Meet the new billionaires, same as the old billionaires

What’s the vaunted left-libertarian alliance creating?

One of the current President’s campaign promises that made the least sense to me in 2008 was the pledge to restore bipartisanship. As a voter who came of age during the Bush years, I saw way too much bipartisanship. Democrats harmoniously joined Republicans to vote for the Patriot Act, authorize the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and expand the President and private sector’s power every chance they had. By 2008, bipartisanship sounded profane: a pretty PR term for left capitulation.

That year, I voted for Ralph Nader. I wasn’t interested in making a savvy, pragmatic, transcendent gesture—not when a situation warranted divisive, ideological partisanship.

That was one of the last times I thought about Nader, my symbolic protest vote against bipartisanship and its attendant evils, until this week. Nader wrote a column for Al Jazeera, “The new left-right alliance in the US,” to promote his upcoming book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

Nader’s book deals with a left-libertarian alliance—a marriage of convenience that, for many, has long hinted at a chance for populist change. Ostensibly marshalling strength from both the anti-authoritarian left and the libertarian right, this hybrid is supposed to get things done outside the traditional Democrat/Republican duopoly. Not bipartisanship, but transpartisanship.

Nader and many before him have singled out areas of perceived common interest, like curtailing government surveillance and curbing the wars on Drugs and Terror. A genuinely surprising aspect of the otherwise unremarkable 2013 film Snitch was the film’s overt message against the prison system. An otherwise brainless crime-drama starring snitchRepublican action hero Dwayne Johnson has an end title detailing the evils of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. It’s one thing to lose Hollywood, but if the War on Drugs has lost The Rock, maybe change is possible.

The current left-libertarian alliance has been gestating for some time. It’s been held out as the best hope for ending some of America’s most evil policies. A year after the Snowden leaks began, this disparate partnership has coalesced into something cognizable. At this point, the hybrid left-libertarian philosophy has recognizable contours—and they’re alarming. Rather than being something new, this alliance is looking a lot like just another whitewash of left capitulation before an ugly, reactionary agenda.

A year ago, I was receptive to the burgeoning left-libertarian partnership. Under Obama, large numbers of Democrats abandoned their previous opposition to illegal surveillance and state murder, so a tactical alliance on these issues seemed like one of the few ways to stop them. A left-libertarian intersection created the Amash-Conyers amendment, and 2013’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington.

One year later, what has been accomplished? Beyond a “debate” (normalizing the panopticon and providing the veneer of consent) there’s been an NSA oversight bill that everyone agrees is full of loopholes and accomplishes essentially nothing. A year after the “Stop Watching Us” rally brought together Code Pink and the American Enterprise Institute, we have “Reset the Net.”

Reset the Net was announced by Edward Snowden on June 5th, 2014. By unveiling it a year after the Guardian released its first Snowden-sourced story, the event is marketed as the solution to government surveillance, the logical endpoint of the events that have preceded it. And what is Reset the Net? According to Wired, it’s “a coalition of more than two-dozen tech companies.”  The same tech companies who provided the government unfettered access to everyone’s information are now going to be responsible for safeguarding—and profiting—from it.

One of the most insidious aspects of the way the Snowden leaks have been handled has been the reduction of spying from a system spread out across at least 18 Federal agencies and countless tech giants into an agency run amok. Think of how awareness of the scandal has played out in the popular imagination. Contemporary American gallows humor often involves a “hey, the NSA’s listening” during a phone call or Gmail chat. The villain is always “the NSA,” never Skype, Google, or the FBI. An equally appropriate joke in a Facebook message would be “watch it, Zuckerberg’s sending this to Fort Meade!” Each of these organizations is a node in the surveillance system, but the singular focus on the NSA has largely erased the culpability of other agencies and darkened an illusory private-public divide.

Like a weasel, the tech industry is poised to squeeze through this sewer pipe looking shinier than ever before. With Reset the Net, tech giants can both definitively whitewash their involvement in mass surveillance and maximize profits by offering the promise of greater privacy. This is the dynamic taking root with the vaunted alliance: solutions to our problems come from beneficent corporate actors. Just like bipartisanship offered savior Democrats as the solution, this new hybrid is offering savior tycoons. The Democrats are a party of big business that, for electoral reasons, must pretend they’re not. This left-libertarian hybrid has the added benefit of dispensing with the pretense of concern with social inequality. As with Bush-era bipartisanship, late-Obama transpartisanship involves a left surrendering its principles to the right. We will not dismantle our oligarchy, instead we will empower better oligarchs.

