Plutocracy

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Plutocracy (from Greek πλοῦτος, ploutos, meaning "wealth", and κράτος, kratos, meaning "power, dominion, rule") or plutarchy, defines a society or a system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. The first known use of the term is 1652.[1] Unlike systems such as democracy, capitalism, socialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion, though the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.[2]

Usage[edit]

The term plutocracy is generally used as a pejorative to describe or warn against an undesirable condition.[3][4] Throughout history, political thinkers such as Winston Churchill, 19th-century French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th-century Spanish monarchist Juan Donoso Cortés and today Noam Chomsky have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict, corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.[5][6]

Examples[edit]

Examples of plutocracies include the Roman Empire, some city-states in Ancient Greece, the civilization of Carthage, the Italian city-states/merchant republics of Venice, Florence, Genoa, and pre-World War II Empire of Japan, zaibatsu.

One modern, perhaps unique, formal example of a local plutocracy is the City of London.[7] The City (not the whole of modern London but the area of the ancient city, which now mainly comprises the financial district) has a unique electoral system. More than two-thirds of its voters are not residents, but rather representatives of businesses and other bodies that occupy premises in the City, with votes distributed according to their number of employees. The principal justification for the non-resident vote is that about 450,000 non-residents constitute the city's day-time population and use most of its services, far outnumbering the City's 7,000 residents.[7][8]

Another contemporary example involves the municipalities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, Florida. Both are owned and governed by The Walt Disney Company, per state statutes. The only landowners are fully owned subsidiaries of Disney, and right-of-way for state and county roads, and the only residents are Disney employees.[citation needed]

Modern politics[edit]

Historically, wealthy individuals and organizations have exerted influence over the political arena. In the modern era, many democratic republics permit fundraising for politicians who frequently rely on such income for advertising their candidacy to the voting public.

Whether through individuals, corporations or advocacy groups, such donations are often believed to engender a cronyist or patronage system via which major contributors are rewarded on a quid pro quo basis. While campaign donations need not directly affect the legislative decisions of elected representatives, the natural expectation of donors is that their needs will be served by the person to whom they donated. If not, it is in their self-interest to fund a different candidate or political organization.

While quid pro quo agreements are generally illegal in most democracies, they are difficult to prove, short of a well-documented paper trail. A core basis of democracy, being a politician's ability to freely advocate policies which benefit his or her constituents, also makes it difficult to prove that doing so might be a crime. Even the granting of appointed positions to a well-documented contributor may not cross the line of the law, particularly if it happens that the contributor can actually boast a qualified résumé. Some systems even specifically provide for such patronage.

Quite often, wealthy individuals either finance their own political campaigns or leverage their affiliations with other wealthy persons and organizations to do so on their behalf. In the United States, as of November 2011, 250 members of Congress both Democratic and Republican are millionaires, with 57 belonging to the top 1% of American wealthy[9]

United States[edit]

A study by Larry Bartels found that Senate votes in 1989-1994 were more responsive to the opinions of high-income groups and were less and even negatively responsive to the opinions of middle and lower-class groups.[10]
A study by Thomas Hayes replicated Bartels' findings for the period of 2001-2010[11]

Some contemporary and modern historians, politicians and economists believe the United States was effectively plutocratic for at least part of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era periods between the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the Great Depression.[12][13][14][15][16][17] After the Civil War, with large industries reaching monopolistic or near-monopolistic levels of market concentration and financial capital increasingly integrating corporations, a handful of very wealthy heads of large corporations began to exert increasing influence over industry, public opinion and politics. Money, according to contemporary progressive and journalist Walter Weyl, was "the mortar of this edifice", with ideological differences among politicians fading and the political realm becoming "a mere branch in a still larger, integrated business. The state, which through the party formally sold favors to the large corporations, became one of their departments."[18]

In his book The Conscience of a Liberal, in a section entitled The Politics of Plutocracy, economist Paul Krugman says plutocracy took hold because of three factors: at that time, the poorest quarter of American residents (African-Americans and non-naturalized immigrants) were ineligible to vote, the wealthy funded the campaigns of politicians they preferred, and vote buying was "feasible, easy and widespread", as were other forms of electoral fraud such as ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of the other party's voters.[19]

In modern times, the term is sometimes used pejoratively to refer to societies rooted in state-corporate capitalism or which prioritize the accumulation of wealth over other interests. According to Kevin Phillips, author and political strategist to U.S. President Richard Nixon, the United States is a plutocracy in which there is a "fusion of money and government."[20] A similar position was taken by the Fourth International in January 1941, which stated "Roosevelt’s administration, which claims to be democratic, is really the representative of these piratic plutocrats" and that "the twin capitalist parties control all the main avenues for reaching the masses (the press, radio, halls, etc) ...they collect millions from their wealthy masters and spend them to bamboozle the public and buy elections".[21]

