Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is power a function of speech? That, in essence, was the core of the Supreme Court decision we know under the deeply cynical – but curiously not inaccurate – name of Citizens United. Limiting the right of the wealthy to spend limitless sums of capital on political campaigns was curtailing their right to speak about issues that matter both to them and the polis.

But capital is not speech – it’s power. Consider the example of Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos.  The company employs 613,300 people, roughly twice the number who worked at IBM when I was employed there in the late 1990s. Amazon actually earned $171 billion in revenue in 2017, with an overall net income of $3 billion, assets worth $131 billion and a stock valuation of just under $28 billion. Thus the equity per employee of Amazon was a smidgen over $45,000. One could argue that the company was and is a good buy at its current price of around $1500 per share. There is a lot of value in its activity that is not captured in a stock price that low.

That value is divided, of course, not among its employees, but rather its shareholders, the largest being Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Not that Bezos depends entirely upon undervalued Amazon stock for his wealth. His early investment in Google (a mere $250,000) for example, is now worth more than $3 billion and Bezos owns a lot of other stuff, including a space exploration company and, through a limited liability corporation called Nash Holdings, The Washington Post, an asset that makes him a target of angry tweets by President Trump. Overall, Bezos is said to be worth over $150 billion, slightly ahead of Bill Gates, but considerably ahead of you and me.

Whether Bezos is the richest man in the world, as Wikipedia and Forbes, assert, or not depends on part on how one values the wealth of some off-the-books types, such as Vladimir Putin ($200B, give or take[i]) or the 2,000-members of the Saud family said to be worth a total of roughly $1.4 trillion, a significant amount of which is controlled by a handful of elders. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the one country named for its ruling family.

A few years ago, when Bill Gates first became the “richest man in the world,” it was a title that  could be had for $30 billion. The subsequent growth in these numbers reflects a fundamental tendency of capitalism to accumulate and concentrate. If all the money in the world (currently somewhere around 255 trillion US$) were divided equally among the eight billion people on this planet, everyone would have a net worth a little under $32,000, which is about one year’s tuition at an Ivy League school. So the likes of Bezos, Gates, Putin and Mohammad bin Salman represents quite a bit more than their “share” of the world’s wealth if we look at the planet as something akin to an asset that belongs to us all.

Which means that these disproportionate concentrations of wealth represent serious distortions of power, including the power to concentrate food, shelter and physical wellbeing. That is what politics is all about. In terms of wealth, Jeff Bezos has 4 million seven hundred thousand times that of the average human being. Dividing Amazon’s HQ2 50,000 future employees among the residents of northern Virginia and the Bronx is just one way to ensure that Bezos’ absolute economic influence in the metro DC and New York City regions will be magnified by significant voting blocs of people for whom what is in Amazon’s interest translates into their own welfare. It’s the old “What’s good for General Motors” formula updated for the internet age.

So the protection of wealth as speech – again, the essence of Citizens United – is intended to ensure that the concentration of capital will be protected by the US Constitution. It’s a neat trick that Lewis Powell first foresaw when he suggested the weaponization of the US legal system in his memo to the US Chamber of Congress in August of 1971. Since then, the US right has organized systematically to take over the courts, a process that has required diligence, organization and a reasonably singled-minded focus for 48 effing years to accomplish its goal with beer-boy Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the Senate’s wave of confirmations of Kavanaugh knock-offs to fill a wide range of lower court vacancies that built up during the Obama years, complements of Mitch McConnell.

By way of contrast, future Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was so appalled at the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972 that he founded the Democrat Leadership Conference to ensure that Democratic politics in the next generation would not be weighed down by any socialist-leaning ideas from the American Left. Clinton’s vision of a Democratic Party working in unison with liberal aspects of corporate America has governed the party pretty much until this last election. Even now, the Democrats find themselves with Chuck Schumer, a US Senator who represents exactly one city block of lower Manhattan, and Nancy Pelosi, a committed centrist, running the party in Congress, plus a passel of disparate candidates hoping to run for the presidency in 2020, exactly two of whom (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) might be characterized as “on the left.” Most, although not all, of the rest seems to be following the Obama formula of looking progressive while operating as centrists – no “out” centrist has won the Electoral College since 1996. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic Congressman who often voted with the GOP and who can be characterized as a progressive only when contrasted with the likes of Ted Cruz, is more typical of the field.

