We’re Not Laughing Anymore …

George Monbiot is a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, known for his political and environmental activism. I’ve often found his column insightful, and in today’s column he makes some very astute observations about what we’ve been calling the “populist” movement, how and why the world seems to have suddenly turned upside down on its axis.

From Trump to Johnson, nationalists are on the rise – backed by billionaire oligarchs

The ultra-rich are benefitting from disaster capitalism as institutions, rules and democratic oversight implode

George-Monbiot @GeorgeMonbiot

Fri 26 Jul 2019 06.00 BST


Seven years ago the impressionist Rory Bremner complained that politicians had become so boring that few of them were worth mimicking: “They’re quite homogenous and dull these days … It’s as if character is seen as a liability.” Today his profession has the opposite problem: however extreme satire becomes, it struggles to keep pace with reality. The political sphere, so dull and grey a few years ago, is now populated by preposterous exhibitionists.


Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro at the White House with Donald Trump. ‘A host of ludicrous strongmen dominate nations that would once have laughed them off stage.’ Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

This trend is not confined to the UK – everywhere the killer clowns are taking over. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Matteo Salvini, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán and a host of other ludicrous strongmen – or weakmen, as they so often turn out to be – dominate nations that would once have laughed them off stage. The question is why? Why are the technocrats who held sway almost everywhere a few years ago giving way to extravagant buffoons?

Social media, an incubator of absurdity, is certainly part of the story. But while there has been plenty of good work investigating the means, there has been surprisingly little thinking about the ends. Why are the ultra-rich, who until recently used their money and newspapers to promote charisma-free politicians, now funding this circus? Why would capital wish to be represented by middle managers one moment and jesters the next?

The reason, I believe, is that the nature of capitalism has changed. The dominant force of the 1990s and early 2000s – corporate power – demanded technocratic government. It wanted people who could simultaneously run a competent, secure state and protect profits from democratic change. In 2012, when Bremner made his complaint, power was already shifting to a different place, but politics had not caught up.

The policies that were supposed to promote enterprise – slashing taxes for the rich, ripping down public protections, destroying trade unions – instead stimulated a powerful spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. The largest fortunes are now made not through entrepreneurial brilliance but through inheritance, monopoly and rent-seeking: securing exclusive control of crucial assets such as land and buildings privatised utilities and intellectual property, and assembling service monopolies such as trading hubs, software and social media platforms, then charging user fees far higher than the costs of production and delivery. In Russia, people who enrich themselves this way are called oligarchs. But this is a global phenomenon. Today corporate power is overlain by – and mutating into – oligarchic power.

What the oligarchs want is not the same as what the old corporations wanted. In the words of their favoured theorist, Steve Bannon, they seek the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. Chaos is the profit multiplier for the disaster capitalism on which the new billionaires thrive. Every rupture is used to seize more of the assets on which our lives depend. The chaos of an undeliverable Brexit, the repeated meltdowns and shutdowns of government under Trump: these are the kind of deconstructions Bannon foresaw. As institutions, rules and democratic oversight implode, the oligarchs extend their wealth and power at our expense.

The killer clowns offer the oligarchs something else too: distraction and deflection. While the kleptocrats fleece us, we are urged to look elsewhere. We are mesmerised by buffoons who encourage us to channel the anger that should be reserved for billionaires towards immigrants, women, Jews, Muslims, people of colour and other imaginary enemies and customary scapegoats. Just as it was in the 1930s, the new demagoguery is a con, a revolt against the impacts of capital, financed by capitalists.

The oligarch’s interests always lie offshore: in tax havens and secrecy regimes. Paradoxically, these interests are best promoted by nationalists and nativists. The politicians who most loudly proclaim their patriotism and defence of sovereignty are always the first to sell their nations down the river. It is no coincidence that most of the newspapers promoting the nativist agenda, whipping up hatred against immigrants and thundering about sovereignty, are owned by billionaire tax exiles, living offshore.

