The Deeper Deep State

The “Deep State” is deeper than you think. I first ran across the concept when I read an essay by former senior analyst for congress, Mike Lofgren on Bill Moyers’ website, posted in 2014. Lofgren was apparently the first to use the term. He spent many years working for Congress, the last sixteen as a senior analyst on the House and Senate Budget committees. He knows the federal government from the inside. The essay and interview with Bill Moyers evolved into a book, titled The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, published in 2016. That was all before the extreme right Trumpists appropriated the term to attack all but the most authoritarian elements in the federal government.

Deep.State.book.jacketLofgren’s use of the term “deep state” referred to the complex web of coordinated entrenched interests both inside the US government and outside, especially on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, that profit heavily from congressional “defense” and other major budget decisions. Despite their appropriation of the term, the Trumpists support many aspects of the “deep state” as Lofgren describes it. Lofgren argues convincingly that the U.S. has become an oligarchy in fact if not in name.

The idea of a deep state, as Lofgren deployed it, is very similar to the phenomenon of “inverted totalitarianism” that Sheldon Wolin describes in his heavily documented study, Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Wolin, a highly respected political scientist, argues that American democracy has morphed into a strange hybrid consisting of a shell of democratic formality surrounding a core of bureaucratic totalitarianism. He distinguishes between the traditional notion of totalitarianism, which involves overt authoritarianism by a dictator, and the emergent bureaucratic form that involves a complex merging of corporate economic interests and the entrenched powers of the state. Others may call this complex the “corporate state.”

Lofgren experienced the corporate state from the inside; Wolin examined it from the outside. Both conclude that the result is a fundamental loss of democracy. Now, the appropriation of the term, “the deep state,” by the extreme white nationalists and neo-fascists aligned with the Trump administration, is a political propaganda tactic used to attack any element of government that serves the public interest instead of the interests of the oligarchic elites that Trumpists serve.

The Trumpist use of “the deep state” is an element of the demagoguery that attempts to turn the public against any element of the government or the media that does not serve their interests. Any accurate reporting of Trumpist dissembling or destructive executive orders he deems “Fake News.” Notice that Trump’s appointments to his cabinet and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Administration, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education, are all politically opposed to the very mandates of those departments and agencies. These neo-fascists are not so much interested in destroying the deep state as in taking it over.

The overwhelming majority of appointments to key posts Trump has drawn from Wall Street, the Military, and far-right politicians. He has attempted to turn the intelligence agencies into political operations. The deep state has become an even deeper penetration of oligarchic interests into the center of federal government operations. The deep state is now much deeper and more corrupt than before. Corruption is the essence of destroying democracy.

Boredom and Work

“Are we there yet?” “Why? Are you bored?”

Boredom. I never got that. How can any conscious being be bored? I think it is a matter of perception and attitude, maybe even choice. I recall hearing of people retiring from a job they had for most of their adult life, then dying within a few months, essentially because they had “nothing to do” and became despondent about their lives. They had so closely identified with and focused on their jobs that they had lost interest in the rest of the world. Separated from the source of their identity, they were lost.

Did they die of boredom? I don’t know. But I am sure that they had become unable to engage with the world beyond their job. Jobs, jobs, jobs. There are the “job creators” of corporate fiction; there are also the job destroyers of corporate outsourcing, moving capital to where the cheapest labor resides. Oh, but they are one and the same. Especially in today’s corporate dominated American culture, the growing power of the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals results from the fact that the rest of us depend upon them for most of the shrinking number of well-paid jobs.

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Charlie Chaplin ~ Modern Times

As automated production and manufacturing are outsourced overseas to the poor nations with the lowest wages, the giant corporations, though flush with cash, keep demanding of their congressional lackeys lower taxes, even as they dodge most taxes anyway. They blame “government spending” and “entitlement” programs for the failings of a corporate economy that provides fewer and fewer jobs with a living wage. Senators and Congressmen openly admit that unless they pass “tax reform,” driving up the national debt, their donors will cut them off. And they probably will. But that’s another story.

