The International Cult of Oligarchs: On Human Destruction by the 0.01% Here and There

In the U.S. we call them “wealthy,” as if their unbounded economic power had no political consequences. For many, they appear simply as the rich and sometimes the rich-and-famous. In Russia, they are “oligarchs.” Most of them achieved multi-billionaire status because of their close relations the Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of the political elite. Of course, there is much more to extreme wealth here or there than that.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, well-connected men appropriated many previously state-owned industries, assets, and institutions. Their position within Putin’s political elite secured and expanded their vast privilege in the ‘new’ Russia. We routinely call them oligarchs and often characterize them as “the Russian Mafia,” because of their ruthless criminal power and lethal conduct.

The men and women who constitute the emergent corporate-centered oligarchy in the United States we call “the wealthy.” Too many of us look at them personally through the sanitized lens of the mass media they control, admiring and aspiring to their riches. Their public images are the stuff of the utopian dreams of individuals who buy lottery tickets and vote the straight Republican or Democratic ticket. It is as if vast political-economic power were nothing more than the well-earned personal accumulation of a lot of money through good fortune and talent.

People buy lottery tickets in silent recognition of the hopelessness of their aspirations for upper-class luxury and status. “It’s a chance,” they insist, no matter how slim. In the case of “old wealth,” we forget much of its typical illicit or criminal origins in financial manipulation, bootlegging, and war profiteering – none of it by chance. We ought to wonder why we perceive the 0.01% here and there so differently. We ignore the financial manipulations of the U.S. new rich, who remain a convenient mystery protected by their media-invoked armor of imagined superiority.

The U.S. business elites of the second half of the nineteenth century were widely disparaged as “robber barons,” because of their ruthless practices and problematic political influence. That disparaging metaphor derived from much earlier practices of some European feudal landowners of stealing from merchants, traders, and travelers, often by imposing steep tolls not authorized by the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes these “authorities” even engaged in kidnap for ransom, or in outright theft. Wells Fargo steals from its customers today with equal flagrancy.

Modern Robber Barons and the New Corporate State

Critics of the corrupt practices of Wall Street financial elites in their shady amassing of great wealth do not use the term “robber baron” to characterize such theft. Today’s captains of industry and finance exert corrupt economic and political power in a variety of ways. They maintain cultural cover through the control of mass media. Their corrupt practices have become the new normal. Nevertheless, the power of great wealth over the political process has deepened so much that it has morphed into the new corporate state.

The political rhetoric of hate effectively distracts and shifts much blame for the destructive results of oligarchy by classic techniques of cultural diversion, patriotic bombast, and ethnic scapegoating. Demagogues target for generic blame immigrants and refugees, Muslims, and people of color, all of whom are among the economically and politically weakest sectors of the population.

In a bizarre cultural twist, many people now somehow perceive the weakest groups as the greatest threat against the nation. The power elite exploits the stress of reduced incomes and status of workers who have lost their jobs to outsourcing, by generating diversionary hatreds. Empty claims to “make America great again” (now contracted to “MAGA”), resonate with the fears and pain of many under- or unemployed once-comfortable white middleclass workers. Oprah’s September 24, 2017 focus group on Sixty Minutes, with regular folks in Western Michigan demonstrated how distorted the politics of demagoguery can become.

Ubiquitous corporate propaganda touts an elusive general prosperity by endlessly repeating the mantra of economic growth. Only outsourced slave wages and investment capital transferred to other countries to manipulate national and global resource and financial markets, makes that growth possible. Many people know that something is very deeply wrong, even if they do not understand the details of political economy.

Angst and Opposition

That is why the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that began in 2011 struck such a powerful cord with so many Americans and others around the world. Despite its immediate tribulations in occupying Zuccotti Park in the “belly of the beast,” it sparked a global surge of social movements for change. The opposition to greed, corruption, and the undue influence of financial and corporate elites and against extreme inequality hit a sore spot across the U.S. and many other nations. The “Arab Spring” that spread from Tunisia in 2010 and beyond had reflected a similar discontent, but also indicated a widespread and growing awareness of oligarchy and global injustice.

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Putin and Trump meet. Photo credit: Independent, UK.

In this context, the unfolding revelations of contacts between Russian oligarchs, Kremlin intelligence agents, and go-betweens, with members of the Trump inner circle, should not surprise us. They have intersecting, overlapping, and parallel interests, which did not suddenly spring up during the presidential campaign. Moreover, when Trump was deeply in debt and no U.S. bank would deal with him anymore, banks with close business ties to Russia saved him from financial ruin.  In particular, Germany-based Deutsche Bank loaned Trump hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the New York Times, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators are looking into Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank. Additional links of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with banking interests tied to Russian oligarchs and their money laundering have begun to emerge.[1]

After all, the appointments of so many captains of plunder to cabinet membership and as agency heads reflect the Trumpist pretentions to establish a new Barony of Robbery. They also mirror the consistent pattern of corrupt business practices that characterized the entire career of the man who David Kay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, characterized as a modern-day P.T. Barnum when they first met in 1988.[2] Meanwhile, many vacant posts with important governing functions, particularly in the State Department, remain open due to gross presidential indifference – i.e., dereliction of duty – as he centralizes power and demonstrates incompetence in the “art of the deal.”

