This article was written on 27 Jan 2020, and is filled under Actualities, Books, Theory.

The New Feudal Lords: Jane Mayer Meets D/G

The current bizarre time-lock—of zany and destructive events, fake news and impotent, because always-belated incredulity, and punitive measures taken against the guardians of democracy, where making sense becomes an everyday struggle—is all the more exasperating for the lack of effective vocabulary. Words, above all, to capture a radically new set of financial procedures and governmental bearings conveniently lumped under “Trumpworld.” We’re incessantly reminded that government has indeed slipped into a “new normal.” This by Mick Mulvaney–in his admission that aid to the Ukraine, a viable U.S. ally, did indeed hinge on a political quid pro quo–at the outset of an affair rapidly escalating into an impeachment investigation. Entertaining as the political circus invariably proves, we’re constantly behind the eight ball in articulating the wider phenomena of which Trump, his conspirators, his antics, and his too easily forgotten immediate predecessors are but the symptom.

The beat that Jane Meyer established in her magisterial exposé of “dark money,” its sources, deployments, and devastating under-the-radar influence, and two French philosophers at their peak during the heyday of critical theory mark a convergence odd at the very least. So intimately did Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) and Félix Guattari (1920-92) collaborate in their thinking and writing that they preferred the aggregate signature “Deleuze/Guattari” for their publications (most notably, their “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” diptych). Responding to a steep ramping up of capitalist administration and control in the post-War period, they attempted a bottom-up radical reformulation of the ideology undergirding the avarice, in its extractive environmental impact, endemic to capitalism and its underlying “psychology of everyday life.” (Hence, the complementary “wings” of their diptych were A Thousand Plateaus, projecting the postmodern configuration of capital, consumption, and exploitation; and Anti-Oedipus, an attempt to wrest psychology back from the Freudianism whose inextricable bond to bourgeois striving and metaphysics they acutely discerned.)

The starting point, in D/G’s concertedly outrageous minority report on contemporary culture, was the body, in all its visceral turbulence, with its appetites and drives. They unveiled it as a constantly fluctuating field of intensities, reaching its aggressive apotheosis in the “War Machine.” Corporeal secretions, whether literal or symbolic–from blood, excrement, and sexual discharge to money, goods, and weapons—became the expression of desire, rage, and avarice in the engine-room of human existence.

D/G had long had their fill of rationalism, whether in Descartes’ classical rendition or in Freud’s sexually besotted adaptation. No longer were such phenomena as war, addiction, and sexual frenzy tallied as transgressions or imbalances against a given Reason, intrinsic to our mental life, comprising its most precious legacy. Not only did D/G favor, rather, imagining the diverse continuum of human experience as a “Body without Organs.” They situated this corpus, akin to sexual frenzy or raw sado-masochism, at the zero-point from whence the odd coupling of reason, identity, and the logic of capital all set out on their extractive rampages. In collaborative bravado, D/G dabbled in the chemical substances that might deliver them to this antipodal philosophical address.

What could such bizarre conceptual experimentation, conducted at the outer fringes of Montparnasse, in the 1970’s and 80’s, possibly have to do with Jane Mayer’s sobering investigative pursuit of the dark money casting such a long shadow over American sociopolitical life?

The primary ways in which D/G’s intellectual rough ride adds traction to the daily struggle to keep pace with Trumpworld’s endless distraction and static are two: 1) conceiving of cumulative phenomena and assets, whether money, profit, information, influence, political power, public opinion, or aggression as “flows,” with neither attributable sources nor ends; also, understanding that the exercise of power in the contemporary world is tantamount to the most accurate, technologically up-to-date tracking, management, prediction, and manipulation of these flows. (D/G termed this expertise “monitoring the flow.”) 2) In their characteristically idiosyncratic rewrite of the History of Civilization, D/G replace any progression or linear development in political formations with a cocktail or suspension in which outmoded forms, from “nomadic barbarism” to “feudal hierarchy” never quite fade away, even after they have been supplanted by alternative systems. The obsolescent regimes, however barbaric in the swathe they cut, hover at the margins of the human experience, ready for recall when the conducive conditions snap back. (This is not only a familiar riff from sci-fi; it also offers a precaution against “dialectical” complacency.)

