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The populism of plutocrats, oligarchs and kleptocrats

von Hans Dembowski


Right-wing protestors in Berlin in August  2020.

Right-wing protestors in Berlin in August 2020.

The term “plutocrat populism” may feel counterintuitive, but it is helpful – not least for understanding the war in Ukraine. Let me explain.

Super-rich people have political priorities (as Michael Steffen and I have argued on www.dandc.eu). They feel entitled to do whatever they can financially afford, and resent all kinds of government regulations that block their way. Many adhere to a libertarian worldview according to which states should be as small as possible and everything should be open to transactional spending. They resent taxes. They hate tax-funded social protection systems which ordinary people need but which, in the eyes of plutocrats or oligarchs, only provide substandard services. They abhor environmental legislation which, for the sake of the public good, limits their entrepreneurial freedom.  

In market-radical eyes, state action is always a problem and should be reduced to the bare minimum. As Paul Krugman, the noble-prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, has often argued, this is why Republicans in the USA have done what they could to make Obama’s Affordable Care Act look bad and fail.  

Hidden agendas

Right-wing populism is generally considered to be something quite different. It is not associated with super-wealthy beneficiaries of tax havens, but rather with frustrated, left-behind people who long for a bygone era of ethnically-defined national cohesion. International media have done a very poor job of spelling out that populist parties typically rely on anti-democratic propaganda which actually serves plutocratic interests. Every kind of government action is said to be oppressive and dictatorial. Environmental protection is railed against. In the Covid-19 crisis, standard public-health requirements are falsely, but systematically likened to totalitarian demands. Populists claim to agitate against elites, but they define them as possessing expertise rather than excessive wealth.

The background is that, in the 1990s and 1980s, globalisation basically meant the opening of markets. In the meantime, it is increasingly about establishing global regimes for collecting taxes, protecting the environment and reducing inequality. Plutocrats/oligarchs do not like this kind of globalisation. Accordingly, they tend to endorse the dishonest Brexit-type nationalism that pretends to to boost the authority of a national government, but to a large extent actually undermines its ability to regulate.

The point is that in our interconnected world huge entities like the EU, the US or China can still pass and enforce laws in a meaningful way. Smaller entities, even G7 members like Britain or Canada, are more likely to be pitted against one another by powerful economic interests. This is why right-wing populists often get plutocrats’ support, and especially funding. Some of the leaders, of course, are plutocrats themselves. Donald Trump is the most prominent example.

Internet giants matter too  

Adding to the problems, public discourse increasingly takes place on social-media platforms which are owned by superrich investors. The algorithms that determine what people see on their screens only partially reflect whom people are following.

Advertising plays a role too. Anyone who spends heavily can boost the reach of an individual post as well as the outreach of a particular feed. Algorithms, moreover, pay attention to what is trending, and anyone with the sufficient numbers of trolls and bots can make a post go viral. It also matters very much that algorithms are designed to keep people glued to the screen, so they tend to feed rage and radicalisation.

In polite discourse, it is generally assumed that these downsides simply result from profit-maximising strategies. We should consider likely ideological dimensions too. No, I do not believe that Silicon Valley plutocrats give the same scope to policymakers, who want to break up online monopolies or at least regulate them stringently, as they give to populists who equate freedom with absence of government interventions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows just how deadly propaganda can become. It is tempting but wrong to see this devastating crisis in the light of Western democracy versus Russian autocracy. For one thing, many brave Russians are opposing the war and risk long prison sentences for expressing their views. At the same time, populist forces have been undermining Western democracies. Without murky funding and dubious social-media campaigns, Brexit might never have happened and Trump might never have become US president. To promote democracy internationally, Western countries must control dangerous anti-democratic subversion at home.

Close observers now report that Russian – and Chinese – disinformation campaigns now focus on emerging markets, spreading disinformation campaigns about the Ukraine war. That makes sense given that Vladimir Putin has lost the information war in the west, but finds it easy to boost anti-imperialist sentiments in Africa and Asia, regardless of his war motive being the restoration of colonial Tsarist borders. Everyone should see clearly that populist forces, who have spread lies about “legitimate Russian security concerns”, have a long track record of serving oligarchs’ interests.

This is not a conspiracy theory

By the way, my reasoning is not a conspiracy theory. I’m not saying there is a central command or that evil parties meet in secret to plot the ruin of democracy. But I definitely see converging interests of plutocrats, oligarchs and kleptocrats internationally, and I am sure they are prepared to take advantage of any instrument that looks affordable. If right-wing populism helps to weaken democratic governance in the EU and elsewhere, they appreciate that, but divisive left-wing radicalism does not bother them either.

In recent years, Putin’s Russia is known to have funded both kinds of radicalism. Trolls and bots did their part online. The approach was strategic, not irrational. We mustn’t forget, however, that non-Russian plutocrats have track records of supporting the right-wing version. Three examples are Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel (see a previous blogpost on www.dandc.eu), media titan Rupert Murdoch and British business man Arron Banks. And who knows, perhaps they support divisive leftists too if they see them weakening legitimate democratic governance, but don’t expect them ever to rise to power.  

Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.
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