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Oligarchy, Autocracy, Why This Age is so Dystopian, and…The Trump Sneakers

Oligarchy, Autocracy, Why This Age is so Dystopian, and…The Trump Sneakers

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The Trump Sneaker

Behold, my friends…the Trump sneaker. