Matt Stoller: No, America Is Not an Oligarchy

By Matt Stoller, who writes for Salon and has contributed to Politico, Alternet, Salon, The Nation and Reuters. You can reach him at stoller (at) gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller. Originally published at Observations on Credit and Surveillance

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The rich have been doing it to the poor since the beginning of time. The only difference between the Pyramids and the Empire State Building is the Egyptians didn’t allow unions. – Martin Sheen in the movie Wall Street

A lot of people are misreading this Princeton study on the political influence of the wealthy and business groups versus ordinary citizens. The study does not say that the US is an oligarchy, wherein the wealthy control politics with an iron fist. If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.

What the study actually says is that American voters are disorganized and their individualized preferences don’t matter unless voters group themselves into mass membership organizations. Then, if people belong to mass membership organizations, their preferences do matter, but less so than business groups and the wealthy.

Furthermore, the study says that the only mass groups that truly represent citizen preferences are labor unions and advocacy groups like the AARP. Another implication from the study is that citizens can get what they want if they want the same things that business groups or the wealthy want, or if they want to preserve the status quo. Change is hard for everyone, even the rich. Citizens helped stop cuts to Social Security that the elites wanted, and may derail trade agreements.

The lesson here is to organize. Citizens can matter, but only if they make themselves matter. Change won’t be distributed like consumer products, wherein high polling numbers just seamlessly translate into policy change.

There are a number of other implications. One is that the decline of labor unions doesn’t just reduce economic bargaining power, it reduces the political representation of ordinary citizens. If mass membership organizations are the only way for ordinary Americans to represent themselves, and labor unions are the only mass membership organizations that express the preferences of ordinary Americans, then labor unions are popular democracy. This makes sense. The groups pushing for broadly popular policies – equal pay, foreclosure relief, preserving Social Security and Medicare, etc – are unions. Unions want more stuff for normal people.

Anyway, that’s what the study says. America is not an oligarchy. But it is becoming one as unions die.

I’m not sure I agree with the methodology of the study. There are a lot of acknowledged gaps, like the influence of ordinary people on the elites, and vice versa, and unacknowledged ones, like the importance of the security state or ideological competitiveness. The study doesn’t distinguish between policies that are important, like TARP or the bailouts, and those that are not, like the cap on credit union lending. It doesn’t distinguish between policies in the news, and those not in the news. It doesn’t deal with media consolidation, or examine the link between economic elites and ordinary citizens. I mean the New Deal financial system worked really well because it established such a political alignment, while deregulation snapped this political unity. And it doesn’t address change over time – clearly there was more influence from ordinary citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. Why? The American political system isn’t static. Different leaders have different styles and believe different things.

Really, though, the biggest issue with the study is that it is both obvious and derivative work – political scientist Tom Ferguson has been writing about this problem since the early 1980s. And anyone with eyes, ears, or any observational skill knows that the rich matter. Money is power, as Adam Smith noticed a few hundred years ago. This study is part of the whole Piketty movement, wherein what Chris Hedges calls the liberal class begins to notice that the distribution of resources matters to them. One could argue it’s good that people notice the obvious, but I’m not so sure. If it takes Princeton political scientists six years after the biggest financial crisis in history to notice that money is a thing, that’s not really progress. Real progress would be a wholesale rejection of political science and economics as blind and corrupt. But then, I suspect that would require people to organize.

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185 comments

  1. Middle Seaman

    This article about the Swedish political system seems to be about the right. Of course, it wouldn’t apply to the US. Oligarchy isn’t like temperature. When you have 104F, you do have fever. Oligarchy, at best, is a range, an interval. It’s also somewhat fuzzy to define.

    There are many indications that we aren’t an oligarchy. We have an efficient and universal health care system and not a system run by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Our minimum wage is $20 an hour and not the abject poverty rate rich employers want to pay. Wages have risen steadily for most in the last 30 years and not me getting paid in 2014 exactly the same salary I was paid in 1985 adjusted for inflation. (Don’t worry about me, additional income is easy to get for some.)

    We have also enjoyed peace since V day.

    1. James Levy

      Wilhelmine Germany had a old age pensions and aid for workers injured on the job, plus universal manhood suffrage. That didn’t mean it wasn’t an oligarchy run by aristocrats and business tycoons. Some of the rich and powerful can, at times, be smart enough to cut the rest of us in on the game by exploiting subaltern groups and/or foreigners. Traditionally, US elites have exploited or appropriated from both to grease the wheels of American politics. Oligarchy is a function of who has power, not how they use it. The above article is about as realistic as a Mickey Rooney film in which he says, “come on kids, let’s all get together and put on a show!”.

      1. Matt Stoller

        Some of the rich and powerful can, at times, be smart enough to cut the rest of us in on the game by exploiting subaltern groups and/or foreigners.

        They cut the public in on the game because they had to. The late 19th century was a time of massive strikes, centered in the coal mines. Social insurance was an alternative to labor owned capital. It was a compromise. It wasn’t that the elites were smart, they were forced to concede something due to labor pressure.

        1. Xelcho

          I have a few thoughts on this:

          1: Even FDR admitted that he supported the corp sector and was acting in their interest as he indicated that the New Deal was to appease communist/socialist and union “parties” as they would have forced a much more comprehensive expansion. So to your point, yes organizing is the key to success.

          2: The corp/political powers know this and have been working very effectively in the departments of marketing/public relations/branding and such to make sure that the amount of conflicting information is so abundant as to effectively atomize the population on garbage issues e.g. guns/abortion and the like. (Not to insult those who feel strongly about these issues but to let them wedge us into millions of pieces is crazy.) Additionally, the english language has been so abused by the political and corp class that average Joe has no chance in hell of understanding what is being done in his name and with his tax monies.

          3: As history has shown with COINTELPRO and the evidence of the spying that was done to current dissidents and organizers (occupy), it is a risk to one’s career to tread too close to making a change to the status quo.

          4: With Prez Zero crushing all whistle-blowers who peep anything that is not of the party line, supporting the surveillance state, giving everything away that the gov’t can to the financial and oil sectors, what chance do we have to organize without serious risk?

    2. /L

      If you refer to Sweden, there is no such thing as minimum wage, you can pay as little as you want. I people that drive taxi 6 days a week for $2100/month. Usually they work on only commission and in the overcrowded Swedish taxi-market they sit in the cab +200H/month and make at best peanuts.

  2. diptherio

    I appreciate Stoller’s more nuanced take on Gilens and Page, but even his less pessimistic reading is still pretty grim. Consider:

    What the study actually says is that American voters are disorganized and their individualized preferences don’t matter unless voters group themselves into mass membership organizations. Then, if people belong to mass membership organizations, their preferences do matter, but less so than business groups and the wealthy.

    So even in the best-case scenario, where us “ordinary” folks get organized, we still get less representation from our politicians than the big money boys (and girls). That’s not as bad as a straight up oligarchy, perhaps, but it’s surely nothing to cheer about, and it surely isn’t democracy.

    And then, Stoller has worked on the hill, if I’m recalling his CV correctly, and so we might expect that he’ll be more prone than those of us who haven’t to want to see the system as at least salvageable. This is nothing personal, just a psychological note.

    So, is the problem really that the American populace isn’t organized well enough? Is this just a version of blaming the victim? Is it reasonable to expect people working multiple jobs and surviving paycheck-to-three-days-before-paycheck to also become involved in political organizations? Having worked many a low-wage job and gotten to know many a person trying to raise a family in such circumstances, expecting these folks to also devote time and resources to political organizations (which even in the best case exert less influence than the rich) seems to lack a certain amount of empathy to me.

    As Jackrabbit was saying to me the other night at some Wall Street dive {waves}, what is needed is a system that is actually accountable to the average citizen and to mass sentiment. Saying “hey, the problem isn’t the system, it’s your apathetic @$$es!” seems to miss the point. Do we really want a system where the common woman and man get steam-rolled unless they stay constantly organized to defend their interests?

    Another thing that came up the other night at our “meet-up for three” was the 1978 book by Lawrence Goodwyn; The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt (free online, if you follow that link). I’ve only started to read the intro, but I’m already impressed by how much circumstances in the 1870s-90s resemble those of today. One thing that Goodwyn points out is that mass political organizations weren’t enough to change things. Here’s a quote:

    The nation’s agriculturalists had worried and grumbled about “the new rules of commerce” ever since the prosperity that accompanied the Civil War had turned into widespread distress soon after the war ended. During the 1870’s they did the kinds of things that concerned people generally do in an effort to cope with “hard times.” In an occupation noted for hard work they worked even harder.

    [snip]

    So in the 1870’s, the farmers increasingly talked to each other about their troubles and read books on economics in an effort to discover what had gone wrong. Some of them formed organizations of economic self-help like the Grange and others assisted in pioneering new institutions of political self-help like the Greenback Party. But as the hard times of the 1870’s turned into the even harder times of the 1880’s, it was clear that these efforts were not really going anywhere. Indeed, by 1888 it was evident that things were worse than they had been in 1878 or 1868. More and more people saw their farm mortgages foreclosed.

    [snip]

    Then gradually, in certain specific ways and for certain specific reasons, American farmers developed new methods that enabled them to try to regain a measure of control over their own lives. Their efforts, halting and disjointed at first, gathered form and force until they grew into a coordinated mass movement that stretched across the American continent from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. Millions of people came to believe fervently that a wholesale overhauling of their society was going to happen in their lifetimes. A democratic “new day” was coming to America.

    [snip]

    The Populist revolt — the most elaborate example of mass insurgency we have in American history — provides an abundance of evidence that can be applied in answering this question. The sequential process of democratic movement-building will be seen to involve four stages: (1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority — a development which, for the sake of simplicity, we may describe as “the movement forming”; (2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people — “the movement recruiting”; (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis — “the movement educating”; and (4) the creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way — “the movement politicized.”

    1. Banger

      The reason why a populist revolt has not and, I suggest, cannot happen is that our culture has changed dramatically. The populist farmers were directly involved in their economic lives–they could see before them the struggle of making their farms work–they were used to taking independent action and because they felt empowered they were used to acting directly.

      In contrast modern Americans are passive–they rely on their bosses to boss them and avoid “direct responsibility” particularly in bureaucracies. In addition, the culture is saturated with “magic” spells created by generations of advertising, public relations, mass entertainments whose message to us all is that we are inadequate unless we are swimming in manufactured products and eating manufactured food. I keep getting blamed here for “blaming the victim” by putting some responsibility on the average citizen–and, indeed, we are all responsible for our situation–“we” are the culture and oligarchy is thriving because the culture favors that tendency. The citizen has, symbolically, made a bargain with the capitalists–he/she will give up the old traditional self-sufficient attitudes of the 19th century in exchange for massive goodies much like the boys who populated Pleasure Island in the story of Pinocchio were able to indulge their fantasies and desires so now we are collectively growing donkey ears.

