When money is the messenger, why do the poor believe it? Paul Frijters questions the truth.

According to Max Lawson of Oxfam, who recently gave a fascinating interview in The Mint, the world’s richest 26 billionaires own more wealth than the poorest 50% of humanity. Using data from Credit Suisse, he calculated that after 2020, the top 1% cornered two thirds of the wealth increases in the world. David Rothkoph’s Superclass published in 2008 noted then how the super-rich, meeting yearly in Davos at the World Economic Forum, operated as a separate entity with total disdain for countries and populations, plotting the future for all of us. The left-wing academics Toby Green and Thomas Fazi noted in a 2013 book The Covid Consensus: The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor―A Critique from the Left  explained how this increased inequality has also meant a total loss of interest in the West for the increased poverty and destruction of education in Africa and other poor regions.    

The two elements – unequal wealth and unequal voice – are inevitably linked by the production of truth. Extreme inequality eventually translates into a feudal political system in which the poorest lose any say and the super-rich decide what the truth is for the rest of us.  

Several recent books and initiatives have attempted to sketch a silent takeover in the past 20 years by the super-rich of the media and other truth-determining channels. The 2016 book Dark Money by Jane Mayer described in great detail how it played out.  Mayer describes how “US democracy was effectively bought by a cadre of the super-rich and their surrogates, often through faceless political action committees that can spend limitless amounts of money. In America, elections involving hundreds of millions of voters have become contests decided, in key constituencies, by a handful of plutocrats…. Britain … has become a place where untransparent money, from unknown sources, is widely accepted with a complacent shrug”.

The visible examples of how money buys influence are plentiful. In the US, the so-called Super Political Action Committees (PACs) – murky political entities with undisclosed financial sources that buy up advertising space to support or denounce candidates – spent over £1bn on the elections of 2021-2022. The opendemocracy website posts almost daily examples of bought politicians and regulators, ranging from top politicians with connections to Big Pharma forcing vaccines onto their populations, to “green” politicians like Al Gore making many millions out of subsidies, to the doing the political bidding of its main sponsor, Bill Gates. Scandals exposing how ministers reward their sponsors with huge deals, like the Canadian WE-affair, are now daily fare for those willing to look outside of mainstream media channels.   

In the US, murky political entities with undisclosed financial sources that buy up advertising space to support or denounce candidates spent over £1bn on the elections of 2021-2022.

I investigated how this went in the major sectors of the Australian economy in a book, Rigged, that came out in 2022 (a sequel to the best-seller Game of Mates of 2017), concluding that Australian politics is best seen as groups of Mafiosi organised in two main tribal camps fighting over who gets to fleece the population in the next electoral cycle. In many Western countries, investigative journalists have founded websites documenting this, such as the follow-the-money website in the EU, or Michael West in Australia

The basic playbook of deep pockets is to provide mainstream media with ready-made stories that benefit the sponsor, and to “flood the market with shit” if some scandal breaks that momentarily exposes something embarrassing. 

It is particularly this last tactic that is extremely hard for regular civic society to counter because it simply lacks the time and resources to wade through all the “shit” to get at the truth.  Deliberate nonsense gets produced at such a speed and volume that it has become practically impossible for almost anyone (including individual deep pockets) to know what is true on almost any major topic, whether that is the urgency of climate change, election interference by Russia, or the efficacy of the covid vaccines.

The public is kept small and ignorant via emergencies. Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, explained the way in which emergencies get deliberately amplified in his 2003 book State of Exception. In that book he showed the abuse of the 9/11 attacks by the security forces as a pretext for more influence and control, among which of course was using 9/11 to invade Iraq. Agamben saw the same systemic abuses of power in the Covid period, including the increase in surveillance and control. The hidden rise of the security services and their mass surveillance was something Julian Assange also exposed and is still being punished for in a UK prison. 

What makes the whole thing particularly difficult to understand and to react against is that manipulation hides in good company. 

Charities undermining democracy, such as the now exposed-as-a-fraud FTX Foundation or the Big Pharma vehicle The Global Health Council, live next to those providing important public services. Political messaging is subtly hidden in vital social interactions. Examples include  algorithms that make it harder for your friends to see a Facebook post that goes against the political views of a sponsor. Of course, when needed, pure censorship is not shunned either.

Charities undermining democracy, such as the now exposed-as-a-fraud FTX Foundation or the Big Pharma vehicle The Global Health Council, live next to those providing important public services.

What can be done?

Scholars and journalists have suggested many, many counter-measures. But a few suggestions stand out as the most constructive 

The back four

Citizens have got to take their own responsibility again, retaking the public spaces they have been muscled out of by plutocrats and governments alike. This in particular means that they have to operate their own media organisations, investigating what is important to them rather than relying on what comes to them from the mainstream media. It also means that communities have to be engaged in selecting people for top public-sector positions, but not via easy to mislead elections, but preferably via citizen juries.

A raid on the excess wealth, using retrospective taxation laws on gains from political influence. This is explained in Rigged and elsewhere, but at heart is an attempt to tax the monopoly profits that relied on governments for their positions.

A raid on big charities. Whilst there is much good done by charities, big charities like the Gates Foundation and its ilk should simply be raided out of existence. Anything larger than, say, a £100m should be confiscated by the state (allowing a reduction in taxation) under the principle that neither the wishes of the dead nor of the super-rich should dictate the life of the living.

Disrupt the self-replication of big bureaucracies, such as in charities, by communities holding leaderships to account via citizen-jury appointments. This is somewhat like the first suggestion, but then not only applied to ministries and top public sector jobs, but to the top of any large “charitable” bureaucracy, such as universities.

The quick take-away of these suggestions is that to avoid losing their voice entirely, citizens have to find their independence. Regaining agency in today’s consumer society, where people are used to judging the choices presented to them, not looking for choices no-one is offering them, will be a steep climb for the population. That meek consumer mentality has morphed into compliance with bureaucratic rules, which are invariably sold with some real or exaggerated emergency as a pretext. Those range from viruses to Russians to the climate as pretext. 

Public compliance based on bogus assertions has been sold to the population as a virtue, making it extremely hard for many to even think of a different way. To escape the ‘bogus truths’ that deep pockets have surrounded them with will not be easy. I hope the Mint will be there to help them.

Paul Frijters

Paul completed his Masters in Econometrics at the University of Groningen, and a PhD in wellbeing economics at the University of Amsterdam. He joined the Prince Mohammed Bin Salman College in …

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