The U.S. instituted progressive taxation in 1913, but according to Shamus Khan, in the 1970s, elites used their increasing political power to lower their taxes, and today successfully employ what political scientist Jeffrey Winters calls "the income defense industry" to greatly reduce their taxes.[22]

Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else says that the present trend towards plutocracy may not be a deliberate power grab:[23]

You don't do this in a kind of chortling, smoking your cigar, conspiratorial thinking way. You do it by persuading yourself that what is in your own personal self-interest is in the interests of everybody else. So you persuade yourself that, actually, government services, things like spending on education, which is what created that social mobility in the first place, need to be cut so that the deficit will shrink, so that your tax bill doesn't go up. And what I really worry about is, there is so much money and so much power at the very top, and the gap between those people at the very top and everybody else is so great, that we are going to see social mobility choked off and society transformed.

— Chrystia Freeland ,  NPR

When the Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote the 2011 Vanity Fair magazine article entitled "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%", the title as well as the content pointed to evidence that the United States is increasingly ruled by the wealthiest 1%. In it he states,[24]

Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate."

Bill Moyers interviewed author Chrystia Freeland and Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi on Moyers & Company on October 19, 2012. Her book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else is the inaugural book in the Moyers Book Club.[25]

BILL MOYERS: Income inequality has soared to the highest level since the Great Depression...Left unanswered, where does this vast inequality take America?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Well, I think to a very bad place. And I see two real and present dangers. One is that you see an increase of the political capture.

BILL MOYERS: Of what?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Of the political capture. So of the people at the very, very top, capturing the political system. And most crucially, I think something that an economist, a guy called Willem Buiter, who's the chief economist at Citigroup, he calls it cognitive capture. Where he says, look, it's not like this vast conspiracy. It's not as if, you know, everyone is on the payroll of the plutocrats.

And this guy, okay, he is now the chief economist of Citigroup. He wrote this when he was an academic economist. But so it's, he's hardly, you know, some kind of Marxist on the barricades. His argument was that part of the reason the financial crisis happened is the entire intellectual establishment, not just people inside investment banks, but regulators, academic economists, financial journalists, had all been captured by the financial sector's vision of how the economy should work. And in particular, light touch regulation.

And I think there is a broader cognitive capture of, you know, you might call it the intellectual class, the public intellectuals, around maybe the inevitability of plutocracy. You know, as Matt [Taibbi] was saying, this notion that if you're poor, it's your own fault. You're part of this dependent 47 percent. Unions are very bad. All of that sort of stuff.

So I think that that cognitive capture increases. And I think what you see increasingly is, you know, elites like to think of themselves as acting in the collective interest, even as they act in their personal vested interest. And so what I think you'll end up seeing is social mobility, which is already decreasing in the United States, being increasingly squeezed. You see particularly powerful sectors, finance, oil. I would say the technology sector is going to be next in line, getting lots of government subsidies.

And meanwhile, I think you see much less money spent on the things that the middle class and the poor need. That's why have this, you know, full bore attack on entitlements, right? Why is the plutocracy so enthusiastic about cutting entitlement spending? Because they don't need it. But they're very worried about their tax dollars funding it.
— Moyers & Company

An April, 2014 study by Princeton University faculty stated that when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or organized interests, they generally lose.[26] The average voter has little influence on government, the study found, but the well-to-do hold tremendous sway.[27] The study indicated wealthy move national policy in the US, and average Americans are effectively powerless.[28] Policies supported by economic elites and business interest groups were far more likely to become law than those they opposed, the authors found. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and the more recent McCutcheon v. FEC have made it easier for corporations and wealthy individuals to spend money for political purposes, which could increase their influence over elections and eventually policy decisions.[29] Economic élites have a disproportionate influence in Washington, D.C. Their views and interests distort policy in ways that don’t necessarily benefit the majority.[30] The study said that average citizens only get what they want if economic elites or interest groups also want it. In contrast, the preferences of economic elites and interest groups — especially economic elites — are each quite influential, when the preferences of the other two groups are held constant.[31] The U.S. government represents not the interests of the majority of citizens but those of the rich and powerful.[32]

As a propaganda term[edit]