      The solution is simple and we have the opportunity, still, to do it. Organize into unions or collectives of some kind–but we won’t because we are used to living in fantasies after renting our bodies out to the bosses–that’s the life we have chosen as a mass. Individually, we can change it but it isn’t easy since our culture only tends to honor individuals rather than groups.

      1. Ulysses

        At least in the fast-food and retail industry not all of the workers are simply laying down in surrender: http://fightfor15.org/en/ . http://fastfoodforward.org/

        The energy and courage I have seen among these low-wage workers in Chicago and New York does give me hope, as did the recent Chicago Teachers’ Strike. My impression is that the biggest obstacle to radical change is that far two many people, who make between 40k and 150k, actually still believe in the trickle-down fantasy. It is this group who needs to fully recognize that they don’t share the same interests as billionaires before we can move forward as a society.

        1. Banger

          Good point–it is the middle class and what Chris Hedges calls the “liberal class” that is missing in action and happy with things as they are. The reason they are “happy” is that technology delivers to them goods, services and entertainments that are compelling enough to absorb the interest of this class. In addition, should there be some problem with the situation there are pallet loads of pharmaceuticals that provide attitude adjustments should the mind wander into deeper territories.

          This is why we are drifting to the right every day in every way–the class interest of the middle classes, still, are against progressive politics even if the sentiment is here. All a candidate has to do is to make rhetorical noises (Obama) and this class is happy–they are concerned with images not realities since most of their time is spent in front of screens of one kind or another.

          1. John Yard

            I think that there was a turning point in the 1980’s when upper middle class turned a blind eye towards the downsizing of the working class. There was a sense that the outsourcing of jobs was great because it would make available all sorts of goods cheaper , and of course ‘our’ jobs could never be outsourced and downsized.

            Now it is the turn of the upper middle class to be outsourced and downsized, and surprise ! – we can’t stop the downsizing spiral.

            Divide and rule – old as the Romans.

        2. James Levy

          John Chuckman at Counterpunch had an interesting article the other day about the ways in which the educated elite of specialists who are still clearly “middle class” (in that they depend on work and not capital to survive) that have traditionally, in the West, supported bourgeois democracy and the rule of law, are now much more beholden, financially and psychologically, to the elite than they were in earlier times. These critical cadres, who once articulated and represented the ideas and interests of the middling sorts, have largely defected and joined their betters on the other side of the barricade. If movements need leaders and organizers and propagandists, these people would be them. Problem is, today more and more of them are playing for the other team.

          http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/14/americas-great-leap-toward-global-tyranny/

          1. jrs

            I try to make the point the middle class should identify downward (even regardless of various other directions of their politics – right/left authoritarian/libertarian). That I think it’s their real self-interest. Better conditions at the bottom would make their life better. And maybe some do, but if they won’t even save their own souls while saving their bacon, I don’t think the world will care. The next movement may be a poverty movement.

      2. Dan Kervick

        There is an alternative to both self-sufficiency and slavish dependency on the organizers of consumption: democratic citizenship. This means exercising personal responsibility through participation in collective processes – at local, state, national and independent civic levels, rather than through some kind of rugged and individualistic self-sufficiency.

        There are deep roots of this kind of civic-oriented democratic thinking in American life, but they have been attacked and undermined by the radical individualists of both the right and the left, who have perverted the understanding of democracy into something that consists in the possession of 1000 different varieties of individual rights rather than the mature shouldering of collective responsibilities.

        One thing we might do about this is to advocate for the reduction of the work-week to four days (as well as other measures to confine formal labor within its proper hourly bounds) and to substitute in a day of more-or-less mandatory civic participation.

        1. ess emm

          Sign me up! And why couldnt some of the activities be included as part of a Job Guarantee and we get paid for them! Providing public services like assisting the old, the sick, the young and the desperate would fall into these activities. Instead of a social worker having 200 cases, imagine we have a 1 to 1 ratio.

          But the some critical civic activities would require institutional change. For example, rotating average-incomed people onto corporate boards of directors and mandating they be a majority.

    2. Brindle

      I agree with most of what you say but another component stands out: the effective mass hypnotization of a large segment (a majority?) of the populace by mass media and popular culture, the people who have consistently voted against their own interests. They have been conditioned to respond to the various boogeymen or “heroes” presented in a whir images that effectively negates their ability for critical thought.

      I don’t see this dysfunctional dynamic changing anytime soon.

      Basically a revolution of consciousness will have to occur at the individual level before we have a functional, effective and humane government.

      1. Banger

        That is the key to all this. Consciousness must change and people need to stop their addiction to legal drugs and escapist entertainment. We must assume that all “news” is propaganda (it is for the most part) and cultivate alternative sources of information. Will people want to do this? That is the question.

        1. Glenn Condell

          OK, addiction to legal drugs stopped – check

          Addiction to escapist entertainment stopped, check

          assumption that all news is propaganda, check

          alternative sources cultivated, check

          consciousness changed…

          What now?

          We need to attack the causes rather than the symptoms of our malaise. Concrete steps to address inequality and to prosecute financial crime are required before we think about changing the habits of billions. Those habits will only be modified by changes to the underlying societal architecture, I just can’t see it working the other way around.

      2. diptherio

        Goodwyn refers to the “culture of deference” that has arisen in our country since the Populist revolt of the late 19th century. It’s a big problem and we need to overcome it. I have found that at least some people can be reached through passionate, articulate alternative narratives that bear much more resemblance to people’s lived experience than the mainstream ones. Perhaps more of us need to be getting up on our soapboxes…literally, as in standing on street corners preaching the truth.

        The antidote to deference is empowerment. Part of this comes from organizing, but a larger and deeper part, I think, has to come from people hearing over and over again that they ARE capable, that a better world IS possible, that we can create real change: si, se puede. If all we ever say is “people are apathetic and dumb and brainwashed,” we are likely to simply be encouraging that kind of behavior.

        Victor Frankl has something to say about this, and I fully agree:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9sMoRUJQGA

        1. Matt Stoller

          Goodwyn refers to the “culture of deference” that has arisen in our country since the Populist revolt of the late 19th century. It’s a big problem and we need to overcome it.

          I love this, and your whole comment.

      3. Paul Niemi

        Sorry, I can’t agree. We have the evidence of the presidential election of 2012, in which it was seen that demographics had progressively changed such that traditionally R suburban congressional districts flipped to support for the D. Apparently the desideratum was a well-organized “get out the vote” effort by the D, but on election night it was obvious the demographics had changed. I have not forgotten that, notwithstanding subsequent rhetoric to explain it away by blaming the R for running an ineffective campaign. So, I can’t agree that a mass revolution in consciousness is necessary, at the individual level or among the elites. What is necessary is fielding of good candidates who can take advantage of the new demographics, and conventional organizational efforts at the congressional district level.

        1. Jess

          So, the solution is to elect “more and better Democrats”? Like Obama? We’ve heard that tripe before, and so I only have one question: How long have you been working for Blue America or MoveOn or The Center for American Oligarchy & Crapification?

          1. Paul Niemi

            Frame it as the lesser of two evils, if you wish, but elections are a hard reality. It seems like the pendulum swings between one side going beyond what they can get away with, and the other doing the same. But retreating to non-participation with the idea that they are all bastards doesn’t do anything about anything.

            1. Lord Koos

              After voting for the lesser of two evils for over 40 years I can assure you that voting for either of the parties also doesn’t do anything about anything.

              1. lee

                Me too, plus an additional decade. Still credulous after all these years, I thought the confluence of the crash and elections of 08 were going to produce something splendid. Maybe voter apathy is just the wisdom of crowds expressed as inaction. That minimum wage initiative in Seattle was pretty cool though and if my health improves I sure wouldn’t mind hitting the streets again with the likes of OWS.

            2. NotTimothyGeithner

              Why aren’t you demanding Team D behaves instead of LOTE voting strategies? The answer is you don’t care about policy. This is about your team sport.

              Turn on ESPN and at least support Disney instead of the GE/Com cast distraction network favored by Dims.

            3. Dan Kervick

              Well, it the past, i have always voted. I think I have voted every two-years in every election for which I was eligible since I was 18, and applied a utilitarian less of two evils criterion. However, I am seriously considering not voting this time around. I don’t think of that as a retreat to non-participation but as part of a reorientation of my participation.

              1. Vatch

                Please consider voting for third party candidates. If you don’t vote, nobody will tally your abstention. But if you vote third party, it will be an explicit vote against the D and R status quo.

                1. Dan Kervick

                  Well, nobody will tally it either way. And frankly, I can’t find a third party I agree with any more than the major ones.

                2. hunkerdown

                  Anyone who has the number of registered voters and the number of ballots cast can count it for themselves. Which is probably slightly less faith-based than that the votes were tallied for whom they were actually cast.

                  Any system that gives officials a right to their office that cannot be revoked instantly on agreement of 3/4 of their constitutents is a sham.

            4. jrs

              Where to start, where to start? Participation definied as voting even though the essay directly above makes the case for participation as “organizing” (it doesn’t forbid voting true).

              And elections as a hard reality? Like climate change or soemthing right? Is the problem even elections as such or the electorial systems we have (winner take all, first past the post). At any rate those systems don’t seem to be leading to democratic results do they? Maybe we should rethink the “hard reality” we are trapped in.

              1. hunkerdown

                THIS. There is no reality so hard as that into which one is conditioned (e.g. LOTE, duty to ratify a rigged system).

                One of the major problems is that we demand performances instead of outcomes. Yes, technological societies are just as, if not more, prone to cargo-cultism as bush societies.

              2. masterslave

                Politicians are liars and everyone knows it . We need more direct referendum voting powers to counteract their collective lies . We need a fully rationalized federal referendum vote empowerment . Is that a catch-22 ?

          2. NotTimothyGeithner

            Yeah, but Sarah Palin and just wait for the Hispanic vote so Democrats can win, and the GOP they gerrymandered which they didn’t do prior to 2009, and and and shut up racist, commie and go fly a unicorn!

        2. NotTimothyGeithner

          Thank you for providing the perfect example of why the Democratic Party is beyond reform. There is no mention of 2006, 2008, and 2010, there is no mention of the war mongering and pivot to kill SS in 2013, and instead of pushing for policy and reforms Team D is putting all its hopes into GOP incompetence instead of Team D’s own performance.

          Individual sender like Niemi are clear signs the Democratic can not be reformed and can only be scared/embarrassed into be having as the Democrats clearly showed in 2012 and 2008 that they have no problems lying.

