By Chris P.

If there was one take-home memo from #occupy it was that ‘representative democracy’ in the United States, indeed of much of the world, is no longer representative, nor democratic, if ever it was. The idea that “representative” democracyis capable of delivering an equal say to equal people has become a farce so blatant it’s a real surprise more aren’t calling the omnipresent political spade that which it actually is by definition: a representative Plutocracy.

plutocracy |pluːˈtɒkrəsi|
noun ( pl. plutocracies ) [ mass noun ]
government by the wealthy.
• [ count noun ] a state or society governed by the wealthy.
• [ count noun ] an elite or ruling class whose power derives from their wealth.

The two fundamental laws of Representative Plutocracy are

  1. The more money you have, the more say you have in government; and

ii. the more say you have in government, the more money you make

With fundamental rules such as these, why would you want anything but perpetual growth? Big fossil fuel corporations have obviously been playing this game for quite some time. Oxfam’s report to the World Economic Forum in Davos this year shows that, generally speaking, the richest 1 percent of America has doubled its share of national income from 10% to 20% since 1980, and the top 0.01 percent has quadrupled its share of national income, reaching never-before seen levels of wealth (and consequent political clout) [1]. And it’s not just money flowing from the world of private gain to that of ‘public’ governance; it’s people and vested interests (they who killed the electric car and who took the world to war in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, etc, etc. [2])

History is showing that a long enough run of US brand “representative democracy” begins to look a lot like a pyramid. An extremely heavy golden-top plated pyramid with shit for base. The top wealth percentile benefited beyond belief from the most recent crash; everyone else got a mortgage default, became homeless, or lost their super. A system that boasts 18.6 million vacant properties alongside 3.5 million homeless is clearly not just broken, but frighteningly, stupidly, arrogantly broken [3]. The ‘finance industry’ gets bailed out, in order that it can then buy up everyone’s property in a depressed market, it orchestrated, at fire sale prices [4]. Land was once upon a time privatised through violence, now they orchestrate to continuously sell it back to a population in debt servitude. Access to unused, vacant homes is called trespass, not self-preservation in pursuit of a right to housing.

Self-organisation by communities has historically been the go-to response to plutocratic oppression and trickery. Now, like before, when so much plutocratic wealth and power derives from the capacity to destroy the biosphere and maim humankind’s collective future, it’s no surprise to see the historically recurrent behaviour. Alongside civil society groups defending a right to shelter over and above a right to bank or speculate, through squatting vacant bank and investment fund owned property [5], (and the police who refuse to evict them [6]), another emergent movement has quietly been stopping the expansion of the US coal industry.

As the stalling of the Federal government’s attempt to do anything even worth whimpering about climate change showed (the death of the Cap-and-Trade Bill in July 2010), Washington may well try to do good things in the public interest, but because of the aforementioned ‘way the world works’ (now, there) it cannot help but fail miserably in the face of wealthy vested interests. Ce la vie.

But despite all the mainstream political ballyhoo, and the estimated $100 million mainstream green groups had invested into the plutocratic sinkhole of a campaign for legislative action, a parallel story of success was unfolding outside of Washington, across the entire country. The grass-roots campaign Beyond Coal, which by the same time the Cap and trade Bill was sunk, had already helped prevent the construction of 132 new coal plants and which was close to preventing dozens more from opening, was achieving across the country what could not be done in Washington [7].

To date, the Beyond Coal campaign has stopped two-thirds of 249 new coal plant proposals, preventing more than 654 million metric tons of carbon from being spewed into the atmosphere each year [8]. Since 2001, only 23 of the proposals for new coal-burning plants have gone ahead; 167 in total have been stopped.

To be sure, the activists had help. The recession that provoked Occupy also caused electricity demand to plummet, as did a shift to more energy-efficient appliances, motors, and industrial processes [9]. Why build a power plant, coal or otherwise, if demand doesn’t justify it? Coal was also hurt by its own rising costs—especially as natural gas, its chief competitor, stayed relatively cheap [10]. Similarly in Australia Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, has just proclaimed“[t]he perception that fossil fuels are cheap and renewables are expensive is now out of date” [11]. “The fact that wind power is now cheaper than coal and gas in a country with some of the world’s best fossil fuel resources shows that clean energy is a game changer which promises to turn the economics of power systems on its head.”

But those economic trends in the US only made coal somewhat vulnerable. Campaigners and organisers say it was grassroots activism that leveraged vulnerability into outright defeat [12]. As the (timeless) story goes, the Beyond Coal movement’s strength was grounded in retail politics—people talking with friends and neighbours, pestering local media, packing regulatory hearings, protesting before state legislatures, filing legal challenges, and more. The movement had no official membership rolls; it was populated by a broad cross-section of clean energy advocates, public health professionals, community organisers, faith leaders, farmers, attorneys and students.

And now here’s the telling anomaly, and an interesting insight into the dynamic concerning grassroots vs institutional political action and plutocratic power. After word began to spread of Beyond Coal’s successas an archetypal ‘ground-up’ social-political movement, one of America’s most notorious plutocrats made the decision to get behind the campaign with the explicit goal of shutting down a third of the country’s 580 existing coal plants by 2020. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, made his fortune facilitating Wall Street’s transition to the electronic age; the provision of electronic trading and analysis services to turbocharge the movement of speculative capital in the new virtual and volatile high-speed market reality. But whilst the nuances of structural inequality as a result of wealth (not value) generation from casino-capitalist trading befall Bloomberg (after announcing his decision to evict occupiers of Zucotti park, he said they must now occupy the space ‘with the power of their arguments’ [13]), he is a man really sold on the awfulness of coal. Bloomberg New Energy Finance Australia are the ones proclaiming the unlikelihood of any new coal powered-stations being built in Australia, according to their own energy production cost modelling [14].

In public Bloomberg himself is also known to wax lyrical about his concern for coal. “Every year, coal-burning power plants … cause more than 200,000 asthma attacks nationwide, many of them affecting children. Coal pollution also kills 13,000 people every year and costs us $100 billion in medical expenses. Thirteen thousand people, from something that’s planned. And it’s going to happen again next year and the year after, unless we do something about it.” Booms and Busts causing economic depression for the bottom 80% are also effectively orchestrated, if not publicly planned, and they too will keep happening, cycle after cycle, unless we do something about that. But every good plutocrat worth their weight in public perception needs a public interest hobbyhorse.

Assuming Michael Bloomberg is a man who wants value for his money, the strategy of funding a loose-knit network of political activists and community organisers with a not-insignificant amount of personal funds proves exactly the point Zucotti park occupiers were making: You Don’t Get Shit Done in the Genuine Public Interest Through Washington in a Plutocratic System: it’s a waste of time and money for everyone other than the existing Pharaohs. And in the event that those residing in the Golden tip do want genuine non-privileged/non-vested interest outcomes ‘for the people’, it pays to pay ‘the people’ themselves to have it happen. Even (especially) in the land of turbo-capitalism, “good money” is better spent on local-level campaigns and coordination, rather than capital lobbying, if it’s effective public results you’re after. The short account of how the US plutocracy got so bad is worth knowing [15]; warnings about how Australia is likely to continue down the same path are also [16]. Whatever the established or emerging plutocracy, it’s the grassroots which can be expected to look out, and act on the real public interest. The novel thing is that money talks, and that’s what it’s now saying too.