He might have been describing the early twenty-first century. Ours, after all, is an era in which inequality between the wealthy and the rest of society has grown spectacularly. We have seen an earlier erosion of labour rights followed up by an outsourcing of much of our industrial and manufacturing sectors and a casualisation of labour. We have seen a weakening of welfare and public institutions, traditionally comprising a support structure and a framework for social mobility and equality. We have been told, as ever-larger corporations haul in ever more massive profits, that our country cannot afford to fund our schools, our universities, an affordable healthcare system, public welfare, or scientific research. Our Congress is willing to write or sustain loopholes for the wealthy, or to do the bidding of the financial sector, but will not protect the institutions which maintain a reasonable standard of living and quality of life for the overwhelming majority of the public.
At the same time, we have seen a chilling reformulation of our politics, designed to amplify the voices of that group of people which has, without exaggeration, been called the “one per-cent”. This has been done through a Supreme Court which, with a straight face, ruled that corporations are people and that money is free speech. It has been achieved through the production of political spectacles, and the literal manufacture of “Astroturf” political movements, whose often-sincere members did not realise the extent to which they were being manipulated into functioning as the agents of their own disempowerment by a handful of affluent backers with their own agendas.
This reformulation has been engineered by the creation of layers of nearly-untraceable dark money. To take a recent example, in California last year, one such organisation, based in Arizona which claimed that it was dedicated to “educating the public about concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, and ethics” (while refusing to disclose the source of its funding), spent millions of dollars advancing a corporatist agenda.
It turns out that this group could, thanks to an intervention by California’s Supreme Court, be traced back to the infamous Koch Brothers, Charles and David.
More than anyone else, the Koch Brothers have come to represent the new political dispensation in the United States. Unsatisfied with their fabulous wealth, the Koch Brothers are launching a quiet coup, in a series of steps, to transform democracy in the United States and assure that corporate power remains the only power.
The latest step in their campaign, outlined here by the New York Times, involves an effort to purchase the Tribune Company, which would give them control of the leading papers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Orlando and Hartford.
Now the Koch Brothers have already bankrolled the Tea Party, finance a range of right-wing propaganda institutes, and dabble in any number of SuperPacs through dark money. As noted in the Times, these poor little billionaires just want to ensure that their voices are being heard.
But think of the implications. Two power-hungry individuals, worth tens of billions of dollars, openly hostile to the public interest, bankrolling political campaigns, dominating airwaves, and buying up swathes of the media. If the Koch Brothers had controlled the Los Angeles Times in November of last year, one of the largest papers in the state might never have broken the story that the paper’s owners were funnelling campaign cash through out-of-state dark money groups into defeating ballot initiatives. These two people could exercise control not only over the papers’ editorial lines and endorsements, but over the kind of news that is covered. Most people might get their news online, but a fair amount of investigative journalism and good reporting on state politics comes out of newspapers, which reply much of the raw material for the commentary churned out by journalists online.
And beyond the measureable impact, the very idea of economic, political, and propaganda power becoming so concentrated in the hands of capitalist sociopaths is positively sinister.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes fascist corporatism as the organisation of the economy into “state-or management-controlled trade unions and employer associations, or ‘corporations’, each of which would negotiate labour contracts and working conditions and represent the general interests of their professions in a larger assembly of corporations, or ‘corporatist parliament’. Corporatist institutions would replace all independent organisations of workers and employers, and the corporatist parliament would replace, or at least exist alongside, traditional and legislative bodies”. Food for thought.
Some will undoubtedly see it as alarmist and hyperbolic to say this, but I am very much convinced that the long-term damage that the Koch Brothers and their agenda wreak on our country will make the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and D.C. look like amateur hour. The un-doing of our always-flawed democracy, the unhinged assaults on the rights of workers, unconscionable inequality which is sold as free market virtue, the propagation of the anti-social “makers and takers” myth, and the aggrandisement of corporate power mark our departure from a democratic society and our entry into a dispensation which will be altogether uglier, harsher, and more violent. The expansion of the Koch Empire is emblematic of this shift.