        3. Banger

          The RP and DP play a good cop/bad cop game. Both parties favor imperialism abroad and pro-oligarch policies at home–the greatest crime wave in U.S. History and almost nothing was done–that is unforgivable–at minimum there should have been a truth commission ,giving the banksters immunity in exchange for fussing up.

          The demographic favors the DP because the Rs have decided to be a niche party of culturally conservative white people at least in 2012 until now–that may change in 2014.

          The DP has become the status quo party and shows absolutely no interest, other than a handful of people like Warren, in reforming anything or acting on climate change. The ACA was a bill to preserve the power of the worst actors in the HC system and keep all reason-based alternatives out of the public discourse. The DP does a lot of talk and pro-wrestling type discourse to appear to be mildly progressive but it is cynically false.

          1. Paul Niemi

            I’m in agreement on much of this, and thanks for the response. In regard to the RP and DP playing good cop/bad cop, the incumbents do tend to have more in common with each other than they have with the base of their respective parties, especially since so many no longer need to go home to live under the laws they have passed but rather can segue after office into lobbying or consulting for the same stakeholders who showed up before their committees. On the other hand, the government shutdown, I think, illustrated that the difference between the two parties of incumbents is just as much or more of a gulf. I think my point would be that while you can’t realistically expect to change the minds of these people, you can change their faces. That’s doable. But let’s take this a step further. Within the parties, the difference between the attitudes of the younger generations and the older generations is also striking. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the 20-somethings in the DP are on the same page as you (and maybe me) already, and it didn’t take them a couple generations of hard knocks to get there. I know that the status quo is as rigid as to have an almost a catholic quality of respect for establishment and hierarchy, but the younger generation, if not alienated, is neither beholden to any of this structure. Now I’m glad you mentioned Elizabeth Warren. She demonstrated that if a just cause is blocked by the keepers of the status quo, then you can go over their heads to the people directly, by taking it to an election and winning. Try to remember others in politics who could do that, who didn’t present as a candidate best at fitting in. They are few. I like the lady, and I expect her to stir the pot more in coming years.

      4. jrs

        I think the study is saying we’ve all been voting against our self interest (or anyone voting for those who have actually ended up holding power ).

    3. Matt Stoller

      I appreciate Stoller’s more nuanced take on Gilens and Page, but even his less pessimistic reading is still pretty grim.

      Correct. It is grim. I’m not optimistic for the next few years, I just acknowledge that I’m not certain about outcomes.

      I wasn’t optimistic in 2006, though, after I saw the likely path of the Democrats. Many of the people now arguing that we’re in an immovable oligarchy were radical optimists then. This woe is me oligarch-chatter is just an excuse for those people to ignore how badly they got it wrong.

    4. Bob Swern

      First off, I’m a big fan of Mr. Stoller’s work. That being said, there’s a basic problem with his analysis this time, and it boils down to this sentence in his piece…

      …Citizens helped stop cuts to Social Security that the elites wanted, and may derail trade agreements…

      The only thing citizens have done, so far, is briefly postpone SS cuts and trade agreements, among other tasks the status quo’s minions are scheduled to perform for their Masters of the Univere, which will be “revisited after the election.” (And, and this laundry list will be “addressed” in typical, inverted totalitarian style.)

      Case-in-point, the TPP: Obama’s currently in Japan, where the focus is on getting the trade deal done, longer-term. And, even Obama is open enough on those realities to reference the political issues involved, publicly:

      http://www.japantoday.com/category/politics/view/obama-abe-under-pressure-to-salvage-tpp-pact
      “Obama, Abe under pressure to salvage TPP pact,” Japan Today (4/24/14).

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You are interpreting that headline incorrectly. That means big corps are mighty unhappy that the deal is obviously failing. This is just zombie optics.

        1. Bob Swern

          Yves, we’ve seen it time after time, wherein the administration (much like administrations before it), waits until after an election (or, sometimes, a couple or a few elections) to push through whatever’s controversial (within their own “base”), but at the top of the agenda of status quo.

          Usually, this strategy manifests itself by: hiding/obfuscating all or parts (piecemeal) of that legislation within other legislation; breaking down a large program into separate bills, implementing alternative strategies that achieve the same goals under the radar, and/or dealing with matters in reconciliation and/or “rulemaking,” or even by simply including minor “phrases”/loopholes in other legislation, so that the powers that be get what they want.

          Strategies to insure that key programs that are at or near the corporatocracy’s Christmas list–such as the TPP, KXL, chained CPI in Soc Sec, and other sordid, 99%-unfriendly efforts that are subject to divisive, highly-public outcries by the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” during an election year–will be refined, and pushed through Capitol Hill (usually sometime immediately after the election before holiday recess, or in the following couple of quarters), just as sure as the sun rises in the East every 24 hours.

          It’s the way things work.

          In the case of the TPP, over the past few days (and on many other key issues), we’ve basically been told this is what’s going to happen, too. (And, yes, I know that’s been the ongoing meme on this subject for years; but to posit that this is not how things play out in D.C., and Tokyo, and in other bastions capitalistic greed-gone-wild simply flies in the face of history over the past few decades.)

          Stoller–who is one of my favorites in the blogosphere, btw–is, simply, optimistically buying into the concept that “this time is different.”

          In this instance, while the Bloomberg piece (below) certainly contains plenty of spin, the greater truth is the corporatocracy desperately wants this, and they will pull out all the stops, to get it. Or, does this reality not apply?

          http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=11770

          Ivy League Study: The General Public Has Virtually No Influence on Policy
          TheRealNews.com
          April 24th, 2014

          Benjamin Page says that the analysis he conducted with Martin Giles of public opinion surveys and elite policy preferences of the last 20 years shows economic elites virtually determine governmental policy…

          # # #

          http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-25/obama-advisers-rally-on-trade-as-pacific-rim-talks-falter.html
          Obama Advisers Rally on Trade as Pacific-Rim Talks Falter
          By Brian Wingfield and Isabel Reynolds
          Bloomberg
          Apr 25, 2014 9:00 AM PT

          Competitors Vie

          …“If we don’t set the rules for trade in a significant part of the world, then our competitors are going to do that,” Pritzker said.

          Vilsack said the U.S. risks losing out on setting the rules as other nations move ahead with their own bilateral and regional pacts.

          “We’ve got to move forward here very quickly because the rest of the world’s not waiting,” he said.

          Japan and the U.S. have been at odds over market-access rules in the agricultural and auto sectors, and Obama’s meeting this week with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to resolve all the differences.

          The two countries in a statement said “there is still much work to be done” on outstanding issues, which relate to the agricultural and auto sectors. Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters there was also no guarantee any pact would pass the U.S. Congress.

          Negotiation Flurry

          U.S. and Japanese officials held a flurry of negotiations before and during the trip. In the statement, issued as Obama left for Seoul on the second leg of his Asian tour, both governments said they were marking a “key milestone” in their talks, which are crucial to concluding the broader pact, with discussions set to continue at a lower level.

          “In any case, there will be no resolution on TPP until after the midterm elections” in the U.S. in November, Aso said. “Obama does not have the domestic power to pull it together. I don’t think they can reach a conclusion before the mid-term elections. I think they will continue all kinds of talks in the meantime.”

          Akira Amari, the Japanese minister leading the talks, told reporters he had not struck an accord with his counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, because the issues involved were “a matter of life and death” to both nations. He said there was progress, without an agreement, on autos and five areas of agricultural produce Japan has designated as needing protection, such as pork and rice…

  3. mmckinl

    Matt Stoller doesn’t understand that the powers that be are keeping certain social programs intact, such as Social Security and Food Stamps, because they know that a complete denial of public services would cause huge unrest.

    These programs will have to be eliminated over time, too soon and the populace will revolt. The Oligarchy is a velvet glove fascist operation at the moment. They control the government, the MSM and the economy.

    Just look at our justice system. Massive fraud and other crimes are sentenced with small fines, admitting no guilt or not even prosecuted whatsoever. The police/security state now knows who you are and can predict your behavior better than you can.

    Matt Stoller can’t see the forest for the trees. The powers that be are experts at social control. Of course this all started with Edward Bernays and public relations and has developed into a science of behavioral control over the decades.

    As the economy rewards only the very rich and the middle class slides into poverty it will be necessary for the powers that be to move towards a more formal form of the police state to quell unrest. Look for that shortly as climate change and resource shortages hit hard.

    1. mmckinl

      Stoller should look into the facts of the matter. All that has to happen is for Obama to declare a “state of emergency” and all our rights are null and void …

      The NDAA will allow Military arrests without cause. “American citizens and people picked up on American or Canadian or British streets being sent to military prisons indefinitely without even being charged with a crime.

      Read more at http://www.snopes.com/politics/military/ndaa.asp#ZzVbLU9xuskQMiqA.99

      POLICE STATE USA: New Obama Executive Order Seizes U.S. Infrastructure and Citizens for Military Preparedness

      -EXECUTIVE ORDER 11921 allows the Federal Emergency Preparedness Agency to develop plans to establish control over the mechanisms of production and distribution, of energy sources, wages, salaries, credit and the flow of money in U.S. financial institution in any undefined national emergency. It also provides that when a state of emergency is declared by the President, Congress cannot review the action for six months.

      Read more at http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/executiveorders.asp#BpW8QxlABmZxyb0R.99

      All the legalities of a hard and fast police state are in place … the velvet fascism we have now will become bare knuckle fascism.

    2. Ben Johannson

      Matt Stoller doesn’t understand that the powers that be are keeping certain social programs intact, such as Social Security and Food Stamps, because they know that a complete denial of public services would cause huge unrest.

      I don’t think Stoller is familiar with Veblen: social predators require healthy prey and know it.

      1. Skeptic

        “If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.”

        Get real, Stoller. First, most of that money cycles back to the 1% anyway. Secondly, as Ben points out, social unrest has a cost and “things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc” are a cheap way to keep that unrest low. As Tech takes over the maintenance of that social unrest, they are cutting these programs and will cut them more. Thirdly, again as Ben points out, some healthy serfs are needed to prey upon and maintain the 1%.

        It is really discouraging to see such poor analysis from someone supposedly on “our” side like Stoller. Move over, Krugman!

        1. Matt Stoller

          I’m just telling you what the study says, and it doesn’t say we’re an oligarchy. You might think we are, you might think that all good things are impossible, you might think that food stamps are totally useless and issued for the benefit of Monsanto and that Social Security and Medicare have had nothing to do with the dramatic reduction in elderly poverty. That’s your right. But it’s not what the study says. And yes, Social Security was supported by the Rockefellers. But does that matter to the millions lifted out of poverty because of it?

          In terms of the increased security spending, yes, that’s a key tell that democratic representation may be ending. It’s just not done yet.

