Bill Moyers on plutocracy

Bill Moyers spoke at Boston University a week or so ago, on the occasion of the the first Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture. Here’s video, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

Watch this video on YouTube

You can find a full transcript at, but here’s my favorite part.

…Yet the isolation continues – and is celebrated. When Howard came down to New York last December for what would be my last interview with him, I showed him this document published in the spring of 2005 by the Wall Street giant Citigroup, setting forth an “Equity Strategy” under the title (I’m not making this up) “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.”

Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn’t meant to become an American phenomenon – some of our founders deplored what they called “the veneration of wealth.” But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word— “plutonomy”, which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to “bang the drum on plutonomy.”

And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document “Revisiting Plutonomy;”

• “Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper… [and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years.”

• “…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefitted disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US… [and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor.”

• “… [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.”

I’ll repeat that: “The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.” That was the case before the Great Collapse of 2008, and it’s the case today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big banks.

As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist – no Marxist journal – of a study by Pew Research:

• “More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have cancelled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War, wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.”

Let that sink in: For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.

Time for a confession. The legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption – a deep, systemic corruption. I urge you to seek out the recent edition of Harper’s Magazine. The former editor Roger D. Hodge brilliantly dissects how democracy has gone on sale in America. Ideally, he writes, our ballots purport to be expressions of political will, which we hope and pray will be translated into legislative and executive action by our pretended representatives. But voting is the beginning of civil virtue, not its end, and the focus of real power is elsewhere. Voters still “matter” of course, but only as raw material to be shaped by the actual form of political influence – money…

And here’s a link to that Harper’s piece mentioned by Moyers. Hopefully, it won’t give you nightmares…

Goodnight, comrades.

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  1. Glen S.
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Mark, for this great post.

    My favorite part (from the Harper’s article):

    “Since the early 1980s, the Democratic Party has largely abandoned its commitment to policies that serve the material interests of most Americans and has joined the Republican Party in a shameless competition for the patronage of large corporations and the superrich. Add to these complexities the proven power of campaign spending to influence election outcomes (Larry Bartels has calculated that each additional dollar spent per voter by a candidate increases the probability of a given undecided voter’s support by almost four percentage points), and it is easy to see that the average American has no hope of safeguarding his interests, whether they pertain to life, liberty, or happiness. We cast our empty ballots for one party; then, disgusted with the inevitable betrayals, pray for a redeemer from the opposing party to rescue us from politics and history, only to repeat the cycle once again. Meanwhile, most of our citizens are fully absorbed in their personal affairs, oblivious and largely ignorant of the details of politics and governance. We are so very far from the classical republican ideal of ruling and being ruled, of exercising political agency and participating in the life of our commonwealth, that, incapable of pursuing even narrow self-interest effectively, we instead offer ourselves up as impotent, obsequious subjects, the unresisting tools of interests we scarcely comprehend.”

  2. Knox
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Amen, Glen.

  3. Edward
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Bill Moyers should be talked about as much as the kids on the Jersey Shore. It’s criminal that more people don’t know him, and Zinn for that matter.

  4. John830
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe we still allow Moyers to roam free, spouting his hatred for all things America.

  5. John Galt
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Those with wealth are more intelligent than those without. Can anyone argue with that? It’s common sense. Rich people should therefore get five votes for every one cast by a poor person. Or, what if you get one vote for every home you own? Would that work? I’m open to compromise.

  6. T Timmons
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    There’s one easy thing you can do, if this kind of stuff drives you crazy, like me. You can write to the advertisers who support Fox News and tell them how you feel. The People for the American Way have a new campaign.

  7. gregory bresiger
    Posted April 21, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    If someone gets rich, but hasn’t broken any laws or acted unethically, then why should I be upset. On the other hand, I’m still upset with Moyers and his crew for giving us the Vietnam. That happened after his patron, Lying Baines Johnson, promised in 1964 not to send troops to Vietnam.

  8. Posted April 21, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I don’t really think that its possible to become (materially) wealthy without acting unethically at some point or another. After, the accumulation of wealth is always at the expense of someone else.

    It is possible that you can inherit it, but then you are just receiving the residual benefits of someone else’s unethical behvaior.

  9. Demetrius
    Posted September 17, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned Friday there would be riots in the streets if Washington doesn’t get serious about generating jobs.

    “We have a lot of kids graduating college, can’t find jobs,” Bloomberg said on his weekly WOR radio show.

    “That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here.”

    Read more:

  10. Niki 50
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Bill Moyers’ recent work on ALEC is also quite good. THe man is a national treasure. I don’t what we’d do without him.

  11. Clydene
    Posted December 19, 2014 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    I’m 72 and I doubt that probably 92% of my friends even know what a plutocrat is much less the fact that 80% of America’s wealth is controled by the wealthy and the rest of all of us can’t even come close to competing with this kind of wealth. So, what’s the answer to even out the playing field. It’s very harsh but we outnumber them and if we don’t pay our taxes, the big boys have less to steal from us and our government and this would call the politicians who have noy sold out to these wealthy crooks to put some regulations on them once and for all. They use us like pawns and we let them, unfortunately, out of pure complacency.

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