Just as there are many variations on liberal democracy—the Swedish model, the French model, the American model—there are many varieties of nationalist oligarchy. The story is different in every country, but the elements of nationalist oligarchy are trending all over the world.
Perhaps the most obvious example is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The idea that Putin’s Russia has authoritarian tendencies is commonly accepted. For example, the Russian Constitution allows a president to serve for no more than two consecutive terms. Putin dutifully followed the constitutional provision, serving two four-year terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, before turning over the office to his ally Dmitri Medvedev and taking the post of prime minister. Yet during Medvedev’s single four-year term, the government put forward a constitutional amendment to extend the presidential term to six years. The amendment passed through the Duma and the Federation Council in less than two months. Putin then retook the presidency in 2012 and was reelected in 2018. When his term finishes in 2024, he will have run Russia for virtually a quarter-century. Over time, Putin’s government has also passed new laws that have “increased penalties for participation in unauthorized protests, broadened the definition of treason, [and] required that NGOs receiving foreign money…register as ‘foreign agents.’” The arrest and imprisonment of members of the band Pussy Riot are perhaps the most famous examples of illiberalism in Russia.
But to focus solely on these political changes misses the fact that Russian politics is also intertwined with economics. As Brian Taylor puts it in his book, The Code of Putinism, “Putin is both president of the formal political system and boss of the informal clan network system.” Putinomics mixes state capitalism, market capitalism, and informal networks of friends. The origins of this system were the infamous privatization campaigns of the 1990s, in which major state-owned enterprises from the Soviet era were “sold off” to oligarchs for highly “favorable prices.” Taylor argues that Putin understood that he needed to control these new oligarchs, rather than let them develop independent power centers. So he pushed media tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky out of the country, forcing them eventually to divest their media holdings. In their place, and at the helm of virtually all of the major companies in the country, are now Putin’s allies. Take, for example, the Bank of Russia, whose central figures are a physicist, dentist, former KGB agent, and electrical engineer. Their common connection is that they were all close to Putin in the early 1990s. Taylor notes that the “prime minister, presidential chief of staff, secretary of the Security Council, speakers of the two houses of parliament, and the heads of three of the most important companies in the economy—Gazprom, Rosneft, and Russian Railways—as well as other key economic actors, such as the defense industry conglomerate Rostec and the media giant National Media Group” are all friends of Putin’s. The result of this system is that Russian corporations are truly intertwined with the state.
Fidesz won 52 percent of the popular vote but two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. “We have only to win once,” Orbán said, “but then properly.” As another example, consider Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. In 2010, Orbán’s Fidesz party won just over 50 percent of the popular vote but a two-third majority of the seats in parliament. Well before taking office, Orbán commented, “We have only to win once, but then properly.” Once in office, Fidesz used its power to ensure it would keep it. In 2012, Fidesz used expedited procedures to draft and pass a new constitution in two months, with only nine days of parliamentary consideration. Among other things, the new constitution expanded the size of the constitutional court (so Fidesz could gain a majority) and extended the terms of the justices. Fidesz also expanded the electorate to ethnic Hungarians living abroad (with different voting rules for those in countries adjacent to Hungary compared to ex-pats far away), engaged in gerrymandering, reduced the number of members of parliament, and abolished the two-round system of voting—all of which helped his party stay in power. As a result, the 2014 elections, one observer said, were “free but not fair.”
At the same time, according to Bálint Magyar, the former Hungarian minister of education, the prime minister has created a “privatised form of a parasite state, an economic undertaking run by the family of the Godfather exploiting the political and public instruments of power.” Paul Lendvai, former Financial Times correspondent and the author of a book on Orbán, reports that leases of state-owned land and licenses for National Tobacco Shops are doled out to supporters. The government has used the export-import bank (meant to help businesses exporting goods) to prop up a domestic media company that supports the government and attacks its critics. Orbán’s friends and family also benefit. Orbán’s childhood friend Lorinc Mészàros, for example, went from being a gas fitter to the fifth richest Hungarian in a matter of a few years, all because he won a variety of state building contracts. Worse still, the European Union funds Hungary’s oligarchy, as Orbán draws on EU money to fund about 60 percent of the state projects that support “the new Fidesz-linked business elite.” Nor do Orbán and his allies do much to hide the country’s crony capitalist model. András Lánczi, president of a Fidesz-affiliated think tank, has boldly stated that “if something is done in the national interest, then it is not corruption.” “The new capitalist ruling class,” one Hungarian banker comments, “make their money from the government.”
