When we hear the word “oligarchy”, we naturally think of Russia. For the last twenty years or so it has been impossible to read or watch any coverage of the Russian economy or what passes for its politics without that term being central to the story.
There are many reasons for this, some obvious, some not. The most obvious one is that, in the tradition of mass media, identifying villains with a scary term reduces coverage to a kind of shorthand: oligarchs are bad, we know this, therefore mention of the word indicates something bad is going on. Whatever else is or isn’t in the coverage, we know it’s in Russia (probably) and we know it involves something we probably don’t want to know the details of. It practically eliminates the need to dig deeper, and with little time to hold your attention that’s very much the point.
Of course, in this case the shorthand is actually pretty close to the truth. In the chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse, ruthless homegrown capitalists facing no regulation and little moral outcry scooped up undervalued, de-nationalized assets and cornered markets that had only one rule: survive. Most of what we think of when we hear the word, oligarch, is this, basically a thug in a $5,000 suit.
These are the men (mostly men) who control the vast majority of Russia’s wealth, and at least one NBA basketball team. These are the men who (mostly) have supported Vladimir Putin, both in his rise to power and in his thuggish efforts to hold onto it. They do this because they know what supporting Putin buys them: in effect, it’s the political version of a Ponzi Scheme, with civil rights, like economic benefits, never quite reaching down to the huddled masses.
Of course, this system isn’t limited to Russia. A wealthy, powerful few have long history of doing what they can to hold on to what they want. In the worst cases, that history is bloody. Horrifyingly bloody.
Not surprisingly, people we might call “oligarchs” can be found to some degree in each of the former Soviet republics, too, as well as in the former Eastern Bloc satellites the Soviets once dominated, and the reasons, again, are both obvious and obscure.
If you can, take yourself back to the last years of Soviet decline. Economically, the Eastern Bloc was falling apart at the seams. Bloated, corrupt bureaucracies were skimming what few resources were left and grinding down their comrades with practiced, if not always intentional, inefficiency. Decades of this had led to low expectations among the bureaucrats and those they were supposed to serve, and millions of people looked to Western “freedoms” as a way out. This provided fertile ground for organized crime, and in those last years it was thriving.
Facing that, it was no wonder that the powers that were left after the so-called Communist dictatorships collapsed devoted most of their attention to large caches of valuable and poorly secured nuclear weapons. Building a strong foundation for democracy and the rule of law would have to wait. So, too, would finding jobs, food, and healthcare for people long without them. Into that vacuum, as anyone could have and should predicted, came the oligarchs.
Democracy was great, so long as the right candidates were guaranteed victory. The rule of law was great, too, so long as it didn’t have to apply to everybody. Finding jobs, food, and merely adequate healthcare for people coming out of decades without? Well, those are promises you just can’t be expected to keep, so scapegoats would have to be found instead. It’s easier, far cheaper, and remarkably effective at shoring up support for policies that hurt more than they help.
This was, more or less, the recent history of many of these countries. Some quickly retreated into the trappings of their old, Soviet past, complete with uniformed dictators and military parades; others thought they’d give Western-style democracy a try, only to learn as we all do that money and the promise of more money corrupts elected officials just as easily as it corrupted appointed ones. It may even make corruption easier.
Without strict regulation of campaign spending and a culture that genuinely abhors corruption, nothing of what we’ve seen in any of these countries is likely to change. That means that policy, foreign and domestic, will follow commercial interests, such as oil and natural gas. It means that those in power will deflect attention from that by building up the imagined threat from enemies foreign and domestic. It means that the majority of people in those countries will continue going without jobs, food, and adequate healthcare.
And if all of this is starting to sound uncomfortably familiar, it’s because it also describes much of the last two decades of life for the country that “won” the Cold War, the good, old U.S. of A.
We, too, have seen political and economic power collecting into the hands of fewer and fewer people. We, too, have seen domestic and foreign policy driven by commercial interests such as oil and natural gas (and residential utilities). And we, too, have seen a lack of jobs, food, and adequate healthcare, things many in positions of power have quietly accepted cannot, and perhaps should not, be changed.
Far easier and far more divisive, which helps maintain things as they are, are attacks against imagined enemies, ones who “hate us for our freedoms” and not what our commerce-driven policies have done to good and innocent people at home and abroad.
This is what makes the gutting of campaign finance laws during this post-Cold War period so disturbing. 2010’s Citizens United decision and last week’s McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission decision, both decided by the U.S. Supreme Court 5-4, have opened the doors for the very same abuses of power in elections that we like to associate with oligarchs and Eastern Europe. We all know more money buys both more ad time and more time in the room with policy makers. We all know, without having to be told, how dangerous that is. And yet, with these decisions, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the other right-leaning justices want to tell us it just isn’t so.
Roberts may come by his beliefs and interpretations honestly, but his interpretation of what is and is not constitutional is truly scary, bordering on fundamentalist in its willingness to disregard simple observation of the world around him. His decisions on campaign finance will have lasting and probably destructive effects, but there he is and there he will stay, along with the other right-wing leaning justices, until he retires or dies.
We must remember then that Roberts is Chief Justice of a right-leaning Court because he and his right-leaning colleagues were nominated by and voted for by right-leaning men and women who were themselves supported by America’s own ruthless, homegrown capitalists, aggressively selfish men and women who made their money by not having to be accountable to others, and who spend their money to ensure that they will never have to be.
If this sounds a little too familiar, maybe a little too much like something you’ve read about some post-Soviet backwater, it may be time to accept, at long last, that we have our own oligarchs here, and that they are no less dangerous to us.
- Daniel Ward