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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Beast Within Capitalism

The success of YouTuber “MrBeast” tells us a lot about who we are and what kind of world we live in.

The most popular YouTuber in the world is MrBeast, aka Jimmy Donaldson, a 24-year-old from North Carolina who specializes in ever-more-costly stunts and giveaways. MrBeast’s videos include:

Many of MrBeast’s most popular videos are what is known as “stunt philanthropy,” making an entertaining spectacle out of giving large sums of money away. MrBeast hit upon the formula after using money from an early sponsorship deal to film a video in which he simply approached a random homeless man and handed him $10,000. The video became hugely popular, and MrBeast realized the “sheer viral power of simply giving money away.” As each video racked up views, the money it brought in was used to create the next cash giveaway stunt, with the amounts given away becoming more extreme as the channel became successful. When he filmed himself giving his mom $100,000, he explained to her that the video itself would go viral and therefore make the money back. (“So you’re using me for views?” she said. “Yes, but you get money too, so we’re both happy,” he replied.) Subsequent giveaway videos include: giving people on the street a credit card they can use to buy anything they like, tipping servers with actual gold bars, tipping a pizza guy by giving him the house he’s delivering to, opening a restaurant that hands out wads of cash to patrons, offering random people $100,000 to quit their jobs, and giving one of his subscribers an island.

Extravagantly giving away money has been extremely lucrative for MrBeast: he is now poised to be the first billionaire YouTuber. His line of chocolate bars (Feastables) is now stocked in Walmart, a custom Nerf gun bears his imprimatur, and he has a chain of “ghost franchise” burger restaurants (essentially, local restaurants deliver their own burgers to you in a MrBeast wrapper). His online shop has sold tie-in merchandise “like socks ($18), water bottles ($27) and T-shirts ($28).”

He is now part of an investment group spending hundreds of millions of dollars to “find the next MrBeast,” which it seems many people are trying to be. (Including his own brother, “MrBro,” who has a much less successful stunt YouTube channel, with offerings like “I Covered An Entire House In Sticky Notes,” “If You Eat This, I’ll Give You $10,000,” and “Duct Taped To A Wall for 24 Hours.”) 

MrBeast insists in interviews that the main goal of all of this is simply to help people and make positive change in the world. In the authorized documentary on his rise to fame, MrBeast says he just loves the feeling that comes from changing lives. When he handed a stranger thousands of dollars, “a lot of them just broke down in tears in front of me.” A pizza delivery guy who received one of MrBeast’s mega-huge tips was profusely thankful, telling him “I just got to spend the rest of the day with my kid because you gave me money and it allowed me to take the day off.”

MrBeast has therefore tried to target many of his giant cash donations to those who actually need them. He has given away a million dollars in food to people in need, given tens of thousands of dollars to people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, bought all of the food in a grocery store to give it to a food bank, filled five buses with school supplies for poor schools, given millions to Ukrainian refugees, built houses for homeless families, rebuilt tornado survivors’ homes, and planted 20 million trees.  

The latest MrBeast philanthropy video, “1,000 Blind People See For The First Time,” has attracted some controversy. In it, he pays for thousands of sight-restoring surgeries for vision-impaired people around the world, and documents their reactions as they see the world with clear vision for the first time. (He also gives some of them stacks of cash, and gives one young man a brand new Tesla. One patient peels off the bandages and the first thing he sees is a sign that reads “You Just Won $10,000.”) Some viewers called the video “demonic” and “exploitative.” MrBeast, for his part, dismissed the criticism:

“Twitter – Rich people should help others with their money
Me – Okay, I’ll use my money to help people and I promise to give away all my money before I die. Every single penny.
Twitter – MrBeast bad”

Now, there are some reasons to doubt MrBeast’s claim that he endlessly pursues money through branding deals just so he can help more people. One profile notes that while MrBeast (like Sam Bankman-Fried) portrays himself as someone who does not care about materialistic things, he “he also seems to be fixated on how much some shiny objects cost, pointing out that his custom-built, double-sided refrigerator—which he had made so his chef could deliver meals from outside without disturbing him—was 50 grand to install.” He has alsofaced backlash from fans who lost significant amounts of money on a cryptocurrency scheme he had promoted and invested in.” (A number of former employees have also accused him of being an unpleasant person when the camera stops.) 