          1. mmckinl

            Dear Matt Stoller …

            What do you have to say about the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 signed by Obama and the Executive Order — National Defense Resources Preparedness order (March 16, 2012) signed by Obama?

            1. Ulysses

              Folks who want to remain “viable” for working as an insider in the D.C. village all pretend that these don’t exist, and refuse to discuss them with the rabble.

              1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

                If you even mention that stuff, real and verifiable as it is to someone like Ms Maddow they turn purple with rage at your “conspiracy theories”

            2. Matt Stoller

              This is a particularly creepy manifestation of authoritarian tendencies that go back to the 17th century, though the modern form of national emergencies took shape during and immediately after World War II. Truman sought and got Congress to give him the power to set up concentration camps, which was only repealed in the 1970s. FDR set up concentration camps via executive order.

              1. Ulysses

                Actually, it’s even worse than that. The NDAA’s indefinite detention of citizens without trial, notification of families, or any sort of due process abolishes the principle of habeas corpus that has been fundamental to Anglo-American Common law since the Magna Carta was signed by King John of England in 1215.

                The 17th century saw this principle reaffirmed and strengthened by Parliament with the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679.

                President Obama, in a very real sense, with his unaccountable drone “kill lists,” prosecution of more whistleblowers than all other U.S. presidents combined, etc. is marching us off into new realms of extra-legal tyranny not comparable to anything seen for 8 centuries under the constitutional traditions he claims to cherish.

          2. Ruben

            What the Gilens and Page study shows is that the US is not a democracy. This is the major finding. Your saying what the study is not showing is a distraction.

            1. Matt Stoller

              What the Gilens and Page study shows is that the US is not a democracy. This is the major finding. Your saying what the study is not showing is a distraction.

              Nonsense. That isn’t what the study shows. But also, it’s a rather silly study.

              1. Ruben

                You know, sometimes it’s better not to reply, rather than reply “nonsense, no, silly”.

          3. Banger

            Certainly the Rockefellers and many others in ruling circles (I mean the broadly) were and are interested in the welfare of the citizenry. The U.S. has a long history of benevolence on the part of the rich some of it very helpful to society some not–but the motivation among these people is generally to do good as they understand it. But the tide is moving in the other direction–large numbers of the rich now want it all both money and power and it is within their grasp to create a truly feudal society. Now once they get their feudal rights they may become benevolent to their subjects–my guess is most will believe they are.

            1. ess emm

              banger,
              What Gilen and Page noted is that the economic elite’s and the average-incomed person’s interest OFTEN coincided. That’s because the elites (the top 10% as defined by G&P) are humans too.

              The scary thing G&P data showed is that corporate business interests have a NEGATIVE correlation to what the average-incomed person desires. That’s because corporations are amoral and totally focused on quarterly profit reports and market-share.

            2. Matt Stoller

              Certainly the Rockefellers and many others in ruling circles (I mean the broadly) were and are interested in the welfare of the citizenry.

              Well in the 1930s, the Rockefellers were trying to sell more oil and constrain the power of their elite rival, JP Morgan.

          4. James Levy

            Mr. Stoller, you have a point, but you misrepresent the criticism here and fail to address the ominous issue of “who decides”. Of course Social Security and Food Stamps are good things. Nobody here was arguing otherwise. What they were saying is that a hell of a case can be made that these are tactical or even strategic concessions meant to buy off and pacify a populace that has lost effective control over its own governance. It’s OK to acknowledge this and still insist that we should organize and fight back. But don’t pretend these critiques are something they are not, and don’t amount to anything.

            1. Lord Koos

              Matt Stoller writes, “If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.”

              I assume you are aware that all of these programs are under concerted attack by very powerful forces, and while they have not yet been killed outright, they are being chipped away at a steady pace. Death by a million cuts, so to speak.

          5. Ken Nari

            Stoller: “I’m just telling you what the study says, and it doesn’t say we’re an oligarchy.”

            Gilens and Page, p.18 “Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites.”

            Gilens and Page, p. 23: “Our findings also point toward the need to learn more about exactly which economic elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1%? the top 0.01%?) have how much impact upon public policy, and to what ends they wield their influence.”

            Page in an interview on Real News: “As economic inequality has increased and there’s more money among the most wealthy people, they seem to use more of it for politics and have more influence. And, of course, the study data ended some time ago. This was before the Supreme Court decisions that increased the power of money still for further.”

            http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=11770

            You’re right, the study doesn’t say we’re an oligarchy. It doesn’t say we aren’t either. It says it doesn’t know.

            1. Calgacus

              Yes. I don’t understand Stoller’s & Strether’s distaste for the word “oligarchy” (or why Stoller thinks it is a silly study). Stoller seems to use the word in an unusual way & the study doesn’t seem to share this distaste for “oligarchy”.

              In their review of theoretical traditions, they say “Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of ‘Oligarchy,’ in which the wealthiest citizens – even in a ‘civil oligarchy’ like the United States – dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection.” (p 6) Winters’ Economic Elite Domination category’s theories come off the best in their study.

              Stoller: The study does not say that the US is an oligarchy, wherein the wealthy control politics with an iron fist. If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.
              The “if it were” is a non sequitur for me. What do these things have to do with oligarchical rule one way or the other? The description “oligarchy” is entirely compatible with that list. For instance, “Rome” “oligarchy” and “bread and circuses” are not usually considered to be inconsistent in any way.

  4. PaulArt

    Nothing much to say except that the man went over to the dark side. Was bound to happen sooner or later. Happens to most who live in DC or make a living off it.

    1. Jess

      Yes! And didn’t Stoller work for the Roosevelt Foundation which came under fire for taking a big donation from the Petersen Foundation or some such other plutocratic entity?

    2. Dan Kervick

      Huh. You can disagree with him. But all he seems to be doing is pushing back against those who manufacture endless excuses for inaction and despair.

      1. Wayne Reynolds

        We all certainly can recall what happened in 2010 when the Occupy movement organized itself across the country in an action to fight against the despair and slide of the middle class into poverty. The people were brutally put down by a Washington controlled effort to suppress the movement. No one should forget that even more powerful forces will be used against those who dissent. There is a long and bloody history in the United States of this behavior by the elites. The way forward will get violent. The elite will not give up their power without a fight and will use every means possible to keep themselves in control.

        1. Dan Kervick

          Frankly, I couldn’t discern a clear message in Occupy against the slide of the middle class into poverty. I really don’t know what Occupy was up to. Everyone’s experience is different, but when I went to my local Occupy gatherings, I found it to be overrun by radical libertarians, including many Ron Paul voters, and anarchists who couldn’t have cared less about the “middle class” or their security or prosperity. There was a lot of random yelling about revolution, revolution, somethin’, somethin’. But I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this talk or what the supposed goals of this revolution were, other than a vague impulse to smash the system in the expectation that something beautiful would arise on its remains.

          1. Wayne Reynolds

            Perhaps you missed the message of the 1% against the rest of us that swept the planet?

            1. Lambert Strether

              Which was an effective marketing slogan indeed! That’s not the same as organizing, which is what Stoller recommends.

              (It’s also the 1% of the 1%, the oligarchs at the very tippy top of the greasy pole, who are running the show. Even a doctor or a lawyer can be in the 1%. So to an extent the slogan, while effective, also conceals an important reality.)

              1. Vatch

                That’s an important distinction. There are 3.17 million people in the U.S. 1%. There are only 31,700 in the 0.01%.

            2. Dan Kervick

              I heard those slogans. They didn’t seem to translate into any agenda I could support – or even understand.

          2. jrs

            How does whether or not Occupys message was focused have anything to do with the argument that threats to the system will meet with oppression? You might argue Occupy was pathetic as far as really challenging anything due to lacking focus, but if even such a non-threat met with a certain amount of oppression …

            The anarchists don’t care about the middle class because their focus is the poor, it’s a feature of left radicalism of any sort. But true it’s not the way to win the middle class (although there will probably be too few of them left soon to bother and might as well just build a poverty movement).

            1. Dan Kervick

              Bull. The anarchists aren’t focused on “the poor.” They aren’t focused on anything.

  5. 1 Kings

    ‘Elites’ don’t want to destroy Social Security/Medicare, they want/are looting it. Medicare by Bush’s pharma deals and Obamacare. V. S/S they only pay on the first $100 grand anyway, so what do they care about the other 99% of their ‘income’. They want their greasy hands on everything.
    Still, organizing is our only hope.

  6. Hugh

    I prefer the term kleptocracy. It gets to the criminal and class nature of what is going on. We the many are being looted by the rich and their servant elites. The whole gamut of public institutions which are supposed to serve our interests have been perverted into serving theirs. Oligarchy makes it sound like it is about a few billionaires calling the shots. A class analysis is far superior to this because it explains how no intricate conspiracies are needed and how there can be competition among the looters even as the overarching process of looting us goes on pretty much unabated.

    That Social Security dodged the most recent attempt to gut it doesn’t say much about anything. Social Security was already the object of one of the biggest cons in history under Greenspan bipartisan reform of it in 1983 which created its fictitious multi-trillion dollar surpluses. The same commitment to fund Social Security in the future could have been made without a single cent of surplus (a surplus which is by the way dumped into general revenues and spent each year). What the 1983 episode showed was that gutting Social Security is far from the third rail it is characterized as being. As long as it is called “reform” or “necessary”, the attempt can be made, it may not be successful, but it can be made without electoral damage. Indeed the retirement age is gradually being raised from 65 to 67 for full benefits. This is tantamount to a reduction in benefits for those affected. So it is not like Social Security has not been attacked successfully, and by both parties. It has. It is just that the diminution of benefits and the increase in costs is an ongoing process. It is far from over.

    1. Banger

      I know you like “Kleptocracy” and its a good rhetorical term but it doesn’t really work for me. Your term is right in that it inserts criminality into the picture because at heart this system has become criminal in that we see that the elites are, increasingly, immune to laws and regulations as was the case in the Gilded Age.

    2. run75441

      Hugh:

      “a surplus which is by the way dumped into general revenues and spent each year”

      What did you intend to do with it besides loan it back to the gov in exchange for special treasuries?

      1. Hugh

        The point is the surpluses were nothing more than a backdoor income tax on workers. All that was needed was the commitment to fund Social Security out of general revenues as needed in the future to 2040 or whenever. Not one cent of the phantom trillions was ever needed to make that commitment. Not one cent of those trillions will ever be used to tide the system over when Social Security payments exceed its receipts. The money, barring changes to Social Security like taking off the income caps or the politicl classes’ attempts to reduce benefits, will come out of general revenues. The “surpluses” always were completely superfluous to this.

