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January 21, 2011

The nature of oligarchic power

One of the famous sayings of Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book was that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

That saying still holds true. The US oligarchy has disproportionate influence within the transglobal oligarchy because it has the military strength of the US behind it. This is why we can expect to see China develop its military strength over time, as it must if it is to have ambitions of becoming either the world's premier power or at least on a par with the US, as all indications suggest that they want to be, despite their denials. But military power can only be sustained over an extended period if there is a sound economic base. Otherwise, one can have a collapse from within, as was the case with the former Soviet Union.

The recent announcement by the US Defense Secretary that he would recommend extremely modest cuts in Pentagon spending suggested to me that there was a growing realization that the over-extended US military was sapping the economic strength of the US. But the subsequent revelation by the Chinese government of test flights of their own new stealth fighters will undoubtedly give ammunition to the US military-industrial lobby with which to pressure its Congressional supporters to not only reverse the cutbacks but to even increase military spending, even though weapons analysts say that the Chinese fighters are quite inferior to current US counterparts and the Chinese are nowhere near matching the US militarily.

Although I am by no means a military strategist, the timing of the Chinese announcement made me wonder if they are playing a deep game, trying to nudge the US into wasting more money on unproductive weapons systems and military adventures at the expense of broader economic development, all as a means of weakening the US economy. In other words, their military strategy is really an economic one. This is, after all, not an original idea. The US used the arms race and lured the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in order to force them into military expenditures that they could not sustain. That too was economic warfare, disguised as a military strategy. Mikhail Gorbachev extricated them from that morass and although some Russian nationalists blame him for the break up of the Soviet Union and its fall from superpower status, future generations may well hail him as the person who saved Russia from the total economic disaster that might have ensued from trying to hold on to an over-extended empire.

So while the visible source of power is military and is overt, the real source of power is economic and the way that the oligarchy wields that power is subtle. And because the modern oligarchy is transglobal in nature and not particularly beholden to the welfare of any particular nation state, their interests need not be in synchrony with the needs of the people in any given country. All of us are cogs in a machine, replaceable and expendable.

Membership in the oligarchy is not formal but arrived at after one gives the appropriate cues that one is suitable, similar to the way it is decided to whom to extend an invitation to join the membership of exclusive country clubs. How they work is also similar to the way that a lot of business decisions are made privately on golf courses, in country clubs, and at cocktail parties.

In a must read article published last year, Simon Johnson, the former chief economist with the IMF and thus someone with impeccable establishment credentials, refers to what has happened in the US as a 'quiet coup' in which the oligarchy, especially the financial sector, has captured the government. He details how an advanced oligarchy operates and how it wields power.

Of course, the U.S. is unique. And just as we have the world's most advanced economy, military, and technology, we also have its most advanced oligarchy.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America's position in the world. (My italics)

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. Robert Rubin, once the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, served in Washington as Treasury secretary under Clinton, and later became chairman of Citigroup's executive committee. Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs during the long boom, became Treasury secretary under George W. Bush. John Snow, Paulson's predecessor, left to become chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, a large private-equity firm that also counts Dan Quayle among its executives. Alan Greenspan, after leaving the Federal Reserve, became a consultant to Pimco, perhaps the biggest player in international bond markets.

These personal connections were multiplied many times over at the lower levels of the past three presidential administrations, strengthening the ties between Washington and Wall Street. It has become something of a tradition for Goldman Sachs employees to go into public service after they leave the firm. The flow of Goldman alumni—including Jon Corzine, now the governor of New Jersey, along with Rubin and Paulson—not only placed people with Wall Street's worldview in the halls of power; it also helped create an image of Goldman (inside the Beltway, at least) as an institution that was itself almost a form of public service.

Is it any wonder that when it comes to advancing the interests of Goldman Sachs and the related financial sector, the government and media do so reflexively? When you have such a system in place, you don't need a formal hierarchy or structure or agenda to achieve your ends. It happens 'naturally'.

Next: Recent cracks in the oligarchic structure.

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