Oligarchy (Anglais) Broché – 16 juin 2011
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―Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago, author of Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power
“It is hard to imagine anyone writing about the concept of oligarchy in the future without drawing on the rich and nuanced discussion in this book.”
―William Gamson, Boston College
“This is a breath of fresh air that takes the study of politics back to the core questions of how power is constructed and defended and who rules. In this book, Jeffrey Winters argues that the concentration and protection of wealth by oligarchies is central in understanding the operation of politics throughout history. This is an intellectually ambitious work that is backed up by sophisticated theory, by command of a vast literature and some incisive empirical work. It is also highly interesting as we move through the complex manifestations of oligarchy from ancient Rome and the mediaeval city states of Europe to the dictators of contemporary Indonesia and the Philippines. And in case we think of oligarchy as a pre-modern form of politics or that oligarchs are not important if they are not in actual possession of the state, the author demonstrates how oligarchy is also at the heart of modern capitalist politics in places such as US and Singapore.”
―Richard Robison, Murdoch University
“An elegant work in comparative politics, Oligarchy returns to an ancient political category to challenge our ways of thinking about political power. This book changes the conceptual and theoretical landscape for political theorists, political scientists, and everyone who thinks seriously about democracy. This is a great book, a model of scholarship and bold thinking.”
―Joan C. Tronto, University of Minnesota
“Known for his serious critiques of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, Jeffrey Winters has now built on his in-depth knowledge of Suharto’s manner of ruling to construct a system for categorizing oligarchies that he shows to be useful for understanding other states in Southeast Asia, but also for the United States and for governments in ancient and Renaissance times. This book should lead international business managers to new ways of thinking about politics.”
―Louis T. Wells, Harvard Business School
"Jeffrey A. Winters’s Oligarchy is.... ambitious in its historical range and the boldness of its argument. In a fascinating synthesis, Winters shows how seemingly disparate historical cases fit into a coherent analysis of the political struggles involving concentrated wealth."
―Paul Starr, Princeton University, The New Republic
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Winters taxonomizes oligarchy, which he defines as "the politics of wealth defense by materially endowed actors," (4) into four broad types. Warring oligarchy, the most primitive form, forces each rich actor to rely on his own private force to protect his wealth. It is familiar from medieval Europe, but he shows that it also drove Appalachian feuds in the 19th and early 20th century, in which elites fought for control of mining and timber wealth. Ruling oligarchies, in which each oligarch is armed but they govern collectively through institutions marked by codes of conduct, are unstable: Mafia dons often war upon each other; Rome and the Philippines succumbed to one-person rule. Sultanistic oligarchy concentrates the means of coercion in one person, who provides property and income defense for the elite. Suharto provided this stability for years in Indonesia, but when looting by his grown children endangered this equilibrium, the wealthy class deserted him and he was driven from power. Civil oligarchy is an impersonal, institutionalized government in which the law is stronger than any individual. Here, Winters thinks, democracy can coexist with oligarchy, as it does in the United States. But even civil oligarchies will collapse if they do not satisfy the need of the rich for property protection. If that happens, oligarchs will arm themselves. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the most civilized forms should be alive to their continuities with the others.
Winters's approach is obviously relevant as American politics shifts resources away from the poor toward the rich, starving infrastructure and public education. He thinks that the oligarchical concentration of wealth, which enables the rich to hire armies of lobbyists and tax lawyers, explains why, since 1970, the gains from the growing U.S. economy have been concentrated at the top, while incomes of the bottom 90 percent stagnated.
Wealth defense is a constant even in civil-oligarchy regimes that have robust welfare states. In Finland, for example, the top 0.5 percent of the population owns 71.6 percent of the capital market, compared with 41.4 percent in the United States. The Scandanavian countries have high taxes, but these are consumption taxes, which burden the entire citizenry rather than concentrating on the rich. The extremely rich have always managed to ensure that they shared their tax burdens with the merely prosperous. Similarly in America, where the top tax bracket starts at $250,000. Bill Gates pays the same nominal rate as his dentist.
Once the various methods of tax avoidance are taken into account, it becomes clear that America's tax system is actually regressive: in 2007, the top 1% of taxpayers paid an effective rate of less than 24%. The top 1/10 of 1% paid less than 22%. The top 400 incomes paid less than 17%. (246) The marginal rate for some hedge fund managers, five of whom earned more than $1 billion in 2007, has been zero, because they operated through offshore partnerships that let them defer taxes. (248)
Oligarchy is a wonderful book. I don't work in comparative politics, but I found it riveting reading, particularly in its detailed treatment of Winters's academic specialty, modern southeast Asian regimes. He focuses attention on an aspect of the big political picture that is too often overlooked. I don't think I'll ever think about politics in the same way again.
There is, however, a cost to looking at the world from such a broad comparative perspective. Local variations that matter can become obscured. Scandanavia has its oligarchs, but these are much better countries to be members of the bottom 90% than the United States, where politics continues to focus on the rate, rather than the direction, of upward redistribution of wealth. America's oligarchs are unusually greedy: the Bush tax cuts, a major source of our huge federal deficit, were spearheaded by rich Republicans who decided that their enormous gains in the 1990s boom just weren't enough for them. Winters can't account for this, because, as he himself shows, oligarchy is a constant across civil regimes. America's fetishizing of the wealthy and powerful, its contempt for the weak and needy, and its eagerness to thwart its own legitimizing narrative of equal opportunity (as I write this, college aid for the poor has just barely escaped the budget ax), needs a different explanation.
