When powerful and wealthy elites are at the crux of so many of humanity's biggest problems, targeting the oligarchs—and the conditions that create and sustain them—must be at the crux of our efforts to solve those problems.
The Center for International Policy just had a big conference titled, “Progressive Foreign Policy as a Political Force.”
Senator Bernie Sanders gave the keynote speech, which had over 40k viewers on its Twitter livestream. Within two hours, the right-wing Free Beacon had a piece covering his remarks, focusing on his accusation that the Israeli government is committing war crimes in Gaza (it is and it’s beyond dispute).
Bernie is obviously very good on the stump. Watching the speech brought back memories of 2019—a more hopeful time.
What I want to draw attention to though is a recurring theme in Bernie’s speeches and writings—oligarchy as the root-cause threat of our time:
- The environmental degradation happening as part of the climate crisis, and the inability to do anything about it other than subsidize corporations;
- The ongoing atrocities in Gaza that are being bankrolled and shielded by U.S. foreign policy;
- A militarism that forecloses on a positive-sum relationship with China—or even a stable one—and amplifies the risks of great-power war;
- The political corruption that permeates everything from AIPAC donors financing the campaigns of election-denying MAGA Republicans to think tanks producing ideas that advise perpetual primacy (to the benefit of the very defense industry that funds the think tanks); and
- The inability for Congress or the Biden administration to attend to the economic precarity of the majority of Americans.
Bernie’s CIP speech addressed all of these issues and a few more, relating each to the existence of oligarchy. He said explicitly—and not for the first time—that all these issues are connected. More than that, they’re connected in ways that are fairly easy to understand yet hard to do anything about when we see/understand/analyze them as unconnected.
2024 Conference: Progressive Foreign Policy as a Political Force -- Keynote by Sen. Bernie Sanderswww.youtube.com
I read his implicit point as being that oligarchy, an extreme—and extremely political—variant of inequality under capitalism, is the master problem to which we must attend if we want a better world.
Oligarchs love American primacy and the defense industry. Oligarchs captured identity politics and turned it into a way to sell yoga pants. Oligarchs want the global South to rely on the IMF and secure no debt relief without the imposition of austerity. Oligarchs want to invest in kleptocracies. Oligarchs are happy to go slow—or even go never—on climate adaptation. Oligarchs partner with ethnonationalists and election deniers. Oligarchs are the enemy of economic democracy.
Oligarchy, therefore, stands in the way of human progress.
It’s easy to miss the analysis embedded in Bernie’s rhetoric—which posits that oligarchy functions as a wellspring of insecurity—because he’s not a theoretician or an abstractionist. Like any good historian, or politician, he works from observable problems in the real world as the starting point. And the grim, depraved outcomes in the world that he draws attention to can be as analytically distracting as they are emotively compelling.
In my book, Grand Strategies of the Left, I took pains to show that all progressives see inequality in its various guises (race, gender, capital) as a root cause of insecurity—a structural problem upstream of (and therefore that finds expression as) geopolitics and military games on sprawling maps.
But a key fissure within the progressive movement—as the table above shows, has to do with prioritization; arguments about sequencing. We care about inequality because of its consequences for human freedom. On that basis, some see peace or the bridling of American power as the priority for unlocking equality rather than vice versa.
Whatever you think of Bernie’s oligarchic theory of insecurity, the thing that makes it useful is that it has a syncretic quality. That is, it doesn’t prioritize anti-oligarchy above peace or above democracy; it offers a way of reconciling equality with peace and democracy. In that way, it explains how the existence of oligarchy makes human freedom impossible.
To identify oligarchy as a root-cause problem, then, is not just to diagnosis what ails us or prescribe what ought to be done. It is a way of saying that if we want the most bang for our policy buck, our solutions must be addressed to the crux of the problem. That crux is oligarchy.
Anyone who shares these basic humanist commitments has an obligation to think through the extent to which their policy preferences on any given issue—from Israel/Palestine to Ukraine to Taiwan to the American poor—might obscure, deny, or even worsen oligarchy.