Why are so
many nations now led by extravagant buffoons? Because the nature of capitalism
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th July 2019
ago the brilliant impressionist Rory Bremner complained that politicians had become so boring that few
of them were worth mimicking: “They’re quite homogenous and dull these days …
It’s as if character is seen as a liability.” Today, his profession has the
opposite problem: however extreme satire becomes, it struggles to keep pace
with reality. The political sphere, so dull and grey a few years ago, is now
populated by preposterous exhibitionists.
is not confined to the UK – everywhere the killer clowns are taking over. Boris
Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott
Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Matteo Salvini, Recep Erdogan, Viktor Orban and a
host of other ludicrous strongmen – or weakmen as they so often turn out to be
– dominate nations that would once have laughed them off stage. The question is
why? Why are the deathly technocrats who held sway almost everywhere a few years
ago giving way to extravagant buffoons?
media, which is an incubator of absurdity, is certainly part of the story. But
while there has been plenty of good work investigating the means, there has
been surprisingly little thinking about the ends. Why are the ultra-rich, who
until recently used their money and newspapers to promote charisma-free
politicians, now funding this circus? Why would capital wish to be represented
by middle managers one moment and jesters the next?
reason, I believe, is that the nature of capitalism has changed. The dominant
force of the 1990s and early 2000s – corporate power – demanded technocratic
government. It wanted people who could simultaneously run a competent, secure
state and protect profits from democratic change. In 2012, when Rory Bremner
made his complaint, power was already shifting to a different place, but
politics had not caught up.
policies that were supposed to promote enterprise – slashing taxes for the
rich, ripping down public protections, destroying trade unions – instead
stimulated a powerful spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. The
largest fortunes are now made not through entrepreneurial brilliance but through
inheritance, monopoly and rent-seeking: securing exclusive control of crucial
assets, such as land and buildings,
privatised utilities and intellectual property, and assembling service monopolies such as
trading hubs, software and social media platforms, then charging user fees far
higher than the costs of production and delivery. In Russia, people who enrich
themselves this way are called oligarchs. But this is not a Russian phenomenon,
it is a global one. Corporate power still exists, but today it is overlain by –
and is mutating into – oligarchic power.
oligarchs want is not the same as what the old corporations wanted. In the words of their
favoured theorist Stephen Bannon, they seek the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Chaos is the profit
multiplier for the disaster capitalism on which the new billionaires thrive. Every rupture is used to seize
more of the assets on which our lives depend. The chaos of an undeliverable
Brexit, the repeated meltdowns and shutdowns of government under Trump: these are the kind of deconstructions Bannon
foresaw. As institutions, rules and democratic oversight implode, the oligarchs
extend their wealth and power at our expense.
The killer clowns
offer the oligarchs something else too: distraction and deflection. While the kleptocrats fleece us, we are urged to look elsewhere. We are mesmerised by buffoons, who
encourage us to channel the anger that should be reserved for billionaires
towards immigrants, women, Jews, Muslims, people of colour and other imaginary
enemies and customary scapegoats. Just as
it was in the 1930s, the new demagoguery is a con, a revolt against the impacts
of capital, financed by capitalists.
interests always lie offshore: in tax havens and secrecy regimes. Paradoxically,
these interests are best promoted by nationalists and nativists. The
politicians who most
loudly proclaim their patriotism and defence of sovereignty are always the
first to sell their nations down the river. It is no
coincidence that most of the newspapers promoting the nativist agenda, whipping
up hatred against immigrants and thundering about sovereignty, are owned by
billionaire tax exiles, living offshore.
economic life has been offshored, so has political life. The political rules
that are supposed to prevent foreign money from funding domestic politics have collapsed. The main
beneficiaries are the self-proclaimed defenders of sovereignty, who rise to
power with the help of social media ads bought by persons unknown, and
thinktanks and lobbyists that refuse to reveal their funders. A recent essay by the
academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez argues that offshore finance
involves “the rampant
unbundling and commercialisation of state sovereignty” and the shifting of
power into a secretive, extraterritorial legal space, beyond the control of any
state. In this offshore world, they contend, “financialised and hypermobile global
capital effectively is the state.”
billionaires are the real citizens of nowhere. They
fantasise, like the plutocrats in Ayn Rand’s terrible novel Atlas Shrugged, about
further escape. Look at the “seasteading” venture funded by
Paypal’s founder Peter Thiel, that sought to build artificial islands in the
middle of the ocean, whose citizens could enact a libertarian fantasy of escape from the
state, its laws, regulations and taxes, and from organised labour. Scarcely a
month goes by without a billionaire raising the prospect of leaving the Earth
altogether, and colonising space pods or other
Those whose identity
is offshore seek only to travel further offshore. To them, the nation state is
both facilitator and encumbrance, source of wealth and imposer of tax, pool of
cheap labour and seething mass of ungrateful plebs, from whom they must flee,
leaving the wretched earthlings to their well-deserved fate.
from these disasters means taxing oligarchy to oblivion. It’s easy to get
hooked up on discussions about what tax level maximises the generation of
revenue. There are endless arguments about the Laffer curve,
that purports to show where this level lies. But these discussions overlook
something crucial: raising revenue is only one of the purposes of tax. Another
is breaking the spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation.
Breaking this spiral
is a democratic necessity: otherwise the oligarchs, as we have seen, come to
dominate national and international life. The spiral does not stop by itself:
only government action can do it. This is one of the reasons why, during the
1940s, the top rate of income tax in the US rose to 94%, and in the UK to 98%.
A fair society requires periodic corrections on this scale. But these days the
steepest taxes would be better aimed at accumulated unearned wealth.
Of course, the offshore world the billionaires have created makes such bold policies extremely difficult: this, after all, is one of its purposes. But at least we know what the aim should be, and can begin to see the scale of the challenge. To fight something, first we need to understand it.