From Mr. Beast to Kylie Jenner to Rihanna, the smartest celebrities and influencers don’t make their wealth from celebrity or influence. That’s a mug’s game. They get wealthy by using their influence to sell their own products. They seize the means of production, which is where the money is in capitalism. Doing anything else — no matter how well — makes you just another product.
The core ‘secret’ of capitalism is in the name. Capital. Broadly ‘things that make things’, but more specifically, “those durable produced goods that are in turn used as productive inputs for further production of goods and services.” Capitalism is really a machine world, not a human world, and labor is just another energy input. Having valuable labor is like having a barrel of oil. Nice, but a finite resource.
As car YouTuber Doug DeMurro said about starting his own car-trading website:
No matter how hot you think you are right now, the audience will get tired of you. You will wish that you had done this. And I don’t think that you want to be sitting there in five years, when your videos are getting a quarter of the views they are, saying ‘damn, I wish I had tried something.’ This is the conversation I’m having with all my friends who are on YouTube now. I’m telling them, you need to get, to take your audience and do something like what I did, and monetize them. Take them somewhere that you can control.
This is something he did with Cars & Bids, what Mr. Beast did with chocolates, what Kylie and Rihanna did with makeup/fashion, what 50 Cent did with vitamin water, what many celebrities do with vodka and tequila. Ultimately a celebrity or influencer is just an advertiser, which is not the business end of business. It’s an expense, which is the first thing that gets cut. Any worker — no matter how famous — is still a worker at the end of the day, not a bona fide capitalist.
In Das Kapital, Marx describes a dance of commodities and money, and where to cut in (if you’re reading him cynically). In the dance of artificial beings, humans merely ‘stand-in’ for them, where they can collect the energy effluents (the ‘congealed blood’ of labor, really). As he describes a capitalist:
“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labour. Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
A celebrity or an influencer — no matter how cash rich — is still ultimately a human being, and what you really want to be is a vampire. They contribute living labor to someone else’s ‘dead’ platform — their social network, their video distribution, their magazine, whatever. Those platforms are capital used by other capitalists to sell real products, which is where the real money is. That is, even selling your own subscriptions is a weak business model compared to what Mel Brooks (in Spaceballs) called ‘merchandising’.
Marx is actually a good person to read if you want to be a filthy capitalist, you can just ignore the moral parts and take the analysis. His description of how capitalism works is more clear eyed than frankly delusional economics textbooks. He describes capitalism as a circuit, a circulation system, with money, commodities, and people constantly changing places with each other. As he writes:
“When one commodity replaces another, the money commodity always sticks to the hands of some third person. Circulation sweats money from every pore.”
What a capitalist wants to do is insert himself in this circulation process at the heart, not the face. Hence marketers, if they want to prosper, must make their own markets. As Marx continued:
“As the conscious bearer [Träger] of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts, and to which it returns. The objective content of the circulation we have been discussing — the valorization of value — is his subjective purpose, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist, i.e. as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.”
What Marx calls the ‘valorization’ of capital is the process of capturing other people’s surplus labor — the person making the chocolate or makeup, or even the person taking photos and cleaning up their car for a listing. This is effectively the ‘waste heat’ of the capitalist machine, which is where all the money is. This is the heat that influencers are so good at generating, but not necessarily capturing. As long as they’re in someone else’s machine, they’re warming someone else’s hearth. To be true capitalists, they have to control the engine themselves. They have to seize the means of production.
Intellectual property is one sort of exception to this, whereby the intangible right to copy is something that becomes capital, which your heirs can even inherit. But modern influencers often don’t own their own intellectual capital, or what they own is ephemeral and barely worth owning. Most movie stars don’t own their movies and many musicians don’t even own their masters. That’s why big stars like Matt Damon and Brad Pitt get into producing movies, and why musicians like Lil Wayne sign other artists like Drake under them. Because exploiting other people’s labor is where the real money is, not laboring. Instagram photos and YouTube videos are farts in the wind, compared to old media, and their intellectual property is effectively worthless without the means of distribution.
Influencers subject to the extreme and rapid vagaries of platforms like YouTube or Instagram are really getting a crash course in Marx’s Capital. They are in the middle of a hyper-rapid circulation of money, commodities, and labor, thought they probably don’t have much time to observe it. If they did, they’d notice that the businesses giving them money have the actual wealth, which they are merely working for. The logical conclusion is that they want to be on the business end of the machine, not inside it, spinning in circles. That’s why the smart ones sell chocolates, lipsticks, cars, and other commodities. Why be just another person (albeit famous) stuck within capitalism when you can be “capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.” That’s why the long-term influencers seize the means of production. That’s where the money are.