Opinions of Peter Belmont
Speaking Truth to Power

Class War: The Tension Between Concentrated and Distributed Political Power in the USA.

by Peter A. Belmont / 2013-03-30
© 2013 Peter Belmont


Recent Essays (All Topics)
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This essay was re-published on Nov. 25, 2016, at Counterpunch..

Prolog of 2016 Revision

This essay was written in March of 2013.

Much has changed since then, but the USA’s failure to do much to combat Global Warming Climate Change (GWCC) has not changed.[1]

In November 2016, Americans elected Donald Trump as our next president, and since he has announced himself as a “climate-change-denier”, American federal do-nothingism on GWCC seems likely to continue, threatening the USA and the world.

The 11/2016 election has, however, shown one important thing—a sign of the possibility of a turn-around in the class-war, since Trump and the Tea-Party have been (more or less) anti-oligarchic elements in the Republican Party and Bernie Sanders was an outright anti-oligarchic element in the democratic Party. A majority of the American people are tired of both organized political parties and (if only implicitly) are tired of the power of the oligarchs.

The nature of the American oligarchy is examined below in this essay. I think the Trump election shows the dangers of “democracy”, but the long run of oligarchic government in the USA, by both major parties, shows the dangers of governance under the thumb of the vastly wealthy.

Prolog of 2013 Essay

Sometimes a failure of a political system is so severe that it threatens the very future of the nation—or as with climate change, the future of the earth.

Such is the case of America today, and likely most of the rest of the world, wherever the vastly rich and the powerless poor coexist in a single society.

All people wish for and deserve a fulfilling and unthreatened future, a good life, space to exist. Can anyone on earth gladly imagine a world where there is no place for themselves or their children, or worse, no place for life itself?

This wish for a place to live unfettered, this dream, is elegantly described by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who writes, of the dispossessed Palestinian people, “Where should we go after the last frontier, where should the birds fly after the last sky?” translated thus in Edward Said’s book “After the Last Sky” and as the title of Fida Qishta’s recent movie “Where Should The Birds Fly?” about Israel’s devastation of Gaza.

Anyone sympathetic with the seemingly endless plight of the Palestinian people would find these images persuasive and engaging.

But even people unconcerned with the fate of the Palestinian people, and there are many other things to be concerned with—anyone sympathetic with the people and other creatures of the earth would feel these images especially persuasive in relation to the horrible destruction promised from the slowly accumulating and implacable horror of climate change which—in my belief [2]—threatens the whole earth and all its creatures. For the man-made climate change which began in the twentieth century is a man-made threat created by the industrial system, horribly amplified by the global capitalist political system,[3] and apparently a threat to which the controllers of capitalist wealth seem unwilling to defer.

And yet I am not entirely without hope.

The Problem of Climate Change is a Problem of Governance

The problem of climate change is, first of all, a problem of governance, because it requires governments to respond to it and—so far—the federal government of the USA has shown itself unwilling even to attempt to do so. What we’ve seen from Washington, so far, is at best a pretense of “acting” to defeat GWCC.

What sort of government does the USA have that it should refuse to do battle with a threat many times worse than any (mere) threat of war?

It is reported that Benjamin Franklin, when asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” answered, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Today we might well ask, can we maintain America as a democracy?

Perhaps there is a sliver of hope, which I address below. First let me define the problem as I see it.

We are in the midst of an enormous class-war in the USA, and this war is a war between the very, very few, very, very rich and powerful people—chiefly CEOs of large corporations and banks—who control (or own) great wealth, on the one hand, and all the rest of us, on the other.

Corporations—anciently conceived as servants of society generally, such as hospitals—have over time been transmogrified into servants of greed, and masters of society.

That very greed, which corporations were re-conceived to serve, has been elevated to the position of a false god, it being said, falsely, that nothing but great social good would come from the operation of corporations running rampant, unfettered, and unregulated in the (“widely beneficial”, it was repeatedly said) service of the greed of their owners. Corporations, it was bleated, would do no more than create and sell goods and services of benefit to society generally, and so benefit all, making a profit from doing so—in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song ”The Old Dope Peddler”, “doing well by doing good”.

But the enthusiastic promoters, well paid shills, and deluded dupes of unfettered capitalism chose to ignore two vastly destructive side-effects of capitalism which allow corporations to enrich their owners and managers at the enormous cost of society generally. First, they’ve ignored the destructive effects to the natural environment arising from environmentally unfriendly industrialization. Second, they’ve ignored the destructive effects upon the system of government due to the buying of political services by the wealthy, most often the owners and managers of corporations, but also some vastly wealthy folks (like the Koch’s) who’ve been enormously enriched through the capitalist money-making mechanisms (including the near erasure of taxation on the very rich, itself a clear result of oligarchic control of governance).

