America has always been a plutocracy. Most countries are. The pain of our venerable rich-poor society is in your face, in 2020, because the economics of perpetual growth hit the global competition wall and now, increasingly, the American population is meeting the reality of hard exploitation. It’s still worse in Iraq and Mexico, right? Life isn’t anywhere close to Third World conditions for most Americans. Yet. 🇺🇲
Left v Right, Blue v Red? Obama v Bush, Biden v Trump? Masks v Guns? Science v Ego?
All these bullshit conceits are simply versions of the same choose-your-own fantasy, evolving always a step ahead of popular feeling and served up ready to consume, to fill your time and coral the disparate personality energy of massive populations down to a manageable scale. This ever-responsive fantasy has been the first and (so far) only test the ruling elites have needed. Its results let citizens self-select a life as one of the 300+ million suckers at the low-stakes plutocracy table.
If you’re born into – or occasionally migrate into – the plutocrat cabal, you get to choose a life that fits whether you think America should or shouldn’t be run as lineage of corporate oligarchy; without upsetting the entrenched power paradigm.
If – like 99% of Americans and 99.5% of the global population – you’re NOT on the inside, it’s crazy (or craven) to subordinate yourself to the perfidious Left v Right (duopoly) paradigm; or to whichever polarization happens to be in vogue to convince and control your particular demographic.
Freedom only begins once this subordination ends. In most cases this never happens, which is the real triumph – and ongoing priority – of the status quo. Powerful, complex forces work 24/7 every day, every month, every year, to keep the polarization plates spinning. It’s proven able to mesmerize and pacify for decades.
There’s no reason to hope the current American dynamic is going to change any time soon.
Why should it? 🗽
It took corporate America a while to warm to Donald Trump. Some of his positions, especially on trade, horrified business leaders. Many of them favoured Ted Cruz or Scott Walker. But once he had secured the nomination, the big money began to recognise an unprecedented opportunity.
Trump was prepared not only to promote the cause of corporations in government, but to turn government into a kind of corporation, staffed and run by executives and lobbyists. His incoherence was not a liability but an opening: his agenda could be shaped. And the dark money network that some American corporations had already developed was perfectly positioned to shape it.
Dark money is the term used in the US for the undisclosed funding of organisations involved in political advocacy. Few people would see a tobacco company as a credible source on public health, or a coal company as a neutral commentator on climate change. To advance their political interests, such companies must pay others to speak on their behalf.
Soon after the Second World War, some of America’s richest people began setting up a network of thinktanks to promote their interests. These purport to offer dispassionate opinions on public affairs. But they are more like corporate lobbyists, working on behalf of those who founded and fund them. These are the organisations now running much of the Trump administration.
We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates. The remarkable story of a British member of parliament provides a unique insight into this network, on both sides of the Atlantic. His name is Liam Fox. Six years ago, his political career seemed to be over.
The scandal he had caused by mixing his private and official interests, that was highly embarrassing to David Cameron’s government, had forced him to resign as Secretary of State for Defence. But today he is back on the front bench, with a crucial and sensitive portfolio: Secretary of State for International Trade.
In 1997, the year the Conservatives lost office to Tony Blair, Liam Fox, who sits on the hard right of the parliamentary Conservative party, founded an organisation called The Atlantic Bridge. Its patron was Margaret Thatcher. On its advisory council sat the future cabinet ministers Michael Gove, George Osborne, William Hague and Chris Grayling. Fox, who became a leading campaigner for Brexit, described the mission of The Atlantic Bridge as “to bring people together who have common interests”. It would defend these interests from “European integrationists who would like to pull Britain away from its relationship with the United States”.
The Atlantic Bridge was later registered as a charity. It was part of the UK’s own dark money network: only after it collapsed did we discover the full story of who had funded it.
Its main sponsor was the immensely rich Michael Hintze, who worked at Goldman Sachs before setting up his own hedge fund, CQS. Hintze is one of the Conservative party’s biggest donors. In 2012, he was revealed as a funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, that casts doubt on the science of climate change. As well as making cash grants and loans to The Atlantic Bridge, he lent Liam Fox his private jet to fly to and from Washington.
Another funder was the drug company Pfizer. It paid for a researcher at The Atlantic Bridge called Gabby Bertin. She went on to become David Cameron’s press secretary, and now sits in the House of Lords: Cameron gave her a life peerage in his resignation honours list.
