The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Russia Is An Imperial State While America Is A Plutocratic Oligarchy

An oligarchy, as we use the word today (the dictionary definition is different) is rule by the rich, because they are rich. (A feudal king may be rich, but his power is not primarily a result of his wealth, but rather his wealth is primarily a result of his power.)

As I have written a number of times before, Russia is NOT a plutocratic oligarchy. America, on the other hand, is. What wealthy American elites want is what they get, and what ordinary people want they don’t get: this was shown clearly by the Princeton Oligarchy Study.

When Putin took control of Russia he broke the oligarchs.

In the summer of 2000, Putin met in the Kremlin with about two dozen of the men regarded as the top oligarchs. The meeting was closed, but reports later said he made them a sternly clear deal: Stay out of politics and your wealth won’t be touched…

By then, Berezovsky had already begun criticizing Putin. Within months, he left Russia for the United Kingdom and was granted asylum in 2003. Ten years later, he was found dead in his home; a disputed post-mortem examination said he appeared to have hanged himself.

Gusinsky, whose media holdings were critical of Putin and even satirized him, was hauled into jail amid an investigation of misappropriated funds; within weeks, he agreed to sell his holdings to an arm of Russia’s state natural gas monopoly, and he left the country.

Khodorkovsky, regarded as Russia’s richest man at the time, lasted longer, establishing the Open Society reformist group and showing increased political ambitions. But he was arrested in 2003 when special forces stormed onto his private plane and spent a decade in prison on convictions of tax evasion and embezzlement before Putin pardoned him and he left Russia.

I remember reading an article where one of the oligarchs shut down a factory and there was great protest. Putin not only forced the oligarch to re-open the factory, he was there when the oligarch made the announcement, glaring at him and treating him with contempt.

The oligarchs are not in control of Putin or the Russian government (though they have some influence at the provincial and civic levels.)

Now the AP article points out something very smart: that Putin is creating a new group of oligarchs loyal to him, by giving them resources seized from foreign countries leaving Europe. Smart to notice, and smart of Putin, though his successors may regret it. In a way this is very similar to feudalism, though it involves money and resources not armed men and land.

The new oligarchs will be loyal to Putin and probably this successor. Their children may well not be loyal to Putin’s successor’s successor, however, and that person will have to show the whip hand or cut a deal, or both. If they ever succeed in taking control of the government (and they will eventually if the system continues) then it will be very bad for Russians, same as oligarchic control of the US has been very bad for Americans. A “King” often uses the commons against the nobility and thus supports the commons to some extent, a king who is ruled by the nobles acts with them against the commoners.

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Let’s add another data point: Russia has vastly ramped up its military production. The US could not do so, the companies who make the weapons said they’d do it, but have been very slow about it because they make more money that way. In Russia, however, in 2022, Medvedev, Putin’s lieutenant stated:

“The goal has been set for a scrupulous execution of the government’s defense contracts in all of its key parameters, [and] prevention of disruptions in the supply of equipment,” he wrote on Telegram. “Attention has been drawn to the fact that all contractors could be held to account, including on criminal charges… Supervision over the execution will continue.”

Although I can’t find it, in another case he gathered them together and explained to them what Stalin did to those who didn’t make production quotas.

You can’t get clearer, or more threatening than that.

Russia’s weapon manufacturers serve the state. They make a profit and those who run them are allowed to become rich, but only if they meet their quotas.

Russia is a modern imperial system, similar to the early Roman one. The governors are hand chosen by Putin from his loyalists (he likes ex-bodyguards) and the bourgeoisie serve him. When Wagner rebelled, not one governor supported their rebellion, even in the first 24 hours when they seemed to be doing well.

America is an oligarchy, Russia has an emperor. The emperor is old, and the question is who will be his successor, which is why key lieutenants like Medvedev and Kadyrov (the governor of Chechnya) are competing in loyalty and fervor.

Both countries have elections, in both countries the elections have little effect most of the time, though their existence does allow the possibility of change thru them. In America, the leader changes, but since Reagan, the fundamental policies haven’t. In Russia, well, Putin is always re-elected, though it is also true that he has always been popular in Russia, with his opposition a minority.