As Karl Polanyi warned in 1944, the difficulties of protecting society from the extreme tendencies of industrial capital are great. No such protections exist in Russia. The modest safeguards installed in the U.S. during the Great Depression, fell to legislative negation in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Now, we face an era of the new robber barons intent to extend oligarchy in the U.S. by direct plunder of the nation’s commonwealth. Will they match that of Russia? These masters of mega-looting see no reason to reject the help of the world’s premier oligarchs in achieving their own hegemonic goals. However, they are not very good at hiding their collusion or their corruption. Hubris happens to the worst of us. However, the new descent into political chaos could not have emerged with poorer timing.

We face, within a couple of decades at most, an accelerating convergence of the global crises of resource depletion and pollution, extreme weather events causing vast damage. The risks of regional food insecurity, refugee migration and armed conflict grow by the day. The petty schoolboy posturing and name-calling between the North Korean despot and the would-be American emperor is a very dangerous sideshow.

Such exercises in personal arrogance are calculated distractions from the increasingly urgent global crises that in part stem from global warming and surely will exacerbate rapidly approaching climate chaos. Many are distracted from the existential threats to human survival intensified by the politics-of-the unreality show that is a cover for the plunder of the American commonwealth. Awareness is growing, but not as fast as the converging crises we face. A new broadly based Earth activism is needed now.

[1] For details, see Bess Levin, “Deutsche Bank is Turning over information on Trump,” Vanity Fair (July 20, 2017). Accessed at http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/07/donald-trump-deutsche-bank-russia

[2] See David Kay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016).

The Russians are Coming! But the Plutocrats are Here!

The extent to which narcissistic sociopathy has become the new normal for ‘presidential’ behavior is truly astounding. Why is that? Well, for one, denial and projection characterize the psychology of the base. Trump’s base denies countless news reports indicating various contacts between the Trump presidential campaign insiders and Russian intermediaries associated with the Kremlin and projects them onto a vast liberal conspiracy.

Trump has repeatedly claimed he “has nothing to do with the Russians.” Yet, evidence of various meetings and associations keeps popping up. Numerous sources report that Trump made financial deals with Russian oligarchs and/or banks in the past. His son told a golfing reporter that the Russians were an unlimited source of financing for Trump projects.

Of course, we do not know what financial entanglements the president may still have with Russian oligarchs, since he refuses to divulge his diverse international business dealings or release his income tax returns as every other president has done. But, so many around him have had direct contacts with known Kremlin officials or their surrogates. For Trump politics is finance is politics.

Intergenerational Kleptocracy

Now, his son, Donald Jr., has admitted that he, Jared Kushner, Paul Manifort – Trump’s campaign manager at the time, widely known for having “made millions promoting Kremlin-friendly interests in Ukraine”[1] –met with a Russian lawyer close to the

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Assange-Trump-Putin Triangle. Source: Salon.com

Kremlin who claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Donald Jr. admitted that the meeting happened shortly after Trump Sr. captured the Republican nomination. Now, just how illegal is that?

Numerous reports of other meetings between Trump associates and Russian diplomats have surfaced. Trump could not avoid firing General Michael Flynn shortly after appointing him national security advisor; he had lied about meetings with Russian officials. He had also concealed payments from foreign governments including Turkey.  Jeff Sessions “forgot” his meetings with Russians, as did Trump son-in-law and political point man on everything. How many appearances of inappropriate contacts with Russians by Trump associates, in the context of Trump’s financial secrecy and dark financial history with Russians is enough to raise suspicions? The list goes on…

People Don’t Change

David Kay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, has followed Trump’s antics for decades. His new best-selling book, The Making of Donald Trump, chronicles Trump’s exploits since Johnston first met him in Atlantic City in 1987, when he immediately saw Trump as a modern day P.T.Barnum. In 1990, Johnston broke the story that while claiming to be worth billions, Trump actually had a negative net worth.

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Poker-face Putin. Source: The Independent

Whatever his net worth today, Donald Trump has become an important asset for Vladimir Putin and his aspirations to become a member of the world’s ruling elite. At the G-20 summit Trump played right into Putin’s hand. Gary Kasparov, the world’s greatest chess player and Russian dissident-exile, likens Putin to a champion poker player and Trump as a buffoon.

In any case, the plutocrats are in control, both here and in Russia. That would not have changed much if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, but we must remember that Putin hates Hillary as she does him. To whatever extent Hillary is beholden to Wall Street, Donald Trump is beholden to his own self-aggrandizement and little else. An exception, perhaps, are the Russian oligarchs who apparently funded those mysterious European bank loans Trump obtained when the big U.S. banks would no longer do business with him because of his consistent failure to pay debts. Plutocrats here, oligarchs there, all aspire to become the most powerful global ruling class in history. Yes, the Russians are coming, but the plutocrats are here.

