fired would not receive a bonus too, a plan that potentially violated contracts and company laws. Musk did not care, and was prepared to go to court.

Top executives were fired by email, and an engineering manager was instructed to remove hundreds of employees. Widespread resignations ensued and misinformation remained rampant during the US mid-elections. Musk brought in advisers from his other ventures, such as Tesla and PayPal, and the entire dynamic of the company was sent into freefall.

The fate of Twitter, both financially and internally, remains uncertain.

While West and Musk may be operating in separate worlds, their approach runs parallel in key areas. Motivation is driven by narcissistic growth, public attention, and uncompromising capitalism, with little regard for the livelihoods and health of those at the mercy of unpredictable egotism.

How should we approach billionaire CEOs moving forward?

Hunger for extreme hustle culture, masculine dominance within the work place, and incessant expansion by any means necessary are rapidly becoming outdated ideals, particularly for Gen Zers looking to enter the work force.

Yes, independent pursuits and side jobs may be more popular than ever, but they are done so out of necessity amidst a cost of living crisis.

With each passing year, we are constantly reminded that the world needs to stop expanding, that we must put the brakes on consumerism, and ultimately reduce our rate of goods production if we’re to survive past this century and keep global temperatures below 2C.

As movements like #MeToo have gained traction, outward aggression and workplace intimidation are becoming less acceptable too, and public outcry grows stronger with every new scandal that comes to light.

In many ways, this trend of billionaire CEOs amassing wealth and disrupting the lives of thousands of workers is abhorrent and unacceptable. It is making less and less sense to idolise entrepreneurial ‘geniuses’ that have made their way to the top of the ladder when the world is talking more about mental health, global emissions, and sexual harassment.

Instead, we should be asking whether it is moral at all to give individuals so much wealth and influence. Can we really condone a system in which one man with bundles of cash can lay off thousands of people at whim and completely restructure a platform that is relied on by politicians, brands, and the public across the whole world? At what point does it become absurdist anarchy?

By excusing these behaviours under the guise of ‘brilliance’, we do a disservice to the thousands of labourers, tech experts, designers, and many more who dedicate their lives to the visions set out by West and Musk types. They may have achieved great things throughout their careers, but neither person would ever have gotten to billionaire status without the efforts of many other, less notable people.

It’s these individuals we should applaud and defend, not the billionaire sociopaths at the top of the pyramid.