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Economy, Politics, Social Change, Then & Now, Theory & Practice

Notes on Evicting the Power Elite

“By changing the world and changing our lives we transform ourselves.” –Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

While in Amsterdam in September I picked up a recent issue of the International Communist Current, which features a celebration of the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Despite my affinity for Marx and his legacy, I knew nothing of this brief period when the working classes and political radicals of Paris ousted the ruling government from the city, and ruled with a grassroots model for a couple of months. A bit of research into the founding, short duration, and goals of the Commune revealed once again that despite how much things seem to change, they remain mostly the same, particularly where power is concerned. One hundred and forty years later, Occupy Wall Street, now a globally dispersed movement of assembly and resistance to wealth inequality, is premised on many of the same ideals of the Paris Commune, as have been most successful and attempted political revolutions that came before and after it.

Occupy Wall Street began in New York City on September 17. Per a website affiliated with the group, the movement “is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” The Paris Commune formed on March 18, 1871, and lasted until it was violently crushed by national government forces on May 28 of the same year. The establishment of the Commune was motivated by the human and economic devastation suffered during the Franco-Prussian War, by the unjust labor and living conditions of the workers of France, and by popular fear that the government would revert to monarchy in order to centralize and stabilize the state’s power and resources.

While at first glance these two events, Occupy Wall Street and the Paris Commune, seem quite different, in essence, they are similar responses to similar conditions. Both feature grassroots political organization as a form of resistance to the concentration of political, economic, and military power in the hands of a few. In 1956 sociologist C. Wright Mills referred to those who wield control of these resources as the “power elite.” In his book titled for the concept, Mills explained that the world is ruled at the intersection of political, corporate, and economic power. The decisions of this unified, powerful, elite group of people–mostly white men–bear incredible strength and consequences because of how centralized their power is.

Today, Mills’ concept of the “power elite” is even more accurate and relevant than it was at mid-century. Since then, the federal government of the U.S. has chipped away at regulations of and restrictions on corporations, which opened the door for increased and intensified accumulation of wealth in the pockets of the now infamous “one percent.” In fact, within the U.S., average family income, not net wealth, is dominated by the top 0.01 percent.

An illustration of income inequality in the U.S., from 2008 data compiled by UC Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez.

The intersection between the corporate, political, and military elite has intensified too, which is both a cause and a consequence of deregulation of corporate and financial sectors. This intersection is no better exemplified than in the tenure of the Bush/Cheney administration. In her recent book, Kivalina: A Climate Change Story, sociologist Christine Shearer offers a concise account of the Bush/Cheney years as the apex of the centralization of corporate, political, and economic power:

“Bush/Cheney marked the first presidential ticket featuring two former oil company presidents… Both also had backgrounds in the military-industrial complex. The Bush family’s power developed alongside the fossil fuel industry, stretching from Rockefeller to Ken Lay. According to former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, the Bush family exemplifies the interaction among oil interests, the financial sector, the military-industrial complex, and the intelligence community: family members have close ties to the CIA, domestic and overseas oil production, and banks and other financial institutions like the Carlyle Group, which funds arms operations. Cheney’s career also spans government and intelligence as well as oil and the military; he served in both congressional and executive positions, and as CEO and chairman of the private military contracting firm Halliburton. The firm provides services for both oil production and military-related projects, making it a private sector bridge between the oil industry and the military-industrial complex.”

She goes on to explain that the duo “received record contributions from the fossil fuel industry, as well as from power companies such as Enron and defense industries such as Halliburton… Peabody and its affiliates had directed $900,000 to the Republican Party during the campaign, and three of its executives were subsequently named to Bush’s energy advisory team. The advisory team announced the accelerated use of coal, and Peabody went Public in 2001–raising $420 million, much more than analysts had expected before the presidential election. For power companies, the administration refused to cap energy prices as companies such as Enron manipulated energy supplies to gather record profits. For the oil industry, government officials quietly implemented a policy of ‘royalty relief,’ neglecting to collect billions owed to taxpayers.” For the military-industrial complex, Shearer notes, “many within the Bush administration enjoyed lucrative government contracts for affiliated private military companies, such as Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), as private contracts expanded with the 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security.”

