In an oligarchy, the rich can get away with anything and average people who try to stop harms to themselves and their communities get crushed. We’re now there; the question is whether we’ll pull back from this horror show, or whether it’ll continue its evolution toward a full-blown police state.
The Sackler family, whose criminal Oxycontin drug-dealing killed over a half-million Americans and destroyed the lives of millions more, is close to a deal with the states to keep around $10 billion of their ill-gotten gain in exchange for giving the states a bit over $4 billion over a nine years. Nobody will go to jail or even suffer an inconvenience like no longer being able to use a private jet or give up one of their many mansions.
And it’s not like they were caught in a one-off crime. In 2007, they reached a settlement with the government over their illegal and deadly marketing practices, promising to behave like good citizens. Then, as the Washington Post noted yesterday:
“The family members — including Richard Sackler, David Sackler, Mortimer D.A. Sackler, Kathe Sackler and Jonathan Sackler (who is now deceased) — demanded in 2012 that company executives come up with a plan to generate greater revenue in response to slumping sales, according to the Justice Department settlement.”
Recidivists. Repeat criminals. Billionaires. But because the crime they committed was mostly against average Americans rather than against big companies or rich people, they’ll quietly retire to one of their chalets or mansions.
Meanwhile, Jessica Reznicek was just sentenced to serve 8 years in prison for damaging an oil pipeline that she believed threatened the water supply of Iowa and surrounding regions and is contributing to climate change. Nobody died. Nobody got addicted. She didn’t make any money doing it. She’s not rich.
Instead, she was trying to save lives and prevent further ecocide. During her sentencing this week, Jessica said, “The toxins we enter into our waterways here in Iowa enter into the Mississippi, which enters into the Gulf [of Mexico]. … Going to this extreme was out of character for me.”
Ironically, on the same day she was sentenced a senior Exxon executive and lobbyist told a reporter that his company had no intention of going along with a carbon tax and that he could stop any kind of serious climate legislation because, with his company’s billions, he had about a dozen senators, including Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in his back pocket.
The death toll from the “heat dome” caused in part by Exxon’s product (and their decades of funding climate denialism every bit as horrific as the Sackler’s marketing efforts for Oxycontin) has now officially killed over 116 people in Oregon, probably twice that in Washinton State (which has a much larger population), and over 500 people in British Columbia.
Nobody from Exxon is going to jail or even paying a fine, while the fossil-fuel money keeps rolling in to Manchin and Sinema. And if the voters try to mobilize to do anything about it, the Supreme Court said last week, Republican election officials can simply purge them from the voter rolls, make sure they face 8 to 10 hour lines to vote, or go to prison if they make a single mistake.
What we are watching is the final stage of the 40-year Reagan-started transition of our nation from a forward-looking and still-evolving democratic republic into a white supremacist ethnostate ruled by a small group of fascist oligarchs.
Some years ago, Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore (before he was Trump’s advisor) was a guest on my radio/TV program. I asked him, “Which is more important, democracy or capitalism?“
Without hesitation, Moore answered, “Capitalism.“
That philosophy (of capitalism being more important than “We the People” democracy), has held the Republican Party in its thrall for the past 40 years, and has brought America to this moment of great crisis and danger.
It has transformed America from a democracy to an oligarchy, and the point of no return is now visible. And that presents a true crisis for America, because oligarchy is almost always merely a transitional phase in the evolution of full-blown tyranny and/or fascism.
Oligarchies are inherently unstable forms of government because they transfer resources from working people to the oligarchs. Average people, seeing that they’re constantly falling behind, first become cynical and disengage, and when things get bad enough they try to revolt.
That “revolution” can either lead to the oligarchy failing and the nation flipping back to democracy, as happened here in the 1860s and the 1930s, or it can flip into full-blown strong-man tyranny, as happened recently in Hungary, Turkey and Russia, and nearly happened here on January 6th.
Oligarchies almost always become police states where any average person who dares seriously challenge the ruling oligarchs is squashed like a bug, while the oligarchs themselves are immune from prosecution and get to keep their billions regardless of how many people die because of their crimes.
Oligarchic governments almost always do a few predictable things, as I lay out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy:
They change laws and regulations so their rich buddies can take control of most of the media.
They stack the courts and regulatory agencies with oligarch-friendly ideologues or outright corrupt toadies, while massively eliminate regulatory protections for average citizens.
They cut taxes on the rich and drive wages low on working people while criminalizing and cracking down on dissent, particularly if it involves any sort of direct action or property damage.
They distract voters from their own looting by demonizing minorities and encouraging racism and regionalism.
They actively suppress the vote among people inclined to oppose them (typically minorities and the young), or outright rig the vote to insure their own victory.
And they transform their nations into police states, heavily criminalizing demonstrations, nonviolent resistance or “direct action” property damage while radicalizing and encouraging rightwing vigilante “militias” to put down the inevitable rebellions as people realize what’s happening.
To stop this trend, Congress and the White House must take definite steps to undo a series of disastrous Supreme Court decisions that culminated with Citizens United in 2010, and thus reduce the political power of billionaires, giant corporations and their lobbyists. We need to get money out of politics, and return politics to the people through public funding of elections.
The starting point to back down oligarchy now, in this era, is found in the House of Representatives’ first proposed legislation, HR1, also known as the “For the The People Act.” Tragically, because this legislation doesn’t involve budget issues, it’s subject to a Republican filibuster, forcing a required 60 votes in the Senate to pass.
That’s why Americans must reach out to lobbyist-aligned Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, demanding they help the rest of the Democratic Party end the filibuster now or at least transform it into a “Jimmy Stewart Filibuster.” (The phone number for the Senate is 202–224–3121.)
If we don’t reclaim democracy now, the next generation of Americans may well grow up in the dystopia George Orwell imagined in his novel 1984 and Europe suffered under in the 1930s. And more and more average people who rise up to try to save our environment and country, people like Jessica Reznicek, will be thrown into prison while more and more Sackler-type billionaires will get away with more and more crimes.
Between great wealth, control of the media, police-state tactics and social media’s algorithmic radicalization of the American mind, tyranny is itching to take over completely. We must stop them before it is altogether too late.