But MrBeast has a defense of what he does: Would he be a better person if he didn’t cure the blind and donate to food banks? If he stuck to paying people to cover themselves in snakes, would he be less controversial? The people whose surgeries he paid for seem genuinely overwhelmed with gratitude, and it is clear he has changed their lives. One might argue that if he’s going to pay for surgeries, he shouldn’t do videos about it, because this kind of “inspiration porn” essentially coerces people with disabilities (since who is going to be able to turn down a sight-restoring operation?) into appearing on YouTube and uses them for clicks. MrBeast would likely counter by saying that his video has raised both awareness and money, and that people are going to have their sight restored who would not be able to see if the video hadn’t caused the public to donate the funds. One irate Beast-defender said “Go ahead and cancel him, that’s 1000 people that wouldn’t get a life-changing surgery they can’t afford.”

I think we can better understand the problem with MrBeast, however, if we don’t focus so much on MrBeast himself. In fact, the person who called MrBeast’s video “demonic” said exactly that: Beast himself was merely “fascinating and bizarre”; what was disturbing was a video whose core message was: “a single rich guy paid for life-changing surgery for us, and it’s easy to do this.” Another critic pointed out that the real problem was “the dystopian thought [that] we’re reliant on YouTube videos instead of competent government for assistance,” and we “can never again untangle acts of kindness from brand-building.” As Hasan Piker explained, the problem with the video is less with MrBeast paying for the surgeries than with the fact that a quick, easy surgery isn’t accessible to people in the first place and so they’re getting it through a MrBeast video: 

“You watch this video and go,  ‘Aww, how cute and how nice.’ I watch this video and I’m filled with rage that we shut off access to a ten-minute procedure because we paywalled it and decided that like some people just simply can’t get it. It is so insanely frustrating that it’s up to like one YouTube guy to decide to make content out of it, that people who are too poor can’t just fucking see.” 

MrBeast’s “curing the blind” video is part of a genre of content that we have parodied before as “Heartwarming Tales of Capitalism Gone Right.” (See, for instance: “Aw! Fast food worker overwhelmed after her community raises money to give her a car,” the story of a woman who was able to stop walking to work because her customers did what her employer did not, and gave her enough money to afford basic transit.) 

In other words, it takes an evil world for a video such as MrBeast’s to exist, because it is necessarily a world in which a relatively small amount of money (a price equivalent to one stupid YouTube stunt with Legos or slime) can fix a debilitating impairment for a thousand people. Surely the only morally sensible reaction to MrBeast’s video is anger, as our minds shift to the many thousands of people who won’t get the operation because they weren’t in the lucky thousand picked for the video. How is it that whether someone will see or remain without sight depends on what MrBeast thinks will be clickable? How much better off could people be if we had a healthcare system that gave them what they deserved? 

The knowledge that only 1,000 people will get the surgery also makes it a little depressing to watch the rest of MrBeast’s videos, the ones where he’s filling backyards with pennies and Orbeez or giving away a private jet or creating a vast replica of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Look at all this wasteful, dumb, carbon-intensive bullshit. There’s something unsettling and perverse about having “curing blind people” or “giving unemployed people a paycheck” being put alongside “I Ate $100,000 Golden Ice Cream” as just variations on the kind of extreme public stunts you can do with a nearly-unlimited amount of cash. 

So while I’m tempted to say “the problem isn’t MrBeast himself, it’s the economic system that lets people become so desperate they need MrBeast in order to take a day off and see their kid,” and I do think that’s true, MrBeast himself is also grotesque. In his videos, he relishes the power that unlimited wealth gives him. Sometimes he uses this to change lives, but sometimes he will only give people the money if they first swim with sharks. The competitions mostly seem pretty harmless, if often unpleasant (staying in a small circle for 100 days to win $500,000), but it’s clear that part of the reason people are willing to undergo whatever challenges MrBeast sets is that money has the power to completely change people’s lives. In a world where everybody was doing fine economically, maybe there wouldn’t be anything objectionable about offering people a reward to participate in some televised challenge, but in this world, where nearly half of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency expense, a lot of people are going to be grasping for MrBeast’s largesse because they need it. 