What, exactly, is there in the world that is boring?  I thought I knew once when I was about 15 years old. It was 1955. My friends all had minimum-wage jobs, paying about 75

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1951 Ford 2 door sedan

cents per hour. Or they had none at all. I was quite excited. My father had gotten me a summer job with his friend, a general contractor. I was paid at union scale, at that time around $3.65 per hour, almost 5 times minimum wage. That first summer it was easy to save up the $300- I needed to buy a used 1951 Ford as soon as I got my drivers license. If we all chipped in a quarter for gas, 3 or 4 of us could cruise all night until curfew. Nothing boring about that!

I remember clearly one hot summer day; I was at the bottom of a ditch the foreman had assigned me to dig. I can still picture myself there. He left me all alone in the hot smoggy Southern California sun to complete the ditch, for some drainage line at a hillside suburban home while he got some other workers started on another job. That ditch must have been 8 feet deep; I could barely launch a shovel full of dirt over the edge.  I wondered how long I’d be stuck with this ‘boring’ work.

Then I came upon an idea; I wondered how evenly I could cut the edges of that ditch while digging it as ordered – an interesting challenge for a kid trapped in a ditch with nothing else to do and nowhere to go. The day went much quicker as I faced that inconsequential challenge and learned how to not be bored.

So many of today’s jobs are boring because all ability to apply talent or skill to them has been taken out by automated processes, reducing them to simple mechanical performance with even less potential for creativity than digging a ditch. They are mostly at or near minimum wage too. And, minimum wage today, at $7.50 or $10- per hour buys less than that 75 cents did in 1955. Then, a 10-cent cup of copy was a small fraction of the hourly minimum wage. Today, a Starbuck’s coffee can cost you the equivalent of an hour’s work. That is not boring; it is intolerable.

Civility and the Climate Impacts of Denialism

Yesterday, I read an article in the Scientific American discussing a key dilemma that stymies climate action. No standards exist that could provide firm measures of how much carbon emissions reduction is necessary by what date to avoid the worst climate chaos. The article asked the difficult question of how much CO2 we must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The tendency of political elites to dodge such specific targets results from their avoidance of any basis for judging political policies for having failed.

The article also raised the issue of whether science could develop new techniques of carbon sequestration – “negative emissions” technologies – soon enough to use them to avoid catastrophic climate change. It also questioned whether deployment of such technologies might detract from direct mitigation efforts. Those are interesting and difficult questions.

I have to disagree with the continuing search for new technologies as the answer to the climate crisis. We must cut carbon emissions by reducing the energy we use and waste. Trying to capture the emissions from excessive use and waste cannot solve the underlying problem. However, I appreciated the thoughtful analysis and difficulty in finding and optimizing strategies for slowing, stopping, and reversing global warming before we reach a tipping point beyond which collapse of climate and ecosystems forces societal collapse.

Climate Discussion, or Not

I read that article right after participating in some “discussions” on a Facebook group called, Climate Change Discussion. Discussions of Climate change are not often actual discussions. On this Facebook group, responses to posts frequently devolve into rather juvenile name-calling and nasty shouting matches. On the one hand, some occasionally interesting and informative posts appear there. Too often, however, so-called skeptics attack the person offering such information or opinion as “alarmists,” and use far more hostile epithets. Well, that may be tolerable as far as it goes, but the “alarmists” become targets for a wide range of abusive accusations. Both terms, “alarmists” and “denialists,” are more accusatory than descriptive, with one exception. “Alarmist” implies unjustified panic, while “denialist” implies resistance to facts. The difference is not trivial.

It strikes me as peculiar that those who claim to have “sound reservations” about climate models become so angry with those who present facts that contradict their “skepticism.” Facts, of course, are denied or ignored. The so-called skeptics have no problem denigrating large numbers of scientists who have no other ax to grind other than seeking accurate measures of reality and projecting trends within reasonable parameters. Yet “skeptics” take extreme offense at the idea that insisting on being blind to obvious and demonstrated facts contributes to the delay of any action that might mitigate the devastation that Bangladeshis and others already feel, and some call criminal because the delays cause great suffering and death.