As economic life has been offshored, so has political life. The political rules that are supposed to prevent foreign money from funding domestic politics have collapsed. The main beneficiaries are the self-proclaimed defenders of sovereignty who rise to power with the help of social media ads bought by persons unknown, and thinktanks and lobbyists that refuse to reveal their funders. A recent essay by the academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez argues that offshore finance involves “the rampant unbundling and commercialisation of state sovereignty” and the shifting of power into a secretive, extraterritorial legal space, beyond the control of any state. In this offshore world, they contend, “financialised and hypermobile global capital effectively is the state”.

Today’s billionaires are the real citizens of nowhere. They fantasise, like the plutocrats in Ayn Rand’s terrible novel Atlas Shrugged, about further escape. Look at the “seasteading” venture funded by PayPal’s founder, Peter Thiel, that sought to build artificial islands in the middle of the ocean, whose citizens could enact a libertarian fantasy of escape from the state, its laws, regulations and taxes, and from organised labour. Scarcely a month goes by without a billionaire raising the prospect of leaving the Earth altogether, and colonising space pods or other planets.

Those whose identity is offshore seek only to travel farther offshore. To them, the nation state is both facilitator and encumbrance, source of wealth and imposer of tax, pool of cheap labour and seething mass of ungrateful plebs, from whom they must flee, leaving the wretched earthlings to their well-deserved fate.

Defending ourselves from oligarchy means taxing it to oblivion. It’s easy to get hooked up on discussions about what tax level maximises the generation of revenue. There are endless arguments about the Laffer curve, which purports to show where this level lies. But these discussions overlook something crucial: raising revenue is only one of the purposes of tax. Another is breaking the spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation.

Breaking this spiral is a democratic necessity: otherwise the oligarchs, as we have seen, come to dominate national and international life. The spiral does not stop by itself: only government action can do it. This is one of the reasons why, during the 1940s, the top rate of income tax in the US rose to 94%, and in the UK to 98%. A fair society requires periodic corrections on this scale. But these days the steepest taxes would be better aimed at accumulated unearned wealth.

Of course, the offshore world the billionaires have created makes such bold policies extremely difficult: this, after all, is one of its purposes. But at least we know what the aim should be, and can begin to see the scale of the challenge. To fight something, first we need to understand it.

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31 thoughts on “We’re Not Laughing Anymore …

  1. Yes, there’s a lot in this that drops into place. It’s truly bizarre that in the twenty first century we should have reverted to a point where such a large part of the world is ruled – i would suggest ‘subjugated’ – by wealth and privilege. Twenty of thirty years ago I truly thought that was on the way out.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think this political climate is quite worrying. Illusionists are conjuring up images for people (the Circus Clowns in full distractive performance) while nooses tighten around freedoms. This particular bill is going through with a 57% prediction of success…

    This US bill is designed to crack down whistle lowing with the intelligence agency given full freedom to find and remove undesired reporting. Media in general (not just Wikileaks and Co) should be very worried by this bill, as should employees in government or armed forces roles. Even ordinary civilians may lose the right to speak out.
    Monbiot has missed one fundamental here, and that is, once AI automation is complete with all the technical wizardry promised by the not so buffoonish ‘buffoons,’ we (the people) are no longer required.
    Most clowns are very serious people underneath the greasepaint and the performances. Many of them quite deadly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Whistle blowing… This bill is designed in particular to deal with Julian Assange, but also anyone who tries to follow in his footsteps. This sort of thing is exactly what the Hong Kong protesters are fighting for… A right to be autonomous. Folks, whether you think Julian Assange is a crook or a hero doesn’t matter… What matters is the US is turning into a ‘China,’ controlling everything that you do (and removing you if you don’t comply). This is not about your safety from terrorists… This is about your rights to know what is going on at higher levels.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Agreed that this goes beyond Assange, and I agree that I have concerns, but this is, truth be told, not the worst of the legislation on the table. However, nothing … and I do mean NOTHING is likely to pass both House and Senate and be signed into law by the Oaf-in-the-Oval!


