Jane Mayer: Dark Money

I had never heard of the Koch brothers before starting my “WTF, USA?” reading project, and I’d wager that they are generally not well-known outside of the US – maybe not even inside, at least not until fairly recently. And that is the way they’d no doubt prefer it, because, as Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money shows in meticulous, occasionally exhausting, but always relevant and enlightening detail, there are more than a few things fishy about their decades-long drive to move American politics to the far, far right. Hopefully soon everyone will know their name when they are pulled out of the cozy darkness of their anonymity into the glaring light of public scrutiny and uncomfortable questions – Dark Money certainly makes a large contribution to that end, and as it apparently was a bestseller (and really should be read by any USian entitled to vote) there may be some ground for hope.

Who, then, are the Koch brothers? For an extensive answer you of course should read Jane Mayer’s book (and really everyone should), but the short answer is that they are two brothers (originally four, but one half of them, after some prolonged and nasty familial infighting, pushed the other half out of the family business) who own a multi-billion business empire and have used this considerable wealth to promote an utterly crackpot economical philosophy (a.k.a. libertarianism a.k.a. neoliberalism whose central tenet is that the government should not hold any power whatsoever). Fifty years ago, nobody in their right mind took any of this stuff seriously, but this day it is pretty much received wisdom in the US and even beyond, and the Koch brothers are to a large degree responsible for that. This means they are also to a large degree responsible to widening even more the already huge gap between the rich and the poor (or increasingly, as more and more wealth concentrates in the top 1% tier, the super-rich and the not-super-rich). Because, as it happens (but seriously, nobody can be that naive to believe in coincidence here, surely?), that crackpot philosophy is also extremely beneficial to people possessing huge amounts of wealth, so by spreading their ideology the Koch brothers and their associates ended up increasing their already large fortune to even dizzier heights.

Dark Money makes for excellent complementary reading to What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Angry White Men which I read earlier this year (unfortunately during a blogging slump, so there are no posts on those books; I can strongly recommend both, however). Where Thomas Frank and Michael Kimmel give us the ideological superstructure of the right-wing Republican movement, thus mapping the level of its mentality, so to speak, Jane Mayer shows us the material base, i.e. shows how and by who all of the think tanks, half-clandestine meetings and presidential campaigns are financed. If, as Thomas Frank points out in his book, the abortion debate and the whole vast array of lunatic claims and theories of the far right are only a smokescreen behind which the real interest are kept hidden, then Dark Money gives us more insight into what precisely those interests are and who is profiting by them.

While Mayer focuses on the Koch and their empire of intextricably linked business interests and propaganda efforts (nicknamed, quite aptly, “The Kochtopus”) she does not confine herself to them but also gives ample room to those that paved the way for them and those that have followed in their wake, showing how big financial powers have been at work behind the scenes for decades to create an ideological climate favorable to themselves and their almost unlimited enrichment. She mainly employs a biographical method, i.e. she follows the life and activities of various big business owners, and it is indeed remarkable how many of those companies are privately owned, which makes me think that corporations (not that I’d like them much either) are maybe more prone to swim with the flow of current ideologies rather than try to divert that stream into a direction they like as the Koch brothers et al. have been busy doing. This method is one of the strength of Dark Money because it allows Jane Mayer to name names, and I do believe she is doing a huge public service here just compiling a list of which owner of what company has been furthering which ideology to profit what interests exactly. It is also, however, a bit of a weakness, because the focus on biographies happens to the detriment of a more systematic approach. There is a lot of jumping back, forwards and sideways in this book and together with the sheer amount of facts Mayer presents (she must have been doing an impressive amount of research) this can make the reader’s head spin on occasion. And as brilliant as Meyer’s descriptive talents are, I would have wished more for a bit more analysis; while keeping a firm eye on the facts and details is certainly commendable, it would have been nice to have things placed in a wider context, viewed from a larger perspective. But then, Mayer is a journalist above all and not a sociologist or philosopher; her business is the unearthing and reporting facts, and this she does exceedingly well.

Mayer’s parade of the super-rich could very easily have slid into the presentation of a bizarre lunatic freak show (which in a way it still is, but there simply is no avoiding it with this subject matter), but the author prevents a dissolution into utter absurdity by never letting her readers forget the interests that are stake here. Even with all the insanity they are spouting those people are remain sufficiently in reality (well, some version of it) to never lose sight of maximizing their own profit; and Mayer shows again and again that it is the profit not the ideology which determines their actions, something which shows not just in their breathtaking hypocrisy (no matter how radically and vehemently anti-government the business owners presented here are, not a single one of them ever hesitated to profit from precisely the kind of government spending that they are so fond of deriding as the root of all evil), but also reveals the real motives behind some of the issues they attack (like when supposedly “socialist” or “strangulating” regulations turn out to be the outlawing of DDT or preventing a factory owner from dumping hundreds of tons of mercury per day into the closest river).

Their basic credo of the Koch brothers and their fellow billionaires seems to be that just because it’s supposed to be a democracy, the US should not be guided by the will of the majority but rather by the will of the rich and the powerful – i.e., themselves and their ilk. It is not easy to discern their justification for this claim to power (maybe a remnant of the Puritan concept that being wealthy is a sign that you are favoured by God?) but I can’t help feeling that it boils down to something as simple as it is circular: they know best because they are rich, and they have become rich because they know best. Small wonder then that for them there is only small, if any, differentiation between their own welfare and that of the nation – they are the nation (because they have all the wealth) not the lazy majority rabble, and what benefits them hence necessarily benefits the nation. Anyone should be able to see that this is utterly delusional (and I’m really being restrained and friendly here) – except for a large portion of the USian populace. And even after reading about half a dozen books in the search of an answer to that question, I am still mystified as to why so many USian are not just willing but positively eager to swallow wholesale the blatant hogwash that the Koch brothers and the right-wing Republicans in their pay keep on feeding them with. Maybe I have been looking in the wrong direction for an explanation – this whole current situation is just too absurd and unreal for non-fiction, possibly it has reached a stage where only fiction can hope to understand it.

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