While this example of the intentional synchronization between corporate, political, and military interests is shocking and offensive as is, a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has paved the way for the situation to actually worsen. No longer limited to influence on elected officials, corporate leaders now have the power to determine who gets elected in the first place. In January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission (FEC) that corporations have the same rights as citizens. The suit was filed by Citizens United–a non-profit corporation that funds and produces election materials in support of conservative political candidates, and critical of their opponents–after the FEC barred the group from running a film critical of Hilary Clinton within thirty days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. In a five to four decision, with a lengthy and adamant dissent penned by Justice Stevens, the court ruled that the FEC had violated Citizens United’s right to free speech, and opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns.

Of the decision, Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University and a Maryland state senator, said on Democracy Now, “the Supreme Court has… declar[ed] that a corporation is essentially a citizen, armed with all the political rights that we have, at the same time that the corporation has all kinds of economic perks and privileges like limited liability and perpetual life and bankruptcy protection and so on, that mean that we’re basically subsidizing these entities, and sometimes directly, as we saw with the Wall Street bailout, but then they’re allowed to turn around and spend money to determine our political future, our political destiny. So it’s a very dangerous moment for American political democracy.”

Dangerous, indeed. What chance does democracy have when elections and policy decisions are determined by the richest one percent in the nation? Liberals and progressives would be remiss to blame wealthy conservatives for this mess. Though he has publicly supported the Occupy movement, in a recent broadcast Democracy Now reported that President Obama has received $15.6 million this year from Wall Street sources, more than all Republican presidential candidates combined. And, let us not forget that President Obama has overseen trillions of dollars in bailouts to large financial institutions, which overshadows immensely all other big-ticket items in the federal budget.

The causes of the financial crisis, compiled by the Center For Media and Democracy.

The judicial branch is not without fault either. Common Cause, a non-profit organization that works to hold politicians accountable to citizens, filed a petition to investigate whether Supreme Court justices Scalia and Thomas should have recused themselves from ruling in the Citizens United case. Both ruled in favor of Citizens United, and it has since been revealed that both were paid guests at private electoral strategy meetings organized by Koch Industries. Common Cause rightly points out that these facts constitute a conflict of interest for both justices.

Though conservatives often blame the “liberal” media for biased reporting, mainstream media outlets largely ignored the Occupy movement until it was a few weeks old, and when it did report on it, ridiculed participants. This is because the “fourth estate” is also the terrain of the power elite. While this has been the case historically, at least to a certain extent, today, due to deregulation of the telecommunications and print media industries, multinational corporations own and control the majority of media content produced within the United States. These developments reveal that today’s power elite is an insidious nexus of political, economic, military, legislative, and informational  control.

It is this kind of centralization of power and resources that the people who formed the Paris Commune of 1871 fought, and those occupying Wall Street and other spaces around the world are now fighting. Their tactics of resistance show exactly what is, and was, missing from governance: the voice of the people. The fight for space for expression of the needs and desires of the popular, and the suppression of this fight from above, is one of the oldest stories in the book. The Paris Commune gave power to the people of the city, and through their “general assembly” tactic, the occupations of today recognize the right of people to self-governance built on respect and consensus. That this is the direction that protest has gone is a sign that this is the very thing missing from our failing democracy. Where the voice of the popular is supposed to be heard, corporate interests shout it out.

A meeting of the General Assembly in Washington Square Park. Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.

But it’s not just as simple as disrupting the power elite, because each of us is invested in this system that produces massive inequality. We can’t just expect the system to change. We have to change ourselves in order to change the world. Marx and Engels wrote of this important connection in The German Ideology back in 1846, “…Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration that can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary therefore not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of the ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

So, while the Occupy movement rages it on, it is important that those of us who are excited and encouraged by it do more than post about it on Facebook, and write blog posts about it. Revolutionary change requires change in politics and economy, yes, but it also requires change in ourselves. We have to think about what we can change in ourselves, in the way we see and interact with people, in the way we conceive of property and value, and in our willingness to share resources with others, for starters. Because, at the heart of this matter is private property; it is the essence of wealth. This issue will be tackled directly in next week’s post. In the meantime, please weigh in with your ideas for how to make revolutionary change a reality.

About Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

Writer, sociologist, public intellectual, twenty-first century nomad.

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