The oligarchs are the bosses, tycoons, CEOs and managers of large companies. They are distinguished from other categories of the super wealthy by the control they exercise over the economy and by their privileged relationship with state institutions. They make up, in short, the financial and business elite of capitalism. If we use the term to indicate Russian billionaires alone, in a derogatory tone, this obscures reality. The particularity of the Russian case, if we want to look closely, consists in the economic anarchy and in the speed with which the privatization of the economy took place after the collapse of the USSR. This has resulted, as we know, in a gigantic theft of resources and common goods by men without any particular merit and often coming from the state apparatus.
American and European governments have hailed the fall of the Soviet Union as a victory for the “free world,” and have been happy to enter into agreements with the new masters.
In Ukraine, things have gone more or less the same way. Oligarchs (about a hundred of them) control 80% of the wealth of a country that as of 2019 was still among the most backward of the former USSR. A European Parliament report from February 11, 2021 lists the reasons that make it difficult, in the short term, for Ukraine to join the EU: illegality, the influence of the oligarchs on politics, corruption, the malfunction of justice, the lack of freedom of the press, hate campaigns and intolerance towards feminists, LGBT, Roma. The country is not exactly a shining model of democracy – without, of course, diminishing in any way our solidarity towards the Ukrainian people, victims of aggression at the hands of Putin’s Russia.
In the collective imagination, private planes and super luxurious yachts, villas and exclusive residences are the status symbol of the oligarchs. But in these we can only see the superficial layer of immense quantities of treasure accumulated and well hidden in tax havens. For many of these people, the enormous amount of money they possess deforms their perception of reality. They think they can survive any financial meltdown or any war. They live outside the vagaries of time. Some, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are investing in aerospace research, in collaboration with NASA, perhaps imagining the prospect of building safe havens outside our planet. This shows clearly the enormous distance that separates them from the perspective of ordinary mortals: supermen who dream of dominating the world from above. These extravagances and moral outrages are the result of the “point of view” that sees everything as reducible to economy and measures the value of people by the size of their assets.
The power of the oligarchs is all the stronger the more democracy and politics are weak. Silvio Berlusconi, who can be rightly listed among the ranks of the oligarchs, entered the political arena at a time of maximum crisis of the parties, aiming to better protect and expand the playing field of his businesses. There are many oligarchs who aim to govern their countries directly. Once in power, they avail themselves of the well-paid collaboration of former prime ministers, former ministers, former parliamentarians, who have been reduced to the role of lobbyists, mediators or fixers. The sanctions against the Russian oligarchs are having little effect because of the difficulty of cutting through the enormous web of interests and opaque relations that surround them.
Now, the push towards sanctions is being sidelined as the push for more and more military aid gathers steam. We are trapped in a spiral taking us towards a long and painful conflict – a war that is more than “the continuation of politics by other means,” as General von Clausewitz claimed. If anything, this underlines the crisis of politics, the narrowing of democratic spaces, the dangers of nationalist and reactionary revivals. It’s giving renewed impetus to the arms race. It’s fueling a Manichean vision of good versus evil, which does not help us understand the true causes of the global emergency in which we’re living: climate change, threats to public health, and now war.
The “clash of civilizations” scenario outlined by Joe Biden does not bode well for the future. Which “civilization” are we talking about? The one created over 30 years of neoliberal hegemony, with the dismantling of the welfare state, the reduction of trade union protection, the exploitation of poor countries, the sharpening of inequalities and geopolitical tensions? And which “democracy” are we talking about? The one marked by the storming of Capitol Hill, at the end of the Trump presidency, which highlighted the fragility and vulnerability of democratic institutions, even in Western countries? It is time to radically change the dominant “point of view.”
And it’s time to transform the ideological clash of civilizations, evoked by the American president, into a real clash of civilizations. A more just world is possible, in which oligarchies do not rule. The left has the opportunity – and, most importantly, the duty – to build a broad and unified movement that would hold together the themes of peace, the preservation of the ecosystem and the strengthening of the sphere of collective and individual rights.
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