Capital Punishment: How Money And Power Reshapes Societies
In a capitalist system, money is inextricably linked with power – the more money you have, the greater influence you wield. In particular, purchasing power can become political power when the wealthy use their resources to assume positions in the corridors of influence through attending elite private schools, exclusive social clubs, or networking events where they can form connections with other monied interests. The wealthy can also attain political control by either bankrolling those already in power who hold opinions favourable to them, by using expensive PR and marketing campaigns to shift public opinion in ways which suit their interests, or by forming pressure groups to influence politicians directly, among any number of other methods. There are many different names given to this phenomenon – corporate lobbying, nepotism, corruption, cronyism, ‘the old boys club’, bribery, sleaze – and lots more, but all of these terms describe the same behaviour. Namely, those with substantial levels of wealth are able to leverage these resources to shape societies in ways which fit their interests. A prime example of this comes in the examples of the Koch brothers and the Mercer family. Charles and David Koch are American billionaires and the primary owners of the second largest privately held company in the United States. Since 1953, they, their family members, and several other extraordinarily wealthy donors have spent many hundreds of millions of dollars (probably even several billion dollars) on setting up think tanks and political action committees to pursue the Koch brothers’ political agenda of deregulation, low taxation, reduced environmental protections, and more. Meanwhile, the Mercer family have also been major funders of right-wing publications and think tanks in the USA such as Breitbart News, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute – among scores of others. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Hungarian billionaire George Soros founded the Open Societies Foundation and is thought to have donated over $32 billion to this organisation since its inception. Due to the Open Societies Foundation’s support and aid for refugees seeking asylum in Western nations, along with its lobbying for pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the USA and other countries, George Soros has become a villainous figure for much of the European and American right-wing. ‘The Strong Will Do What They Have The Power To Do, And The Weak Will Accept What They Must Accept’ – Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue The theme of those with financial power using it politically to further their own interests is sometimes combined with military power. Consider the example of the United Fruit Company. Before WW2, the United Fruit Company was able to establish highly lucrative operations throughout Latin America due to the dictators of these nations guaranteeing them an advantageous business environment through such measures as repressing labour rights, offering tax incentives, and providing land grants. Then, in 1944 United Fruit began experiencing difficulties in Guatemala – one of their most important bases. The Guatemalan President, Jorge Ubico, a dictator closely aligned with US interests and an enthusiastic supporter of the United Fruit Company, was deposed in a popular uprising. Over the next 10 years, several of the Presidents to follow Ubico enacted land reform measures which returned vast swathes of land owned by United Fruit back to the Guatemalan people. By 1954, the United Fruit Company had seen enough, and heavily lobbied the American government to take action. Partly due to the fact that several of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff had ties to United Fruit, they were only too happy to oblige. As a result, the CIA orchestrated a successful coup in Guatemala which deposed the elected President and installed another dictator who was more amenable to American interests. What followed was four decades of brutal civil war between Guatemala’s dispossessed poor and a succession of US-backed dictators, which left 200,000 civilians dead. In March 1999, US President Bill Clinton finally apologised to the Guatemalan government for the atrocities committed by the American-backed dictatorships, saying that ‘for the United States it is important I state clearly that the support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong.’ However, Guatemala was by no means an isolated case. The trail of destruction and bloodshed which the United Fruit Company - together with their powerful allies in government and in the military - left across a series of Latin American states is almost staggering in its scale. Not So Long Ago, Not So Far From Home Examples of corporate interests becoming political and military interests too are by no means confined to little-considered Latin American states in long-gone decades. For instance, over several years in the late-1960s to mid-1970s, individuals from the British security services, senior ranks of the military, and well-connected political circles, covertly plotted to overthrow Harold Wilson, the elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and install in his place a coalition government of their choosing. To most, such a conspiracy sounds extraordinary, but confirmation came from MI5 whistleblower Peter Wright, who outlined the plot in his book Spycatcher, which on its release in 1987 was banned from publication in England. Others who have verified accounts of the plot against Wilson include Hugh Cudlipp, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, and the former intelligence officer Brian Crozier. It is thought that the conspirators had a specific individual in mind to lead this unelected government – none other than Lord Mountbatten, a relative of both the Queen and Prince Phillip. As Patrick Sawer, a Senior News Reporter at the Daily Telegraph has written: Lord Mountbatten came dangerously close to leading a cabal of industrialists, generals and tycoons plotting a coup against an elected Labour government…The 1968 plot was designed to replace Prime Minister Harold Wilson with a coalition government to bring the country together, during what Mountbatten and the conspirators regarded as a time of national