We remain in Mayer’s debt for an account of the dark money phenomenon both discerning the massive influence and undertow it exerted upon the U.S. political system; and for the narrative coherence she succeeded in lending to a sequence of events otherwise experienced (and where registered journalistically) in scattered, slipshod fashion. The dramatic climax of Dark Money may well be the moment, not until May, 2010, when Barack Obama and David Axelrod get full windof the fact that their best laid political initiatives (in this case, the Affordable Health Care Act) are being submarined, virtually demolished, by factors and resources hitherto hidden from view and missing from the spreadsheet. As late as this timeline, “Axelrod had barely known who the Kochs were” (317). In tracking new, inexhaustible influxes of money and influence through the U.S. political system–no longer conventional corporate profits keyed to the inevitable fluctuations of the market but continuous royalties accruing from energy, natural resources, patents and other rights applied to indispensable technologies–in tracking the legacy of such families as the Kochs, the Scaifes, the Olins, the Coors, the Popes, and the Mercers, Mayer has willy-nilly stepped into the role of a “flow monitor” after D/G’s volatile scenario.

On yet another crucial flank of her analysis, Mayer chronicles a stream of gifts to arch-conservative think-tanks, campaign-meddling, and influence mongering on the right wing of the Republican party going back to the Goldwater debacle of 1964–her watershed moment for militant, coordinated insurgency on the part of an emergent political class. Under Mayer’s journalistic scrutiny, it emerges that a new kind of wealth, accruing, as it were, on its own, independently of the conventional corporate spreadsheet, has bankrolled a “who’s who” of initiatives on the right, among them the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center, the Center for Free Enterprise, REDMAP, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the theatrics of the Tea Party. Among the roadside carnage left behind by these organizations and their influence peddling were the removal of all constraints on political contributions via the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the near derailment (and certain dilution) of the Affordable Health Care Act, and concerted underground machination for gerrymandering, particularly in “swing” states.

In detailing how these contributions and distributions of additional resources and services, while gigantic within the framework of prior political giving, could not even dent the overall wealth of their donors, Mayer bears witness to the arrival of a new power-broker on the political scene, now super-sized beyond the nation-state. There is a direct correlation in her account between the unlimited influx of profits and income available to the Kochs, Olins, Mercers, and so on and the subterranean location and impact of archconservative intervention. Though it took the fall of the Soviet Union for the verbiage to be coined, Mayer in effect chronicles the emergence of oligarchs both as a new class within the U.S. social hierarchy and as a disruptive (in large measure because shielded) x-factor in the equations of political deliberation, public opinion, information, and social administration.

And in her detailed reportage on a new, constitutionally fundamentalist U.S. political plutocracy, one inherently at odds both with social welfare and economic regulation, Mayer, wittingly or not, takes another page from the D/G playbook. Extrapolating the machinations undertaken by new, highly self-interested fragment-class of the super-rich, it is clear that this cadre has scuttled democratic give and take in favor of a far more lucrative, influential, and self-aggrandizing posture. As a class, these super-entrepreneurs are vaulted into contemporary lords hearkening back to an unusually rigid and entrenched prior political formation, what the historian William H. McNeill termed “the medieval synthesis.” They preside over a nouveau feudalism powered by “the divine right of resources, patents, and royalties.”

The diversion of sublime flows of wealth, through ownership and rights accruing from irreversibly cumulative income-sources, once the province of state agencies and publicly regulated corporations, into the hands of families and private individuals, instigates, across the board, radical new imbalance in the settling of social accounts and in social governance. For one, the view-finder or frame in which the accrual and distribution of wealth take place is no longer the nation, state, or other public agency, but the supply-chain of goods, services, and profits on a global scale, as operated, supra-nationally, by interests private to their core. The distinctive birthmark of contemporary oligarchs is far less the scale of the sums that their enterprises have accumulated than their direct, exclusive access to taps on supra-national flows of money, profit, and interest, even seemingly secondary ones. This direct, ongoing feed of income compounding on itself joins with the evasion even of corporate regulation and oversight in consolidating these “fortunate few” in an unassailable position. The burgeoning of offshore banks and the entities they serve is a phenomenon directly traceable to the new global aristocracy and the pooling of wealth and power over which they preside.