[1] See Stephanie Baker and Daryna Krasnolutska, “Paul Manafort’s Lucrative Ukraine Years Are Central to the Russia Probe,” Bloomberg News (May 22, 2017). Accessed at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-05-22/paul-manafort-s-lucrative-ukraine-years-are-central-to-the-russia-probe

Reform is not Enough

The violence continues. It seems pervasive. The list is long and diverse. Cops shoot unarmed Black men in every major American city. A lone deranged Air Force veteran kills five Dallas police officers. A disturbed marine Iraq-returnee assassinates three more in Baton Rouge. Suicide bombers turn Brussels, Paris, and Bagdad upside down. A wife-beating suicide truck driver runs over and kills at least eighty-four people leaving scores more injured on Bastille Day in Nice. Fear spreads wildly. No limits, no recourse, no solution. But what is the nature of all this? What is the common thread, or is there one?

Sociology in the West began in the conservative lament over the dissolution of traditional societal relations and the growing instability of institutions in the nineteenth century. Concepts like anomie and alienation became important explanations of “deviant” behavior. “Social problems” dominated the thinking of the American sociology that emerged somewhat later than its earlier beginnings in Europe, as the U.S. industrialized.

Some attribute the earliest sociological writing to Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historiographer who chronicled forms of empire and conflict in fourteenth century Arab societies. Khaldun’s theories explored transitions from sedentary life to nomadic life, and processes of social conflict, social cohesion, and group solidarity (“tribalism”). They were early precursors to modern perspectives on social organization and social change. Modern sociological understandings of these concepts now seem little improved over those of Khaldun. Do sociologists understand today’s global social chaos? Does anyone?

Today, new forms of change further disrupt social cohesion and even arouse new forms of alienated tribalism and violence. Violent reactions to the instabilities of the faltering global industrial economy are as diverse as they are extreme. The dominant endless-growth model of economics destabilizes all other forms of society (family, community, cities, towns, villages) in the ubiquitous corporate pursuit of economic profit and political power. Violence frequently accompanies social destabilization and transformation.

Economic “Progress” and the Destabilization of Everything

Social change has accelerated since the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution and its application of the energy of fossil fuels to economic production processes brought on even more rapid change. The traditional “commons” shared for village-scale farming were “enclosed” by powerful landlords to facilitate the earliest forms of industrial agriculture. Confiscation of resources, whether land or the prizes beneath it, has been the underlying theme of economic growth in the petro-industrial era. Dislocation, impoverishment, and migration inevitably accompany dispossession. What has changed? Everything and nothing.

The American westward expansion had a similar, though perhaps more deadly, effect on the native population as did the enclosures in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Settlers confiscated tribal lands across the Great Plains and westward for ranching and farming to feed the growing population in the former colonies to the east. Many of those “pioneers” descended from those European refugees – peasants who had been forced into cities where conditions of labor were deadly, and who paid dearly for the Atlantic crossing.

The American Revolution was never quite completed. The English mercantile class that controlled economy and polity in the British colonies in America never lost its power. It  gradually morphed into the financial and corporate elites that dominate the U.S. politics and economy today. A decline of the middle class and the explosive growth of poverty in America accompanied the resulting concentration of wealth. Post-slavery urbanization, followed by outsourcing of manufacturing and loss of well-paid jobs, impoverished the urban working class. Responses to urban poverty gradually morphed into mass incarceration as the War on Drugs. Its incentives to oppress established The New Jim Crow in U.S. cities where Black folks are as isolated from economic opportunity as ever.[1]

The colonial nations of Europe dominated the world even after their colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America achieved formal independence. The American case was unique in that its independence and abundant resources allowed it to become the dominant power of empire in the post-colonial world. The difference between colonialism and empire has been mostly a matter of the form of domination and the means to achieve it. Economic domination replaced political supervision.

The deployment of new technologies of fossil fuel driven industrial and military might assured the U.S. position as the most powerful nation in the world. Before seeking greater resources abroad, the U.S. extractive industrialists exploited vast oil, gas, iron, other minerals, and agricultural production at home. This allowed a unique development of industrial and military superiority – the real form of “American exceptionalism” amidst a stifling cultural stagnation. Once it exhausted most of those resources, the corporate state turned to the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing.

The means of domination by “the only remaining super-power” after the Cold War are many and varied, from financial to military.[2] U.S. efforts to establish an empire have focused primarily on controlling the main sources of petroleum in the Middle East. Images of the attacks on “the homeland” on September 11, 2001, symbolized resistance to tyranny for many victims of bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation. Diverse U.S. invasions and occupations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya have attempted to serve the energy corporations. Those ventures have produced far more terrorists than oil. Imaginary future victories continue to define current abject failures. All the while, the corporate state ignores the devastating effects on the environment.

The purpose underlying protestations of “bringing democracy” to these nations is to secure corporate control over global resources and assure continued growth of extractive capital. The “War on Terror” was in part a genuine reaction to 9-11. It was also a cover for the prosecution of diverse largely unsuccessful resource wars. The consequences of indiscriminant drone attacks, targeted killings, and counter-insurgency night-raids has been to feed new recruits to the very terrorist groups the U.S. intends to destroy. The consequent disruption of traditional and even modern forms of social cohesion has achieved an order of magnitude unimaginable by Ibn Khaldun.

Chaos and Illusions of Social Control

The leviathan of the corporate-state may seem unstoppable. Yet wars of occupation and counter-insurgency are not won. Once they fight to stalemate and widespread destruction, occupying forces abandon the resulting chaos. More enemies are created, found and targeted.