The commentator Jan-Werner Müller captures Orbán’s Hungary this way: “Power is secured through wide-ranging control of the judiciary and the media; behind much talk of protecting hard-pressed families from multinational corporations, there is crony capitalism, in which one has to be on the right side politically to get ahead economically.”
Crony capitalism, coupled with resurgent nationalism and central government control, is also an issue in China. While some commentators have emphasized “state capitalism”—when government has a significant ownership stake in companies—this phenomenon is not to be confused with crony capitalism. Some countries with state capitalism, like Norway, are widely seen as extremely non-corrupt and, indeed, are often held up as models of democracy. State capitalism itself is thus not necessarily a problem. Crony capitalism, in contrast, is an “instrumental union between capitalists and politicians designed to allow the former to acquire wealth, legally or otherwise, and the latter to seek and retain power.” This is the key difference between state capitalism and oligarchy.
Minxin Pei, a U.S.-based China expert, argues that neoliberal reforms from the Deng Xiaoping era are the root of the country’s growing problem with corruption and oligarchy. Like the former states of the Soviet Union, China engaged in privatization and decentralization in the 1990s. But in China, privatization—particularly of lucrative state assets like mining and lands—frequently extended only to use rights, rather than complete ownership rights. Combined with decentralization of administrative power to lower levels of government, the opportunity for collusion became evident: Local government officials had the power to grant private actors use rights over land, and private actors, in turn, made it worthwhile for officials to give them the contracts. The result was widespread corruption. Consider the example of Zhou Yongkang, who was on the Politburo Standing Committee (one of the most powerful bodies in China) and received a life sentence for corruption in 2015. During Zhou Yongkang’s sentencing, the court said that his wife and son had taken 129 million yuan in bribes and the family had 2.1 billion yuan in illegal earnings. This isn’t an isolated incident. In a bombshell story, The New York Times reported in 2012 that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family had amassed $2.7 billion during his rise through the ranks of government. So significant is corruption in China that even President Xi Jinping has condemned it and made fighting corruption a central part of his agenda. But what remains unclear is whether these anti-corruption efforts are bona fide attempts at public integrity or maneuvers designed to solidify and expand Xi’s power.
Indeed, the Chinese government has also responded to the realities of an oligarchic economy by promoting greater nationalism and centralization. The government has recently identified “Seven No’s” including universal values, a free press, civil society, and an independent judiciary. Meanwhile, Xi has gained more and more control, with the government abolishing limits on a third term in office.
Russia, Hungary, and China present three different and notable trajectories of the nationalist oligarchy trend, but they aren’t the only cases. After the failed coup attempt in 2016, Turkey’s president engaged in widespread purges of the government, crackdowns on opponents, and constitutional reforms to centralize and strengthen his power—all while emphasizing religious nationalism. Right-wing nationalist parties are also on the rise in other countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
As these examples show, nationalist oligarchy is increasingly emerging as a contender and threat to democracy. American foreign policy must adapt accordingly. While these countries all have different foreign policies—China is a rising power with little interest in fomenting chaos, Russia seeks to reassert herself and gain from spoiling democracies—nationalist oligarchs need a steady diet of economic resources to pay off their clients. Because every domestic economy has limits, nationalist oligarchies look abroad to broker deals with foreign countries, gain influence over foreign companies, and steal foreign technology. Taken to the limit, think of it as a foreign policy Ponzi scheme. To keep power, you need to continue acquiring more and more wealth to buy off your supporters. A foreign policy of aggressive economic influence, dealmaking, and theft sustains the regime. Combined with technology—hacking, cyberwarfare, and social media disinformation campaigns—the current challenge is more surreptitious than the military threat was during the Cold War. Instead of gaining power by force, nationalist oligarchies might be able to break democracy through corruption and fraud.
TWISTED TRIBALISM AND THE CORIOLIS POOP CHUTE
The biggest threat to human species survival – and progress – is the current twisted tribalism. It’s weaponized by populist governments looking to seize or keep or expand power, selling the political frontmen to the population using a mix of exaggerated fear, inflamed anger and blame-the-minorities xenophobia. The agenda of these populists is personal power or, more often, crony capitalism serving the needs of entrenched big finance and lineage corporate confederates – deregulation, inverse taxation, exploitation without oversight, etc.