Welcome back, Charlemagne! History, as it has been reconfigured by the cocktail or suspension of political structures in D/G’s rewriting the standard world history textbook has looped, seemingly inexplicably, in one of its most retrograde directions. Yet through the sequence of sub rosa strategies arrayed chronologically in Dark Money—whether attacks on ecological and other industrial and commercial regulation, influencing election outcomes through gerrymandering and redistricting, or disseminating extreme economic and xenophobic ideologies via think-tanks and political advertising—this bizarre systemic swerve back to a new medievalism has eluded public scrutiny, let alone explicit political deliberation.

The new feudal lords of unabated financial flow are not particularly fazed by local conditions prevailing where their wealth is either generated or consumed. Yet they are keenly attuned to the underlying legal, legislative, commercial, and even diplomatic conditions requisite to its unimpeded further accumulation. The public policy for which they militate, buttressed by the opinion shaping and influence mongering of the sort Jane Mayer has so acutely teased out, is a sleek companion to the economics and culture under which they hold court. Why, in heaven’s name, would plutocrats pay their taxes? In the political sphere, they would not even wish their taxation status known. For themselves and their families, they can amply afford the cutting-edge in medical and dental care that their superordinate economic status would warrant. All initiatives, of whatever stripe, toward widening medical coverage and the availability of reliable care can only hamper plutocratic self-enrichment, powered, in the labor market, by a general avoidance of full-time positions and accompanying benefits. The new feudal lords, by the same token, by and large send their kids to private schools. What possible need would there be to update and reinvest in the public system?

Does any of this sound familiar? President Trump and his administration are chided on a daily basis for inconsistency, incoherence, and incompetence. Yet when it comes to economic policy, taxation, foreign relations, and even education, this assumption is not necessarily a propos. What may well prevail, rather, is a coherence, a clarity, a sleekness, and even “synthesis” of vision far in excess of what the public has yet discerned. Far beyond what U.S. society, in its long-standing aspirations to openness and fairness, its presumptions of democracy, can bear.

Philanthropy too figures prominently within the overall license exercised by contemporary aristocrats. Particularly on the PR front, gift-giving plays a crucial role in dramatizing “payback” for the monumental takeout–profit, natural resources, and in some instances, social welfare–extracted from the environment by plutocratic interests. We have crammed for exams and sweated out term papers in the Olin Libraries housing vital resources at Cornell, Wesleyan, and Rollins College. We thrill to balletic virtuosity in the David H.Koch Theater at Lincoln Center; the David H.Koch Plaza adjacent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art serves as the foyer to the richness, inspired curating, and diversity of its collections. Whatever “secondary gains” motivate such princely behests, they constitute substantial enhancements to the public sphere; spires in our cultural life. Yet they remain discretionary–structurally if not temperamentally whimsical–remnants of an ethos of aristocratic noblesse going back, again, to the Middle Ages. Within this framework it becomes understandable that Bill Gates, having established, in conjunction with Melinda Gates, a distinguished track record of progressive giving, lines up against Elizabeth Warren.

Prosperous as his enterprises have made him, Michael Bloomberg is not an oligarch. His income, even if generated by his “monitoring the flow” of capital across several journalistic media, channels itself into a conventional, transparent corporate structure. The main draw of Bloomberg’s belated run for the Democratic presidential nomination is that one notable and extremely powerful capitalist takes on another, rendering a counterpoint in tone and drift. Bloomberg’s cultivation, erudition, restraint, and demonstrated integrity as a three-time NYC mayor are in sharp contrast to Trump’s politics of belligerence and flaunting: whether of legal precedent, civil contract, social convention, or democratic process. Yet in its precipitous timing, Bloomberg’s current initiative marks him as an outsider to the carefully planned and orchestrated exchanges and debates between aspirants—attenuated almost to the point of exasperation–on which the Democratic party has staked its future.

The philosophical ramblings of Deleuze and Guattari may seem an iffy, even weird detour in crystallizing the core issues facing politicians, their parties, and the electorate as U.S. society lurches toward the 2020 elections. Yet in conjunction with Jane Mayer’s discerning eye, wide camera-angle, and unerring instinct for narrative, their scenarios of political regression, ill-considered desire, and overarching human avarice may be just the medicine the scorched political landscape cries out for.

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