crisis. These events were featured in Season 3 Episode 5 of the TV series The Crown, which was appropriately titled ‘Coup’. A similar plot was hatched in the USA in 1933. After the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had pledged to abandon the gold standard and enact a raft of left-wing economic policies which became known as the ‘New Deal’, magnates behind huge corporations such as Chase Bank, Standard Oil, General Motors, Goodyear, Dupont, Heinz, and others, conspired to recruit a private army of up to half a million military veterans to overthrow Roosevelt’s government and install a fascist leadership in his place. This became known as the ‘Business Plot’, and the conspirators approached Major General Smedley Butler - a 34 year veteran of the US Marine Corps, who at the time was the most decorated marine in US history – to lead their private army. However, Butler had become disillusioned by his experience in the US military, and not only did he refuse to participate in the plot, he testified about it before the United States House of Representatives in 1934. Despite Congress concluding that they were ‘able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler’, no-one was ever prosecuted, nor were any of the main figures accused of involvement in the plot called to testify before Congress. Shortly after, in 1935, Smedley Butler released a book entitled War Is A Racket – the summary of which reads: War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes. More recently, the sequence of events which saw Dick Cheney be Chairman and CEO of the American oil company Halliburton between 1995 and 2000, then become United States Vice-President in 2001, followed by Halliburton then receiving a $7 billion contract in the run-up to the Iraq war which only they were allowed to bid on, is unlikely to be coincidental. Furthermore, in his autobiography, the former Labour Home Secretary Robin Cook wrote about the overly close relationship that the British defence company BAE Systems enjoyed with the highest echelons of the UK government, and how they would benefit from this cosy connection. Cook stated that ‘The chairman of BAE appeared to have the key to the garden door to Number 10. Certainly, I never knew Number 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to BAE.’ As a final note, in 2006 an arms deal between BAE Systems and the Saudi Arabian rulers was being investigated by the UK’s serious fraud office for possible corruption, but following pressure from Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the investigation was dropped. Five years later, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was appointed International Business Development Director for BAE. COVID-19 And The Brave New World It has been well documented that during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many billionaires have increased their wealth while most ordinary people have seen their incomes decline or their jobs disappear completely. For example, the BBC reported that ‘billionaires have seen their fortunes hit record highs during the pandemic’ while also noting that ‘a World Bank report showed extreme poverty is set to rise this year for the first time in more than two decades’. Meanwhile, USA Today stated that ‘the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an economic crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression’, before continuing to say that ‘over a roughly seven-month period starting in mid-March, America’s 614 billionaires grew their net worth by a collective $931 billion.’ In truth, income inequality across much of the world had been rising for decades before the emergence of COVID-19, and in recent years the populations of many countries had reacted to these increased inequities by supporting a range of populist politicians who portrayed themselves as ‘outsiders’ railing against a corrupt ‘establishment’. In the UK, the foremost figure to play this role was Nigel Farage, while others such as Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson depicted themselves as brave combatants fighting against an out of touch and uncaring political elite. It is also not difficult to interpret the victory of the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum as a vote against the British political establishment by those who had felt marginalised, ignored, and undervalued by mainstream politicians for a number of years. In other countries, this wave of populism found its figureheads through individuals such as Donald Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen in France, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Narendra Modi in India, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Beppe Grillo and Matteo Salvini in Italy, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, among others. As all these populists rose to power even before the substantial upward transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the billionaire class which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, the question must now be asked - what will happen next, as people all over the world react to a such a rapid and significant increase in inequality, on top of what they have already experienced? Where Do We Go From Here? If public anger rises further due to the existing income and wealth inequalities being deepened still more, then it is not difficult to envisage the wealthy, elite classes becoming spooked and fearful of what may happen to their resources. As a result of this, it seems logical to suggest that elites will retreat to lavish, heavily guarded enclaves even more than they already have done – perhaps existing in some kind of ‘billionaire city’, where extreme wealth is a prerequisite for entry, and where connections to the world outside are minimal. A prototype for this kind of settlement can perhaps be seen in the example of Monaco. A Principality with a population of 38,000, one of the conditions for becoming a resident is to open a bank account in Monaco and deposit at least €500,000 in it. Taxes in Monaco are almost non-existent, and it has the largest police force in the world - both per capita, and per square metre - plus there’s a 24-hour video surveillance system in place which covers the entire surface area of the Principality. Monaco also has the second-highest GDP per capita in the