Indeed, that opposition, largely urban professional types, are weaker now than ever, with many of them leaving Russia due to the war.

Putin, like the kings we discussed above, uses the commons against the nobility, to help keep them in check. He does care about his popularity.

So, again, the US is a nominal democracy which is actually a plutocratic oligarchy, and Russia is a nominal democracy which is actually an imperial system without family succession.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 10, 2023


The Entire West’s Military Is Weak


  1. GrimJim

    Which is why Trump adores Putin. He wants to be Putin. His followers want him to be Putin.

    Trump hates other oligarchs. He will try to install an Imperial system to essentially bypass, then overthrow them.

    That will be an interesting battle. If anyone takes down Trump it will be the other American Oligarchs, not the so-called American Left.

  2. bruce wilder

    Putin’s Russia is a nation-state organized by and for a dominant Russian ethnicity, one that stretches a bit to encompass “Russians” who are neither racial Slavs or Orthodox Christians. But, Putin’s Russian Empire shys away from the kind of imperial domination of alien cultures on the Russian periphery that involve the Soviet and Tsarist empires in so much trouble. Maybe that prudent self-restraint will break down after Putin.

    In the meantime, the extreme Russophobia in the West has cauterized the wound opened by liberal aspirations of the Russian professional classes. And the financial outflows of the expatriate oligarchs have apparently been reversed to a large extent. Russia would still need a rising birth rate to make this work in the long run, and I do not expect that, but maybe . . .

  3. DZhMM

    I think you mean, “when *Wagner* rebelled”. Azov are the Ukrainian Nazis (well, among the Ukrainian Nazis). Wagner is the Russian PMC.

  4. bruce wilder

    The fundamental problem of governance is getting a “disinterested” ruling class to promote the general welfare and shared interest in commonwealth. One theory of monarchy is that the monarch’s wealth, power and prestige is tied so tightly to the health of the state, that the monarch is bound for selfish reasons to pursue a concept of interest likely to be aligned to the state’s and by extension, the commonwealth.

    The theory of nationalism is similar, but looks to a common spirit animating people to a solidarity that promotes the good of the nation-state as a whole. Liberal nationalism back in the day promoted Enlightenment ideals of rational democratic deliberation and toleration as an ideological means of achieving good governance in a nation-state.

    We are suffering from a rancid neoliberalism, which seeks to protect an incompetent professional and managerial class as it strip-mines the planet on behalf of psychopathic elites. The critical policy move, I think, was to reduce the rates of marginal income tax on the highest earners. This enabled the capitalists to redirect the professional management class toward essentially sociopathic economic projects that redistributed income upward and weaned them away from any other consideration, whether religious, patriotic or ethical that might have interested them in doing good for the broader community.

    The accumulation of wealth at the top has snowballed exacerbating the dictum that all power corrupts and absolute power . . . . The corruption is increasing and accelerating, destroying the institutions that might have provided countervailing forces and ideas. No where is this more evident than the stupidity and viciousness of political discourse on world affairs: Israel plunging into the moral abyss being the latest instructive lesson.

    That Putin’s Russia casts itself as a “conservative” bulwark against this wave of corruption is a sad testament to how far things have gone with no opposition from anything recognizable as a “left”.

  5. Z

    These new Russian “oligarchs” are not really oligarchs (def: a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence) at all, but business leaders who are loyal to Russia. Putin can’t run every private enterprise in Russia, but he can oversee them to an extent by making sure that these business leaders are Russia-first to prevent the pillaging and corruption that happened during the Yeltsin era which the Russian people paid a considerable price for while folks such as Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Browder, etc. became psychotically rich and feasted upon the desperation that they played a large part in foisting upon the Russian people.

    I used to foolishly buy into the bs that Putin was an evil man though I’d point out that he loved his country, unlike the leaders in the U.S. such as The Head PR Man for the Point Zero One Percent Obama who only loves himself and his own. That belief wasn’t well thought out though because a truly evil man ultimately cares about nothing but himself. Putin cares about the welfare of the Russian people and though, as leader of Russia, he rightfully puts them first and foremost, he also has shown consideration to the rest of the world as well, unlike the political leaders in the West who are eager to use other countries’ populace’s as disposable pawns in their geopolitical chess aspirations of grandeur.

