Toward deoligarchization?

10 12 2022

The Washington Post‘s article “War has tamed Ukraine’s oligarchs, creating space for democratic change” makes for a useful read, despite some seemingly contradictory premises: i.e., (1) that the war might be bad for Ukrainian oligarchs and good for Ukrainian democracy, and (2) that humanizing Ukrainian oligarchs is good for understanding what oligarchy is. The first of these is very good news, if it turns out to be true; the second is a little ambiguous.

Yes, it helps to know who Rinat Akhmetov, and others like him, are. But the point I would like to see made more clearly is that the “transition from communism to capitalism” (as it’s commonly but inadequately described) presented a massive opportunity for capitalization — the creation of largely unregulated new markets that amounted to a massive “land grab” akin to the opening up of the American frontier — that was taken advantage of by those best positioned for it (the young Communist party managerial class) at the expense of the vast majority of Ukrainians, Russians, et al.

Such moments of “mass capitalization” (or “frontierization”) need to be much better theorized and understood because they are so consequential to the history that follows, and because we are all affected by them.

In the West, the largest such opening up in decades was the capitalization of online behavior and “attention” that enabled the new class of global oligarchs (the owners of Google/Alphabet, Facebook/Meta, Apple, Microsoft, et al) to become the wealthiest people in the world. Capitalism thrives at such moments of “creative destruction,” which extract what’s monetizable from its previous embeddedness within sociocultural, ethical, and cosmological relations that had kept them viable but, from a capitalist viewpoint, “unfree.” (This is why reading Karl Polanyi is still so important. And why understanding capitalism and developing a viable alternative to it – democratic mixed economies that allow for a re-embedding in society and ecology – is the only way forward beyond the climatological apocalypse of extractivist industrialism.)

Just as Ukrainians, Russians, and other post-Soviets are still living with the consequences of the 1990s land/industry grab (that the Post article describes), we are all living the consequences of the 2000s “mind grab” by digital media industries (that Zuboff and others have described). Meanwhile, the global South is still living with the consequences of the 1500s-1800s “land/body/spirit” grab of colonialism. The question is how to (democratically) rein in all of these at the same time, globally.

While it’s useful to know that oligarchs have childhoods, and that not all of them are sociopaths at heart, this doesn’t help us to understand the system that rewards them and punishes others for reasons that are amoral at best, immoral at worst. Some form of “privatization” may have been necessary in the 1990s, as world’s richest Ukrainian Rinat Akhmetov argues in the article, but the dichotomy of “state-owned” versus “privately-owned” lacks the nuance that a viable 21st-century economy will require.

And when economist Tymofiy Mylovanov (whom I respect) asserts that Ukraine should follow a “more Western” economic model, with “more lawyers and less bribers,” and with competition as “the real vaccine against oligarchs,” he is arguing for transparency, which is absolutely necessary. But just as more laws doesn’t mean better laws, “more lawyers” has nothing to do with either better lawyers or better laws. Law (like economics) can easily provide complicated ways of justifying the further entanglement of wealth with political power, which remains a problem in every capitalist democracy in the world (some more than others).

All that said, the Zelensky government’s definition of an oligarch – “anyone who meets at least three of four criteria: influence in politics, media holdings, economic monopolies and minimum total assets of around $100 million” – is a useful starting point for deoligarchization around the world (even if Ze’s government is hardly expected, by most observers, to apply it evenhandedly and non-controversially).

It’s the fundamental entanglement of wealth with political power that is the constant in all of these issues: the social devastation that followed the end of the Cold War, the social devastation that follows the “wild west” frontierization of digital media and online behavior, and the social devastation that has been created in the wake of colonialism for five hundred years (including the colonialism still affecting Ukraine).

The Washington Post article can be read here.



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