world, beaten only by Liechtenstein. Interestingly, the only other two nations to have a GDP per capita in excess of $100,000 are Luxembourg and Bermuda, both of which are also regarded as refuges and tax havens for the ultra-wealthy. The vast majority (i.e. over 75%) of Monaco’s residents are foreign-born, as wealthy individuals (including celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, Bernie Eccleston, Shirley Bassey, and Bono) move there to enjoy the tax benefits and other lifestyle advantages. Monaco also has a poverty rate of zero, meaning that none of its population live below the poverty line, while its residents also enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world. It’s not surprising then, that for these reasons and more, Monaco is known as the “Billionaire’s Playground”. If public anger at rising levels of inequality continues to increase over time, and is bolstered by the substantial gains that the financial elites have made during a global pandemic which has severely impacted hundreds of millions of people across the world, then it is not difficult to imagine more Monacos being established in all corners of the planet, where the wealthy will flee to in return for guarantees of minimal taxation and heavy security – effectively cutting them off from the discontented world beyond the nation’s borders. Automation, Disinformation, And Militarisation In the background to all this, technological change continues at pace. The rise of the robots means that more and more jobs than ever before are being automated, and scientists predict that in the next few decades alone hundreds of millions of people around the world will have their jobs automated out of existence. As a response to the vast, incoming tidal wave of job losses and entire career pathways ceasing to exist, some seemingly utopian policies such as a four-day workweek and a Universal Basic Income (UBI) have been suggested by a range of academics, politicians, and businesspeople from a wide variety of political schools of thought. The specified goal is to ensure that the huge numbers of people who will see their job roles either diminish or disappear completely due to automation shall be given the basic resources needed to survive and craft a meaningful life for themselves. However, given what we know about the propensity for monied groups to either campaign against policies which do not fit their best interests, to flock to parts of the world which will not pursue those policies, or even to engage militarily against the ordinary working populations, why should we be so sure that the business and financial elites will not flex every bit of muscle they have to guarantee that they and they alone benefit from the enormous gains in productivity which automation will provide? What are the chances that, instead of embracing UBI and the four-day workweek, these elites use every tool in their armoury to keep as much as possible of the added value generated by automation for themselves, at the expense of the general population? Some methods the elites could use include passive measures, such as lobbying politicians, funding think tanks, or creating UBI and four-day workweek trials which are ‘set up to fail’, so they can then be used as ‘evidence’ to shape public discourse. More active measures could also be used by the elites to protect and enhance their advantages. As we have seen, using military means to accomplish this has not been beyond them before, so it should be assumed that it is something they may be willing to do again. This conflict between the interests of the general population and the interests of elites when it comes to the issues of automation and technological advancement, and of how this scientific progress could be used to benefit either group (or both), was addressed by Bill Joy, the Founder of Sun Microsystems, in an article he wrote entitled ‘Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us’. In it, he stated that: Control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite—just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone's physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy. ‘Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand. It Never Did And It Never Will’ – Frederick Douglass At this point, it is more than ever worth remembering the example of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th Century. As machines and mechanical tools revolutionised factories and how goods were produced, vast increases in productivity were attained, and the GDP of industrialising countries rose sharply. However, at this time working in a factory was no easy task. Workdays could be up to 16 hours long, workweeks usually involved working on 6 days out of the 7, and child labour was common. Over the following decades, as the ordinary workers better understood the enormous added value their endeavours had a part in producing, they began to demand a fairer share of this additional value, so they could work less hours in better conditions and receive higher wages for it. It took time, but their efforts were successful. For example, in the UK a series of ‘Factory Acts’ was passed, which gradually reduced working hours, improved working conditions, and limited the amount of hours children could work. Eventually, across much of the world (though by no means all of it), the 40-hour workweek became the standard schedule, while child labour was greatly reduced or banned outright, and legislation passed to ensure workers had adequate conditions and protections while doing the job. Now, as we approach the age of automation which some have described as being like another Industrial Revolution, it is likely we will again see the same debates regarding working hours, wage levels, and employment terms which dominated the original Industrial Revolution. Accompanying them this time will be discussions around other issues such as UBI, the 4-day workweek, and many more. The outcome of this coming age of automation will be uncertain for some time to come, but it is important to note that whatever your feelings on this issue, or however interested or disinterested you may be in these topics, you will almost certainly be affected by them in the not too distant future. Therefore, it is perhaps best to engage yourself in these matters, before they engage themselves with you.