As this model grows ever more demanding and the actual activity of government uses ever more strong-arm propaganda to offset the cost in votes, as sections of the electorate get pushed too far. This means fears get hyped, it fans inflamed anger, and the xenophobia pushed further into the territory of jingoist hate. The United States and Britain are being drawn down a Coriolis poop chute by this degraded dynamic and the knock-on effect is dragging other countries along in their wake.
It’s a bleak outlook for us all.
CONDITIONED IGNORANCE ENDS IN NEO-FEUDALISM
If the durability of an unscrupulous greed-first government is best served by citizens being less educated, national education will deteriorate. It’s common sense. Dumbing down the electorate has been an unpublicized aim of the right-wing in both the USA and the UK since the 1970s, picking up pace and affecting a wider demographic in the neoliberal 1990s, faster and wider again in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis.
In 2020, the degrading of education is as much left-wing as right, though the left’s bias is to exert control through social identity conformity whereas the right teaches subordination to power symbols and hierarchy. Both end in the same place: a malleable proletariat of indoctrinated morons.
The long-term cost to the world (and to us, as individuals) of continuing decades deteriorating education is incalculable. Stupidity destroys self-determination. It pulls down expectations to bare bones. What’s more, conditioned ignorance makes a population easy fodder for propaganda, be it benign or authoritarian.
In the 1930s the Nazis had to work fast to consolidate power from a single election win, removing the vote soon after. Today established powers can be a gentle authority, refreshing legitimacy for exploiting it’s electorate, making them complicit with public consent every 4-5 years.
In the Anglosphere, it’s not inconceivable to see a democratic majority voting on its worst instincts, directed like cattle against its best interests. This trend is not improving. Each subsequent mandate for authoritarian government gives another term for power grabbing and electorate dumb down. The noose tightens on dissent of any kind.
The exploiter gets richer and stronger as time on power goes by unchallenged. The exploited public gets more manageable, technique of subtle control improving. Outlier individuals are more marginalized, less able to connect with the obdurate proletariat. Eventually, the exploiter authority is absolute and the exploited electorate is wholly regulated, happy not to have to worry about thinking. Protesting this neo-feudal utopia will be anti-democratic, an act of sedition; or terrorism.
It’d be ironic if, a hundred years from now, our magnificent proud human society had returned to good old-fashioned feudalism. It has been feudal most of history, after all. We think of our species as inevitably making forward progress but perhaps the flash in the pan will be this past 3-400 years. Will the Chinese care about innovation? Stagnation could become perpetual once technology makes socioeconomic lines of demarkation absolute, 01 + 10 = 11.
TOO MUCH SEEING MEANS TOO LITTLE DOING
It’s too easy to chase one’s own tail, deconstructing the ills of society; seeing too much, doing too little. It’s tempting to disassociate with the deteriorating social conditions, especially if one has the means to ring-fence in comfort. But to what end?
It’s hard to see a meaningful way to push back, if one’s just an individual or a small group of like-minded educated liberals with everyday life to keep on track. Wage-slavery leaves little time for pissing into the Anglo-American wind machines!
Rather than waste time and energy avoiding the problem, let’s try to come up with practical ways to pushback against the tide of consumerist exploitation.
Many have a sense there’s a clock ticking down on this already, as tech develops and big finance – populist government tighten their grip on individual freedom. It’s not inconceivable to imagine a point in the near-future where “neural link” is a necessity, collective thinking causing hierarchies of control, docile lumpen proletariat voting away democracy by de jure abdicating future free ballots to 21st/22nd-century “Big Brother” (maybe sold to the world as A.I. with proven utilitarian operating system, the best way to save the planet from climate change or coronavirus 2.0)…
But I’m wasting time and energy again, aren’t I?
PUSHING BACK AGAINST THE POPULIST BIG CAPITAL CABAL
I have collected a list of practical ways to push back effectively against the trajectory towards neo-feudalism. I’ve tried to provide useful links and/or contact details for anyone interested in exploring further but contact me with any updates – so this list stays on point – and if anyone has additions to suggest, I read all e-mails with proper subject lines so get in touch.
Hope. Charity. (not faith.)