        It is rather like you having two accounts, a general account and one for Christmas gifts. You can take money out of the Christmas account to spend on other things and just commit to pay back that account when Christmas rolls around. But it is all just bookkeeping, money you owe yourself. If you want, and much like our political classes are trying to do, you can renege on your commitment to fully pay back the Christmas account.

        The 1983 reforms really show just how bipartisanly corrupt and thieving the Democrats and Republicans were even way back when, how they colluded together to loot workers so that they could have more money to play with.

        1. Andrew Watts

          Hugh,

          If Social Security was funded by general revenue it would die from one thousand cuts. Do you really think the Republicans and blue-dog Democrats wouldn’t try to cut contributions to it in every budget proposal? Keeping it self-funded has historically protected it from the political brinkmanship that has turned batsh*t crazy over the last decade.

          This doesn’t mean we should be happy about the regressive nature of the payroll tax. It should be the goal of any serious reformer to lower the retirement age and increase benefits. While making the payroll tax a progressive tax.

          It also means that we should be howling at the liberals and other so-called centralists who suggest taxation isn’t a means of addressing the massive disparity in the distribution of wealth.

          1. Hugh

            It is precisely out of general revenues that the surpluses plus interest are to be paid back. And yes, both Democrats (and not just blue dogs but the liberal wing as well) and Republicans have been pushing schemes (like the chained CPI, delaying retirement until 70, etc.) to reduce this hit as much as possible.

    3. washunate

      The servant elites part is where this gets very interesting to me. And that’s where I think Stoller’s piece is more radical than many are reading into it, especially that last paragraph.

      One tidbit on Social Security in particular: it’s fantastic language that has been introduced. The age 67 retirement is referred to as Full Retirement Age. But that term is misleading. There’s a fuller benefit that doesn’t pay out until retiring at age 70 through what are called Delayed Retirement Credits.

      1. Matt Stoller

        The servant elites part is where this gets very interesting to me. And that’s where I think Stoller’s piece is more radical than many are reading into it, especially that last paragraph.

        That’s right. I’m trying to get people to understand that this inequality argument is being pushed right now by servant elites in the economics and political science profession for a reason. I’m not sure what the timing signifies, but it worries me.

        1. Dan Kervick

          I think it’s just regular politics. The Democrats are trying to do a makeover on the fly and are both amazed and terrified over the prospect of a third straight whupping in Fall 2014, despite the fact that history has handed them a party of nuts, fruitcakes and sadists as opposition. The unexpectedly intense blowback against the rubber stamp appointment of neoliberal icon Larry Summers and the disaster of the ObamaCare rollout have them reeling, and they finally realize how far they had drifted away from any semblance of populist support. Their power all lies in the yuppie professional knowledge class, and part of their current pitch consists in the intense promotion of what I would call “epistemic hysteria” – the fear that our nation’s precious bodily fluids are being corrupted by ignorant and irrational idiots who never went to the right colleges.

          The intellectual scene, despite the best efforts of establishment technocrats to stand against the tide, has moved to the left with more and more high profile concern about inequality, plutocracy, corruption, class division and the destruction of middle class security and prosperity, and so now the liberal techno-weenies are desperately trying to catch up. Brad DeLong, John Podesta, Heather Boushey and others are trying to create a new centrist consensus based on “equitable” growth and technocratic management – in other words they are trying to retool and rebrand the old centrist approach. And wherever Podesta is, the Clintons are not far behind. Summers has also been very, very active in trying to re-make himself as some kind of progressive, forward thinker. (DeLong, an old Summers ally and co-other even said recently that he was trying to be Summers’s “wing man.”)

          And while I have no idea what the inside financial baseball on this looks like, someone clearly recruited Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias out of their old gigs to help manufacture the idea platform with the new Vox initiative. Yglesias has an interview with Piketty today in which he tries to pump up all of the mild and moderate reformist elements of Piketty and ignore all the deeper critical bits.

          But it’s a mess. The zeitgeist is already three steps ahead of them, and the former young guns Klein and Yglesias already look like old establishment farts.

          1. Lambert Strether

            “epistemic hysteria” I like that.

            * * *

            The Bundy thing is an example. It doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t known for twenty years. If the Democrats were serious, they wouldn’t have taken their boot off the Republican throat in 2009. Instead, they gave them a hand up, dusted them off, and let them right back into the game. So Bundy me no Bundys, Dem loyalists.

            1. Downunderer

              Indeed, twenty years and another twenty-plus. Here’s Edward Abbey writing about springtime “Cowboys and Indians” in his book Desert Solitaire (published 1968, but recounting experiences of the preceding ten years):

              “The roads up into the meadows and forests are open again, and all the Moab cattlemen who hold grazing permits up there (and some who don’t) are moving their stock out of the desert and into the national forest, where the animals will stay until September . .”

        2. Wayne Reynolds

          It is also easy for the servant elite to accept an increase to age 67 or 70 in the Social Security benefits because for the most part Social Security will be only a part of their retirement plans and they will leave the work force sooner than that in any case. Ask your favorite 60 year old waitress down at the diner how her knees are holding up or how the coal miners are breathing after all the years in the pit.

        3. Lambert Strether

          I hate this “inequality” frame these guy have even us using.

          Slavery isn’t evil because it’s unequal, but because it’s slavery, the social relation where one human being can own another. (The same argument could be made for wage labor, with “rent” substituted for “own.”)

          There are a lot of people I’m not equal with or two in all sorts of ways; a master is unequal to the apprentice; a native speaker to a language learner; and on and on and on.

          As usual, terrible language from the “servant elite” that won’t even let us name the problem, but seems innocuous.

          1. Dan Kervick

            But I think other things are bad just because they are unequal: people working equally hard at their jobs, equally well fulfilling their responsibilities, with some paid fortunes because of some kind of innate genetic awesomeness they were lucky to be born with, and with others barely scraping by.

            That’s why I don’t think it’s enough to focus on the cheating, stealing and extorting. Capitalist economic organization can generate some terrible and terribly unfair outcomes even if nobody cheats and breaks the rules. It can destroy the social and political equality that is the foundation of a viable democracy even if everything is on the square.

  7. Heads On Poles

    The lesson here is to organize. Citizens can matter, but only if they make themselves matter. Change won’t be distributed like consumer products, wherein high polling numbers just seamlessly translate into policy change.

    Sorry, but this is nonsense (in the US at least). Try getting organised, protesting, and see how long before the police in tanks turn up, you get pepper sprayed, and then labelled as a terrorist. Maybe Matt was asleep during the OWS movement?

    1. jrs

      Well he never clarified what he means by organize entirely My kingdom for a political commentator with an actual plan. Are we just supposed to pay dues to an organization like AARP? (hey if that would work I’ve got nothing against it, I think ordinary people could funnel their money better, but the plutes have much more of that money stuff than the 99% does).

      Unions ok that’s clear. And the fact it will be met with repression doesn’t mean people shouldn’t organize. Isn’t that the entire history of unionization itself? But political commentators tend to gloss over what is involved. And it’s not just the state and it’s repression mechanism, organizing and getting arrested will make many of us unemployabl which is almost a death sentence in this country.. Employers do background checks you know, how will that protest arrest record look when you need work? (have any of these political commentators ever held more ordinary jobs?)

      But unions would help prevent that? Yea but you’ve got a cart and a horse problem here. Maybe if we can get a general strike, if everyone walked out of their job what could they do to us? (by the way did you know that general strikes are actually ILLEGAL in the U.S.? I don’t think they are in many other countries that are known to have them).

  8. Banger

    Providing social services to citizens has nothing to do with whether or not we live in an oligarchy–I repeat–“nothing.” Qaddafi who was a relatively absolute rule provided a lot of generous benefits to his citizens. Many oligarchs are personally generous to friends and employees and some support social programs and are interested in the long-term well-being of their society. The issue in the U.S. is not whether or not we live in an oligarchy but whether the ruling elites are or are not interested in our well-being.

    Certainly what the study you cite says is that we are trending towards an oligarchy but here we get into semantics–what is an oligarchy. My definition is that an oligarchy is the effective rule by a few of a political entity. Today oligarchs have a special legal status in terms of the justice and regulatory system that makes them largely immune from prosecution. Oligarchs control the election system both through money and, in many areas, through control of the voting process–voting machines are still vulnerable to being manipulated and have been manipulated in several states that we know of.

    What limits oligarchs is that they are not united. The Kochs and Soros do not see eye-to-eye and I know there are many factions and factions of factions–we can see this by the back and forth in public policies–most graphic is the internal and almost public conflict between neo-neo-cons and realists in foreign policy that has come out publicly with Syria and Ukraine/Russia policies.

    The public, theoretically, could take back some power if they organized. The system is not rigid–it can change–but, for cultural reasons and the fact the public is basically happy being ruled rather than ruling itself, this is unlikely. True democracy is a rarity in human history–people like structure and authority–it gives, for most of us, a feeling of security when we know others are watching out for us. The problem is that the current oligarchs are, on the whole, not interested in our welfare and we need to act because they are driving us to destruction.

    1. TheCatSaid

      Great comment that is spot on.

      I’m glad you mentioned the voting machines. This is something about which most people are still asleep–they’ve no idea of the range and extent of the vulnerabilities.

      The different issues are so varied and when one comes to light it is often in a localized context, making it less likely that the general public is aware of the depth of the problem (e.g., lack of chain of custody over machines, ballot boxes, and digital vote devices; insider access to machines, codes, and voter registration lists, foreign supply of components, lack of accounting for numbers of paper/supplemental/emergency ballots printed; push for absentee balloting and vote-by-mail where there is even less chain of custody; push for internet voting which can be manipulated; push for machines using open source–a non-solution because IT folks don’t understand the myriad of system vulnerabilities–and on and on. . .)

      There are also temptations to fall into the trap of thinking one part or the other is the “bad guy” regarding voting ethics.

      1. James Levy

        Greg Palast and Mark Crispin Miller have shown pretty persuasively that screwing with the voting machines (and voter fraud and suppression in general) is overwhelmingly a Republican crime; there is no demonstrable equivalence here.

        To Banger, I find it interesting that Chomsky has always made the argument that the system is not adamantine and can be contested (you’d never know this from the way he is pilloried, but that has more to do with Israel/Palestine, I think, than his critiques of American institutions). At his most dreary, he says that we are free to be irrelevant, but up until recently, and always in comparison to the old Soviet Union, he has maintained that we are largely free to speak and act as we wish.

          1. Kim Kaufman

            Yes, Dems will use it on each other. I recall New Hampshire 2008 when it looked like Obama won all the hand counted votes and Hilary won all the voting machine. Also, there was a time when the Dems were doing all the vote rigging. I think it is undeniable that of late it has been the Republicans, who know their policies are unpopular, who have been in the forefront of suppression and flat out cheating. It is unclear to me, however, why the Dems have been so apathetic and inept in fighting back – other than they think it makes them look like “bad sports.”