In 2007, a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) set up a sister organisation, The Atlantic Bridge Project, to run the US arm of Fox’s initiative. ALEC is perhaps the most controversial of the corporate-funded thinktanks in the US. It specialises in bringing together corporate lobbyists with state and federal legislators to develop “model bills”. The legislators and their families enjoy lavish hospitality from the group, then take the model bills home with them, to promote as if they were their own initiatives.
ALEC has claimed that over 1000 of its bills are introduced by legislators every year, and one in five of them becomes law. It has been heavily funded by tobacco companies, the oil company Exxon, drug companies and Charles and David Koch: the billionaires who founded the first Tea Party organisations. Pfizer, that funded Gabby Bertin’s post at The Atlantic Bridge, sits on ALEC’s corporate board. Some of the most contentious legislation in recent years, such as state bills lowering the minimum wage, bills granting corporations immunity from prosecution and the “ag-gag” laws, forbidding people to investigate factory farming practices, were developed by ALEC.
To run the US arm of Atlantic Bridge, ALEC brought in its director of international relations, Catherine Bray. She is a British woman who had previously worked for the Conservative member of the European Parliament Richard Ashworth and the UKIP member Roger Helmer. She has subsequently worked for the man who brought us Brexit, Daniel Hannan. In 2015, she married Wells Griffith, who became the battleground states director for Trump’s presidential campaign.
Among the members of The Atlantic Bridge’s US advisory council were the ultra-conservative senators James Inhofe, Jon Kyl and Jim DeMint. James Inhofe is reported to have received over $2 million in campaign finance from coal and oil companies. Both Koch Industries and ExxonMobil have been major donors. Coincidentally, he has described man-made global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”.
Jon Kyle, now retired, is currently acting as the “sherpa” guiding Jeff Sessions’s nomination as Trump’s attorney general through the Senate.
Jim DeMint resigned his seat in the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, which is probably, after ALEC, the second most controversial thinktank in America. It was founded with a large grant from Joseph Coors, heir to the Coors brewing empire, then built up with money from the banking and oil billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Like ALEC, it has been richly funded by the Koch Brothers. Heritage, under DeMint’s presidency, drove the attempt to ensure that Congress refused to pass the federal budget, temporarily shutting down the government. Fox’s former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence, an American called Luke Coffey, now works for the foundation.
The Heritage Foundation is now at the heart of Trump’s administration. Its board members, fellows and staff comprise a large part of his transition team. Among them are Rebekah Mercer, who sits on Trump’s executive committee, Steven Groves and Jim Carafano (State Department), Curtis Dubay (Treasury) and Ed Meese, Paul Winfree, Russ Vought and John Gray (Management and Budget). CNN reports that “no other Washington institution has that kind of footprint in the transition”.
Trump’s extraordinary plan to cut federal spending by $10.5 trillion was drafted by the Heritage Foundation, which called it a “Blueprint for a New Administration”. Russ Vought and John Gray, who moved onto Trump’s team from Heritage, are now turning this blueprint into his first budget.
It will, if passed, inflict devastating cuts on healthcare, social security, legal aid, financial regulation and environmental protections, eliminate programmes to prevent violence against women, to defend civil rights and fund the arts, and will privatise the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Trump, as you follow this story, begins to look less like a president and more like an intermediary: implementing an agenda that has been handed down to him.
In July last year, soon after he became trade secretary, Liam Fox flew to Washington. One of his first stops was a place he has visited often over the past 15 years: the office of the Heritage Foundation, where he spoke among others to Jim DeMint. A freedom of information request reveals that one of the topics raised at the meeting was the European ban on American chicken washed in chlorine: a ban that producers hope the UK will lift under a new trade agreement. Afterwards, Fox wrote to DeMint, looking forward to “working with you as the new UK government develops its trade policy priorities, including in high value areas that we discussed such as defence.”
How did Fox get to be in this position, after the scandal that brought him down six years ago? The scandal itself provides a possible clue: it involved a crossing of the boundaries between public and private interests. The man who ran the UK branch of The Atlantic Bridge was his friend Adam Werrity, who operated out of Michael Hintze’s office building. Werrity’s work became entangled with Liam Fox’s official business as defence secretary. Werritty, who carried a business card naming him as Fox’s adviser but was never employed by the Ministry of Defence, joined the secretary of state on numerous ministerial visits overseas, and made frequent visits to Fox’s office.