    His conduct in this war … particularly his care in avoiding Ukrainian civilian casualties … has been about as humane as one can expect considering the circumstances. No, it has not been perfect in those regards … there are going to be granularities when the enemy is mixed amongst the populace … but at least he has not terrorized the civilians in Ukraine, in contrast to what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians by turning the Gaza Strip into a killing kettle.

    Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t on the ballot in post-Yeltsin Russia and if one was going to truly take power in a country such as Russia in that time of great corruption, there was going to have to be some heavy-handedness about it that folks like Corbyn do not possess, to the detriment of the working class of the UK. But even then, despite the carping by folks like Browder, Putin treated the existing oligarchs pretty well and gave them the opportunity to leave the country with much of their wealth intact. In fact, in my mind, he treated them too well, but Putin knew the lay of the land and perhaps he correctly believed that was the most prudent way to get rid of them.

    In regards to Putin and Corbyn, Putin was willing to take on the Jewish elites (Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Browder, etc.) in Russia while Corbyn didn’t confront them sufficiently when they pushed their antisemitism inter-party campaign against him when Corbyn wouldn’t bow to their interests over the UK’s working class’s.


  6. elissa3

    Very astute comments by Bruce Wilder. I think that it is the sheer geographic enormity of Russia that leads to its classification as an “empire”. To my mind, Russian leaders today lack the imperial will to expand their domain beyond its current borders. This is different from what I see as the protective/defensive motivation of the “special military operation” which has deep roots in the Russian WWII experience. About 25 million dead is practically a part of their DNA. Mr. Wilder is accurate in referencing the social contract and consent of the governed ideas. It seems to me that what is evolving in Russia takes the concept of nation state in a direction that is different from its modern embodiment with which we are familiar.

  7. Soredemos

    @bruce wilder

    You can just blithely claim that all you want, but Putin has consistently emphasized that ‘Russia’ is a multiethnic society. It’s a Federation. Yes Slavs dominate because they’re the largest group, but they don’t exist in some cultural vacuum where the others are suppressed.

    This makes the embracing of Putin by certain reactionary, retrograde elements in the West deeply ironic. They claim things like how multiculturalism has failed, and how we need a papa Putin type leader to lead us back to ‘based traditionanalism’. But in reality Putin himself emphasizes how he rules what is essentially a United States of Russia.

    Gay rights is actually shit in Russia though. Reactionaries looking for anti-woke role models will find plenty to like in Russia. I have a million problems with what are essentially expat traitors like Masha Gessen, but you also couldn’t pay me enough to be a gay woman in modern Russia. I see little reason to doubt that aspect of her testimony.

  8. StewartM

    A well-thought out piece. Your references to medieval history are spot-on; ‘good’ or ‘strong’ kings often championed the rights of commoners in a fight against the nobles while ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ kings were either ruled by the nobles, or (because of lack of interest) allowed the nobles a free hand to rule (usually mis-rule) the peons as they pleased. This dynamic of localism versus central government continues everywhere (in the US, it’s ‘states’ rights’) and it’s not because of some silly notion that localism is better or more democratic but because some local ‘noble’ wants to exercise sway without interference from above.

    I have also said that Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America would look the same–they are not actually anti-oligarch, but want the oligarchs to play nice with them. “Support me, and you’ll get rich and have a relatively free hand in doing what you want; oppose me, and you’ll be destroyed”. There is not much “for the little people” anywhere in this calculation.

