Monthly Archives: July 2018

The Oligarch Project

The Trump Administration’s drive to undermine American and other Western democracies and embrace Putin’s Russia is a critical piece of an even larger, and more horrifying, blueprint for establishing a neo-fascist global oligarchy. So far, it’s working.

Mainstream American punditry this week is predictably mystified and outraged by Donald Trump’s pilgrimage to a one-on-one meeting with Soviet spymaster Vladimir Putin and its disastrous aftermath. That was fresh off Trump doing his best to undermine NATO (especially the regimes of the conservative British and German prime ministers, Theresa May and Angela Merkel), and with new indictments last week of 12 Russian intelligence officials for their roles in helping throw the American 2016 presidential election to Trump. These things simply aren’t done; you can practically hear the clucking of disapproval. Even some Republicans are invoking the kinds of thoughts and prayers usually reserved for mass shootings, in the shared hope it will all go back to normal next week.

That’s not going to happen. And however outraged our political and media elites claim to be, they aren’t nearly outraged enough.

Literally everything Donald Trump has done, both as a presidential candidate and now as president, has been consistent with his actions of the past two weeks. It’s all in service to the same specific vision he’s consistently been working toward. That vision is now shared by almost all of the U.S. Republican Party, whose specific issue preferences have always been secondary to their foundational purpose of advancing the interests of the very wealthy. And with local variations, it is a vision being advanced with steadily greater effectiveness by far-right elements in most of the world’s major democracies.

Russia isn’t the only country with oligarchs, or with people who’ve realized that it’s much easier to win on the world’s economic playing fields if you simply buy the fields and rig the games.

The rich are always trying to get richer, of course. What makes this different is the scale of their attack on the rest of us. And to explain that requires a bit of context.

A Brief History of Power and Greed

Except for Antarctica, literally every square inch of land on our planet is claimed by one of the world’s 200 or so countries. This is a relatively recent development. The European nation-state, the standard by which the world has now been divided and sub-divided, is only a few centuries old. Before that, much of the world had only informal borders, or none at all; “nations” were defined by common language and culture, and the expanse of land that nation could control varied wildly over the centuries. Russians, for example, have never controlled much of the known world – but Mongols have.

Similarly, the idea that national rulers – before or after the advent of the European nation-state – should be accountable to those they govern is also a recent invention. It is, in fact, the single reason why the American Revolution, with its then-unthinkably radical declaration that “all men are created equal,” was so globally significant. A decade later, the same sensibilities informed the far more central French Revolution. World Wars One and Two can be understood as a failed attempt by anti-democratic regimes, then in a minority, to reassert their power and relevance. Instead, democracies’ victories spread the the appeal of self-determination, resulting first in the independence of colonial India and then, within the next two decades, the collapse of western colonial rule.

The end of colonialism wasn’t the end, though – it was just a tactical shift, from direct to indirect control of colonized countries. Western economies that had grown wealthy and powerful from centuries of colonial theft found that they could continue their wealth extraction with less local unrest by paying off authoritarian local leaders to do their bidding. Post-war international institutions like the IMF and World Bank ensured that even nominally democratic former colonies continued the export most of their wealth to new York, London, and Paris. Ideology aside, this became much of the logic behind the Cold War. American-backed dictators, fortified with American weapons, helped ensure that many of the world’s largest and most ubiquitous companies were American.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Two major developments have sparked another, more radical tactical shift by these Masters of the Universe: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of computing power and the Internet.

If the logic of colonial wealth-building was to use pliant, authoritarian political leaders to extract wealth that rightfully belongs to the state and its people (think of the mineral resources of Africa, or Middle Eastern oil), the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and its shift to a market economy presented an opportunity for such pillage on an unprecedented scale. Literally everything in the old USSR, from stores to industries to land, belonged to the state, and it was all suddenly up for grabs.

Russian organized crime, which never went away under communist rule, was quick to take advantage. The nominally democratic administrations of Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin were fueled by it. Putin then consolidated power, discarding democracy in the process, by using his office to enrich favored (and often mob-linked) businessmen and destroying their rivals. The Russian people, of course, were left poorer than ever – and either mollified by nationalist appeals or crushed if they objected to it all.

