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).

Transparency, Transgressions, Bots, Trolls and Hackers

Today, we live in a world of illusion more than ever before. We cannot be certain where much of the ‘information’ we are exposed to comes from or how accurate it may be. The lie is the new normal. Deception has grown as politicians and corporate CEOs ignore calls for transparency. We must do our own research, but most do not have the resources, skills, or time.

As is clearer by the day, some yet unknown level of influence by Russian bots, trolls, and hacks of U.S. electoral computing networks and political email may have tipped the electoral balance in 2016. “Fake news,” political opinion, and facts are routinely conflated in attempts to control the public perceptions of the increasingly difficult problems we face. Deception dominates discussion. Discerning thoughts do not.

It is easy to become paranoid under the conditions we now face. The role of a “free press” is to question authority as well as any other claims to truth. News operations should challenge opinion with facts to lead where they may. More often broadcasters merely report conflicting opinions as if facts do not matter. Only a few good investigative reporters remain and judges threaten them with jail if they do not reveal their sources of evidence of official transgressions or institutional corruption. Whistle blowers have no protection in the new security state.

Reality Show Trumps Reality

The president attacks all major media, from CNN to the New York Times, as “fake news,” never bothering to substantiate his claims with any evidence whatsoever. His fawning ‘supporters’ simply believe whatever he says. That is relatively easy for those unable to engage in critical thinking. Too many naively believe in the empty loftiness of “Make America Great Again,” as an easy rhetorical remedy for their very real pain. Trumpist spin-doctors conflate political leaks of administrative transgressions with national security threats.

Nostalgia for an imaginary past that never was nor ever will be is no basis for public policy. Neither should empty rhetoric that frames the propagation of delusions in flag-waving sleight of hand, claiming to produce jobs while stealing the commonwealth for the oligarchs. Taking deregulation to the extreme while pushing for vast tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting deeply into healthcare on the backs of under- and unemployed Americans reflects the accelerating trend toward complete oligarchy.

Tilting Toward Collapse

There will be no job-growth in a nation that has collapsed under the weight of rising sea levels, extreme draught, flash floods, failed crops, resource exhaustion, and superstorms – not to mention top-down corruption. Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer was longtime chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Air Program. He was also an early force in the U.N. efforts to track climate change caused by global warming. Oppenheimer recently estimated that our chances for staying under the maximum two degrees of global warming called for in the Paris Climate Accords, are now less than 10 Percent. Many agree that the maximum to avoid catastrophic climate change is 1.5 degrees.

Our shrinking probability of success in meeting minimal emissions reductions to avoid climate chaos has resulted primarily from the imposition of intellectual dishonesty upon the public discourse. On top of that, various efforts to take collective action contrary to the interests of the fossil-fuel industry have faced attacks on all fronts. Massive funding of front groups and state legislation opposing climate action by the Koch brothers, the use of bots and trolls to influence elections, and the avoidance of transparency in corporate and governmental actions, all contribute to an atmosphere of fear and illusion, stifling rational action.

A website set up to help consumers choose low-emissions based products within their zip codes to reduce their carbon footprint and save money was attacked by what appeared to be Russian bots and trolls, severely damaging communications with its users and prospects. Expensive security upgrades became necessary. Its efforts to recover the losses and expand its services, the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign of A Parallel World were stifled, apparently by trolls working in the interests of fossil energy.

More and more, a Trumpist federal administration and the propagandists it enables have taken control of the public discourse. They make every effort to stifle dissent and thwart efforts to counter the destruction of the fossil-fueled industrial economy.

Eminent Reasoning

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular articulate astrophysicist with a growing media presence, offers an extremely important four-minute video on “Science in America”

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Neil deGrasse Tyson  ~ Source: Brainpickings.org

containing, in his words, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” It is all about finding truth in the face of emotional, ideological, and delusional denial of facts in order to avoid the difficult political decisions that are necessary to solve the monumental problems we face today. His clear common-sense approach to explaining the role science has played, demonstrates how it more than ever needs to play a central role in salvaging progress for American civilization. Please watch it and tell me what you think.

Scapegoating for the Oligarchs, or Not

Ruling elites routinely distract their subject people by directing attention to individuals or ethnic groups as ‘the enemy,’ and it routinely works. As long as people are distracted by arguments over ethnic and individual culpability and conflict, the oligarchy wins. We could discuss the dominance of the English-American elite over the American economy and politics after the revolutionary war and their continued dominance thereafter, excluding the Scots-Irish immigrants and later many other ethnic groups from full political and economic participation, but to what avail?

The big mistake is to reduce problems resulting from economic inequities to the characteristics of individuals or ethnic groups. Today’s central banking cartel transcends national borders and ethnic categories, yet it benefits from any distraction of public awareness by scapegoating, including re-coded American racism, blaming immigrants for job losses, and plain old anti-Semitism.

The bottom line is structural; we live in a political economy of oligarchy, with a new twist that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism” – a new form of fascism with a thin ‘democratic’ facade. You could waste your time tracking the ethnicity of all bankers, only to find a mix of whatever proportion, yet it would not matter. Their allegiance is to the financial elite of which they are members. Their Fox News minions call them the ‘job creators,’ even as they move their capital overseas to the labor markets they can exploit more cheaply. The oligarchy has various historical elements, but its current structure of power is what matters, and that is not an ethnic structure, it is the political-economic-financial structure of the corporate state. That is what needs to be directly faced and dealt with by ordinary citizens through concerted action.