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Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Domestic attempts to suppress dissent and protest over oppressive economic conditions and police violence in “the homeland,” also produce little social order. Nor are law enforcement institutions able to control general urban violence. The ebb and flow of overall crime rates has little to do with “enforcement” practices – except for the differential police actions against the poor in prosecuting the War on Drugs. Overall crime rates have declined, but “law and order” memes dominate police thinking. Militarization of police harden “us vs. them” images of the Warrior Cop. Without revolutionary transformation of law enforcement in the U.S., the bloody stalemate will continue.

Myths abound concerning the control of urban populations in the U.S. and abroad. A standoff between more forces than are recognized is occurring. In the U.S., crass demagoguery pits police authority against minority and immigrant populations. Police and politicians conflate peaceful protest against police violence with general urban violence and terror attacks. Trump’s tropes incite nativist white tribalism, a latter-day resurgence of social cohesion in the form of a pseudo-patriotic racism not unlike fascism.

The billionaire business cheat succeeded in framing his grab for political power as an anti-establishment rebellion. That feat by the crass bully astounded establishment liberals. They underestimate the nation’s susceptibility to demagoguery. The corporate media, which will succumb to any hint of sensationalism, dutifully provided billions of dollars in free television exposure to a sociopathic narcissist billionaire. (What would have happened if Bernie had had that kind of coverage?)

Analysts remain confused. All sorts of ad hoc media explanations of diverse instances of chaos and violence fall short of plausibility. Authorities seek “terrorist” propaganda associations to explain the mass murder in Nice by a mad trucker. The mad men of Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, maybe even Orlando, seemed to mix confused ideological fragments with the desire for suicide by cop. These seem more like individual pathology absorbing some political patina than organized terrorism, which is happy to exploit such pathology. Even the allegiance of the San Bernardino killers to ISIS seemed more aspirational than organizational. More is likely to come.

We seek to fight the enemies we have made, without understanding the processes by which we have made them. They are many but diverse. Through it all, images of absolute good and evil distort the social realities, allowing ignorance and fear to prevail.

Reform or Revolution

Sustaining a culture of civility provides the social cohesion that characterizes a stable social order. The failure of U.S. invaders to establish stability in Iraq resulted from eliminating the individuals and institutions that had maintained a certain level of civility. Such civility had existed, particularly between Sunni and Shiite populations, even under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The character of the occupation bred not only insurgents, but also civil strife.

The character of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in some ways parallels the occupation of Iraq. Police in the U.S. increasingly look like an occupying force. Their role has become one of “controlling the population,” not to “protect and serve” those whom many police despise. Too many police view urban populations as the enemy. The technology of smartphone, dashboard, and body-cam video, now facilitates the documentation of widespread police violence, primarily in communities of color. The evidence of hatred abounds.

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Black Folks Response to Police Killings

The Black Lives Matter movement responded directly to the disproportionate experience of police violence by Blacks and Hispanics. The constant flow of revelations of police violence by citizens’ smartphone video on social media rivals the broadcast of racist Trump tropes on the corporate mass media. However denied, dehumanized police conduct and attitudes have achieved full public exposure. Black Lives Matter is a non-violent movement publicly protesting police violence.

The characterization of Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements as advocating violence against police, crudely promotes a self-serving prejudice against all protesters. The validity of the protest is delegitimized by the bigoted claims of the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. “Blue Lives Matter” implicitly denies police culpability in a well-documented national pattern of “excessive use of force,” while projecting that same violence onto those who peacefully protest against it.

What a civil society might otherwise sustain as indigenous law enforcement increasingly appears as a foreign occupying force. The police-versus-the-population image of law enforcement, whether held by officers, chiefs of police, or citizens, is doomed to create more chaos and violence. Minor ‘reforms’ – sensitivity training or use of force training for the violence-prone, or even more selective recruitment to weed out those with violent tendencies – will not be nearly enough.

This is where it gets even more difficult. We are witnessing the consequences of a deeply violent culture. White nativist memes deny diversity of this nation of immigrants, in service to their illusions of a “real America.” To achieve a civil society with a civil police will require a sea change in attitude and organization. No amount of piecemeal reforms will break the cycle of police violence, protest, and suppression of aggrieved populations.

The necessary seems so far from the possible. Is a revolutionary transformation of the law enforcement and justice system even possible? Illusions of American Exceptionalism prevent recognition of the obvious successes of nations like Portugal and Finland.

To root out the culture of violence and “them against us” policing will require a total transformation of police institutions and personnel. Society must pay officers much more highly and hold them to much higher standards of civility and respect for human dignity.

In the context of the corporate cult of privatization of everything, too many view police,  since they are mere public servants like teachers, as very low-level functionaries not worthy of significant pay. As I have argued elsewhere, we must recruit them carefully, pay them very well and hold them to very high standards. That includes very high standards for admission, very high standards for training, and very high standards of conduct. One case of abuse of a citizen should mean that you are out. To achieve these things would constitute revolutionary change in law enforcement, requiring revolutionary change in society. The very difficult is very necessary.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) provides an exceptionally lucid, ground-breaking, though culturally denied, account of how mass incarceration of the vulnerable populations of mostly urban communities of color has replaced slavery as the primary force oppressing Black and Brown folks in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[2] For an astounding and enlightening account of the exploitation of potential client nations by U.S. corporate-government cooperation in the use of financial and covert power, including assassination, to dominate the economies of those nations, see John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

Panama Papers: Plutocracy, Kleptocracy, or Both?

plutocracy  [ploo-tok-ruh-see]

noun, plural plutocracies.