There is also something arbitrary and unfair about the way money circulates in a MrBeast video. Okay, so he goes up to a homeless man and gives him $10,000, and that man is thrilled. What about the next guy, one block over? Just not his lucky day. He has to remain homeless. MrBeast, “YouTube’s biggest philanthropist,” is precisely the opposite of an “effective” altruist: he is a demented, capricious altruist whose choice of causes is not driven by the question “How can this do the most good?” but “How can this make the most epic video?” Both Epic Altruism and Effective Altruism suffer from the same problem, though, which is that both depend on the existing rich to make decisions about where money should go, and so both are fundamentally undemocratic. (Epic Altruism might actually be a little better in this respect since viewers have some input in the form of their clicks.) 

It’s nice that MrBeast plants trees and donates to food banks. Plenty of the super-rich use less of their wealth to fund good works, so targeting him in particular can seem a little harsh. (However, I don’t mean to single him out for criticism; I’ve previously written about lots of other terrible rich people.) But he could do a great deal more good if, when trying to change lives, he gave some indication that he understood the basic concept of justice. As it is right now, it seems like the only thing he knows is that when he hands a giant roll of hundred dollar bills to someone, they become overjoyed, and he likes the feeling he gets when they tell him how wonderful he is and how much he has done for them. MrBeast could actually have done a video on blindness that would have avoided controversy if he had demonstrated some of the anger that Hasan Piker had about how it’s absurd that MrBeast even has to do this. He could have not just advocated that people in the audience give money, but encouraged them to think seriously about the fact that this problem could easily cease to exist with a few tweaks to the healthcare financing system. I realize it may be too much to expect from a 24-year-old YouTube bro who just enjoys playing Willy Wonka, showering golden tickets (blindness cures, bricks of cash, Teslas) on random people. But I am willing to take MrBeast at his word when he says he wants to give away his money and help people, and I believe it’s possible for him to undergo moral and political self-education that will make him a better advocate for the causes he says he cares about. 

I do think, however, that there is something fundamentally tawdry about MrBeast’s money obsession. The videos I like most  are the ones where he does a complicated and cool thing like building a giant Lego tower. The videos I like least involve simply going up to people and handing them wodges of cash, not just because it conflicts with my notions of distributional justice, but because it’s lazy, taking advantage of the fact that just having a bunch of money gives you an immense amount of power in our world. Yes, it means you can get people to do things like sit in a big bucket of ramen noodles for hours. But the side of humanity that will eat worms for money is not the side we should be encouraging, because these scenarios are, at worst, exploitative and, at best, extremely stupid.

MrBeast’s videos are compulsively watchable; he has mastered the art of the viral video. It’s no mystery why he has become the number one YouTuber. He knows what will shock and amaze his audience and he keeps trying to outdo himself, including by putting larger and larger sums of cash at stake. Some of it is merely silly and hard to object to morally. But as with fellow YouTuber Blippi, much about these videos screams “Neoliberal Hellscape” to me: a world where value is measured in dollars and a man is able to be entertaining in part because if you have enough dollars, you can just throw them at people and others will be compelled to watch. There is the sheer wastefulness of many of the stunts (e.g., smashing a Lamborghini with a hydraulic press), which constantly reminds me of how the United States burns through the world’s resources wantonly without any sense of global physical limits, imposing catastrophic climate costs on the rest of the world. There is the dependence on billionaire benevolence to solve social problems, and MrBeast (like his hero Elon Musk1) cares much more about Cool Shit than the actual good of humanity. Rolling Stone noted that MrBeast’s channel implicitly suggests “an updated version of the Horatio Alger story; the idea that with a little bit of luck, you too could one day run into MrBeast on the street and walk away thousands of dollars richer.” He is totally apolitical, interested in helping people without understanding (or caring about) what causes them to need help in the first place. I do worry that we are coming closer and closer to a world where we not only have GoFundMes for insulin, but endless desperate people whose only hope is that MrBeast will see a potential video to be made from their suffering. Of course, if we just taxed him properly, we could treat thousands more people’s curable illnesses. But MrBeast’s videos might be a bit less epic, his giant chocolate factory might have been a little less obscenely extravagant. And that just wouldn’t be nearly as clickable. Our task is not to “cancel” MrBeast himself, but to repair a society which has created the conditions for his stardom as well as a population that needs his charity. 

  1. MrBeast keeps a portrait of Musk as Napoleon in his office 

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