Winters's focus on American schemes of tax avoidance also gets distracted by irrelevancies such as whether some of these schemes are illegal. They may be, but why does it matter? The real issue is the protection of concentrated wealth, which he shows has been accomplished very effectively by methods of indisputable legality, such as the steady reduction of the top tax bracket in recent decades. The Reagan and Bush tax cuts cost the treasury more than any trick that sophisticated lawyers could devise. Winters offers a valuable perspective on how inequality persists, but he can't explain the peculiar cruelties of modern American politics.
In this era of Super PACs, it's hard to believe that any Americans are in denial about the huge political influence exercised by the wealthiest among us, or fail to recognize that extreme wealth leads to massive inequality in political influence. On most issues, billionaires have some diversity of opinion, so their donations sometimes work at cross purposes. On one issue, however, there is virtual unanimity among the extremely wealthy, namely the necessity to defend their vast wealth against redistribution and taxation.
John Winters has developed a convincing theory of oligarchy based on its long existence predating written history, and how its forms have varied through the ages. He identifies the paramount goal of the oligarch, which is to "secure, maintain, and retain his extreme wealth and power against all manner of threats." He explains why "those with the most ability to pay are also the ones most empowered to avoid doing so, and why ordinary democratic participation is an ineffective antidote."
Material power resources "are both the single most unequally distributed power resource in American society and the one most resiliently resistant to dispersion and equalization." Power does come from other sources than vast wealth, but that power tends to be more temporary and conditional, depending, for example, upon holding a particular office. Dennis Hastert used to be one of the most powerful people in America. Today the former Speaker is a lobbyist. Hastert's son won't inherit the power his father used to have.
The power of the oligarchs, by contrast, does not depend upon holding an office, on being the best and the brightest, or on working the hardest. The six heirs of Sam Walton own as much wealth as 100 million Americans.
There is more detail in this book about the ancient Greek and Roman oligarchies than the general reader will want. Ditto for the in-depth description of the "sultanistic" oligarchy of Suharto in Indonesia. More interesting to this American reader is the description of how oligarchy works smoothly to achieve its goals in modern democracy. "It is clear," writes Winters, "that oligarchy coexists remarkably easily with democracy," and that no democracy has ever ended oligarchy.
Evidence that oligarchy thrives in the contemporary USA is found in discussions about the long-term viability of Social Security. The competing solutions offered reveal a clash between the interests of oligarchs and everyone one. One proposal is to repeal the cap and subject all income to the Social Security tax, which would raise $90 billion a year. The other proposal is to raise the retirement age and to reduce the COLA for everyone. Given that Obama indicated support for shrinking the COLA, the latter policy probably has a better chance of being enacted than the former.
Another telling issue is the estate tax, which applies only to estates above $5 million. Oligarchs have long fought to reduce or eliminate the estate tax, which the think tanks they fund have dubbed the "death tax." In the first decade of this century, they got the estate tax gradually phased out until it disappeared entirely in 2010. When the phase-out ended in 2011, the tax was revived - over GOP opposition -- though at a lower rate and higher exemption than had previously existed.
The reader will encounter various interesting historical tidbits such as the following:
* Appalachian feuds in America primarily involved oligarchs feuding about wealth, not drunk and ignorant hillbillies as legend would have it. Though poorer members of the communities were hirelings in such conflict, the key players were typically prominent and affluent. In the famous Hatfield vs McCoy feud, for instance, Hatfield has been described as a "mountain feudal lord," while McCoy led one of the most prosperous families in the region.
* Historically democratic procedures evolve and widen "in lockstep with the creation of daunting protections for oligarchic property against the potential threats from poor majorities. No protections, no democracy...Failed protections, failed democracy."
* The Sixteenth Amendment adopted in 1913 authorizing the federal income tax "was one of the most extraordinary and direct challenges to oligarchs in US history," since it started as a tax solely on the income of the ultra-rich.
* Within a few years, however, due to diligent lobbying by income defense industry, tax rates were cut sharply during the 1920s and progressivity was ended between the ultra-rich and the merely affluent. While capital gains were initially taxed at the same rate as other income, by 1922 the top rate on cap gains was dropped to 12.5% while the top income rate was 58%; it was reduced to 25% by 1925.
* Americans with the top 400 incomes consistently pay federal taxes at lower effective rates than those below them among the top one percent of incomes. In other words, among the most affluent one percent of Americans, the income tax is regressive, with a lower effective rate as one moves up the oligarchic scale.
* The US tax system as a whole is "essentially flat, rather than progressive," because progressive nominal income tax rates are offset by regressive payroll and consumption taxes.
* The Social Security tax is "the most regressive tax in the U.S." thanks to the cap on income subject to the tax. As a result, the bottom 90 percent pay at the top tax rate, since all of their income is subject to the tax, while those above the cap pay a lower rate of their total income, with the wealthiest paying just a tiny fraction of one percent of income.
* The IRS quickly learned that it was easier to extract resources from many people with modest incomes than from a few with massive incomes and formidable defensive capability. It's far more costly to prosecute those who can readily defend themselves and whose attorneys can make plausible legal arguments about complicated areas of the law.
Oligarchic theory provides a fascinating way to understand history and democracy. It will be particularly enlightening for those who disagree with John Adams'"infallible maxim in politics." ###