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).

Why Is Social Security So Insecure?

We all know that politics is rife with deceit of the public and deception of the self.  Claims as to the reasons a senator or congressman supports or opposes a bill or a policy are often merely “cover stories” hiding the widespread real reason the politicians vote the way they do – money.  The conflation of the financial status of Social Security with the problems of the national debt and the annual fiscal deficit of the U.S. is a case in point.  Much money is at stake, but rarely is the real issue directly faced.

Social Security is not part of the federal budget.  It is a self-funding program that provides very modest old-age and other benefits to those who have contributed to it during their working lives, and to certain dependants.  As they try to cut back benefits and destroy Social Security, politicians make disingenuous claims that they want to “protect the integrity” of Social Security.  They know that most Americans like the program and want it to survive.  In an economic environment where almost all private pension systems have been plundered by the corporations that administered them for the employees who contributed to them over entire careers only to lose it all at retirement, Social Security has become the de facto fall-back retirement system, despite it’s poverty level “benefits.”

Powerful forces, such as the national financial elite and extreme anti-government political ideologues, bent on destroying Social Security (and Medicare/Medicaid too, of course) don’t always have the same motivations.  The financial elite wants Social Security funds diverted into “private retirement savings accounts” to be managed by, you guessed it, their very own stock market brokerage firms.  What a windfall of commissions and fees that would be for the most powerful economic class!  And what a high-risk future for retirees!

But the growing insecurity of Social Security is a serious political problem simply because the corporate and financial elites and their congressional agents want it to be.  There is just too much money to be made for them to leave it alone.  Several simple changes in the system designed to compensate for both class injustices in the contributions of wealthy high-income employees versus average workers, and for generational changes in the demographics of employment and aging could easily be made without major problems of implementation.  However, those who would profit – either politically or financially – by the privatization/destruction of Social Security, carefully avoid the easy solutions to any long-term cash flow problems because they either want to take over the huge money flow involved or because they are politically opposed to any government social program that assists those in need.  The first group could be called the “Jackals of Wall Street” while the second group consists of extreme right-wing ideologues who oppose government no matter what.

But what’s the real issue?  Simply put, Social Security was originally conceived as an insurance program, meant to help those elders whose employment failed to afford them an adequate pension or life savings, to see them through after they could no longer work.  But with the corporate plunder of pension systems, Social Security became the default retirement system for most American workers.  Now, with the reduction of the vast majority of the middle class to near-poverty or poverty status, with personal life-savings virtually impossible for many to accumulate, and pension systems no more, Social Security is very often the last defense against homelessness and destitution.  If the Social Security payroll tax were applied to all personal income, including the millions of dollars in “executive compensation” in its many forms such as salaries, stock options, “incentive pay,” and bonuses of top CEOs, the fund would be sufficient to support the small “benefits” far into the foreseeable future for those who need it.

So, the real issue is whether the American people will tolerate the plunder of the Social Security system as they did corporate pensions, or whether they will demand that what was intended as a social insurance scheme actually be implemented as such.  That’s where the tricky language often applied to the Social Security debate needs to be overcome.  Insurance works on the basis of every “insured” person contributing and those who suffer losses collecting the benefits.  Simply put, if Social Security were actually implemented as a social insurance program rather than as a last-ditch inadequate retirement system –  and certainly not as a privatized “retirement savings account”  subject to the whims of the stock market – several principles would have to be invoked in order to make it work quite effectively.  They are:

  •  All personal income must be subject to the Social Security Payroll Tax.  Who has ever gotten fire insurance without paying the premium?  Why should high income earners not pay the premium on all their income?
  • Social Security benefits would be dispensed on the basis of need.  Who has ever collected on her/his fire insurance when there was no fire?   Why should wealthy retirees collect benefits from an insurance scheme designed to protect against the lack of income or loss of wealth in old age?
  • If one were so lucky as to have benefited from a prosperous pension system, then any Social Security benefit would be adjusted down on that basis.  And a formerly wealthy man who lost his fortune (stocks, bonds, dividends, buyouts, bonuses, “incentive pay”), would also draw the maximum Social Security benefit.  What’s wrong with that?
  • The net effect of the system should be that everyone could retire with assurance that they can live in at least modest comfort in their final years without fear of economic and social deprivation.

In an economic and social environment where so much income and wealth has been redistributed from the middle and lower classes of workers to the very top 0.1% of privileged Americans, only some form of re-redistribution can at this point re-establish a semblance of balance to the economy and stability to the society.  A real social security system would still be little more than a small compensation to those who have lost the most over their working lives to the insatiable greed of the financial elite.