  9. Curt Kastens

    How things play out a generation or two after Putin dies assumes that Generation Z is not the last generation.
    I commented on the open thread earlier today about how misinformation and disinformation have created so much fog in public discourse that for all practical purposes the understanding of what is real has collapsed among the masses of people. Only a very few influential people might know what is really going on in the world. And even they might be totally off base becuase of the efforts by influentional people in other nations to pull the wool over their eyes about important subjects.
    One thing that we can be certian of. What influential peope say publically probably never has anything to do with what they are saying in private.
    For example the idea that the Ukrainians could have launched a successful attack against Russian forces last summer without air supiriorty or even artillary supiriority is so stupid that no with a military back ground could have possibly believed that. And in addition to that they sell the idea that a few M!, Lepord, and Challenger Tanks will make a sicnificant contribution to the war effort of Ukraine. That is another absurdity.
    Yet there were many a western General that publically promoted these very notions.
    What was their motive for blatant lying? Clearly they were not mistaken. What they were selling was so preposterous that they were maliciously lying is the only reasonable conclusion that a reasonable person could draw. So, what was their motive?
    I really do not know the answer to that question. But I do know that if you really believe that industrial civlization can not continue beyond 2040 or perhaps 2050 if humanity is lucky (which it clearly will not be) then one who is in a postion of great power at this point in time is going to have thought processes that are completely different than those who due not fully accept the dire situation that mankind is in.
    Could it be that the USA is the way that it is and that Russia is the way that it is because those at the top of the goods chain have reached the decsion that humanity has only a very short term future and the elites of each country have made slightly different choices about how to go forward in to the abyss. ditto for the EU and China.
    Planet earth was 2° above late 19th century average for the 3rd time this year a few days ago. No three days does not make a climate. But the laws of physics guarrantee that it is only going to hotter and at a faster and faster rate. All of the smoke and mirrors in the world can not hide that fact. It can be seen from Mars. It is bigger than the great wall of China.

  10. GM

    Indeed, that opposition, largely urban professional types, are weaker now than ever, with many of them leaving Russia due to the war.

    Actually, the communists outnumber the “urban professional types” by a fair margin.

    And if the KPRF was not controlled opposition, you could in principle generate a real serious alternative to the current system from that direction. Communist-leaning Russians are extremely unhappy about the way the SMO has been conducted (no serious mobilization, not touching Ukrainian leadership, holding back in the use of really serious weaponry, taking countless humiliating punches from NATO while not meaningfully replying back and becoming a laughing stock with the silly bluffs about striking “decision making centers”, etc. etc.) . But the KPRF is controlled opposition.

    You could, however, clearly see the influence early in the war — Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine were waving USSR flags (not just the Victory flags, which are a USSR flag with additional inscriptions and slightly different colors, but the actual thing). This is the soldiers themselves doing it.

    And when back in May Ukrainians did their Belgorod invasion stunt and General Lapin personally led the troops repelling them, he was sporting a prominent USSR insignia. Which tells you how pro-Soviet the Russian military is.

    You never hear about it because it is an extremely inconvenient topic for Western media — they have to prop up the “urban professional” liberal types as the real opposition, because they cannot admit communism is still hugely popular in Russia. And, of course, if it ever returned, that would be their greatest nightmare becoming a reality.

    So you only see reports claiming that Russians are waving Soviet flags because Putin is a reincarnation of Stalin who wants to reconstitute the USSR and imprison the nations once again…

  11. VietnamVet

    This is illuminating. Since civilization rose a few thousands of years ago, the problem is how to pass the ideology and know-how from the current rulers to the next generations without destroying everything.

    Monarchies made ruling families multi-generational. Democratic republics that elect successors lasted several centuries. In addition, democracies that have actual elections get feedback from the voting managers and peons, so republics have a degree of contact with reality.

    But with the global triumph of the plutocrats and their regaining their right to get rich at the expense of everyone else, alas, this is all gone. Plus, corporate-state propaganda ignores the loss of democracy, so the bloody sword of succession swings overhead hidden in the background.

    2024 may well be the last 50 State US election. American women who cross state lines for abortions and family members who aid them will be jailed in red states. A mother and boyfriend were arrested for providing FDA approved abortion medicine to a 15-year-old girl in Idaho and the Texas Supreme Court has affirmed their strict anti-abortion laws that forced the woman who brought the case to go out of state for an abortion of her fetus that had a fatal diagnosis.

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.