Rising Tides in Ghana

Rising Tides in Ghana

Climate scientists base their findings and projections on vast amounts of time-series data gathered by many field researchers and recording stations around the world. The duplicitous sanctimonious denial of fact and science are puzzling on the surface. Such behavior is at least callus and indifferent to the plight of others who suffer from what we participants in the carbon economy do that causes such suffering. It is understandable that some call it criminal for contributing to a political climate of do-nothing-ism that causes many more deaths than if people just faced reality and our own complicity in its path — and did something about it.

Refined Climate Models and Worsening Crisis

New data have repeatedly confirmed the predictions of climate science models as correct, except that they have repeatedly UNDER-estimated the effects of global warming because various amplifying feedback processes were not at first incorporated into their complex models. Arctic water exposed due to melting sea-ice absorbs more heat than the ice that melted due to atmospheric warming. Melting tundra releases methane, which is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the CO2 we release directly, which caused the tundra to melt in the first place, etc., etc.

What that all means is that climate science is far beyond the initial hypothesis testing stage; it is at the stage of refining models that have already effectively described the trends in the data and do so more accurately as more data on feedback variables are added to the predictive models. The sad truth is that the improved models consistently forecast a very dire immediate future and are entirely consistent with current climate disruptions. That is why the situation is much worse than initially thought by climate scientists and why denialist politics is so ABSURD.

When a prediction underestimates an outcome that it predicts, that does not mean the ‘theory’ is wrong; it means the theory is incomplete. It might seem unfortunate that climate models did not over-predict the effects, in which case, we would have a little breathing room. As it stands, we do not. On the other hand, over-prediction would have generated far more skepticism and denial than we must overcome now.

The intersection of denialism and science has its roots in complex relations between mainstream (corporate) economics, political corruption, and social-psychological processes within particular groups. But that discussion awaits another post.

Media, Abuse, and Groping for Dollars

MSNBC, CNN and the network nightly news anchors and commentators for weeks could not stop talking about all the politicians, men of power and celebrities who have groped, assaulted, or raped women over the years. It had started awhile back in Hollywood with Bill Cosby’s now all but forgotten drugging and raping many women over his career. The latest flurry of revelations began with the belated exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s decades old practice of using his power as a movie producer to subjugate vulnerable young actresses and take carnal advantage of them.

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Twice Removed “Judge” Roy Moore.   Photo: NBC News

Then it was deranged Alabama politician, “Judge Roy Moore,” well, twice removed from the bench Roy Moore. His career of stalking, groping, and attempting to seduce underage girls apparently spanned decades. Numerous accusations about Donald Trump’s exploiting his celebrity to make rude advances to pretty women had surfaced during the 2 016 presidential campaign. “Access Hollywood” had videotaped his bragging about the behavior. It want viral, for a while. Occasionally, as cases of other politicians and celebrities are exposed, someone asks, what about that long list of victims who complained of Donald Trump’s exploiting his celebrity status to grope women, and even bragging about it on camara?

Well, the congenital liar has vehemently denied it all, calling all sixteen or so women “liars.” Apparently, that is enough to establish the innocence of a narcissistic sociopath of sufficient celebrity or authority. In cases of accusation of sexual abuse of women or girls by men, especially men of power or fame, the accuser is assumed guilty of maligning the reputation of a good man, until proven otherwise, in which case, “she wanted it.”

Is the media attention overdone? Well, yes and no. The media over-reported in that the interest was to some extent prurient. I noticed that on MSNBC, CNN, and every nightly news program I watched during this time, virtually no mention was made of the struggles in Bonn to move the agenda of climate action forward at the United Nations conference in the face of the singular Trumpist resistance. That was surely under-reported. Salacious reporting does drive viewership to some extent. Sensationalism Trumped global crisis. At the same time, significant and valuable cultural and political commentary has emerged from the sexual abuse scandals. Maybe some executives, politicians, and celebrities will think twice now. Maybe.