In short, we have a relatively organized American right, currently being held captive by a politician who demonstrates that party’s contempt for professionalism in politics, against a  broad array of candidates most of whom actively do not want to challenge the Democratic party’s symbiotic relationship with Wall Street, Hollywood and tech billionaires. What an appealing choice! Further, the longer the Republicans can control the Senate and the executive branch, the more damage they can do and the longer it will take any bottom-up mass movement of Americans to overturn the right’s stranglehold on at least the judiciary.

And did I mention that climate change makes the problem more urgent every day?

It’s enough to make a Chomskyian out of a sane person, if only because Chomsky’s complaints about the rapacious nature of capitalism tend to be reasonable. The real problem is how to undo what has been done and overturn capital’s stranglehold on the polis. If you don’t break that stranglehold, any short-term fixes will prove as fragile as Barack Obama’s progressive heritage.

I think that the answer to the first question has to lie in a series of Constitutional Amendments, the first of which declares that money is not speech. But I wouldn’t want to call a Constitutional Convention in the present political climate, would you? Handmaid’s Tale, here we come.

Long term, it will take at least the single-minded focus that the GOP has demonstrated since 1971 and a degree of organization that is the equal of the Republican right. One aspect of that organization has to be a consistent never-ending critique of capital’s role in society, precisely its capacity to concentrate power.

It is that disequalibration that underpins all the ways that capital empowers every form of privilege that exists: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, age privilege, you name it.

If I look at how Jeff Bezos employs his wealth, he seems innocuous enough. Amazon’s corporate contributions have skewed slightly Republican, but not significantly so, and Bezos himself has mostly supported establishment Democrats. His ownership of the Post has been hands-off  in pointed contrast with the Murdoch clan, allowing professional journalists to do their jobs, even if a lot of Post contributors clearly suffer from inside-the-Beltway conventional thinking. Bezos’ more important political contribution has been a $10 million gift to With Honor, a non-profit cofounded by GOP strategist (and never-Trumper) David Gergen to elect more veterans to Congress. Not all veterans are conservatives – Ron Dellums was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as a former Marine. But the overall impact of such giving, like hiring some 50,000 employees in two key districts on the East Coast, seems poised to ensure the well-being of Amazon itself as it remakes the commercial sale and distribution of products in a web-driven world.

And progressive-sounding politicians who do nothing to ensure the election of progressives at the state and local level, as was the case with Obama, or who do nothing to disengage US foreign policy from the interests of international corporations – as was also the case with #44 – do little more than ensure that the worst immediate consequences of capital may be inhibited while the deeper stranglehold of wealth on history and privilege continue unabated. I think it’s arguable whether or not Obama made the ascendancy of a racist and fascist to the presidency inevitable, but he certainly helped to magnify the damage that man can do while in office. Voter suppression campaigns in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere, are a direct result of Obama’s abandonment of state and local politics while in office. The disarray of US foreign policy reflects the reality that Obama’s international vision amounted to little more than continuing the use of US military might (this time with drones!) to bolster a global order tailor-made by and for US corporations[ii]. When Trump came to pull that house down, it was already in considerable shambles.

The same year that Lewis Powell penned his infamous memo to the Chamber of Commerce, he was nominated by Richard Nixon to the US Supreme Court where he would serve for 16 years. He died finally in 1998, some twenty years before the Kavanagh nomination ensured that a nation that leans to the left will have its laws interpreted for a generation by a court that leans markedly to the right. That’s a vision of a long arc, a vision the left has lacked for a generation. With the growing threat of global warming sure to push ever larger numbers of people to increasingly desperate acts, it’s really now or never.

[i] A problematic figure suggested first by Bill Browder, the Russian investment oligarch son of former US Communist Earl Browder, and man most likely to grip a poisoned doorknob for his opposition to Putin.

[ii] Henry Kissinger’s corporate sponsor throughout his career was Nelson Rockefeller. His Democratic counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was in turn sponsored by David Rockefeller. The company the Rockefellers inherited was Standard Oil, the global predecessor to Exxon. Kissinger and Brzezinski ran foreign policy during the Nixon and Carter years, and were replaced  during the Reagan era by Casper Weinberger and George Schultz, both of whom ran divisions at Bechtel. Reagan’s vice-president was the only CIA official to ever own his own oil firm, George  HW Bush. Oil’s tight control of foreign policy fit right into the rise of the automobile in post-WW2 America, as well as the automobile’s greatest achievement, the American suburb and the physical remaking of every metropolitan region in the nation. Why are the Saudis our friends? What’s good for General Motors?