On Nov. 10, Eli Lilly, one of three pharmaceutical companies that collectively dominate the global insulin market, tweeted out, “we are excited to announce that insulin is free now.” With the adorned blue check, normally an indicator of a verified celebrity or corporate twitter account, the announcement went semi-viral. Eli Lilly’s stock price tumbled and many online laughed at how Twitter seemed to be imploding after a few short weeks with Elon Musk at the helm. But when one looks just slightly past the weeds of trolls and memes, contradictions inherent to capitalism smack you straight in the face.
Shortly after purchasing Twitter and stepping into the CEO role, Elon Musk announced that anybody could purchase a blue check for $8 a month as part of a new subscription service called Twitter Blue. While Musk hoped this decision would increase revenue, others saw an opportunity to troll.
Indeed, without the need to verify one’s identity, many began setting up fake-but-verified accounts with the goal of damaging corporate brands. In rapid order, a Nintendo clone tweeted out obscene photos of their characters and a verified Pope Francis began hocking $8 a month indulgences. Others tried to more closely impersonate corporations and aimed to tank stock prices with the announcement of news that while great for the many would spell disaster for shareholders.
Enter Eli Lilly.
You see, while free insulin would be an absolute godsend for the millions of diabetics who depend on this life-sustaining medication, the shareholders that collectively own Eli Lilly would much prefer the billions in profit made by taking advantage of the disabled.
In the immediate aftermath of the fake Eli Lilly tweet, stock in the real Eli Lilly fell by approx. 6% from $368.36 to $346.36 per share — this represents $15 billion being wiped from their market cap. Even after the fake Eli Lilly account went private and the real Eli Lilly account clarified that it will not be providing insulin for free, the stock did not fully rebound, remaining at $352.30 per share on Friday, Nov. 11. The two other pharmaceutical companies that produce insulin, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, saw the values of their shares tumble by 3.5%.
Eli Lilly was not the only heavyweight targeted either. A fake-but-verified Lockheed Martin account tweeted out they “will begin halting all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States until further investigation into their record of human rights abuses.” Just like Eli Lilly, shares in Lockheed Martin dropped 5.5% in the immediate aftermath of the tweet, an inversion of the predictable (and cynical) increase in weapons manufacturer stock prices following the announcement of military operations.
What insight does this give us into capitalism, especially the monopoly capitalism that defines this late-stage epoch?
It reveals, plain for all to see, that capitalism prioritizes wealth accumulation in the hands of a small number of shareholders, bankers, and CEOs. Those who own Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi did not contribute to the discovery of insulin but rather they own the factories that produce insulin. Those three companies control 100% of the U.S. insulin market and 90% of the global market. Together, they collude to drive up insulin prices so that they all make more profit.
The announcement that one of these three partners in monopoly would do the right thing and eliminate financial barriers to accessing this life-sustaining medication represented a horrible business decision. The 0.1% who dominate the global market do not make decisions to advance technology or improve the lives of workers and consumers — they only care about how much wealth they can extract from workers and consumers.
The entirety of the capitalist economy is a zero-sum game. What’s good for the capitalist class is bad for the working and oppressed classes. Every dollar in profit accumulated in an off-shore bank account represents a dollar stolen from workers; a dollar pilfered from the masses by privatizing and destroying our collective ecosystems.
While private ownership of the means of production means that a handful of wealthy elite further enrich themselves by exploiting the needs of the masses, collective ownership represents a path towards an equitable society — where the needs of the many come before the riches of the few.
Recall that in 1921, a team of Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip, and John Macleod successfully purified insulin and sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1 to ensure all people with diabetes would be able to afford the life-saving treatment. The University of Toronto’s Connaught Labs itself produced and distributed the drug at this cost in Canada for until the Brian Mulroney Progressive-Conservative government privatized the Connaught Labs in 1986.
The capitalist mode of production measures success by one measure — profit earned. Yet in medicine, in housing, in transportation, the most equitable, sustainable, and life-affirming choices we can make do not make a handful of people wealthy beyond wildest imagination but address real human needs — access to nutritious food, accessible shelter, leisure time, and vibrant communities. This represents the central contradiction in capitalism.
Free transit is great for the masses but not the capitalists who make billions by selling us inefficient and polluting cars.
Free and accessible housing is great for the masses but awful for the tycoons of industry who own most shelters and make billions by selling at inflated prices.
Free insulin is great for the masses but a terrible blow for the leeches who sell this essential medicine at 1000-fold markup.
The capitalist class understands clearly their class interests. It’s time for the working class to organize just as strongly around our own class interests.