As this new wealth was consolidated in the ’90s, it presented a problem: the new Russian tycoons wanted their wealth to be in a stable currency, not the anemic ruble. This created an unprecedented demand for ways to launder what had become trillions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth. The ’90s also saw the rise of the political power of international banking. In the US alone, deregulation efforts that began under Reagan and continued with Clinton helped the financial sector grow from ten percent of the American economy to over 40 percent in just a few years. Something similar happened in the UK under Thatcher and Blair.

At the same time, multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization cemented the ability of companies and capital to move freely across international borders while ordinary people could not. This set up a global economic race to the bottom for workers, but it could have been even worse. One of the forgotten triumphs of Seattle activists shutting down a major WTO meeting in 1999 was that the lead agenda item for the so-called “Seattle Round” of trade negotiations was a proposal called the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), which would have removed all remaining restrictions on the international movement of money. The MAI was doomed after the Seattle debacle and was never enacted. If it had, all of today’s elaborate money laundering schemes, involving countries with friendly laws like Cyprus, Panama, and the UK (and many of its Commonwealth colonies), would be unnecessary.

As is, there are enough such money havens for the very wealthy – the leaking in recent years of the Panama Papers and then the Paradise Papers detailed the seamy side of how this all works – that the money laundering eventually found its way into “legitimate” banks (c.f. Deutsche Bank) or real assets, especially property. In the U.S., Russian money dominates the nicer neighborhoods of South Florida; Hong Kong money similarly built much of modern Vancouver B.C. “The City” – the London equivalent of Wall Street – became one of the world’s biggest financial centers because UK laws doesn’t ask many questions about where the money comes from. And electronic transfers makes it easy, in seconds, to move wealth through a half-dozen or more shell companies in countries where tracing those companies’ true owners is nearly impossible.

Donald Trump has made this network a central focus of his business for years. He sold hugely overpriced condos to Russian and other gangsters in New York, Florida, Panama, and much of Central Asia, among other places. His post-bankruptcies credit was terrible, but Deutsche Bank was willing to lend him unlimited amounts of dirty money. Several of Trump’s billionaire Cabinet members also worked in these circles; and, of course, former campaign chair Paul Manafort worked directly with and for these oligarchs. Little wonder that tens of millions of dollars, from both Russia and the Middle East, were allegedly funneled illegally into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Inevitably, some of this money also travels the rest of the world in search of elections that can bring to power leaders and parties who are willing to deregulate their countries’ banks. These are almost always conservative or far-right leaders who are willing, just like old colonial times, to keep the rabble in like if they doth protest too much.

Russians aren’t the only protagonists. The Chinese are quieter but bigger players. The U.S. exports this billionaire class as well as being a target of it; familiar conservative kingmakers like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert Mercer all have international political portfolios.

How We Learn To Stop Worrying and Love the Jackboot

This billionaire class has steadily been coalescing into a single movement that owes allegiance to no country, and that no one country is in a position to corral. Its focal point is now Vladimir Putin’s Russia. China’s elites are richer and just as active, but it’s Moscow, led by a former KGB officer, that has been willing to turn all of this into a specific plan that will increase Russia’s economic an geopolitical power at the expense of everyone else.

In most of the countries where this project is underway – from the eastern and Ventral European countries already under neo-fascist rule (Poland, Hungary, Austria, and now Italy) to the European countries where this movement has grown dramatically stronger (the UK, France, Greece, Germany) to developing countries where democratically elected strongmen are consolidating power (Turkey, Philippines) to countries whose existing authoritarian rule is helping bankroll the project (Russia, some elements in China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), the project of looting individual individual countries is invariably being sold to its unwitting citizens as some form of nationalism. “Make America Great Again,” with its underpinnings of xenophobia and racism, is in this sense fairly typical. The Brexit “Leave” campaign, also heavily financed by Russia, had similar themes.

