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.

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