            1. Lambert Strether

              Nope:

              Most New Hampshire voters cast their votes on Diebold optical-scan systems, which read paper ballots. Some activists claimed to find evidence suggesting fraud, largely because results did not match pre-election polling for Obama and Clinton, and because of different levels of support between precincts where ballots were counted by hand and those where they were counted by machine.[29] Most observers have concluded that discrepancies were the result of the fact that ballots are more likely to be hand-counted in small towns and machine-counted in cities and larger towns, explaining differences in candidate support.[30]

              Ginned up at the Great Orange Satan, IIRC. If you want real examples of fraud, look to the caucus fraud in TX, or NV (possibly), or IIRC IN (but only revealed in court a year or so after the election).

              Adding, more here. This was the first incendiary charge hurled by the Obama campaign, but no means the last.

    2. Jim Haygood

      ‘If [the U.S. were an oligarchy], then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.’ — Matt Stoller

      As Banger points out, the elite have always bought off the masses to avert revolution, as long as it can be done at reasonable cost.

      Even better is when the serfs can be taxed to pay for their own oppression, as in the programs cited above, and the massive criminal Gulag and surveillance state.

      Missing from Stoller’s list is the most vital social opiate of all — television. To paraphrase Mayer Rothschild, ‘Give me control of a nation’s media and I care not who makes its laws.’

      1. neo-realist

        I kind of believe that buying off the masses has fallen out of vogue now–The brutal subjugation of Occupy is the oligarchs more or less saying that we now respond to discontent with the system not with a Great Society or a New Deal, but with Pepper Spray, Gas, Police Beatdowns, and imprisonment; and throw in some extralegal spying to trap you when you plot resistance.

        1. jrs

          In some sense it’s been ever thus. Was the New Deal won cheaply after all?

          But what the system seems to build and most people don’t notice is MASSIVE PARALLEL REDUNDANCY. So you spew propaganda to get people to vote for plutocrats. But then you add another layer of redundancy and you have BOTH major parties serving the whims of plutocrats (it’s where the money is). Then the american voting system doesn’t favor 3rd parties anyway by it’s very structure (winner take all, first past the post etc. – it would take voting reform to change it), but you add another layer of redudancy to this by barring 3rd parties from debates etc.. Then you add another layer of redundancy to this by having hackable voting system. Would it reach this level of redundancy where the voting system has to be hacked (since both parties serve plutes, propaganda is everywhere, 3rd parties are silenced etc. anyway). Unlikely but it’s MASSIVE PARALLEL REDUNDANCY, it’s fail over and fail over and fail over until that last ditch attempt was left.

          And if for some reason they had to give the masses a bone via social program, unions gaining power, revolution in the air, then they do that, it’s another layer of redundancy too afterall.

      2. Wayne Reynolds

        With control of both the media and the banks, we have quite a toxic mix for any hope of freedom from those who profit from our labor. Add to that an ever devolving education system and you have the New American Man. Stupid, ignorant and totally propagandized.

    3. Matt Stoller

      That’s a fair comment, especially about US political culture. I don’t think social services have nothing to do with the power of the public. It’s not a random correlation that as wealth increases austerity is imposed.

  9. andrew tonti

    Well Banger, If the ruling class (oligarchs if you wish) rank special legal status in terms of the justice and regulatory system that makes them largely immune from prosecution, and control the election system both through money and, in many areas, through control of the voting process–voting machines ….. then isn’t that really close to “the effective rule by a few of a political entity.?” Oligarchs, by reason of their obsession to amass as much wealth as possible, are only concerned about the rest of us when some civil disobedience arises over this or that issue; and it is then when they make some minor reforms (and I mean minor) to placate the unrest.

    1. Wayne Reynolds

      Your comments seem to be reminiscent of the arguments pro and con in 1780s France which led to….

  10. Don't be stupit be a smawty, come and join the Nazi pawty

    One presumes M. Stoller is thinking ahead about the prospects for populist politics. He notes the security state, which political scientists are trained not to see

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-state-the-deep-state-and-the-wall-street-overworld/5372843

    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article30605.htm

    and in comments he notes the government’s highly significant substitution of repressive capacity for protective capacity. A latter-day Huey Long would get shot a lot quicker today. This would be my main, absolutely serious question for sympathetic elites like Rep. Grayson. This is Deutschland c. 1938. How do you plan to keep your skull in one piece resisting the deep state?

    1. Wayne Reynolds

      And for anyone who has read Adam Tooze’s “The Wages of Destruction” will understand the incisive importance of the American effort in “Spingtime in Ukraine” that time is of nescessity to protect a failing economic system.

  11. susan the other

    If the “Oligarchs” actually did a little soul searching, like the rest of us about what we should change and how we should change it, it would be a more convincing argument. All I ever hear from the elites is their paid political stooges ranting about austerity in an almost incoherent manner. Think Paul Ryan here. The elites do not advocate any healthy changes to our “system.” Or lack of a system. I’m waiting for the day when it dawns on them that cars are not their source of wealth but their nemesis. Or when they realize that single payer would actually benefit American corporations. Or any number of sane realizations they don’t seem to be able have.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      The elites don’t face competitive forces or efficient oversight, so they can get away with spouting drivel. It’s not beaten out of them, and since they are making decisions, they surround themselves with people spouting drivel.

      For example, it took Hillary Clinton less than a week to declare Putin Hitler before appearing with the brother of America’s own Vienna Art School reject, Michael Bay*. Yes, it seems like a low hanging joke, but it’s a concern which should be out there. Despite the inane nature of the GOP, Democrats consistently seek to rehabilitate the GOP as a conscious decision, not through the own incompetence. Where is the outrage from Democrats with their Cheney-Satan 84 stickers? This is the source of why the elites seem insane, they aren’t confronted with their competence.

      Clapper is going on a college tour to teach college kids about what a patriot he is because college kids admire Snowden. Does he know what college campuses are like? I checked. He went to Maryland which is a commuter school, so Clapper may not have a clue. Also, he is a Terp, so he definitely does not have a clue. No one in their right mind would go on a lecturing tour to college campuses to correct their views without proposed changes. College kids are too arrogant and too smart at the time to tolerate that kind of behavior. He will have to hide or be crucified at every stop. Is someone telling him this? No, because the elite aren’t held accountable.

      On the flip side, Korea which lives under the US empire and in the shadow of its sister nation, China, and Japan has sent police to seize everything public and private of the ferry economy. In this country, we let CEO’s apologize and donate money to some fraudulent charity.

      *W Bush. They are both incoherent and like explosions. I will say Con-Air is an unappreciated masterpiece once what accepts the complete absurdity.

  12. Vatch

    Let’s look at some quotes from the Gilens and Page Princeton/Northwestern Study. Maybe the authors don’t explicitly say that the U.S. is an oligarchy, but if we read between the lines, we might find that they really want to say that:

    Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites.


    In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.

    Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of
    majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.

    The authors refer approvingly to works by C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Jeffrey Winters. Gilens and Page may not be overtly saying that the U.S. is an oligarchy, but they’re certainly helping us to come to that conclusion.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I think Stoller has pointed out that DC is still afraid of voters, and the primary problem is organization. My opinion is too many people believe the Democrats are fighting the good fight, but AARP has been a notable defender of the entitlement programs against Dubya and Obozo. Even in 1980’s, the efforts to protect endangered animals such as the whale and the efforts against apartheid bypassed the parties or wound up threatening the political standing of allies in those parties, but as long as the parties were treated as good faith partners, the same political parties will behave as they have recently.

      1. Vatch

        NTG said:

        . . . the same political parties will behave as they have recently.

        Any U.S. voter who lives in a non-swing state, which is about 40 of the 50 states, is wasting his or her vote by voting for a Democrat or Republican for President. We need to encourage people to vote for third party Presidential candidates. Last time around, I encouraged my Democratic friends to vote for the Green Party, and my Republican friends to vote for the Libertarian Party. I hope US NC readers will do the same in 2016.

        People need to vote for third party candidates in elections for other offices, too. Sadly, sometimes we’re stuck with candidates from just the two major parties — or, even worse, just one of the major parties.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          I agree, but I think issue oriented campaigns are the real key.

          Gay marriage which was a key platform of GOP fear mongering has been driven by non Democratic Party forces, and marina legalization which may save Team Blue Senate control has no national Democratic support. This issue is winning despite what the attacks for the prison industry, big pharma, and companies defrauding legitimate law enforcement.

          I am a recent convert to this philosophy, but I think punishment is very important. Voting for Harry Reid over the chickenbarter lady was a mistake because Reid has been the figurehead of Democratic malfeasance and needed to be the example going foward. Tossing Reid would have made Team D far more pliable because they can’t get more right wing without meeting the GOP in some sort of singularity and collapsing into a black hole.

          1. hunkerdown

            Gay marriage which was a key platform of GOP fear mongering has been driven by non Democratic Party forces,

            I’m not sure about that. Dan Savage, the Dear Abby of the Millennial generation, has unique credibility among young people for giving sound, reasonable sex and relationship advice. He also moans about Russia on Twitter, slightly lagging but largely in time with the Administration’s foreign policy PR needs. During the first months of the Snowden affair you could almost see the switch turning on and off.

            I think he can safely (and sadly) be written off as a Power Player now.

  13. DHFabian

    To say that we don’t have an oligarchy because Social Security, etc., still exist is a false argument. Government has been in a long process of ending the “safety net” incrementally, starting at the bottom. First, General Assistance aid was ended. Next, AFDC was wiped out. Bill Clinton took the first steps toward dismantling Social Security the same way, targeting the disabled (policies that were finally reversed by President Obama, undoubtedly saving many lives), and Democrats continue targeting the poor. Most recently, Dems voted with Republicans to cut food stamps to the elderly, disabled and poor. Again. Piece by piece, the “safety net” has been in the process of elimination while our government maintains steady upward wealth redistribution.

  14. TedWa

    Yeah, we’re not totally oligarchic yet, I agree with Sheldon Wolin that it’s more like an Inverted Totalitarian regime with a heaping helping of kleptocracy built in. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Wolin but I just wanted to add that to the conversation in case some haven’t. From wikipedia:

    According to Wolin, the United States has two main totalizing dynamics:

    The first, directed outward, finds its expression in the Global War on Terror and in the Bush Doctrine that the United States has the right to launch preemptive wars. This amounts to the United States seeing as illegitimate the attempt by any state to resist its domination.[4][15][16]
    The second dynamic, directed inward, involves the subjection of the mass of the population to economic “rationalization”, with continual “downsizing” and “outsourcing” of jobs abroad and dismantling of what remains of the welfare state created by U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Thus, neoliberalism is an integral component of inverted totalitarianism. The state of insecurity in which this places the public serves the useful function of making people feel helpless, thus making it less likely that they will become politically active, and thus helping to maintain the first dynamic.[4][15][17][18]

  15. Ken Nari

    It is astonishing how the quality of the comments so greatly exceeds that of the original post.