The list goes on. Now even Al Franken, stands accused of inappropriately touching a female reporter on a USO tour while still a comedian, and spinning crass riffs in the writers room of Saturday Night Live. Franken’s case is a bit different; he is the only one to have fully admitted the facts and apologized for his behavior. The apology seemed sincere and his victim accepted it. Now, Senator Elisabeth Warren and others have proposed a permanent bipartisan ethics committee to investigate sexual harassment accusations in the Congress.

Charlie Rose, famed television interviewer, has had his contracts cancelled and has lost his shows with CBS and PBS, after several women accused him of sexual abuse. Some folks were quite shocked, since they viewed the articulate interrogator as a paragon of virtue. After all, he was so talented at throwing softballs at world leaders and celebrities. The quick corporate response indicates a cultural change. But the deeper question is, why now, why so many revelations so fast?

Well, the answer is not so difficult. Women and girls have suffered sexual abuse for decades, without recourse, in the U.S. Whether in the corporate office, senate chambers, television studio, Olympic Games locker room, or even at home, victims consistently suffered disbelief and denial all that time. The Women’s Liberation movement had never really reached that level of oppression. Silence was the fruit of “blaming the victim,” as well as disbelief and denial. I suspect the Harvey Weinstein case broke the ice in a way, especially with Bill Cosby’s track record as context. So many people in Weinstein’s company and in the industry knew of Weinstein’s behavior, that his equivocating and dissociating fell on deaf ears. A groundswell of courage among victims slowly began, then became contagious.

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Diverse members of the Women’s March, Washington, DC, donning their “Pussy Hats.” Photo: Reuters.

Bottom line: all this, except for the current revelatory contagion, has gone on for a long time. Men of power have used that power to take advantage of subordinate women, sometimes men, and even vulnerable children just about everywhere. Sexual abuse is the abuse of power. The “political correctness” of women’s rights built up over the past four decades, so maligned by Trump and his misogynist base, set the scene for the wellspring of courage of many victims to tell their stories in a new context of recognition and acknowledgement of their victimhood. The massive participation of men and women together in the Women’s March also demonstrated the underlying cultural change that Trumpery cannot stop.

None of these men, from the Kennedys and Bushes to Al Franken and Charlie Rose, (even, I dare say, the disturbed pistol-waving Roy Moore) are merely one-dimensional characters. Even the late Hugh Hefner, despite his exploitation of “Bunnies” and subjects of centerfolds, contributed to civil rights and to the protection of abandoned and exploited street children. Life is complex. But the ability of the powerful to exploit or abuse the dependent and the vulnerable is a simple matter of differential power. Failure of others to deal with the culprits results from the mistaken, often unconscious, cultural illusion of might making right. That is why Trump has gotten away with so much … so far. After all, to his politically blind base, he can do no wrong. Vigilance remains, as always, the price of attaining freedom and realizing human values.

Paradise for Plutocrats and the Crimes of Oligarchy

Here we go again. In the latest revelations, widespread tax cheating and secret offshore financial manipulations hide massive amounts of wealth, both ill-gotten and ordinary corporate profits. The International Association of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has released “The Paradise Papers,” millions of documents that provide new devastating evidence of the history and current efforts of the most powerful and wealthy individuals, criminals and corporations in the world to hide their wealth and avoid responsibilities.

Release of “The Panama Papers” did a similar service about a year before the release of the “Paradise Papers.” As the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists put it, “A giant leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposes a system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, hidden by secretive offshore companies.” The Panama Papers had exposed how criminals, politicians, wealthy individuals, and major corporations have hidden cash and other assets with the help of the legal maneuvering and loophole exploiting made possible by the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Panama police have since arrested the founders of Mossack Fonseca as part of money laundering investigations.

