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Steve Fraser: The Return of the Titans

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Think of this as the year that democracy of, by, and for the billionaires shall not perish from the Earth -- not when we're on a new electoral playing field in a political world in which distinctions are no longer made between unlimited money and unlimited speech. In other words, these days, if you have billions of dollars, you can shout from the skies and the rest of us have to listen. If, as Steve Fraser points out today, we've been witnessing the return of "family capitalism on steroids," nowhere has it been bigger than in American politics, aided and abetted by that ultimate family institution, the Supremes (and I'm not, of course, talking about the classic Motown group).

We're still almost two months from the midterm elections in which the Republicans already have the House of Representatives essentially wrapped up and ads for Senate races are zipping onto TV screens in "battleground states" at a dizzying pace. To fund those ads and other campaign initiatives, dollars by the millions are pouring into the coffers of "dark money" outfits in a way guaranteed to leave the record for spending on midterm elections in a ditch at the side of the road. We now have our first estimates of what election 2014 is going to look like as a billionaire's playground; and count on it, you're going to hear the words "record," "billionaire," and "ads" a lot more until November.

"Outside groups" have already spent $120 million on TV ads alone, more than half that sum coming from those dark-money groups that don't have to let anyone know who their contributors are. At the top of that shadowy list are six outfits linked to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita. Together, those groups have already sent a mind-spinning 44,000 ads into the politico-sphere in those battleground states, and the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity (AFP) leads the pack with 27,000 of them. In the end, AFP alone is expected to put $125 million into this year's midterm elections, a figure that should take your breath away and yet that's only a start.

Sheldon Adelson, of casino fame, may, for example, put $100 million of his $31.6 billion fortune into this campaign season, shuttling much of it through dark-money outfits, including AFP. On the liberal side of the spectrum, environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to sink $50 million into campaigns to promote candidates ready to act on global warming (though there is little question that, in the billionaire sweepstakes, the right-wing ones are going to outspend the liberal ones, and Republicans outspend Democrats).

In all of this, you can see the urge of America's new crop of billionaires to "play god" at our expense and with our lives -- to decide for us, ad by ad, dark-money outfit by dark-money outfit, how we should organize ourselves politically. Historian Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace, and co-founder (with me) of the American Empire Project, has rubbed elbows with many a billionaire -- on the page, if not in life. From this country's earliest tycoons to the latest batch of family capitalists, he finds one overwhelming, unifying trait: a deep-seated belief, in a country that worships self- or family-made money, that the more billions you have, the more you should be listened to. In his upcoming book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, he explores how, in our second (even more) gilded age, others with little money also came to believe that, rather than resist it. Tom

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Playing God
The Rebirth of Family Capitalism or How the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and Other Billionaires Are Undermining America
By Steve Fraser

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century. Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country's anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt's appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, "The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for... not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country." To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, "These men don't suffer. Why hell, half of them don't even speak English."

We might call that adopting the imperial position. Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs. They liked to play God. It's a habit that's returned with a vengeance in our own time.

The Koch brothers are only the most conspicuous among a whole tribe of "self-made" billionaires who imagine themselves architects or master builders of a revamped, rehabilitated America. The resurgence of what might be called dynastic or family capitalism, as opposed to the more impersonal managerial capitalism many of us grew up with, is changing the nation's political chemistry.

Our own masters of the universe, like the "robber barons" of old, are inordinately impressed with their ascendancy to the summit of economic power. Add their personal triumphs to American culture's perennial love affair with business -- President Calvin Coolidge, for instance, is remembered today only for proclaiming that "the business of America is business" -- and you have a formula for megalomania.

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Take Jeff Greene, otherwise known as the "Meltdown Mogul." Back in 2010, he had the chutzpah to campaign in the Democratic primary for a Florida senate seat in a Miami neighborhood ravaged by the subprime mortgage debacle -- precisely the arena in which he had grown fabulously rich. In the process, he rallied locals against Washington insiders and regaled them with stories of his life as a busboy at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. Protected from the Florida sun by his Prada shades, he alluded to his wealth as evidence that, as a maestro of collateralized debt obligations, no one knew better than he how to run the economy he had helped to pulverize. He put an exclamation point on his campaign by flying off in his private jet only after securely strapping himself in with his gold-plated seat buckles.

Olympian entrepreneurs like Greene regularly end up seeing themselves as tycoons-cum-savants. When they run for office, they do so as if they were trying to get elected to the board of directors of America, Inc. Some will brook no interference with their will. Property, lots of it, in a society given over to its worship, becomes a blank check: everything is permitted to those who have it.

Dream and Nightmare

This, then, is the indigenous romance of American capitalism. The man from nowhere becomes a Napoleon of business and so a hero because he confirms a cherished legend: namely, that it's the primordial birthright of those lucky enough to live in the New World to rise out of obscurity to unimaginable heights. All of this, so the legend tells us, comes through the application of disciplined effort, commercial cunning and foresight, a take-no-prisoners competitive instinct, and a gambler's sang froid in the face of the unforgiving riskiness of the marketplace. Master all of that and you deserve to be a master of our universe. (Conversely, this is the dark fairy tale that nineteenth century Gilded Age anti-capitalist rebels knew as "the Property Beast.")

What makes the creation of the titan particularly confounding is that it seems as if it shouldn't be so. Inside the colorless warrens of the counting house and factory workshop, a pedestrian preoccupation with profit and loss might be expected to smother all those instincts we associate with the warrior, the statesman, and the visionary, not to mention the tyrant. As Joseph Schumpeter, the mid-twentieth century political economist, once observed, "There is surely no trace of any mystic glamour" about the sober-minded bourgeois. He is not likely to "say boo to a goose."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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