|Miles Report No. 87 - Plutocrats - a review.
Plutocrats - The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Chrystia Freeland. Anchor Canada (Penguin Random House), Toronto. 2012/2014.
My initial incentive for reading this work was twofold. The first was to understand Chrystia Freeland’s thinking better as she is a major player in Canada’s political scene as Minister of Foreign Affairs; and secondly, a minor but important point, to source a citation I had used as a reference. For this particular topic, it did provide a good perspective on her thinking but I could not find the quotation cited. That quotation may well have been from an interview or talk given by Ms Freeland, but I did not see it in Plutocrats. The quotation is one of a guarded sympathy for the plutocrats; having read the book, it would not be out of line, but at the same time does appear to be somewhat out of context as cited.
The scope of Plutocrats is quite broad, covering historical and current events along the path of economic developments, mostly in the Twentieth Century, but obviously working up to the economic crisis of 2008-9. I had expected a less critical view of the plutocrats, but the work provides plenty of information that highlights the weaknesses inherent in a system - and its personnel - that allows the creation of a super-elite with immense gaps in wealth distribution. At the same time there is a degree of underlying sympathy for the plutocrats as the ultimate capitalists and creators of our world as we know it.
Apart from being outdated even though it is only five years since its writing, Plutocrats is generally an easy and interesting read. There are two main themes discussed through the book. First is the seldom questioned meme that capitalism is the only working economic system. Secondly, the drivers of the current economy are technology and globalization, both seen as positive forces.
Freeland uses extensive statistics and extensive anecdotal commentary to argue her points. It is generally well written from an academic structural point of view making it an accessible read for the general public as well as a more informed audience. However I stop there, damning it with faint praise.
The writing is neither antagonizing nor spectacularly elucidating. Much of the statistical information for a visual learner such as myself would be much more readily placed in graphs or charts - many pages of stats can be incorporated into a couple of well drawn graphs/charts. The anecdotal writing concerns her frequent interviews/hostings of the plutocrats she is discussing - very few anecdotes derive from anyone much lower in the economic hierarchy than Canada’s Mark Carney, not considered a true plutocrat. From the anecdotes is an undercurrent of poor little rich kid attitudes, accompanied by a borderline or stronger psychopathy towards inferiors, their own self-aggrandizement, illustrated by their angst over where or why they should be philanthropists and their statements of their own spectacular intelligence in succeeding in global finances.
The big mark against the work is a reflection of the above statistics and anecdotes. Certainly there is a ton of information provided - that in itself presents a good read for the references if nothing else - and while highly descriptive in this manner, it is not a truly analytical work on the plutocracy within the overall global context. It misses too many points, and in the odd case, is simply wrong.
A work such as this requires much more depth and context in order to put the plutocrats within their proper place in global affairs.
There is little discussion if any of what capitalism really is, what are its parameters, its variances, its role in political theory and events. It is assumed that capitalism is understood, that “markets” are understood, that it is the only effective working system in the world. For an academic approach that is a huge miss as it does not discuss the many factors having an impact on the procedures and thoughts on capitalism. There is no discussion of the military-industrial complex (that rightfully should also include the political-financial alliances) and its effects on world affairs and the capitalism that it profits from.
From that, there is nothing on the wealth creation of empires old and new, and how the U.S. has systematically used military force to create an economic empire at the barrel of a gun. Further, it has used the military to quell any potential symbols of successful alternate systems. Sure, the dictatorial USSR collapsed signalling the end of political communism, but that does nothing to prove that socialism cannot be democratic and egalitarian as a political-economic system. Most of Latin America, most of the Greater Middle East, much of southeast Asia and Asia proper have suffered under the U.S.military covertly or overtly (and in association with the CIA) as it creates profit space for its corporations. Africa has become a more recent addition to this military capitalism mainly in contention with China. There are many books on this aspect of the U.S. and global “capitalism” that the details need not be expanded here.
The “Washington Consensus” is mentioned sparingly, but not in its fullest terms. After WW II, the Bretton Woods agreements established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund ostensibly to assist in the development of other countries. What it amounted to was a convenient manner to harvest the wealth of the world as the duo created conditions that set up the ‘rentier’ economy described as part of the plutocrats system. This is particularly evident in Africa where the ‘structural adjustment programs’ as they were called at the time created a wealth transfer of resources and income to the west.
Associated with the Washington consensus is the demise of the gold standard (due largely to the expenses of the Vietnam war - a clear case of not permitting a united country freed from its previous colonial masters). Other features include the creation of ever larger and larger debts, creating a global economy that thrives on debt that cannot be repaid without huge inflation or fiat dollar collapse (or both). Not discussed is the role of the US petrodollar in order to preserve U.S. hegemony (along with Thomas Friedman’s “hidden fist” of the military) by controlling its centralized role in the pricing of oil (especially in relation to Saudi Arabia). Other institutional factors are not discussed, the largest one being the so called “free” trade agreements that have little to do with trade freedom and much more to do with corporate freedom - and dominance over governance - to harvest wealth and transfer it to wherever it is taxed most cheaply if at all.
Historically there are misses as per the creation of the wealth of the nation/empire. Slavery, the doctrine of Christian “discovery”, earlier eras land enclosures, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the creation of the Federal Reserve and central banking are all part of the story of the earlier robber barons and the current plutocracy, theft of wealth differing only by degree.
As an example of an error is Freeland’s comment about Saif Gadhafi, and the “years before protesters bloodily overthrew his father’s four-decade long dictatorship.” It is a wonderful bad example as it involves the contortions of the mainstream media following the lead of the Washington Consensus in condemning Gadhafi’s fight against supposed rebels (al-Qaeda in eastern Libya) and a faked possible genocide (remember “right to protect” and its abuses?) that was turned into a no fly zone that turned into a bombing campaign in support of the “rebels”. Gadhafi’s problem was that he had a stable dictatorship that had both oil (with Chinese interests involved) and the desire to create an African gold backed currency, not that he was a brutal dictator (as the Saudi’s are). The story also has implications for the CIA/NSA et al deep state agencies that work in support of the empire and its plutocrats.
Much more could be said - could have been said - and the book by necessity should have been much larger to encompass the full nature of the topic. Yes, read Plutocrats, it does provide interesting facts and anecdotal information but to understand more broadly the above aspects of capitalism and plutocrats, Michael Hudson’s Killing the Host should be a required accompaniment reading.
And, if the original citation I used is accurate or not, Ms Freeland is now currently enjoying her Foreign Affairs position and its enabling factor of keeping in contact with the plutocrats.