  1. the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.
  2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.
  3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

kleptocracy  [klep-tok-ruh-see]

noun, plural kleptocracies.

  1. a government or state in which those in power exploit national resources and steal; rule by a thief or thieves.

1815-20; klepto- (combining form of Greek kléptēs thief) + -cracy

Related forms:

kleptocrat [klep-tuh-krat] (Show IPA), noun

kleptocratic [klep-tuhkrat-ik] (Show IPA), adjective

[Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2016.]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Never begin an essay with a dictionary definition. It is bad form. You should assume the readers of your work understand the words you write.

Well, the Panama Papers may provide us an excuse to violate that rule. In fact, I offer here two dictionary definitions, because the two words involved are so close in meaning. Is a plutocracy also a kleptocracy? Are most societies run by the wealthiest members also societies in which the rulers are thieves? Given revelations published in the “Panama Papers,” and given what many people have suspected all along, that would appear to be the case.

Who Rules?

In various posts on this site I have used the word plutocracy to describe the fact that in the industrialized world, if not the rest of the world as well, the wealthy class rules politics, culture, and the economy. We maintain a façade of democracy, but really…who rules? Ask William Domhoff,[i] who has studied the ruling class in America since before I was in graduate school in the 1960s. Domhoff cleverly got into the social circles of the very rich and observed their behavior just like and ethnographer might observe some remote tribe in the Amazon rain forest. C. Wright Mills,[ii] in his classic, The Power Elite, wrote of the extended reach of the political, military, and economic elites that President Dwight Eisenhower had warned us against in his farewell address to the nation in 1961 with the iconic phrase, “The Military Industrial Complex.”

Mills, Domhoff, and others were astute observers of the trends already present in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, already shaping the corporate state. I wonder whether they could grasp how far the concentration of power would go and what form it has taken today. But the crimes of the extremely rich are far more complex and deep rooted and pervasive than such otherwise exceptionally valuable analyses would suggest. And the corporate state has grown deeper and more complex with the help of digital technology than could have been imagined over a half century ago. The leveraging of the political power by digital technology has produced an astoundingly concentrated plutocracy in the U.S. and elsewhere in the industrial world.

Another Kind of “Big Data”

We usually think of “big data” as all the demographic and personal data big organizations collect on all of us to better market their products and perform political surveillance. But there is another kind, data on the economic infrastructure of the political and financial elites of the world.

It is only by way of the power of “big data” and the professional persistence of the members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists could all of this been exposed in its massive detail. These dedicated journalists carried out textual database analyses of 11.5 million digital files or about 2.5 terabytes of data anonymously leaked from a Panamanian law firm. By the collective efforts of investigative journalists around the world, the first indications of the vast scope of global corruption of the super-rich was brought to light. The revelations so far only scratch the surface of deep global kleptocracy.

More recent social science has revealed the characteristics of the new corporate state that feed the kleptocracy. Sheldon Wolin’s work developing the theory of “inverted totalitarianism”[iii] shows how the corporate state operates as a complex organizational dictatorship under the guise of democratic forms but not substance. Wolin’s project focused on the operational characteristics of the corporate state, but not how the rich and powerful steal from the commonwealth.

Plutocracy IS Kleptocracy

The integration of the nation-state with the corporate and financial elites form the corporate state, controlled by those elites. The Panama Papers give some indication of how widespread among the super-rich some key techniques of global kleptocracy. Many people had heard of secret overseas accounts held by corrupt politicians and the super-rich in places like the Cayman Islands. But most people had no idea of the extent of their use by political and financial elites to hide and launder bribes and stolen money, and to avoid taxes on profits, both legal and illegal. The kleptocracy many suspected has been revealed in far more detail than anyone imagined possible. And so far, only the tip of the data-iceberg has been exposed to the light of investigative journalism.

So, what does all this mean? Well, first, it is clear that much more depth and breadth of corruption pervades the global political economy than even the most cynical critic imagined. Second, the data reveal that, given the corruption exposed, nothing short of massive transformation of the political process can realign global politics and economics with the interests of the publics they are supposed to serve.

Remember, all corporations are chartered by the government, supposedly for particular economic purposes that are allowable by presumably being consistent with the public interest. Today, that has become a fiction waiting to be made real again, even as the fiction of corporate personhood has reached its ascendancy. Realigning political economy with the public interest will be a hard battle to win. But the physical necessity of fighting global warming will force the hand of the both the corporate state and the super-rich. Little time remains. Will their economic interests continue to override the human interest in survival?