The appeal of these nationalist movements is undeniable. Technology, environmental damage, and human-caused pillaging are already changing the lives of people globally at a pace unprecedented in human history. The economic insecurity wrought in most countries by neo-liberal and “free trade” policies has amounted to an elaborate, global race to the bottom for most of the world’s seven billion people, and an enormous wealth transfer to those at the very top. One economic estimate is that there’s only enough global wealth to create work that can support five billion of us – meaning that in a global cash economy, two billion “surplus” people will always be willing to work for less rather than not work at all. And as wealth continues to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, that “surplus” population invariably grows in both numbers and desperation. That’s not even factoring in the coming, catastrophic environmental changes, for which the global rich are busy building very exclusive arks while their expertly crafted nationalist propaganda ensures that there’s always some population of “others” to blame – immigrants or racial or religious minorities, for example. Divide and conquer becomes even more effective when software can track, divide, and delude all seven billion of us with terrifying precision. And the rise of the Internet has enabled propaganda, not just repression, to work on a scale never before possible.

As more and more people are left behind, the appeal to some of governments that can “get things done” and promise stability and a return to past glories isn’t surprising. It’s a cynical PR campaign, for which Donald Trump, who built his personal fortune on marketing, empty promises, and lies, has – as he noted about his meeting with Putin – been preparing all his life.

The irony is that the goal of these movements is the exact opposite of nationalist – it’s to extract wealth from a country, especially its public sectors, and transfer it to a global class of super-rich that can and does move its resources and wealth, instantly and often, with no regard to national boundaries except to avoid the inconveniences of taxation and regulation. The more that governments controlling major economies can be aligned with this vision, the less likely that these elites will need to bother with outposts like Panama, Cayman Islands, or Cyprus. Borders are a control mechanism for the little people.

Trump is not nearly smart or ruthless enough to think up this vision. But as a media celebrity, lifelong con artist, and insatiable narcissist, he is a near-perfect person to try to sell an Americanized variation of it to a credulous, indifferent, or brainwashed public.

The Plan to Destroy the World’s Democracies
our lives in the balance.

In Russia there is no functional difference between the government, the ruling party, organized crime, and a class of billionaire oligarchs who got their wealth the old-fashioned way: they stole it, in most cases with Vladimir Putin’s help. By some accounts Putin himself is now one of the world’s richest men as a result.

That’s what Donald Trump admires when he’s fellating Putin, and that’s the future he wants for the United States.

How Trump Sells Authoritarian Rule

Donald Trump has been lying so long, and with such success, that he does it reflexively. But his easily lampooned self-aggrandizements obscure a larger fact: he’s really good at it. As with any long con, Trump doesn’t need to convince everyone – only his targets. He sells his lies through sheer repetition. twitter lets him bypass media gatekeepers and his avowed enemy, fact-checking. When repeating his lie is no longer a viable option, he’ll say the exact opposite thing with complete confidence.

It’s worked so well so far that roughly a third of Americans see Trump as the leader of their tribe and their protection against the “others”; they’ll believe him before they’ll believe their own lying eyes. Another third either become numbed by the tsunami of bullshit and tune out, or hesitate because they want to believe the President of the United States. That’s all Trump needs for his purposes. All of his outrageous statements and policies are meant to address his base, and numb everyone else, because all he needs is a noisy minority to obstruct and confuse and distort matters enough that by the time he’s overseen the looting of American wealth and its redistrbution upwards, the gutting of the public sphere, and martial law canceling the 2020 elections, it’ll either be too late or, ideally for him, we’ll welcome it.

What Trump is doing is fairly consistent with 20 years of Republican tactics, which have been all about getting and exercising power, usually on behalf of priorities that are deeply unpopular with most Americans. Largely, they’ve succeeded, with Culture War distractions, undermining accountability to voters (voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc.) and by simply lying about what they’re doing. Democrats, stuck in an obsolete paradigm of bipartisan comity, keep bringing logic and words to a knife fight. Republicans bring knives. Trump’s bringing guns.

If Trump is to be removed from office – and the only other option in play here is the looting of America and the loss of our personal freedoms and American democracy, flawed as it is – at least some congressional Republicans will need to agree that Trump has to go. Instead, even through all the controversies and outrages, he’s tightened his control over their party. For any kind of meaningful number of Republicans to agree he has to go, they need to fear the blowback from sticking with him more than they fear angering not just Trump’s base, but the American oligarchs they mostly rely on for funding (and now global ones as well – Trump hsn’t been the only beneficiary of dirty money). Trump as an individual needs to become so toxic that he’s endangering the careers of anyone defending him.