A partnership that helps billionaires get richer and more powerful doesn’t sound like a particularly worthwhile leftist project when you put it in those terms. However, both Nader and Noam Chomsky have advocated as much, with Nader even providing a list of 20 billionaires he’d like to see run in 2016. That Left heroes would sooner advocate empowering a good oligarch than changing the system dramatically says a lot about what ideas are allowed purchase, even on the margins.

Another advocate of the billionaire candidate who would “disrupt” our two-party system is Glenn Greenwald. More than any other figure, Greenwald represents the left-libertarian alliance through which libertarianism is remade as leftist. Greenwald has leveraged his status as a political cipher in a way that only Obama managed before him. Greenwald’s 2010 defense of the Citizens United decision surprised many readers, but in retrospect, it was in keeping with a vaguely liberal-libertarian political “core.”

Other questionable statements over the years hinted that the future Snowden leak keeper would see merely reforming the national security state as enough. When he was taken to task for defending the work of extreme pornographer Max Hardcore in 2009, Greenwald argued that it was his critics who were the real misogynists: a consenting adult woman couldn’t possibly be under any form of duress.

This idea obviates the possibility that financial pressures could have any influence on decision-making. Along with the free-speech absolutism, it’s a facile, oppressive model of consent, rooted in a kind of free-market idealism. It’s embedded with a denial that forces bigger than ourselves have any bearing on our lives: recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “there’s no such thing as society.” More recently, it sounds like liberal imperialist propaganda that to imply that oligarch money plays a role in imperialism derides the “agency” of fucked-over people. A cadre of similar figures are tagging along: equally devoted to the rights and continued free expression for corporations, in a world where those entities already have all the speech.

Greenwald’s language about an oligarch “disrupting” our system has echoes with Silicon Valley’s “Cult of Disruption.” A Randian idea that’s big in the tech world, it holds that when the powerful run roughshod—“disrupting” our stodgy institutions—their enlightened self-interest is the tide that will lift all boats. Nader proposes Cheryl “Lean In” Sandberg as one of the disruptors: a figure famous for penning an ode to neoliberalism.  In practice, the left-libertarian hybrid in practice sounds like thinly veiled neoliberalism: privatization above all, an emphasis on the individual, and erasure of the toxic injustices this creates.

In late May, an anonymous millionaire made news for leaving envelopes stuffed with cash around San Francisco. Operating under the Twitter handle @HiddenCash, the donor instructed those who found his droppings to #PayItForward. The gesture, in addition to providing a PR boon for Twitter, was so popular that the millionaire is expanding @HiddenCash to other cities.

“I’m in that 1% that some people loathe,” he told ABC News, “but rather than hating people who are successful, my point would be to encourage people who have been successful to give back a little bit more.” Give back a little bit more. Maybe this capitalism thing’s going to work out after all. Rather than some unproductive hatred, if we up our hashtag game during billionaire scavenger hunts, a few of us might come out with some extra scratch. Those who’ve had to leave San Francisco due to the tech boom’s rising rents can even participate, provided they live in one of @HiddenCash’s new cities. #BetterOligarchs

What do better oligarchs look like?

Michael Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest men, is angling to be one of these saviors. Bloomberg, who is vocal about his destiny in Heaven, is being lauded for promising $50 million to fight the NRA in influencing national gun policy. He clearly sees himself as a transformative figure: in addition to the Divine approval, Bloomberg mulled a third-party presidential run in 2007. Politically situated between the Democrats and Republicans, the party was the essence of bipartisanship. Bloomberg, who appeared before the 2004 Republican National Convention in support of George W. Bush, was a Bush-supporting member of the GOP until 2007. As mayor of New York, he presided over the growth of record inequality, the mass surveillance of Muslims throughout the East Coast, and the racist state terrorism that is “stop-and-frisk.” However, a check towards gun control (and a Big Gulp ban, to piss off the Red States) and Bloomberg is reborn.