______________

[i] G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America ? 1st ed. 1967

[ii] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Grove Press, 1962

[iii] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Drone Cop. Part I: Destroying Citizenship by Dehumanizing Police

Remember “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s landmark sci-fi thriller movie? A future monolithic corporation controls a crime-infested Detroit. It transforms a dead police officer into a cybernetic law-enforcement “unit” called RoboCop. The cyborg hero devastates urban criminality, and soon the streets are safe.[1] RoboCop is little more than an cybernetic enforcement drone; the remains of his humanity is an open question.

Well, science fiction, warts and all, sometimes gives us as good an eye on the present as on the future, even though its plot and characters may be weak or its tone juvenile. Such stories often point to the problems of the present in the guise of a technically advanced future. “Robocop” is something more than human, but he is also dehumanized by his cyber-mechanization. His modus operandi is always overpowering force of violence – a high-tech old west “shoot first and ask questions later” modality. However, in the real world cops are people too.

The death of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, after being shot in a routine traffic stop, occurred in the context of widespread public criticism of the excessive use of force and high rate of killings by Albuquerque police in the previous decade. The Department seemed in seriously dysfunctional when a Justice Department investigation led to specific requirements for reform. Yet, the community energetically rallied around Officer Webster and his family while he lay struggling to live.

Community support grew even stronger when Officer Webster died a few days after the shooting. People came forward and lauded him as a true hero, a “guardian angel” who had gone above and beyond the official duties of his job whenever he had the opportunity to help people in need. Officer Webster, a combat veteran, evidently was widely recognized for being a true peace officer. The growing trend toward drone cops, completely isolated from the people, is the exact opposite. Officer Webster seemed an exception to the emerging rule in policing.

Today, drone bombings and missile attacks on human “targets” abroad have proliferated on the presumption that “suspicious activity” may involve terrorists in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. The adaptation of that mental model of operating in “conflict zones” to police practices by civilian “law enforcement” is well underway, although fundamentally flawed. At the same time, presidential “hit lists” must give us pause, even if the targets are overseas. In so-called “targeted killing,” – a term that conjures images of precision, likely unjustified – pretty much everyone near the target is defined as “the enemy” unless proven otherwise. So called “collateral damage” is widespread, though under-reported via re-definition. Children in Yemen are called “terrorists in training” by drone operators at their stations back in Nevada.

At what point in the militarization of domestic law enforcement do neighborhoods become “combat zones,” and to what extent, does enforcement take the place of law? And what is the result? What is the effect of local police in the U.S. adopting the combat model of operations? Clearly, it is already happening in various jurisdictions around the “homeland.”[2] We’ve seen some of the result already. The destruction of small villages in Yemen, killing innocent civilians, is analogous to the excessive use of force and indiscriminate shooting of civilians on city streets across the “homeland.”

As dangerous as drones over our cities and towns may become for aviation, no less to civil liberties and human rights, an even more dangerous “dronification” is happening to police officers themselves. They are being turned into Drone Cops. To understand what a drone cop is, consider the contrast with the traditional concept of law enforcement and the role of peace officer in communities. Traditional peace officers were members of their community tasked with assuring the safety and security of the citizenry. They knew their neighbors.

What distinguishes a drone from a manned aircraft? It is the pilot of course. Yes, on-the-ground operators do “pilot” the drones. The technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) allows for two possible tasks: surveillance and targeted killing. Perhaps inadvertently, they sometimes bomb wedding parties and other innocent gatherings. This may be due to “faulty intelligence” (weak electronic information compounded by cavalier attitudes about who may be defined as an “enemy”). But it is also caused by a blurring of definitions of “enemy” vs. “civilian.” A similar blurring results as police are dehumanized and become Drone Cops, who also have come to have just two tasks: surveillance and targeting for violence too often involving killing.

The idea, for example, that any Afghan male who seems to be of an age suitable for military service is to be predefined as a “terrorist” unless subsequent to his death he is proven otherwise, is beyond Kafka in its absurdity. But it is convenient for the trigger-happy commanding officer “managing” an ad hoc conflict zone in a non-war. A similar mindset seems increasingly prevalent in urban law enforcement circles. Young men of color are routinely pre-defined as criminal without regard to circumstance or behavior. They become dehumanized “enemies.”

The death toll for civilians in the conflict zones that has been created by the questionably named “War on Terror,” keeps rising without consequence for the presidentially sanctioned killers. Some who found their own dehumanization to be intolerable have become whistle-blowers.[3] Unverified distant technical means, such as a cell phone being near a location, are used to target persons on a “kill list.” The illegality of extra-judicial assassination aside, the essence of the exercise is its indiscriminate practice of terrorizing citizens of other nations. The meaning of terror is heightened by drone strikes in far away places. What can be more terrifying than a drone attack on your village? The culture of unending war produces terrorist enemies by its own terrorist practices. Terror is also a product of the unending “war on drugs” by Drone Cops, which ultimately becomes a war on vulnerable people.
Part II of this essay will address the replacement of the human decision-maker in law enforcement with the application of technology to control populations.
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[1] Netflix description accessed at: http://dvd.netflix.com/Search?v1=RoboCop&oq=roboc&ac_posn=1
[2] A strange term, “homeland.” It is akin to the terms “fatherland” and “motherland,” which connote nationalistic ideologies, usually asserted by empires. It is interesting to note that the term came into use in the United States largely in response to the attacks of 9/11, which were the first major successful retaliatory actions by deranged Middle East adversaries who identify U.S. military presence, occupations, and actions as a threat to their societies. The blurring of the distinction between foreign combat zones and “the homeland” by the 9/11 attacks seems to have brought the term to use as attempts were made to reorganize security within the nation along the lines of military security at the edges of empire. The implications of all this for domestic law enforcement include the ease with which municipal police departments have become militarized, both in equipment and in attitudes toward the public, both of which foster an image of the public as potential “enemy combatants” and blur any distinction between citizen and criminal.
[3] Four drone-war whistle blowers told their stories of personal dehumanization and indiscriminate killing-at-a-distance on Democracy Now!, November 20, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/20/exclusive_air_force_whistleblowers_risk_prosecution

