I believe I recently detected a watershed in this transformation of the political perspective. It came around the same time that recent intimations of a disillusionment with democracy that have been arising from some of democracy’s most sacred precincts burst forth with an important article in The Economist. (Important because it was The Economist, it was lengthy, and more than one person mentioned it to me.)
A week or so ago, as the Ukrainian uprising or coup (depending on your point of view) was just getting started, I was listening to a BBC World Service interview with an earnest young Ukrainian supporter of the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime. An academic, I believe, she made the point that the success of her side depended on the backing of “the oligarchs.”
This was the first time I had heard the term “oligarch,” at least in reference to current events, used without a sense of irony. Until now, a person referred to as “an oligarch” has been considered to be, to a certain degree at least, a villain of some sort. Even the denomination as an “oligarch” of that handsome and winning victim of Putin’s amour- propre, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, while perhaps adding to his glamour, somewhat diminishes his otherwise heroic moral posture.
While the term oligarch has been bandied about with abandon over the last few years, it has been used to describe certain wealthy people, not to define them. After all, real oligarchs can exist only in an oligarchy. Individuals in a democracy, or in a dictatorship, or in a one-party structure (such as China’s), or in any other of the many mongrel systems which send delegates to the U. N., who are referred to as “oligarchs” are being defined as extremely wealthy persons who are using their wealth – or trying to, anyway – to take advantage of whatever political system they belong to. Thus the term is used ironically; these people are not oligarchs per se (because they are not the masters of constitutional oligarchies), but they are behaving, with varying degrees of success, like oligarchs.
The Ukrainian protester interviewed by the BBC, who called on the oligarchs for their support, was the first person I know of to willingly, unhesitatingly, enthusiastically grant to wealth the open recognition of its political power that it has been seeking over the last two or three decades. Whether or not she realized it, she was calling for the replacement of a failed democracy which had been undermined by so-called oligarchs with a straightforward, honest-to-goodness oligarchy, with nothing “so-called” about the oligarchs who would be running it.
That’s Ukraine. I wonder when we first will hear American billionaires referred to as “oligarchs” without the ironic quotation marks? The Koch Brothers do not control the Republican Party. They would like to; they have a lot of influence; but they still are only so-called oligarchs. George Soros, with Move On, would like to control the Democratic Party; he has some influence (not enough, in the eyes of this particular Soros admirer), but he is only a so-called oligarch.
One day, in an electoral campaign or a battle over an important issue, a politician will, with a straight face, call for the support of the nation’s oligarchs and thus legitimize the role played by wealth in government. When that happens, we will know that we have taken one more step into the new feudalism.