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).

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.]

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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?

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[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.