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The United States of Oligarchy; or, Metropolis Redux

09/29/2011 10:43 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011
  • Mark Axelrod Professor of Comparative Literature, Chapman University

Welcome to the United States of Oligarchy. No one seems to want to mention the "O" word, but it's one of the most appropriate words imaginable at this moment in US politico-economic history. It's not some mystical word and the Greeks knew that well since the word oligarchy comes from the Greek words "ὀλίγος" (olígos), "a few" and the verb "ἄρχω" (archo), "to rule, to govern, to command"; however, this is not rule by the military or royalty, but clearly rule by corporations and wealthy individuals.

The fiasco in Wisconsin was but the most salient example of what's happening in this "new wave" of politico-economic demagoguery throughout the US. Clearly, Scott Walker's presumed boyhood goal of eliminating unions altogether in combination with his own megalomania (he was a college dropout, by the way) trumps the best interests of many of the people of Wisconsin in favor of corporate interests. As this infection spreads to nearby states, the oligarchy, believing that subversion of workers' rights will further enhance their wealth, Fritz Lang's vision of Metropolis becomes a bit too palpable for comfort. Over eight decades ago, Lang's futuristic dystopia attempted to capture the social crisis between workers and owners in a capitalist system gone awry. The plot is eerily reflective of what's happening now in the US with a "society divided into two classes: one of planners and management, who live high up in luxurious skyscrapers and one of workers, who live and toil underground. The city was founded, built, and is run by the autocratic Joh Fredersen."

Certainly, one could substitute the Koch brothers for the capital monger Joh Fredersen and there would hardly be a bump in the storyline. In this particular remake of Metropolis (which we can call, Madisonopolis) there is no Moloch per se, that hideous monster to which the workers are haphazardly sacrificed, but there is a Moloch of a more insidious nature, a Moloch in the presence of the state which has now become the new Moloch and the workers are, in fact, sacrificed to the virtual whims of the state and the persons in charge, namely Scott Walker and his band of Republican brethren all of whom seemingly pay obeisance to the true "kings," the Koch brothers who "according to Wisconsin campaign finance filings, Walker's gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign's second-highest, behind $43,125 in contributions from housing and realtor groups in Wisconsin. The Koch's PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used political maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly."

One doesn't have to be Alan Greenspan (then again maybe one shouldn't be Alan Greenspan) to realize where the United States is headed if, in fact, it's not there already. According to the website Who Rules America? G. William Domhoff writes: "the AFL/CIO provides up-to-date information on CEO salaries at their Web site. There, you can learn that the median compensation for CEO's in all industries as of early 2010 is $3.9 million; it's $10.6 million for the companies listed in Standard and Poor's 500, and $19.8 million for the companies listed in the Dow-Jones Industrial Average. Since the median worker's pay is about $36,000, then you can quickly calculate that CEOs in general make 100 times as much as the workers, that CEO's of S&P 500 firms make almost 300 times as much, and that CEOs at the Dow-Jones companies make 550 times as much."

One can certainly make the argument that therein lies the present-day Cave of the American Corporate Moloch. I would imagine the statistics are even more staggering with an even greater disparity of income than when Domhoff wrote the piece. And if, as Michael Moore suggests, "400 obscenely rich people, most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer 'bailout' of 2008, now have more loot, stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined. If you can't bring yourself to call that a financial coup d'état, then you are simply not being honest about what you know in your heart to be true," then, in fact, we are all attempting to survive in the New Metropolis and if things continue as they are, then the vestiges of the "Great American Middle-Class" is doomed to be swallowed by Great American Corporate Moloch.

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