In the interest of clarity, I reiterate: corporations were (anciently) created to serve social purposes, such as the need for hospitals. In those long-gone days, they were servants of society. Today they have become overwhelmingly rich and powerful, have “bought” government, and have become masters of society.

And the onrushing disaster of climate change may be attributed to both of these destructive side-effects of modern corporations, both their careless trashing of the environment, locally and globally; and their “buying” of government.

Thus we may thank the present-day capitalist system for the production of the greenhouse gases that produce climate change, and the paralysis of the political system—nowadays effectively owned and operated for the benefit of the managers of the large corporate empires—which prevents our societies from acting to control and retreat from climate change.

For corporations generally, and large corporations in particular, early learned that buying politicians (and thus controlling the legal environment in which they operated) would allow them to make additional profits, first of all, from such tricks as avoiding taxes and other fees payable to government for the privilege of operating within the society provided and protected by that government, and, second of all, by inducing the government—bought and paid for by the corporate managers—to reduce or eliminate regulations which might otherwise protect the natural environment from (chiefly) chemical “insults” released by industry into the earth, water, and air, that is, into the common patrimony of all mankind.

The Tension Between Distributed and Concentrated Political Power

One of the perpetual tensions in any political system is the tension between distributed political power (let us call it “democracy”) and concentrated political power (which I call “oligarchy” and discuss below).

Those who trouble—for profit or merely for control—to acquire concentrated political power seldom voluntarily relinquish it. There may be an ebb and flow between more concentrated and more widely distributed political power, but in America these days, the flow is definitely toward concentrated power.

In theory, concentrated political power need not be a bad thing. A country could be run by a benevolent and all-wise dictator, a king, a fuehrer or duce who was unimpeded by the silly and harmful demands of people for private favors and who, therefore, did nothing but what was best for all.

No such “benevolent and all-wise dictator” has been seen recently outside story-books for children.

The reality is now and has always been that concentrated power serves the concentrator, at the cost of everyone else. And that cost is greatest when the dictator is so stupid as not to understand even which side his own toast is buttered on.

Such is the case with global warming (man-made climate change) today. The oligarchs (some of them the oil-igarchs), BIG-OIL, BIG-COAL, BIG-GAS, perhaps BIG-AUTO, BIG-MILITARY (because so much of the use of the USA’s military has been to capture and control the centers of oil-production world-wide) are unwilling to allow the USA to lead the world—or even to participate—in reducing world-wide use of fossil-fuels. And it is the burning of fossil fuels, predominantly, which is responsible for climate change.

Those who hold and exercise concentrated political power in the USA today are manifestly mis-directing America and, with it, the world.

It is hard to believe that the world—much less the USA itself—can long survive if climate change goes uncorrected, and that means that we cannot long survive if political control by corporations is not soon ended.

(Climate change is not the only ill to lay at the feet of the oligarchs. The surprisingly evident errors—if not contradictions—of international capitalism, which in 2008 and thereabouts—having succeeded in throwing off the citizen-friendly shackles of banking regulation in the USA—brought the USA near to economic collapse and brought parts of the EURO-zone to actual collapses, suggest other reasons to wrest control away from the CEOs of great corporations, great banks, and the hedge-fund managers and others who, together, constitute the shadow government that I call the oligarchy.)

To reiterate, the principal catastrophe I speak of is the USA’s manifest failure to come to grips with man-made climate change over the last 25 years (the years when it had became widely known among those whose business it was to know—and whose business it was, and still is, to react usefully against it).

In the shadow of the overwhelmingly important topic of climate change are other, lesser, disasters, such as America’s ill-considered and vastly destructive international interventions such as our far-flung military empire, our wars against Islamic and other non-”white” peoples, and our failure to support international family-planning, etc.

Of particular interest and disappointment to me is the USA’s devastating support for Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinian people, support without any attempt to correct Israel’s illegal-at-international-law settlements program or military occupations, now in 2013 in their 46th year. (Note that South Africa’s similar and long-ended possessory occupation of South West Africa/Namibia, if considered to have run from 1960 to 1990, though long, was far shorter than Israel’s possessory occupation of Palestine.)

Democracy is a system of distributed political power, power to the voters, power to the people, that sort of thing. Even originally in the USA, when “in most states, only white men with real property (land) or sufficient wealth for taxation were permitted to vote”, political power was by and large distributed rather than concentrated.

In the USA today, many economic and foreign policy decisions are so greatly influenced by “single payer” political influencers (great corporations, vastly wealthy individuals) that it is fair to say—of these decisions—that they were determined by oligarchy rather than by democracy.