By the time details of this relationship began to leak, the Charity Commission had investigated The Atlantic Bridge and determined that its work didn’t look very charitable. It had to pay back the tax from which it had been exempted (Hintze picked up the bill). In response, the trustees shut the organisation down. As the story about Adam Werrity’s unauthorised involvement in the business of government began to grow, Fox made a number of misleading statements. He was left with no choice but to resign.
So when Theresa May brought him back into government, and gave him a portfolio that should, in principle, involve setting clear boundaries between public and private interests, it was as strong a signal as we might receive about the intentions of her government.
The trade treaties that Fox is charged with developing set the limits of sovereignty. US food and environmental standards tend to be lower than ours, and they will become lower still if Trump gets his way. Any trade treaty we strike will create a common set of standards for products and services. Trump’s administration will demand that ours are adjusted downwards, so that US corporations can penetrate our markets without having to modify their practices. All the cards, following the Brexit vote, are in US hands: if the UK resists, there will be no treaty. What May needed – even before Trump became president – was a person prepared to strike such a deal.
As the Financial Times reports, “the election of Donald Trump has transformed the fortunes of Liam Fox”. He is now “an indispensable member of Theresa May’s front bench team”. The shadow diplomatic mission he developed through The Atlantic Bridge plugs him straight into the Trump administration.
Long before Trump won, campaign funding in the US had systematically corrupted the political system. A new analysis by US political scientists finds an almost perfect linear relationship, across 32 years, between the money gathered by the two parties for congressional elections and their share of the vote. But there has also been a shift over these years: corporate donors have come to dominate this funding.
By tying our fortunes to those of the United States, the government binds us into this system. This is part of what Brexit is about: European laws protecting the public interest were portrayed by Conservative Eurosceptics as intolerable intrusions on corporate freedom. Taking back control from Europe means closer integration with the US. The transatlantic special relationship is a special relationship between political and corporate power.
In April 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt sent the US Congress the following warning. “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” It is a warning we would do well to remember.
The difference between the United States and most countries is that America, more than anywhere else, is designed to be a never-ending winner-takes-all contest of wealth and power. It rewards winners with riches and power. It punishes losers with bankruptcy and servitude. This sometimes brutal war of high-stakes risk drove the great pioneering expansion of thirteen obscure colonies into the fifty powerful states that made 20th-century libertarian America the envy of the world.
Today, though America’s image may be tarnished, the allure, for migrants with a certain self-centered ambition, remains strong as ever. Economically, militarily and culturally America is a factor in every facet of world affairs.
What happens in America matters. What is happening across America – civil unrest, pandemic incompetence, polarized identity politics, looming threat of civil war race war – will impact the future of all countries, all races, all humans beings and all humans to be.
The everyday reality of the America’s survival-of-the-fittest society is complex. The demands of an expanding nation are very different to those of an advanced country of over three hundred million. From the latter half of the 20th-century and first twenty years of the 21st-century, power dynamics changed, hardening at the edges and polarizing away from moderation of competing interests to monopolies of wealth and power. Economists back in the 1970s predicted the dangers of unregulated capitalism playing through to maturity. Self-interest means profit. Profit became tied to growth. Growth in perpetuity needs an ever-growing sphere of exploitation. Corporations, immortal legal entities of unlimited size, make perpetual exploitation growth a reality.
It doesn’t require an evil cabal of billionaire lizards or a malevolent New World Order for systemic wealth to consume power (government, education, justice, regulations) until society itself is subordinated to the needs of economic growth. If profit is best served by an authoritarian consumer police state, the oligarchy of corporate wealth will make it so. As the most advanced capitalist timeline, the United States is going through the difficult transition to micromanaged plutocracy.
Since the establishment of government-corporate partnership in the 1950s, the cutting edge of American enterprise has been built on competing but increasingly pervasive tactics for exploiting the poor and persecuting the weak. It’s a capital v labor paradigm writ large.
The crucible of the American dream has become corrupted by unchecked, advancing exploitation. Exceptional individuals may occasionally withstand the forces but the vast majority find quality of life gradually eroded. The small percentage migrating out of the immediate clutches of systemic oppression are held up as an example, proof to all it’s possible to be welcomed into the ranks of the wealthy winners. But exceptions can only buy time if the lived experience of the rest keeps getting worse. It has been getting worse since the 1990s.
America has always been a Darwinian capitalism. Competition of interests is written into the Constitution as a prerequisite of individual freedom. In effect this has created a heritage of inequality and shrinking opportunity for half the population as factors historical and socioeconomic resolve generation to generation. For those lower down the ladder of society, life is a daily struggle to keep a head above water. Migrant brown and emancipated black populations were thrown into the survival game with established, experienced white European colonial lineages without provisions for safeguarding opportunity. The former were poor, handicapped, culturally ghettoized, facing a racialized battle from the get go.