Any chance for the people to prevail and for equity and democracy to survive will result only when people in communities recognize the fact that the larger system is way out of democratic control. It is not immigrants, Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, or even terrorists who cause the problems most people feel directly in the form of depressed wages, underemployment, unemployment, lack of access to quality education, loss of access to voting, the decline of municipal infrastructures, growing police brutality and gun violence, a congress that refuses to respond to economic crises on Main street, not just on Wall Street, etc. Oligarchy thrives on oppression and distraction. Most societal problems are symptoms of economic and political oppression, and elite delusions of empire. Most Americans know that “the system is rigged,” and the economic cards are stacked against them. We also know that we can’t fight it alone. Anger breeds prejudice and discrimination; easy targets are presented to distract us. But only a turn toward positive concerted action can really help.

Because of the lock-up of national politics and economic policy by the oligarchs, the only ways left for ordinary people to survive and to thrive are strategies to create our own locally controlled institutions within communities and to withdraw participation from the giant institutions controlled by the Oligarchs.

Move your money from the Big Banks to local credit unions. Cancel Big-Bank credit cards and use local credit union cards. Start community banks. Divest savings from the fossil-fuel oligarchs and invest in socially responsible funds and local ecologically sound enterprises. Organize community solar and wind generating systems. Buy local. Reduce consumption from marketing-driven wants; buy to satisfy actual needs. Withdrawal from the international trade and industrial production system will stimulate opportunities in local economies in which individuals and families can participate and exercise control. That, of course, will not be an easy transition; it will require much cultural change and will be resisted by the oligarchs. But it will be an invigorating, transformational stimulus to a free and open society.

Collapse: Converging Crises and the American Oligarchs

Two new studies now being reported converge in frightening ways with the most recent data on climate disruption. Their results reflect the growing likelihood that the converging crises of economy, social justice, and ecology will lead to the collapse of civilization and even the sixth mass extinction. (Kolbert, 2014)

First, Gillens and Page (2014) studied empirical records in the period from 1981 through 2010, and showed that the outcomes of national policy debates have had almost no relationship to the preferences of the general population, but are highly correlated with the interests of economic elites; the obvious inference is that we live in an oligarchy with the trappings of formal democracy – not exactly news. But previous research results were mixed and did not settle which model of political process is valid. The researchers found that the opinions of citizens of median income and lower have had no bearing on social policy outcomes. But the interests of economic elites (who happen to fund most of politics) are clearly reflected in law and policy. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, oligarchs rule, and like the Russian oligarchs, many are ruthless.

Second, a new study of the dynamics between human activity and nature, using mathematical models based on historical examples, predicts the collapse of civilizations when economic stratification or ecological strain surpass carrying capacity. Either economic stratification or ecological strain can independently lead to collapse. Together, well… But collapse can be avoided if a sustainable rate of resource use is achieved and if resources are distributed equitably, so that carrying capacity is not exceeded. (Motesharrei, et al, 2014) Industrial societies today, especially the U.S., have fundamentally failed to even work seriously to find a path to either economic equity or ecological sustainability as climate chaos fast approaches. (Politically motivated public gestures of little substance don’t really count.)

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports gently urge an accelerated response to climate disruption because the indicators continue to accelerate. But with lags before effects of emissions are observed and felt, and positive feedback loops accelerate – dark arctic seas absorb much more solar radiation than reflective ice sheets – we are surely approaching a tipping point where mitigation efforts will not be enough and adaptation sufficient for survival will be nearly impossible. Like all previous reports, current assessments underestimate the urgency of accelerating climate disruption.

We are in a multi-faceted trap. The oligarchs continue to grab all they can, ignoring the signs of the end of the wealth they so desperately want to control. The corporate media continue to ignore the obvious, slowing public awareness of the immediacy of the human existential crises. And as the politicians are locked into their self-aggrandizing roles as the agents of the oligarchs, the people have no say over political decisions that affect human survival.

The economic-growth machine and its ideology grind on with full political support from the agents of oligarchy (congress and president) as if the old normal still applies. Interestingly, when we look at historical examples of the collapse of civilizations, such as the Maya and the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond, it is clear that collapse was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from the failure of elites to adapt social behavior to changing conditions of climate and/or ecology as they continued down their paths of self-glorification. The difference today is that it is no longer some small ecological niche that is disrupted; it is the entire planet.

Only massive public mobilization and rapid reorganization leading to ecologically viable and equitable economics has a chance of staving off the collapse of civilization. It is hard to imagine how such massive change could be accomplished. The American social and economic mobilization at the outset of World War II, comes to mind, but the elites and the people were united and the transformation required was much smaller, as were the stakes. We live in perilous times. We must act, together, now.
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Diamond, Jared, (2005) Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Gillens, Martin and Bejamin I. Page, (April 9, 2014, unpublished paper) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Forthcoming, Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Motesharrei, Safa, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” Ecological Economics 101 (2014) 90-102.