    • The current climate in both our countries, as well as others, is definitely worrying. What’s even more worrying is that if we manage to oust Trump either through the impeachment process, death, or the 2020 election, the movement, the ideology, the base that carried the buffoon into office is still there, as strong, vocal and obnoxious as ever. In Trump’s case, I don’t think he is a ‘serious’ person beneath the greasepaint, but I think he is a puppet for a very serious Putin. And in Boris’ case, yes, I think he is smart enough to be deadly if he chooses. Sigh. A frightening world these days, isn’t it?


  3. Pingback: We’re Going to the Circus, Mom! | ~Burning Woman~

  4. As far fetched as this might sound I believe it is potentially very close to the mark. That’s why you have members of the UK Government harking back to the days when the rule of law and parliament was secondary to social status and wealth. Democracy was something bestowed on the masses and not a birth right. It was given and it can be taken away. Capitalism is mutating into something far more dangerous. I’ve said it before it increasingly feels like we are living in an xfiles episode.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree. I have long been concerned over the unfettered capitalism we see today, and the fact that it seems money has taken precedence over people. A sorry state of affairs in both our nations. Yes, and as they say in the Xfiles … trust no one … I think we’re coming to that point. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a brilliant article Jill. ‘Killer clowns.’ Wow, I can’t think of a better term for these guys. And clown numero uno resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Ughhhhhhhh

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right … I’ve referred to Trump as a clown since before he was elected, but never thought to call him a killer clown, but that handle suits him quite well. Sigh. Can we just get rid of him now, please?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jill, very interesting read. We have talked often how easily Trump distracts us as he steals are candy. Do you know what happened this week that got little notice as we are distracted with Trump’s corrupt behavior? With the Pakistani leader, Trump made up a request from a nationalist PM from India to mediate a long time fued over Kashmere. There was no such request and it was denied within the hour by India. This is a sensitive topic which only recent almost led to war. An India expert speaking with NPR called it a “damn lie.” Our India ally is ticked off.

    With Trump and Johnson, we have two clowns in charge of the two largest english speaking democracies. My belief if someone is funding this madness to benefit, they may get more madness than they bargained for. Keith

    Liked by 4 people

    • My jaw dropped when I read this comment, for no … I had no idea of this little fiasco! I am as guilty as any of falling for the distractions, but … where were The Washington Post and the New York Times? After reading your comment, I went in search of and found articles in The Guardian and Reuters, and one in the Wall Street Journal that made it sound as if Trump were being such a nice guy, offering to help, but mean ol’ India wouldn’t let him. I am incensed that this story didn’t even make headline news! Thanks for bringing it to my attention … I must do better in the future! If he doesn’t destroy every alliance we have by the time he leaves office, I will be surprised.


  7. The spiral does not stop by itself: only government action can do it. This is one of the reasons why, during the 1940s, the top rate of income tax in the US rose to 94%, and in the UK to 98%. Since the UK is still possibly a Democracy the Government may still be able to do this. The U’S I’m pretty sure not unless the Government start to reassert control which the majority of Senators seem not to want to. For Russia, Turkey Brazil etc there is no Government except their leader unless they wake up and do something about it and not just with a plan to replace him with another just like him.We are overdue a time where the bully in power is gone and we enter a period of true
    co-operation between people and their Governments and between Governments worldwide.

    Liked by 4 people

    • It’s interesting that certain republican members of Congress are up in arms over the recent budget deal that increases spending, but not at all willing to take the step of increasing taxes on those who can most afford it and who most benefit from the labours of we, the small people. You’re right, until we get serious and get some people of conscience in our government instead of the penny-ante circus act we currently have, the nation will continue to slide further and further into debt until eventually we won’t be able to borrow any more and that “great economy” Trump keeps taking credit for tanks into the ocean. You’re also right that there is a contingent here who will vote in somebody just like him only scarier, for the next one might actually be intelligent. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

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