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The Super-Rich steal from Everyone Else, making them Enemies of the People.

Given what we have learned from the Panama Papers, it seemed unlikely that Mossack Fonseca could be the only offshore law firm operating to facilitate international criminal financial dealings. Well, sure enough, The Paradise Papers, also released by the ICIJ, reveal another giant complex of operations, this time exposed by the release of 13.4 million records. The release was shared by the ICIJ with major news outlets, including the Guardian, the BBC, and the New York Times. The documents exposed “ties between Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, the secret dealings of the chief fundraiser for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the offshore interests of the queen of England and more than 120 politicians around the world.” According to the ICIJ,

“The leaked documents, dubbed the Paradise Papers, show how deeply the offshore financial system is entangled with the overlapping worlds of political players, private wealth and corporate giants, including Apple, Nike, Uber and other global companies that avoid taxes through increasingly imaginative bookkeeping maneuvers.”

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The Paradise Papers expose the Corrupt Practices of Global Oligarchs.

I was not surprised to learn that the Paradise Papers revealed ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s billionaire commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a private equity tycoon. His shipping company (which he did not divest when taking office as promised) “has received more than $68 million in revenue since 2014 from a Russian energy company co-owned by the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Furthermore, the Paradise Papers implicate over a dozen of Trump’s cabinet members and major donors in the financial manipulations exposed by the documents.

So, what does it all mean? Is it merely a matter of the wealthy paying to have their money managed effectively by specialists? Well, it runs much deeper. Brooke Harrington, a certified wealth manager, Copenhagen Business School professor and author of Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent, suggests otherwise. The ICIJ quotes Harrington as follows: “There is this small group of people who are not equally subject to the laws as the rest of us, and that’s on purpose,” They “live the dream” of enjoying “the benefits of society without being subject to any of its constraints.” And, of course, the benefits they enjoy so far surpass what the rest of us can even imagine, that the constraints they avoid deeply damage the public interest around the world.

That, of course, is what Trumpism is all about. Every cabinet appointment, every executive order, every tweet of this “empty clown suite” aims to suppress the modest protections of the people, the land and resources of the nation from the predatory behavior of the oligarchs he represents. The line between legal and criminal behavior of the worlds oligarchs, with whom Trump has been entangled for many years, is quite blurry. The power of using agents like offshore law firm, Appleby by drug traffickers, kleptocrats, and money launderers to hide criminally obtained money, draws the world’s biggest oligarchs, politicians, and criminals together in both their financial interests and their methods of seeking secrecy.

Only the amazing coordinated research by dozens of ICIJ members could have exposed the “Offshore Magic Circle,” an informal collection of the world’s biggest offshore law firms in the financial secrecy business, of which Bermuda based Appleby, exposed in the Paradise Papers, is only one member. Multiple unexplored offshore tax havens serve the special interests of greed, corruption, and criminality of the world’s oligarchs. We don’t know to what extent the current U.S. President is a player or merely a pretender to plutocratic power, but we do know that his key associates are engaged in the middle of the Paradise for Plutocrats.

Politics of Denial, Technology and Reality

I keep running across obsessively denialist arguments in Face Book groups such as “Climate Change Discussion,” that make claims like, “Green Energy Is Expensive & It Won’t Save The Environment.” They brazenly tout false information, distortions of out-of-date facts, and assumptions that have no factual basis. They seem to reflect no critical thinking ability. Otherwise, we would have to classify them as outright propaganda.

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Carbon Emissions are Real. Photo:  Ghana Coal Plant.

Some social psychologists have gone into great detail explaining the complex sources of climate denialism in terms of compliance with social norms, avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and other factors that make it hard for people to believe that such a catastrophic global trend could be happening, even in the face of clear evidence. “Confirmation bias” is a concept that captures much of the psychological basis of the distortions of reality that would seem impossible if one simply looks objectively at the facts. But there is more at play here.