    1. Jess

      Astonishing but not surprising once you recognized that Stoller is a Veal Pen* DC insider. (* h/t to Jane Hamsher for coining that oh-so-appropriate term.)

      1. Dan Kervick

        What is even more astonishing is how much of a magnet Naked Capitalism has become for laughable crankypants losers – people whose political lives consists of typing BS on the internet and railing against anyone who tries to get of his ass to do something as a traitor to the great noble cause of abject victimhood and impotence.

        1. Matt Stoller

          This cynicism is just a manifestation of a culture in which people do not want democracy, they want victimhood. That’s why we transitioned immediately from “hope and change” cult of personality to “structural oligarchy can’t do anything about anything”. It’s the same impulse.

          1. EmilianoZ

            If you guys have a practical plan for moving forward, I’m sure the rest of us crankies will be delighted to hear about it.

          2. Downunderer

            I admit that I wrote an article in the Summer 1982 CoEvolution Quarterly titled “Don’t beg, take Control” urging peers to get into local government, as I had.

            I wondered aloud whether we were “masochistic Cassandras, loving it, reading the news each day to find the next big “I told you so.” And I pointed to all the actually meaningful decisions that were made at the local level.

            I urged people to take at least as much care to prevent government decay as we do to prevent tooth decay.

            But in the end I lost the bigger battles, as when I tried to stop our small town police force from joining the countywide profit sharing agreement to divvy up the spoils from the administrative seizure of property. Pre-emption starts at the top, not at the grassroots.

            All these years later, I can’t say that I agree with my younger self anymore, and I have no good course of action to recommend beyond realism and selfish self-preservation.

            The divide-and-rule tactic has succeeded wildly beyond what I thought possible. Even (for example) AlterNet, despite its anti-establishment image, uses the establishment’s biggest weapon, the hate/scorn-the-other meme. to rouse readers against fellow citizens with whom I believe most of them share a great deal in common. More people should read Joe Bageant.

        2. Vatch

          Ha! As if other venues don’t attract “laughable crankypants” people. Look at Fox News — war on Christmas, anyone? But the “laughable crankypants” folks associated with Fox News aren’t losers, because they are so closely allied with the people who own the United States. They’re laughable crankypants winners. There’s something very wrong about that.

          1. NotTimothyGeithner

            They are tools, not aligned. Great propaganda and 3rd way narcissism from Team D has made a great section of the country open to being conned.

          2. Dan Kervick

            1. Pick something good that happened in US history; or world history.

            2. Identify the people most responsible for making it happen.

            3. Work from there to identify the people that those in step #2 worked with, defended, praised etc, during the course of their activity.

            I guarantee you will find an assortment of slimeballs, crooks, thugs, grifters and dopes in the mix. That’s the way it is. This game where everyone has to defend their purity by proving they have no associations with the [fill in favorite evil empire here] can go on from now until doomsday without a single positive accomplishment.

            If Matt Stoller had managed to work with a coalition that pushed single payer health care through the US Congress, then I wouldn’t care if had worked hand-in-glove with some cretin who had sodomized Mother Theresa’s corpse.

            1. John Mc

              I think we can exclude the necrophiliacs for single payer health care as a desirable brand to accomplish anything with.

              I think this speaks to our desperation for a victory. We should be looking at this battle like a hitter in baseball (1 out of 4 or 5 will keep you here and 1 out of 3 moves the cause along). We all have a part to play, but so many do not want to play or risk personal loss. If we framed it as losing battles is inevitable, we will be better positioned to win the war.

        3. Wayne Reynolds

          Oh yes, when was the last time you were kettled, pepper sprayed, tear gassed or were even near anything other than a community organizer protest against the curriculum of the public school system in Cambridge Ma, after all of your poison ivy education. Did you cower in fear after the Marothon bombings while two cities were shut down because of terrorists that hate our freedoms.

      2. washunate

        I’m not sure you’re using that example correctly. Jane Hamsher was lambasted by the enabler wing of the Democratic Party for cooperating with evil people like Ron Paul and Grover Norquist on things like Fed Transparency and calling out Rahm Emanuel.

        Stoller was one of the evil cooperators, not one of the people doing the bidding of the White House. An example from the WayBackMachine.

        http://firedoglake.com/2009/05/21/alan-grayson-says-audit-the-fed/

  16. Jesper

    The choice of words here:
    “Citizens helped stop cuts to Social Security that the elites wanted, and may derail trade agreements.”

    The word derail implies that a good thing is being stopped.

    Is the TPP a good thing that risks being derailed or is it a bad thing that should be stopped?

    1. MikeW_CA

      It’s a bad thing that should be stopped. I didn’t take any value implication from “derail”.
      While we’re at it, let’s hope that citizens can also stop the FCC from killing net neutrality.

  17. Gil Gamesh

    Once oligarchy is so narrowly defined, the rest follows. It seems odd to take exception to a finding that has been widely, if summarily, described as oligarchic rule. And of course, considering the source, the epistemic implications are profound.
    Yes, if only most Americans practiced democracy, they’d be so much better off. Thanks.

  18. Brian

    If we have governance by the rich, for payment received, you may name it what you will. It does not affect the synonym.

  19. human

    No one has yet mentioned that the Main Stream Media controls the narrative. If there were effective journalism , by which I mean stories that did not need to be authorized by political officers, the electorate would be orders of magnitude better informed.

  20. J. Doolittle

    Interesting article and comments, today.
    Since the 2000 election, the air began to smell for me of the antecedents of NAZI Germany. In order to confirm my senses, this spring I began a course on Bismarck and his politics (“Iron and Blood”) on unifying Germany into the 2nd Reich (“Imperial Germany: 1850-1918” by Edgar Feuchtwanter) to understand the rise of the 3rd Reich. Unification of Germany during the 2nd Reich was a messy and chaotic process. Bismarck manipulated the monarchs and various political parties (progressives [entrepreneur industrialists], conservatives [agrarian landowners], and religious [Catholic Centre]) to maintain his own power and control during the turbulent years leading up to 1871 (election of the first Reichstag) and thereafter during years of economic boom and bust and rise of the socialist movement. Bismarck’s 2nd Reich entered a period of decline between 1879-1890 as Socialist and tariff laws were passed. During the 1880s, Bismarck was able to manipulate the elites (threats to their economic well-being) into passing health insurance, accident insurance and old age/disability insurance. This was not done out of benevolence and altruism, but to decrease the power of the progressives, centrists and socialists and thereby influence them into being more loyal to the monarchy and state (and more easily controlled). However, these social programs failed to decrease poverty due to industrialization, urbanization and social mobility. Bismarck did not have solutions (he was anti-intellectual and ideological); rather his obsession with maintaining political power and control resulted in laws that did not succeed in viable long-term solutions to relieving the social upheaval brought on by industrialization. By the time of the Wilhelmine Age (1890s), Germany’s industries flourished (machine building, chemicals, and electrical goods) in a market economy of laissez faire (and the benefit of the social programs supported by the state). However, the lower middle classes (guilds/artisans; ie, small business owners) lost ground to the higher (entrepreneur) and lower classes [proletariat]). The status-conscious, white-collar, middle class, although a minority political group, became fertile ground for right-wing, nationalistic, anti-liberal and anti-Semitic ideologies and organizations. At the same time, cartels of industrial lobby groups began forming to replace the power of political groups in order to cope with the Prussian-like bureaucracy/dictatorship rooted in Bismarck’s era and eventually becoming an incoherent, feudal-like, militaristic, authoritarian, conservative and elitist system that was unable to adapt to the changing economic environment. The sentiment of the Bismarck era carried over to the Wilhelmine age, which was against a parliamentarian government, coalition-building and compromises between political parties and in favor of ideology (conservative and traditionalist) and narrow economic interests. The economic lobbies and ideology lobby grew powerful and influenced policy decisions of the German government. Although Germany had an advanced educational system (still today) and innovative technology that enabled it to be a leader in its major industries, it’s ideology (nationalism, chauvanism, authoritarianism, militarism) and political system of incoherent decision-making resulted in its collapse and World War I.
    From my readings of today’s literature on the health (or not) of democracy in the USA, it seems the ideological and political elements that existed in pre-WWI Germany have been gaining ground for a few decades here in the USA. A large difference is the added complexity of our world (economic, social, and environmental crises). If history can be used as a model of what works vs what does not work, it would seem that building coalitions among lobby groups who understand the destructiveness of power imbalances is a start. An example might be if all those environmental groups could form a lobby to pool donated money in order to influence/support our Congress to legislate for a ‘green economy.’ Just a thought.

    1. hunkerdown

      Words are not outcomes. Everyone has a price, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get what you paid for.

  21. LillithMc

    Some thought the Greeks would rise when their lives became unlivable. Instead they are too sick, too depressed and some are dying. Their leaders added the tourist industry as collateral for the loans they obtained from the EU. It was like an Indian chief selling Manhattan for $24. Piketty’s charts speak for themselves. So does observation of the US loss of its middle class. Or the lack of concern by the “leaders” with their media and spin of events. Piketty studied the West and not just the US. Amazing destruction of the West in a short amount of time. It was done by the financial sector and not the usual wars of extractions although Iraq was not cheap and does produce oil revenue for 12 western oil companies. Will the East sense the weakness of the West? Or will the oligarchs of both east and west decide they have enough money and power?

  22. Min

    Stoller: “The study does not say that the US is an oligarchy, wherein the wealthy control politics with an iron fist.”

    A debating trick, I am afraid. Stoller narrows the definition of oligarchy in order to make his claim. (I happen to agree that the US is not yet an oligarchy, but let’s be fair.) Besides, there are velvet gloves for iron fists. ;)

    Stoller: “If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.” Unclear. Bismarck had an iron fist, but favored social programs to prevent unrest.

    But yes, we have a plutocracy, especially as our Supreme Court favors it. Both main political parties bow down to monied interests, but the Republican Party should change its name to the Banana Republican Party. That’s where they are trying to take us.

    1. jrs

      And the thing is we actually DO have an iron fist. Ok there have been worse dictatorships to be sure, but the U.S. *IS* a police state now: largest prison population in the world, no due process, etc. etc.

    2. Lambert Strether

      Huh? Since when is using language that accurately reflects the intent of a source a “debating trick”?