Fortunately, that can be arranged.

There’s More of Us, and We’re Not Dead Yet

In only a year and a half, something like 20 percent of Americans have participated in at least one anti-Trump protest. That’s a remarkable level of public engagement and popular anger already – but it means nothing if it doesn’t translate to the ballot box in November.

Trump, Putin, and their allies and benefactors can be beaten. There’s millions more of us, and we can make this country ungovernable if we so choose. But the more realistic, and less dangerous, path is to vote Democrats into power in Congress this fall, which can at least stall Trump’s agenda until a more comprehensive reckoning takes place.

That won’t be easily. Republicans have already heavily tilted elections in their direction by limiting the franchise, gerrymandering, and other voter suppression tactics – and those are the states where Democrats need to flip many of their seats. Add to that this year a sophisticated Russian cyberattack, already underway, that will likely reach to the level of threatening the basic integrity of vote tabulation.

It will take a massive voter repudiation to overcome all that – with enough of a margin that there can be no serious question about the legitimacy of the vote. And there’s still plenty of time for things to get worse between now and November if we’re not noisy and vigilant and organized.

It can be done. It must be done. Now is not the time to complain about lamely centrist, corporatized Democratic candidates. Candidates for Congress will cast only one vote that truly matters, from which all other possible votes flow, and it will be the first one of their term: for leader of the House or Senate. The choices before us are frequently flawed flawed Democrats or fascism. There are no other options.

In countries like Russia, Turkey, or the Philippines, post-Cold War democratic norms were never very strong to begin with, and have now utterly collapsed. That is not the situation in the United States.

As susceptible as the US, and especially the Republican Party, is to corporate rule and nativist, authoritarian initiatives, there are a number of potentially fatal flaws in Team Trump’s bid to end American democracy – or at minimum, to distort it so badly that the notion of accountability to voters is a sham. As with Trump’s depredations, we are also seeing these flaws unfold in real time: his intellect (or lack thereof), his absurd narcissism, his extreme lack of self-awareness that inevitably means he overreaches. and thee are tens of millions of Americans who could not care less about progressive arguments, but would give their lives to protect what they see as America’s freedoms. Soft-pedaling the danger of Trump and his allies does nobody any favors.

As a would-be authoritarian leader, Trump is cunning and sociopathic enough, but he’s not very bright, he’s impulsive, and he’s narcissistic to the point of self-destructive comedy. When modern American voters decide they want a president “just like me,” whether it’s Reagan, Dubya, or now Trump, what they mostly apparently mean is that they want someone who at least seems to be just as racist, incurious, and bone-stupid as they are.

With Trump, it’s no act. In only a year and a half, he’s burned through countless senior officials who describe him in terms like “fucking moron” and “semi-literate.” A truly smart sociopath could follow Trump’s blueprint with devastating results – but perhaps the voters wouldn’t like him enough to create the kind of opening Trump has seized.

In any event, Donald Trump’s greatest assets in selling his authoritarian policies – his ability to lie endlessly, his “authentic” anger and personal viciousness, his endless repetition of the same carefully crafted phrases, all operating in an alternative, self-contained universe of history and facts – are also his greatest vulnerabilities. He inspires blind loyalty for some, but repugnance for many others.

A better would-be American despot would be smarter and more personable, but we’ll worry about such a leader later. We’ve got to get rid of the one we have now.

In that task, we’ll also be acting on behalf of the planet and of billions of its people, who don’t want to see the world’s largest military (including countless nukes) and a huge economy being pillaged by an orange-tinged Putin Lite. Get in the streets and stay there; give your time and money to Democratic candidates with a good chance of unseating congressional Republicans. Any issue you care about will be exponentially worse, soon, if Trump and his party stay in power.

Organize and vote like it’s our last election. If we do, Trump and his masters can be stopped. If we don’t, there might not be another chance.