The Rise of the Global Oligarchs

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This morning we’re covering a key hearing in the prosecution of Donald Trump, an important moment for the future of the country as well as the 2024 election. I also try to devote time to making sense of or simply identifying the big trends driving global history today. One which has fascinated me for years is the relative eclipse of state power in the favor of private corporations and individuals who in various ways act with the power we associate with states or become so powerful that they put themselves significantly beyond the power of states to control.

I first became interested in this topic years and years ago tied to the rise of private military contractors. But the issue came to the fore again for me during the Trump years in a different way. Behind the sprawling Russia investigation and Trump’s various other scandals and sub-scandals there seemed to me to be something more general happening. Between post-Soviet oligarchs, gulf princelings, American plutocrats and Israeli technologists, there was a trade in power and secrets that seemed to operate beyond and outside the formal relations between the various countries in question.

During the Trump years, many Americans, in a slightly embarrassing way, became giddy about the idea of “Kompromat.” For Trump critics in the U.S. it was the thing operating behind the scenes in the Trump stories, the thing that might sometime, hopefully, bring him down. This obsession brought a new familiarity with Putin’s Russia, a society in which a whole political culture seemed woven together by a kind of broad mutually assured destruction of secrecy. (Of course the word itself is Russian.) Everybody had information on everybody else — or at least they might — and that fact was a paradoxically stabilizing force. There’s an extensive and fascinating literature about this aspect of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But as I pulled these threads and became more interested in this Trump adjacent plutocratic netherworld it seemed to be operating far beyond Russia as well.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos at least claimed that Saudi strongman Mohammad bin Salman had hacked his phone for reasons tied to Trump’s antipathy for Bezos. There is still overwhelming reason to believe that Jerry Falwall’s critical, though at the time unexpected, endorsement of Donald Trump in early 2016 was engineered with knowledge of the Falwells’ swinger lifestyle which would only slowly become public in subsequent years. Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill” — which compiles and expands on his reporting at the origins of the Me Too movement — is awash in this world, with private security firms, often Israeli ones building on state driven hacking technology, operating at the behest of private individuals. We’re all familiar with Trump’s special relationship with the National Enquirer which he used to keep foes off balance and intimidated. We know about Vladimir Putin’s hacking based interventions in U.S. politics. But step back a bit and these seem more like examples of a much larger phenomenon: a world of global oligarchs operating in a world of soft mutual blackmail, often using technology developed by militaries and then privatized by state adjacent security firms, all operating at a remove from the formal relations between states.

Two recent stories brought me back to this topic.

The first is a story in The New York Times about Elon Musk’s over-mighty dominance in space launch and satellite technology. As the Times story explained, today more than half of the active satellites in the sky are controlled by Elon Musk, a truly astonishing statistic. They are launched by SpaceX, which Musk built on the back of U.S. government contracts. They serve Starlink, the SpaceX subsidiary which provides satellite internet service. Starlink allowed Musk to become a significant independent operator making decisions about Ukraine’s war-fighting ability which the State Department and Pentagon had to contend with to their chagrin.

Before continuing, let me make one point about Musk. If you’re familiar at all with my writing you know I have a very low opinion of Elon Musk, a character both ridiculous and increasingly malevolent. His control of SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter gives him vast power over three critical drivers of power and influence in the 21st century world. With that said, though, I have not spoken to anyone versed in launch technology systems who doesn’t think SpaceX has solved a series of basic technological problems which have had a transformative effect on the industry.

The other story is the apparent assassination of erstwhile Putin henchman Yevgeny Prigozhin and one would imagine the end of Wagner Group as an independent force. Prigozhin is of course a vastly different kind of player. But I would argue we should see him and Wagner as part of the same larger story.

I don’t write this post today with a particular observation or conclusion. I wanted to put the trend and thicket of questions on our collective radars. A central feature of the Early Modern era was weak and underfunded states licensing private entities to exercise state-like powers and then later trying to claw back that license. All of the colonies of that would later become the fledgling United States were founded on this basis. The arc of colonial North American history saw the English and then British monarchies trying to assert direct monarchical control over these fledgling societies. A better known example is the British East India Company which conquered and administered large parts of South Asia before being brought under tighter and tighter state control until being finally extinguished in the 1850s. We live today in an age of reversal in which increasingly public disinvestment, privatization and the rise of a global billionaire class is in key ways reversing that process.

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