      And since when is it only the Republican Party that is creating a Banana Republic? What does whacking a US citizen without due process and with impunity mean to you? What does giving bank CEOs impunity sound like?

  23. Benedict@Large

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Did Matt even read the study? The US isn’t an oligarchy today because it wasn’t when Social Security was passed? This is logic? How did this even make it on NC?

  24. washunate

    Seeing some of the comments, I think this piece has really hit a nerve in a good way. We do have the power to make a better society; things are not so far gone that we have to start from scratch. It’s not just that change will happen; it is happening. The unsustainability of the looting has reached such extreme levels that even the elites themselves can’t agree on a desired outcome.

    The fundamental strategic question is not about having more detailed academic knowledge or technical policy tweaks but rather how to organize citizens to wield power.

    It’s not that there’s one and only one right answer to the question – the starting point is simply to observe that that is the question.

    “Real progress would be a wholesale rejection of political science and economics as blind and corrupt.”

    It’s easy to look back on the past decade and despair, and yet at the same time, so much of our social consciousness has already changed that it’s a little hard to not be excited about the future. From general concepts like economic growth to specific issues like bank bailouts, the natives are getting restless. Academics today are about as trusted as used car salesmen. The vast majority of Americans flagrantly violate the law, from traffic rules to drugs. The corporate media is a long-running joke. A couple of low-level Millennial national security state employees have embarrassed the entire farce that is the competency of the authoritarians. Independent is now the largest political party affiliation in the US. Etc.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Always look on the bright side of life!

      * * *

      Actually, I agree with your comment. This political season is kinda like mud season in Maine. Winter is gone, but all the crap from winter is still lying around on the ground. It’s discouraging, cold, and ugly. But under the earth things are stirring. We can encourage them.

      1. washunate

        I find that a foundation of optimism makes the more sarcastic tendencies that some of us have more bearable…

  25. MikeW_CA

    I take issue with the assertion that
    “If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.”
    It could be that rich elites do, indeed, rule, but many, if not most, of them are smart enough to recognize that the existence of a viable middle class actually results in a bigger economy, which, in turn, benefits them more than beating down labor as much as possible.

    1. jrs

      At the very least it maintains the system, so a society that is decent for most people won’t go #FullCommunism. You’d think any smart rich person would realize this, but the plutes these days are full of hubris.

      1. hunkerdown

        They maintain the *credibility* of the system, anyway, so long as the existence of the system is still subject to public opinion and the surveillance and enforcement technologies are still insufficient to ensuring its perpetuation by other means.

        Not caring to improve your outcomes is not a sign of an intellectual or cognitive deficit. It is a sign of a structural deficit, perhaps, that they don’t have to care, or maybe a moral deficit (though I’m sure they believe otherwise).

        Smart and dumb are synonymous with “insider” and “outsider”. Try to avoid using those words, as they imply that being on the inside of a complex process of exploitation is something not to be ashamed of.

  26. Lambert Strether

    Thanks for this. Last I time I was doing Links, I linked to the original study, as opposed to all the articles about it, because the abstract didn’t look like it supported the “oligarchy” framing. So I am glad to have had my instincts confirmed.

  27. allcoppedout

    I’m not sure where the oligarchy lies. Like Hugh, I prefer kleptocracy, partly because I don’t think “they” operate in the open. It’s a bit different here because of our more careerist civil service. I have to agree we could still technically resist, but after 10 years as union chair I gave up. We would have to form a new radical party here, and there is talk of this. But even if elected such a party would still be subject to the kleptocracy and business-as-usual civil servants, plus the standard global competition issues that would can ‘socialism’.

    Matt’s right on the article and right to be suspicious of why ‘attention now’. We need a radical plan on competition that takes today’s circumstances and technology into account. The issues to address are momentous and this kind of change scares people. At the same time, our physical circumstances may not be as desperate as those at the end of WW2. I think we need a criminal investigation into the kleptos that reveals what they are stealing from us. I think this is no less than a decent future.

    1. hunkerdown

      We need a radical plan on competition

      Yes, a very simple one.

      Don’t.

      Competition is for those who like to work and lose simultaneously and often. I have no time for taking damage from an adversary whom I can’t decline to fight, who gets to walk away no matter what, and who is well-compensated and precisely tasked with the duty of obstructing me.

      Screw playing. Life should not be a game. Where do I sign up for the honey badger party again?

  28. jrs

    Funny, what I got from the study is the people can’t win by voting in this plutocracy (but vote if you want to), and that maybe the only way to win is to make the rich fear us … But Stoller got we have to organize in groups to what? Pressure the politicians?

    1. Lambert Strether

      One answer is organize anything, no matter how small, where you are. And you don’t necessarily have to be the organizer; not everybody has that talent, so find something going in a direction you want to help push it. Build some muscle, meet some people. I learned a ton from the landfill fight up here. I’m sure others would say the same about fracking.

      1. allcoppedout

        Our river-park was started by an old guy collecting rubbish in a black bag. Most of the places where you’d expect to be able to start something, like our Local Area Forums turn out to be dead ducks though.

  29. ewmayer

    Lambert wrote:

    “The last time I framed television as a public health hazard people got rather annoyed.”

    On that topic I defer to a wiser sage who alas passed away too young and whose acerbic tongue and musical creativity are both greatly missed:

    “I am gross and perverted
    I’m obsessed ‘n deranged
    I have existed for years
    But very little has changed
    I’m the tool of the Government
    And industry too
    For I am destined to rule
    And regulate you

    I may be vile and pernicious
    But you can’t look away
    I make you think I’m delicious
    With the stuff that I say
    I’m the best you can get
    Have you guessed me yet?
    I’m the slime oozin’ out
    From your TV set

    You will obey me while I lead you
    And eat the garbage that I feed you
    Until the day that we don’t need you
    Don’t go for help . . . no one will heed you
    Your mind is totally controlled
    It has been stuffed into my mold
    And you will do as you are told
    Until the rights to you are sold

    That’s right, folks . . .
    Don’t touch that dial

    Well, I am the slime from your video
    Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor

    I am the slime from your video
    Can’t stop the slime, people, lookit me go

    I am the slime from your video
    Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor

    I am the slime from your video
    Can’t stop the slime, people, lookit me go ”
    – Frank Zappa, “I’m The Slime”

  30. Paul Tioxon

    http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/democrats-democracy-alliance-liberal-donors-105972.html

    Democratic wing of democratic party trying to go further left than current neo-liberal mealy mouth BS. Get ready to pick a side. Hey, what happened to the defense of the hamburger rancher from Nevada from all of the douche bag haters of the big government nanny state black helicopter Waco massacre school of thought from the pox on both your houses political party? Is that the sound of one hand clapping?

    1. lambert strether

      There’s nothing we know today about the Republican Party that we didn’t know ten or even twenty years ago. At least since 2006, the Democrats have made a policy of moving toward their positions (RomneyCare -> ObamaCare) and rehabilitating them as opponents where needed (see the 2008 Democratic Platform for an example). What do you mean, “both” houses? They call it a two-party system for a reason.

  31. Andrew Watts

    There are two major forces holding back efforts to push back the oligarchy. The middle class preference for individualism and the political assimilation of socialists into liberalism. In the post-New Deal years the oligarchy began to collectivize itself through a variety of different business lobbies and associations. While the middle class remained enamored with individualism and the labor movement began to lose it’s political influence.

    Before they were assimilated with liberals, most socialists considered liberals the main enemy of the bourgeoisie. They were tepid allies in the best of times and quick to betray socialists at the worst moments. There remains a significant differences in ideology that divides the two groups. Socialists have never been avid followers of individualism. Being drawn from the lower classes of society precludes any personal illusions of self-sufficiency.

    As various commentators have demonstrated individualism is only feeding the passive nihilism and despair that is being constantly echoed. Just because you cannot change the course of politics doesn’t mean that we cannot. Wealth has dominated politics since the beginning of the Republic. There has always been a populist resistance to the forces of oligarchy. Though there is a very real danger that the middle class will turn to fascism as it combines their individual preferences (“Ubermensch”) with just enough radicalism to inspire hope for a better future.

    It cannot be emphasized how important it is for socialists and other egalitarian minded people to establish themselves as an independent force. Whether they’ve registered themselves as Democrats or Republicans. It matters very little. Politicians are opportunists by nature. They will do whatever they think will get them enough votes and/or money to win an election. If they don’t there’s always another ready to take their place.

  32. Andrew Watts

    Any political organization that takes place needs to happen at the local level. There is an important reason for this. Politicians are often cultivated through local politics. It’s where they are weeded out and earn experience in the political arena. During this period they forge connections that pay off later on in their careers.

    Ironically, this is the level where individual participation matters the most. Yet most Americans cannot be bothered to be apart of this important process. Instead they’d rather rubberstamp the candidates that others have cultivated.

    1. hunkerdown

      Well, the next time some busybody yammers about religious or sexual correctness being “part of the job”, inform them as firmly as you deem necessary that they are a) an accessory to blackmail b) insufficiently experienced in game theory to see it.

      There are lots of private indiscretions out there that would push the public’s puritan buttons quite readily, and Snowden didn’t exactly inspire confidence that they are or were secret. I’d be very surprised if the NSA corporate store didn’t just happen to have a lot of politically-interesting USPER comms in it.

      Say, Matt, if you’re still out there, just what DID Rep. Grayson’s first-term trip behind the woodshed with Speaker Pelosi entail?

      1. skippy

        “insufficiently experienced in game theory to see it.”

        You might consider – using – game theory as the reason for the inability to determinate.

  33. Wayne Harris

    “Furthermore, the study says that the only mass groups that truly represent citizen preferences are labor unions and advocacy groups like the AARP.”

    While AARP does advocate for its elderly members, it also channels their insurance dollars to United Healthcare, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group with ties to advocacy groups that are anathema to seniors’ interests, namely Fix the Debt and ALEC. UntiedHealth Group used to be clearly identified as a corporate member on the Fix the Debt Web site, but {delusions-of-grandeur alert) since I have been complaining to AARP about this affiliation and citing it as a reason for refusing to renew, the page listing corporate members on the Fix the Debt Web site has disappeared.

    1. John

      The CEO Campaign to‘Fix’ the Debt: A Trojan Horse for Massive Corporate Tax Breaks
      By Sarah Anderson and Scott Klinger. Contributors include Brent Soloway.

      “The Fix the Debt campaign has raised $60 million and recruited more than 80 CEOs of America’s most powerful corporations to lobby for a debt deal that would reduce corporate taxes and shift costs onto the poor and elderly.”

      “Of the 63 Fix the Debt CEOs at publicly held firms, 24 received more in compensation last year than their corporations paid in federal corporate income taxes. All but six of these firms reported U.S. profits last year.”

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