Do not be fooled: democracy is not a magic bullet, and the decisions of “the people” have been and can again be terrible. But at least these decisions have a chance of being made “in the public interest” and we are seeing that the decisions made by the concentrated political power of America’s “establishment”, its “oligarchy”, are not at all in the interest of America’s people, the people of the world, or life on earth in general.

By “oligarchy” I mean the vast and vastly effective political power concentrated in the very few hands of the CEOs of BIG-BANKS, BIG-OIL, BIG-COAL, BIG-AGRI, BIG-PHARMA, BIG-ARMAMENTS, and (familiar to readers of this blog) BIG-ZION. Indeed, the power of these BIGs is so widely and generally known and recognized (if not loved) that even abbreviations can be used to identify them: you know who I mean by “BIG-PHARMA”, “BIG-OIL”, “BIG-BANKS”. And of course I should refer to “MIC” (Military Industrial Congressional Universities Complex) rather than to “BIG-ARMAMENTS”—because it is so well known, and has been so well-known for 50 years since being identified and warned against by Ike in 1961.

But, come on, aren’t some decisions in USA’s political sphere made democratically?

Well, yes, I think some are. A few.

My impression is that social decisions—policy as to drug laws, abortion, gay marriage, and such are made “by the people”—but if this is so, and even drug laws may be be heavily influenced by for-profit prison corporations, it seems that it is so merely because the BIGs don’t see any profit to be gained by entering these people-centered frays.

But when banking policy is made, when “too big to fail” and “too big to jail” are determined, when CLIMATE CHANGE is ignored, when unnecessary wars are fought, it is my sense that this is a sure sign that those BIGs who care about these things are propelling them forward and those BIGs that don’t care about them are being silent, not opposing them. In cases of sufficient interest to one or more BIGs, the interests of society generally don’t count at all.

When the Congress pretends that it wants to reduce government discretionary spending, just watch how it fails to knock 25% off the military budget. The power of BIG-ARMAMENTS and BIG-MILITARY is too great.

The American-government’s love-fest with lawless and human rights abusing governments, especially but not only Israel, arise because enough BIGs see a profit from American support for such governments, and few or none see any reason to oppose. (“Go along to get along”, “you wash my hands and I’ll wash yours”, “you watch my back and I’ll watch yours”—seems to operate among the BIGS just as elsewhere where the concentration of power is the game.)

No-one any longer doubts that BIG-ZION—that is to say, political spending by AIPAC and others to achieve political control in the USA in support of Israel’s illegal settlement project and now 46-year old post-1967 occupation of Arab lands—is huge and hugely effective in securing American fealty to Israel, in a kind of tail wags dog operation. It operates via many channels and while these include direct electoral spending, they also include Islamophobic and anti-terrorist agitation and the general control of the reporting about Israel and Palestine by the MSM (American main stream media), even including the so-called “public” NPR (National Public Radio).

But please do not let my emotional connection to the American/Palestine/Israel conflict mislead you: the single overarching problem facing the world today is the USA’s refusal to deal with climate change.

After another decade of climate change un-dealt-with, the world will be on an irreversible path toward human collapse—and thereafter, perhaps independent of whatever we do then, the world will cycle into general unlivability for all creatures larger than bacteria.

You think I am fooling? Exaggerating? Well, perhaps, just a little, but consider this—the scientists who describe the onset of the climate-change-disaster cannot be sure of their predictions, and may be erring on the side of cautions hopefulness. I prefer to scare people by calling a spade a steam-shovel. But I might be right. And after the recent storms, droughts, fires, etc., no-one should any longer doubt that there is a very serious problem.

Read widely on this topic, but don’t ignore it because you think me excessive in my language.

All this is not a happy thought. And it does make one wonder what they are thinking and whether they are thinking, BIG-OIL and others so heavily invested in status-quo keeping on keeping on, those who want to make sure the energy production system can keep up with the (still growing!) population’s “energy-use needs” but evince no concern whatever with whether the earth can continue in face of our continuing energy use itself.

What are they thinking? Well, better to ask, “What are we doing to regain political control as if people mattered?”

What Must Be Done

My idea of a useful sea-change in American politics would be to replace wealthy individuals (and corporations and banks and hedge funds) as the managers of America with fair elections and a political system influenced only by people (human USA citizens) and by PACs (political action committees) acting in the interests of the people, that is, the human USA citizens who contribute—subject to uniform financial restrictions—to those PACs.

Taking Political Power Away from Those who Possess Great (Concentrated) Wealth

My idea is that, first, “political action” be defined as any action intended to or reasonably likely to influence either an election or the action of any branch of government—administrative, legislative, or judicial; and, second, [1] to limit the doing of political action and the spending of money on political action to American citizens (that is, forbidding such doing and such spending by corporations, banks, and so on), and [2] to limit how much money any single person can spend for “political action” in any one calendar year.