 

Social Psychology of Ideology

After all, who is purely objective? Most people (including scientists) routinely exclude evidence that conflicts with their existing beliefs until the evidence is too strong to resist. People find ways to “interpret” evidence to make it appear to confirm their biases; if that doesn’t work some folks simply deny the validity of the evidence, no matter how strong it is by scientific standards. Only when others in their social group recognize the facts do they come around to the conclusions the facts imply.

There is, of course, the general human resistance to change. In the case of climate disruption, the human changes actually needed to adequately deal with the problem are extreme. People subconsciously know that an adequate response would completely transform the way they live. That is a huge and threatening unknown, very hard to process.

As a social psychologist myself, I certainly understand these processes and the difficulties people face in recognizing a new and threatening reality. That is especially true when a new reality:

  • has seemed until now a speculation about the future,
  • is so massive in scale that it is hard to conceptualize,
  • is thought to be something that happens far away in little known places,
  • seems to not directly affect my life today, and
  • appears to be beyond my own influence anyway.

Ideology and Technology

Some denialists focus more on technology than on climate itself. They pitch for the conventional high-energy technologies of the industrial economy that caused the problem in the first place. Among these folks, the ideology of endless progress through new technology and new materials reigns supreme. That is why the ‘nuclear option’ is so appealing to them.

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Techno-Billionaire Bill. Photo: Pinterest

Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies would have governments pour billions into new nuclear power plant designs and let existing viable technologies languish. As one scientist put it, “nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.” Thermal solar collectors are far more efficient and cost-effective at producing steam. However, existing technologies have no profit potential for new capital investment – no new patents there, only benefit to people and planet. I see no reason to accept techno-billionaires as directors of global energy policy.

 

I have had to conclude that NO single technology, or even a combination of several, can do enough on its own to reach the NEGATIVE carbon emissions now necessary to reign in the trajectory of planetary heating already “in the pipeline,” without major reductions in energy use and waste by humans. That is the only hope to stabilize global climate.

Even producing and deploying existing low-carbon technologies requires the use of carbon-emitting processes. We must industrially manufacture even the “greenest” technologies in order to deploy them on a significant scale. All that involves carbon emissions from the processes of material extraction, industrial manufacture, distribution, and installation. In that context, nuclear power, being the most capital-intensive of all technologies is most carbon consuming and expensive to build and activate. Never mind its reliance on outdated vulnerable grid configurations that we must decentralize along with power production. On top of that, we simply do not have enough time to deploy significant numbers of nuclear power plants to replace coal and gas-powered electricity generation before the climate collapses beyond hope, even if we ignore the extreme dangers and costs.

Climate Realism

“The solution” must combine near-zero emissions technologies with major constraints on ALL but the most necessary energy consumption, mostly by the current highest energy consumption nations. That is where most of the excessive consumption and waste is. That is the uncomfortable and very difficult fact, which is why confirmation bias is so rampant and clear thinking on the matter is so rare.

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Solar and Wind Power offer Cost-effective Energy Production with the Lowest Carbon Emissions to Install and operate. Photo: Shutterstock.

At the same time, the most vocal public denialists studiously tout false logic as utility corporations do their cost-benefit analysis and increasingly find wind and solar a better economic deal than coal or now even fracked gas. So they add more wind and solar to their mix. Obsessive technophilia keeps touting nuclear power as “green” despite uneconomic and carbon-intensive construction and maintenance and perpetually failed efforts to find a way to store nuclear waste safely.

 

The climate crisis is now. If we were to wait for nuclear power plants to come on line to replace coal and gas, ignoring their inherent dangers, we would have passed the point of no return on climate chaos. Equating wasteful fossil-fuel energy consumption or a new nuclear power program with “civilization” is to degrade the concept by replacing human values with obsession with overly complex technology — which is exactly what we need to get over. We must optimize deployment of existing solar and wind power, and electric-powered transportation, while constraining our over-use of fossil-fueled electric power in our daily lives and rapidly restoring ecosystems, in order to achieve the negative carbon emissions necessary to curtail climate collapse.

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).