Greenwald’s boss Pierre Omidyar, the oligarch who bought the Left for a mere quarter-billion dollars, was unveiled to the public as “a different kind” of billionaire and a “civic-minded idealist.” In addition to funding the usual neoliberal chicanery (a.k.a forcing thousands to suicide in the developing world), he has been hard at work empowering the ultra-right in several countries. Thanks partially to his money, there are now fascists at the helm of a nuclear arsenal.  One party in that coalition, the RSS, was connected to the man who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. If left-libertarian hybridism is empowering nuclear-armed fascists who killed Gandhi, it’s time to ask if the left isn’t putting more into this relationship than they’re getting.

To bring it back to the tech industry, an illustrative bipartisan political project is Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us PAC. Founded by Silicon Valley tycoons, the PAC sells itself as a non-partisan group using its clout for the good of immigration reform. And what branding, too: truncating Forward like that is zeitgeisty, while sounding like the vaguely liberal essence of progress itself—think MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” motto. Who doesn’t want to move the “immigration debate” forward? The .us reminds us of both America, the city on a hill, and us, the united, bipartisan polity. That’s the kind of perception management that billions of dollars and full spectrum data dominance gets you.

For the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, a respite from the terror of ICE raids, deportations, and the destruction of families would be a welcome development. However, in a Washington Post piece outlining Fwd.us’ mission Zuckerberg singled out more H1-B visas issued to highly skilled immigrants as a core goal of the PAC. These tycoons were bankrolling a project to make it easier for them to retain qualified, foreign-born techies.

The Pentagon is currently exploring technology that will target peaceful protest movements in anticipation of mass civil unrest. In other words, applying predictive crime algorithms to society as a whole, with the goal of preventing sustained protest in the near future. That the government will get this data from the tech industry isn’t speculation; the pre-crime algorithms necessitate social media data. Facebook and Google will have you to think that their work is entirely dedicated to helping you get better timeline updates, but Homeland Security will be getting that data to literally make meaningful dissent impossible. Do we want to make it easier for them to get more engineers? At least, we should recognize that this goal is self-serving, not altruistic.

These newer, better oligarchs look like slicker, better-marketed iterations of all of history’s plutocrats. And of course, all three billionaires have the White House on speed-dial. More realistic than a heroic billionaire savior is that the system that sends billions in wealth to a few individuals wouldn’t let someone who would dismantle it rise in the first place. We can safely assume that the values that allow one to accumulate billions of dollars are incompatible with a society that works for most of us. As Arthur Silber said earlier and better than I could, to think that billionaire saviors would “call into question the basic structure of a system that permits [them] to accumulate this degree of wealth and power is to believe in the Tooth Fairy.”

Occupy, despite its declinist tendencies, gave the public the idea of a predatory 1% at the apex of the global capitalist system. The idea resonated enough that even Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry found a political advantage by accusing Mitt Romney of practicing “vulture capitalism.” Occupy was in 2011, but talk of “income inequality” already feels as bygone as the Smoking Guy from those Herman Cain ads or “binders-full of women.” The buzz has even died down around Elizabeth Warren; the erstwhile savior Democrat, waiting in the wings to reinvigorate the progressive base. After all, why would we want to reduce inequality, or even dismantle the system that creates it? This left-libertarian transpartisanship is already bequeathing us such great new billionaires!

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3 thoughts on “Meet the new billionaires, same as the old billionaires

  1. Can you explain what ‘declinist’ means, and what’s wrong with it? I’m old, and the term was not in use when I was more politically active than I am now (mostly anti-interventionist and anti-imperialist work: Viet Nam antiwar, Latin American and Southern Africa solidarity, anti-Gulf War, and anti-war-on-terra). To me, It seems an empirical truth that the US is an empire in decline, and US society likewise, but that doesn’t translate to a particular political stance. Would appreciate some explication; thanks in advance.

    • Hi Neil, the way I understand it is that declinism refers to the tendency to whitewash a problem by making it seem like a contemporary malfunction, rather than a longtime function of the system.
      To use an anti-imperialist example, while it’s true that the Bush/Cheney administration overtly instituted a torture regime, to say that American torture is uniquely theirs is declinist. Torture in American policy goes back beyond the CIA’s KUBARK days, to the US terror campaign in the Philippines, to the legal torture of American slavery, etc. Similarly, in this context I used it, the tendency to dismiss what we see now as “crony capitalism” or “vulture capitalism” is declinist, because it whitewashes that this is how capitalism is supposed to function. This is not a result of “bad apples,” it’s the system’s intended function.
      Thanks for visiting and reading.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. It’s a criticism I’ve often made, but without having a name for it. Useful! Thanks.

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