    The West is playing chicken with reality with climate change and the endless wars for profit. WW3 has been underway since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, in an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that started in 2014. The Third World War expanded to Gaza two months ago.

    The US Empire is run by geriatrics like the last days of the Soviet Union. How does a Dear Leader select their replacement without bloodshed unless it is a family member? A daughter may not be culturally possible in North Korea. Likewise, the Generals will have a say who has access to the nuclear football (a leather briefcase weighing about 45 pounds) with the encrypted launch codes for nuclear weapons. The Praetorian Guard pulled Claudius from behind the red curtain and crowned him Caesar.

  12. Purple Library Guy

    @Curt Kastens You’re assuming that American generals know very much about military tactics and strategy. Most of them know a lot more about bureaucracy, covering their asses, and arranging their very soft landing at military contractors. And people have a marked tendency to start kind of believing their own propaganda, especially when they’re surrounded by other people pushing the same propaganda and it turns into a propaganda groupthink fest.

    So if you have a bunch of senior military men whose primary loyalties are to the huge corporations producing US military hardware, and they all spend a lot of their time emphasizing the selling points of US military hardware and how it’s the greatest in the world, and they are also in a culture that emphasizes Russophobia and jingoism, and it’s modern American culture, which does not emphasize respect for opponents or enemies but prefers to say they suck . . . you’re going to end up with a bunch of men who have spent much of their adult life nodding as each other say that we’re the best and our stuff is the best and the Russians suxxorz and their weapons must be crap too. So then when they tell each other that giving the Ukrainians some American weapons and training will make them unstoppable, they’ll at least half believe it.

    This is the kind of reason I don’t believe in the so called “realist” school of international relations. It assumes that there is a fairly unitary “national interest” and nations can be treated as a single entity that consistently pursues that national interest. But actually, nations pursue the perceived interests of elites within the nation, and those elites can have interests that do not match those of the nation, plus they can be systematically wrong.

  13. Purple Library Guy

    In fact, I would argue that for some time now, American elites have been falling victim to a couple of collective action problems, where each individual oligarch in pursuing their interests mostly unintentionally damages the interests of the oligarchs as a whole. One of these collective action problems is about propaganda–individual oligarchs or oligarchic subgroups have an interest in propaganda, for various reasons like to block protest against the system. But since the propaganda is not really co-ordinated but arises in various government agencies, private media corporations, think tanks, PR firms and so on and so forth, any given oligarch is nearly as much a victim of it as the rest of the world–they only know about the stuff they make. They don’t have a really good system for feeding the proles BS but seeing true stuff themselves. So they end up at least kind of thinking the propaganda is true, and that’s a bad basis for decisions.

  14. Curt Kastens

    Purple Library Guy,
    Although the case you make for senior millitary people is plausible. I do not think that it is probable. I still think that it is more likely that they are flat out consciously lying.

  15. GrimJim

    There has discussion elsewhere about how the Oligarchs are completely ignorant of how their drive to automate and roboticize all labor and now, even creativity, will ultimately destroy the entire economy and perhaps finally be the catalyst for an American revolution against the Oligarchs and Capitalism.

    Apparently each of these Masters of the Universe believes that they can automate all the labor for their industries, and the masses will still have the money to buy their goods and services, because… magic?!?

    Whereas, of course, when the vast majority of labors get automated within a brief time, that will eliminate pretty much the entire economy. Supply-side, trickle-down has become the singular motivator of modern Economics, such that there is apparently no need for any sort of Demand backed by actual money. Somehow, if you build it, the customers — and their money — will come.

    But that, like so many beliefs of the Oligarchs and their lackeys, is utterly divorced from reality.

    It really won’t take much. Automate all the fast-food jobs… that should be enough. That’s more than 4,500,000 people. Put them out of work, and they, and everyone who depended on a portion of their income, is out in the streets.

    All service industries together employ most Americans, more than 100,000,000. Put 20% of that out of a job, and that’s 20,000,000. That’s apocalyptic.

    And the Oligarchs could not stand to see people paid for three months to stay home during the Pandemic? Talk of any sort of UBI isn’t even a pipe dream.