The Trouble with Economics: William Nordhaus and Pope Francis

Economics is perhaps the one social science “profession” that is most entrenched in the political economy of contemporary nations. Little economic thought escapes the halls of academia without the neoliberal stamp of theoretical approval. The trouble with most of the social sciences is that it is very difficult for them to actually be scientific. In the first place, complexity is amplified exponentially by the fact that human behavior is mediated by language. Moreover, the language of human affairs is saturated with concepts and terms that have implicit political content.

Economics, like sociology, political science, and psychology, is a “discipline” that is disciplined by ideology. In particular, in its contemporary form economics is a powerful influence over national and international political policies, especially as applied to economic forces in society. Economics is in turn powerfully influenced by the most prevailing societal forces in the world today – the machinations of financial elites. Academic economics is dominated by the so-called “free market” theories for which Milton Friedman is most famous. From his intellectual throne at the University of Chicago, Friedman and his minions have dominated the economic framework of U.S. international as well as domestic policies for decades. Of course, there is little human freedom in the corporate-controlled “free markets.” Many of these policies have been at the heart of U.S. imperial strategies of foreign domination in the later twentieth century right up to today. U.S. geopolitical strategies have been driven largely by attempts to control world fossil-fuel markets.

Empire of Emissions

Anyone so naïve as to believe that U.S. foreign policy is meant to “bring democracy” to other nations must read Confessions of an Economic Hit man, by John Perkins (2004). As an “economic hit man,” it was Perkins’ job to persuade leaders of developing nations to accept huge loans to build massive infrastructure projects that did little to aid the development of those nations. Instead, they were designed and structured to bring poor countries with rich resources into submission to U.S. corporations and indebtedness to the U.S. government and the Big Banks. The deals required the money from the loans to be spent with U.S. construction companies on projects that would never generate enough income to pay off the loans. Pressure was then brought to bear on such nations to comply with U.S. political demands for resource exploitation and political subservience. Perkins’ book is a fascinating on-the-ground account of the workings of the expansive imperial structure, the larger picture that Naomi Klein characterizes as “disaster capitalism” in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007).

Despite the exposure of the massive economic and social failings of the growth-at-any-cost form of predatory extractive capitalism that is ideologically propped up by the neoliberal economic theorists, not much has changed in “modern economics.” This is also true of the specialty of “environmental economics.” The latest effort to stand firm supporting “market mechanisms” as the means to solve all problems in the world, is made by William Nordhaus. His essay in the New York Review of Books, October 8, 2015, tries to destroy the economic credibility of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015. Available at w2.vatican.va).

Nordhaus is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and a well established environmental economist. His attack on Pope Francis’ encyclical pretends to be grounded in supposed rock-solid economic facts of “effective” market approaches to restraining carbon emissions. He entirely ignores the strong evidence that carbon trading in Europe has been a dismal failure. Rather than having a basis in scientific findings, his analysis is actually grounded only in neoliberal economic ideology. It ignores both the severity of the economic and ecological facts of our destabilizing world and the moral questions raised by Pope Francis’ argument.

At least ecological economists examine economic systems as operating within the living earth systems that sustain all life, including economists and other humans. Norhaus’ failure – and that of economics in general – is that he treats earth systems as mere economic factors to be incorporated in the economists’ models of market forces. In fact, economies are human systems operating within and now seriously disrupting the earth systems upon which they rely. This is a direct result of the propagandistic role of economics in the political culture of the U.S. and most of the other industrially overdeveloped nations.

Immoral Economics

Nordhaus wants to protect the failed economic system by tweaking its damaging impacts. However, living earth systems are being so severely destabilized by the fundamental ways that system operates, that only a massive reorganization of human economic life will be sufficient to allow those systems to re-stabilize.

Nordhaus concludes his essay by chiding the pope for not endorsing a “market-based solution” such as carbon pricing (and the disaster that is carbon trading) as “the only practical policy tool we have” to turn back the dangerous trends of climate change. Certainly, such “solutions” would constitute the limit of action if we had to accept the corporate free market ideology. But Pope Francis has other ideas. He asserts the social immorality of a system that destroys climate stability and all that depend on it while creating more plutocracy and poverty. Pope Francis calls upon the people to turn away from compulsive consumerism. He calls upon world leaders to abandon the “magical conception of the market” and to turn away from the failed economic system they have allowed to rule us and severely damage the planet.