Anatole France said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” I would have it said that, ”The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to spend more than $1,000 per year on all political action within the USA, cumulatively, whatever.”

This is a maximal “power to the people” proposal. It goes way beyond correcting Citizens United, for it means to disallow lobbying and political contributing by anyone but human, citizen, Americans and means also to limit how much money even wealthy Americans can spend on political action.

This proposal would require a Constitutional change and would create difficulties needing much attention due to the fact that most publishers (of books, newspapers, etc., and broadcast media) are presently [1] corporations, [2] big spenders, [3] who do plenty of “political action”. “News” providers, for instance, do political action by their choice of what to report and what not to report, by their slant on such reporting, and by editorializing slipped into almost every such report.

If every American newspaper, every American news broadcaster, were organized and run as a PAC—supported solely by the small contributions of many willing American citizens—the problem would be solved, at least formally, within the limitations of my proposal. In that case, however, they would not be able to accept advertising or other support except from other PACs. This means also that “broadcast media” (radio, TV, Cable, print media) would no longer be owned and controlled by corporations possessing great wealth. PACs would be far smaller and organized for a political purpose and the cooperative enterprise of those who contributed to the PAC. So the power exercised today by the owners of “media outlets” would be replaced by the control of contributors to their PACs, the small contributors—if any.

This proposal intends to replace the USA’s Supreme Court’s regime of “one dollar one speech” with something closer to “one man one speech”.

This is a MAXIMAL proposal, but any proposal, even merely to reverse Citizens United, will meet severe opposition from the organized political class—the politicians, the press, the BIGs as I call them.

And they will practice diversion, divide-and-conquer, and direct what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) opposition. Expensive opposition. For we, the people, have only “numbers” while the opposition has political power, media power, and enormous financial power.

So it’ll be uphill all the way. And “the people” can only succeed if we [1] see the problem accurately and clearly, [2] define a desired outcome—a goal—and see it, too, clearly, and are decided and determined to achieve that goal together against great odds, and [3] conduct a great and a long fight. A bigger fight than the civil rights movement in the 1960s or the anti-Vietnam-War movement, also of the 1960s. That’s 50 years ago. It’s a long time since there’s been a movement for anything as important.

(That’s one reason I don’t like the idea of a movement that ONLY opposes Citizens United. Such a movement, though useful if it succeed, is almost a diversion, almost too small. If we win, we could forget that it is only the first battle, not the whole war. And the power of the very wealthy in terms of political campaign contributions, lobbying generally, and other forms of publication—propaganda—are also of enormous importance.)

The purpose of this essay is to attempt to state the problem and to sketch the necessary ingredients in a solution.

It will not be easy. A movement may never materialize. It would be easier if Mike Bloomberg and Warren Buffett other wealthy individuals would stand together as leaders of this movement. We could use their money and their leadership.

What I fear is what I see: an uninvolved citizenry, going sheeplike along the paths of mindless hedonism as the BIGs carry the world to the perdition of climate change. What I hope for is a citizenry capable of learning, hope, and purpose sufficient to carry on a movement until success. And I hope it will happen soon enough to do some good.

Because climate change (a/k/a “global warming”) waits for no man.


[1] This uis not to say that President Obama has done nothing or to say that his failure to do much was his own fault. There was certainly an obstructionist congress. However, in 3 years before 2013, as also in the 3 years after 2013, the USA might have, and should have, taken 30% of fossil-fueled electric generation off-line, replacing it with solar and wind or other green electric generation.


[2] I am more fearful of climate change than many people are. Why? Because news of new, unexpected, and in some cases massive accelerators of climate change are announced so regularly that I believe that the desperate predictions of climate change scientists are nevertheless too cautious: there is too much they (and we) do not know, things not part of their computer models. See, generally, my essay: Are We Out of Time to Combat Global Warming Climate Change (GWCC) ?. The recently announced escape of the more-dangerous-than-CO2 gas methane during “fracking” and during pipeline transmission is a case in point. The release of methane from melting arctic permafrost is another and more frightening example.


[3] The amplification due to capitalism comes about in several ways. Most obvious, the speed with which fossil fuels are extracted from the earth and burned could not have occurred without the investments in machinery of the capitalist system. The burning of coal extracted via by-hand mining in the 1800s was small by comparison. Next is the energetic discovery of new sources of fossil fuels and of new methods of extraction, all made possible only by the concentrations of wealth made possible by capitalism. Last, and worst, is the evil of capitalist control of governments, which prevent governments from addressing climate change. This last is a principle topic of this essay.


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