America has always been a results based social order. Winners get to live rich and influential. Their progeny inherit privilege. Winners stack the deck for their successors. Losers get to die poor and powerless. Their progeny inherit nothing. In America, with such high stakes competition and a particularly divided racial ethnic heritage, the institutionalized legacy of past winners is an aggressively white-dominated social, political and economic landscape.
Race is the ultimate poor underclass profiler, by design and by consequence of generational wealth. Whether perceived by privileged whites or not, race is a defining influence on every interaction between state institutions and the individual citizen. How it’s defined varies. It’s a different experience for whites versus blacks, rich versus poor, old versus young.
Police brutality is the front-line of extant authority. Its purpose is the defense of wealth, property and opportunity of those entrenched higher up the ladder. Police enforcement is racist – despite the successful repeal of segregation in Civil Rights Act 1968 – because black and brown people are disproportionately poor; and therefore disempowered, at the bottom of the ladder. The police may not be racist to a man, but policing will always be aggressive enforcers of the hegemony and thus a recipe for white-dominance, for as long as white generational wealth owns the nation’s institutions. It’s a simple fact of a system of unregulated, absolute Darwinian power.
It’s worth noting that poor whites can be brutalized too, individually, just as black and brown Americans. The white underclass is part of the “weak loser” demographic in the American wealth-power dynamic. Arguing police brutality solely only in terms of skin color risks missing the bigger picture. It omits blaming an out-of-control plutocracy, susceptible to cheap counterargument citing non-black casualties of authoritarian excess. Truth is, police violence will attack any threat to wealth and is designed to target an entire poor underclass. Profiling means targets are disproportionately black and brown but there are always going to be plenty of whites in the mix.
The problem guess far beyond the police departments. The entire American justice system is set up to be a +1 for the “house”. Police, courts, bail, jail, prisons, probation, disenfranchising, national guard, civic enforcement, three-strikes rule, etc. Brutality works in defense of the winners at every stage; against black, brown, poor, weak. It’s the dirty engine of the glorious American dream, protecting vested interests from having to share their stake in the ownership of the world.
GEORGE FLOYD PROTESTS
The George Floyd protests sweeping America are, given the endemic dearth of opportunity, an entirely natural explosion of pent-up energy from a vast exploited underclass, mostly black and brown, born into a reality that’s relentlessly oppressive. The deck of history is still stacked against them, despite all the fine words and promises of opportunity. It becomes clear to every young American of color that nothing is being done to improve it.
For tens of millions the rigged system is getting worse. For a hundred million plus the cost of living a decent life has become out of reach. The plutocracy that coalesced out of neoliberal economics and neocon social structure asserts itself against the population, to keep them in their place, divided: weak, poor, ideal fodder for exploitation. The top-down oppression is more intense today than any time in living memory, especially in the race-segregated urban ghettos.
Hence the breadth and the force of protest across America.
Hence the justification the protestors feel crying out against town halls, legislatures and police precincts.
But the protestors will need a plan of action that harnesses the energy of the disenfranchised millions. No atomized population will be strong enough to damage extant power dynamics and a roadmap for mass-action may be needed to achieve necessary unity. Without a plan, the protests will fail.
One of the most intractable problems faced by proponents of American democracy is the proper placement of race and police brutality, in the context of an ultimately anti-democratic plutocracy that’s coalesced out of the least scrupulous winners of decades’ unregulated corporate capitalism. The bigger picture is necessary, to direct the people en masse against the root causes of corruption, but without diminishing the catalyst for the violent passions motivating people onto the streets in the first place.
There must be a paradigm shift in the American institutions, government first and foremost, to force a just realignment of wealth and influence. It must happen without disintegration of social order. It mustn’t destroy the free market or diminish the entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit at the heart of the American dream. Both the need and the solution lie beyond the coarse party ideologies of Left and Right.
The advantages of entrenched power won’t ever be given up without a fight. Winners don’t become winners by showing mercy to the weak. But winners in the corrupt plutocracy aren’t the best of us, or the most foresighted. The corporate oligarchy resolution of civil unrest will inevitably be totalitarian.
If there’s no solution to equity across race and ethnicity and class, America is doomed. If a solution has to be imposed from above, American liberty is doomed. Whether by neoliberal inches, or by neoconservative convulsions, a police state would be the end of the United States.