Nordhaus will have none of it. He dismisses economists like Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz, who recognize in different ways the relationship between capital gone wild and increasing inequality. By attacking the idea that climate disruption causes poverty, Nordhaus attempts to deflect attention from the fact that unrestrained predatory global capital causes both. He optimistically asserts that utilizing assumed magical qualities of market mechanisms can somehow undo the damage that unbridled global capital markets have wrought. That is the trouble with economics.

Immigration, Refugees, Arms Sales, and the Food Crisis

The current stream of refugees to Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones is just the tip of a growing iceberg. Most major news outlets focus on the struggle to resolve how the Europeans can absorb the current rush of migrants to Europe fleeing death and destruction. Distinctions are made between economic refugees and political or war refugees. Those deemed to be migrating to flee poverty and seek economic opportunity are more likely to be turned back. Those acknowledged to be fleeing political persecution are more likely to be welcomed. That is understandable, but much more is involved. News stories focus on the events of the moment and in this case are “Eurocentric.” Historians will later reflect on the role of such events in the larger flow over time. Meanwhile, there is more to come.

Some major newspapers, such as Great Britain’s The Guardian and The Independent, have begun to look also at the larger picture of which the current crisis is a mere symptom. There are several important connections between crises of war, poverty, climate disruption, and agricultural failures than commonly acknowledged, especially in the U.S. corporate media. Here and in Europe refugees are often seen as being of questionable character and possibly criminal intruders.

Blaming the Victims

We need not listen to Donald Trump to recognize the prejudice against Mexicans and all Central Americans, which permeates discussions of immigration in the news. Yet most refugees from Central America are fleeing violence in countries whose militaries were trained by the infamous U.S. military run “School of the Americas.” The results were clandestine but official death squads that tortured and murdered rebels and civilians alike. Their brutal actions are still taken in support of dictatorships in Central America that the U.S. has propped up for decades. And, of course, Mexican farmers, driven out of business by NAFTA enabled cheap corn dumping on the Mexican food market by U.S. corporations, have sought employment north of the border.

The refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as smaller numbers from war torn regions in Africa are conceived by many Europeans as invaders. Other kind souls have held up welcome signs and handed out food to the immigrants, recognizing both their plight and their humanity. But the conflicts they flee have resulted largely from neocolonial attempts to exert geopolitical control over regions rich in oil, minerals, and materials needed for the failing endless economic growth of the Global North. The U.S. “war on terror” is inextricably entangled with its undead pretensions to Empire, cloaked in the phony ideological veneer of “bringing democracy” to the developing nations of the world. In a fundamental way, these immigrants are refugees from the consequences of empire.

Merchants of Death

Not much is said about the connections between the international arms trade and the current wave of immigration from the Middle East to Europe. It is common among humans to attribute the problems of other humans to assumed defects in those who suffer with the problems. This is no less true of the current situation and the geopolitical events leading up to the current surge of migration. In the U.S. it is commonly assumed that the problems of Sunni-Shiite violence stem from age-old animosities attributed to these groups. We ignore the fact that before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites lived peacefully in the same neighborhoods and intermarried peacefully in Baghdad and elsewhere. In fact the U.S. demolish-divide-and-conquer approach to its occupation of Iraq forced Iraqis into conflict relations by destroying the civil society that sustained peaceful relations. That civil society existed under the prior dictatorship and certainly could have been sustained under a democratic regime the U.S. government claimed to be bringing to Iraq. But the U.S. destroyed civil society and most of the basic infrastructure upon which it depended.

The geopolitics of war is immensely influenced (and stimulated) by the international arms trade. In most conflict zones, little violence would be occurring were it not for the saturation of arms among conflicting groups supplied and sponsored by outside entities. The so-called “great powers” set up conflict situations by their attempts to control extant or potential “client nations.” The proliferation of arms results from loans or grants for sales by the dominant suppliers such as the U.S., China, Russia, and Germany, with significant sales from Eastern Europe as well. These nations facilitate sales by private arms dealers as well as making direct “loans” for purchases by client states and non-state actors. The U.S., for example, has contracted with various arms dealers to supply Afghan troops to fight the Taliban. Most of the arms used by ISIS are U.S. made, some confiscated from fleeing Iraqi troops and some purchased on the private arms market. The U.S. government does nothing to restrict sales by U.S. arms manufacturers and their dealers around the world – after all, that might upset the NRA.

Climate of Collapse

With the impact of global warming causing climate disruptions including regional drought and flooding in developing nations, food production is already being severely damaged. Some refugee camps in Lebanon, crowded with Syrians who fled their destroyed homes, have run out of food. The common idea that migrants are merely poor people seeking better economic opportunities is for these reasons both inaccurate and simplistic. Most poor rural Africans or Afghans –or middle class Syrians for that matter – would have had little or no motivation for leaving their homes for Europe or anywhere else if it were not for the threat of death by war and starvation.

It is the convergence of the externally stimulated armed conflicts – and imperious resource seizures – with growing disruption of regional agriculture and the destabilization of local political and economic structures that makes life in such places unbearable. Most of the destabilization in the world today is the result of “great powers” vying for power over nations rendered weaker by prior colonialism. The nations of the industrialized Global North compete to control the world’s resources. They destabilize weaker nations, as they charge headlong and indifferent, causing climate chaos and planetary destruction.