    They will let them all starve and fight each other, then come out of their shelters afterward to rule over the survivors…

    So they think

  16. Jan Wiklund

    Perhaps it is easier and more accurate to call Russia a developmentalist state while the North Atlantic states are neo-liberal.

    For the difference see Brazilian ex-finance minister Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira pondering upon the chaos he and his generation imposed on the countries they ruled. He is now leading an attempt to create a new developmentalist agenda in Brazil and otherwhere, see

    The third pattern, the state-ruled, is another red herring together with the neo-liberal, according to Bresser Pereira. In the state-ruled economy the state is all-powerful and decides everything which inevitably leads to a lot of red tape, see the Soviet Union. In the developmentalist state, the state draws up the guidelines for development but stops at that. In the neo-liberal (or liberal, as B-P calls it) the state abdicates (or restricts itself to policing the masses) and let the capitalists do what they please.

  17. Jan Wiklund

    Putin has yet to reach the heights of Park Chung-Hee. According to South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang, he commanded the CEO of a textile enterprise to build a shipyard because South Korea needed one. The CEO protested that he didn’t now a jot about ship-building but Park cut him short: Learn then, otherwise you will see my prisons from the inside! The CEO obeyed and constructed what eventually became Hyundai.

    Developmentalism in a nutshell.

  18. Altandmain

    Putin, has proven himself to be a very capable leader. I think though that the one thing that many people miss is that he also represents the dominant voice in the Russian Establishment. He’s gone from a nation on the verge of collapse to a nation on the verge of handing the US its Suez Canal Crisis moment.

    He has adopted a slow and cautious approach to governing. It has worked out for Russia reasonably well. There’s also this misguided belief in the West that if Putin were to go away that somehow, the West would be able to get its way. That’s not true either – there’s an Establishment and the Russian people too would revolt against a Yeltsin type of puppet.

    The same is true in China – the West may dislike Xi and although they won’t admit it, are envious of his success, but when Xi steps down, there will be another person just like him. He represents the CPC’s ruling Establishment. The Chinese people would not be as open to a government that didn’t do as well.

    It’s delusional thinking in the Western ruling class to think that they are going to get rid of these people or regime-change those nations. Xi and Putin have accomplished something that the Western governments have not done since before neoliberalism took hold in the 1970s – improve the standard of living of their people. With economic prosperity comes legitimacy.

    By contrast, you can see the types of people who represent the Western Establishment. Biden, Obama, Bush Jr, etc. Trump was attacked since he was out of Establishment. All of these Establishment figures have turned the US into not just a plutocracy, but an outright kleptocracy where the rich loot the wealth of their fellow citizens and throughout the world.

    Standards of living in the West are falling and their efforts at sowing war abroad will only hasten the decline. That’s why they are in trouble and facing populist movements. With a loss in living standards comes a loss of what little legitimacy they have left. Hence their desperation.

  19. different clue

    For now all we outside and beneath the Plutogarchy can do is to resist and obstruct its members’ and helpers’ efforts to privatise every not-yet-privatised thing and monopolize and cartelize every not-yet-monopolized and cartelized area of enterprise and existence.

    Different groups of people would come up with different goals and ways to conduct such a holding-action approach or at least a slowest-possible-retreat approach. It seems reasonable to frustrate the plutogarchs’ efforts to privatise every municipal water utility which has not yet been privatised . . . either by outright ownership takeover or by cynically conceived private outside manager contract.

    Every “fair-trade” or “artisan” producer purchase keeps a fair trade or artisanal producer in existence and not yet destroyed by monopoly for yet a little longer. Drama seeking revolutionoids will sneer at that approach as “shopping your way to a better world” and “shoptivism” and such. Well, I am a shoptivist and if that makes the revolutionoids mad, then that makes me happy. At least I am doing a low profile something rather than a high drama nothing-at-all.

    Here, for example, is some video of a man eating a hamburger at a PETA protest. IF! his burger is made of artisanal grass-fed eco-correct beef, then he is doing some small good in the world, versus these PETA screamers’ precisely zero good of any sort at any level. Here is the link.

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