In the political jargon and propaganda of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Communist International, western democratic states were referred to as plutocracies, with the implication being that a small number of extremely wealthy individuals were controlling the countries and holding them to ransom.[21][33] Plutocracy replaced democracy and capitalism as the principal fascist term for the United States and Great Britain during the Second World War.[33] For the Nazis, the term was often a code word for "the Jews".[33]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Plutocracy". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  2. ^ "The study of attitudes is reasonably easy [...] it's concluded that for roughly 70% of the population - the lower 70% on the wealth/income scale - they have no influence on policy whatsoever. They're effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy. So the proper term for that is not democracy; it's plutocracy." Extract from the transcript of a speech delivered by Noam Chomsky in Bonn, Germany, at DW Global Media Forum, 15 August 2013.
  3. ^ Fiske, Edward B.; Mallison, Jane; Hatcher, David (2009). Fiske 250 words every high school freshman needs to know. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks. p. 250. ISBN 1402218400. 
  4. ^ Coates, ed. by Colin M. (2006). Majesty in Canada: essays on the role of royalty. Toronto: Dundurn. p. 119. ISBN 1550025864. 
  5. ^ Conservative thinkers: from John Adams to Winston Churchill. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. 2006. pp. 19–68. ISBN 1412805260. 
  6. ^ Toupin, Alexis de Tocqueville; edited by Roger Boesche; translated by James; Boesche, Roger (1985). Selected letters on politics and society. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 197–198. ISBN 0520057511. 
  7. ^ a b The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest, The Guardian, retrieved 01/11/2011
  8. ^ René Lavanchy (12 February 2009). "Labour runs in City of London poll against ‘get-rich’ bankers". Tribune. Retrieved 14 February 2009. 
  9. ^ http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/story/2011-11-15/congress-wealthy-1/51216626/1
  10. ^ Based on Larry Bartels's study Economic Inequality and Political Representation, Table 1: Differential Responsiveness of Senators to Constituency Opinion.
  11. ^ Hayes, Thomas J. (2011). "Responsiveness in an Era of Inequality: The Case of the U.S. Senate". APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. SSRN 1900856. 
  12. ^ Pettigrew, Richard Franklin (2010). Triumphant Plutocracy: The Story of American Public Life from 1870 to 1920. Nabu Press. ISBN 1146542747. 
  13. ^ Calvin Reed, John (1903). The New Plutocracy. Kessinger Publishing, LLC (2010 reprint). ISBN 1120909155. 
  14. ^ Jr, Robert H. Brinkmeyer, (2009). The fourth ghost: white Southern writers and European fascism, 1930-1950. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. 331. ISBN 0807133833. 
  15. ^ Allitt, Patrick (2009). The conservatives: ideas and personalities throughout American history. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 143. ISBN 0300118945. 
  16. ^ Ryan, foreword by Vincent P. De Santis; edited by Leonard Schlup, James G. (2003). Historical dictionary of the Gilded Age. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe. p. 145. ISBN 0765603314. 
  17. ^ Conservative thinkers: from John Adams to Winston Churchill. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. 2006. p. 103. ISBN 1412805260. 
  18. ^ Bowman, Scott R. (1996). The modern corporation and American political thought: law, power, and ideology. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 92–103. ISBN 0271014733. 
  19. ^ Krugman, Paul (2009). The conscience of a liberal ([Pbk. ed.] ed.). New York: Norton. pp. 21–26. ISBN 0393333132. 
  20. ^ Transcript. Bill Moyers Interviews Kevin Phillips. NOW with Bill Moyers 4.09.04 | PBS
  21. ^ a b http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/fi/vol02/no02/editors2.htm
  22. ^ Kahn, Shamus (18 September 2012) "The Rich Haven’t Always Hated Taxes" Time Magazine
  23. ^ National Public Radio (October 15, 2012) "A Startling Gap Between Us And Them In 'Plutocrats'"
  24. ^ Joseph E. Stiglitz (May 2011) "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" Vanity Fair
  25. ^ Chrystia Freeland (October 2012) [1] Moyers & Company
  26. ^ Gilens, M. and B.I. Page (2014) "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens" Perspectives on Politics
  27. ^ Do the Rich Call the Shots? April 23, 2014 New York Times
  28. ^ Nesbit, J. (April 21, 2014)"Oligarchy Nation: Political scientists find wealthy elites control politics in America" US News& World Report
  29. ^ Clark, M. (April 19, 2014) "U.S. more oligarchy than democracy, study suggests" MSNBC
  30. ^ Cassidy, J. (April 18, 2014) "Is America an Oligarchy?" The New Yorker
  31. ^ Prokop, A. (April 18, 2014) "The new study about oligarchy that's blowing up the Internet, explained" Vox
  32. ^ Sevcik, J.C. (April 16, 2014) "The US is not a democracy but an oligarchy, study concludes" UPI
  33. ^ a b c Blamires, Cyprian; Jackson, Paul (2006). World fascism: a historical encyclopedia, Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 522. ISBN 978-1-57607-940-9. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]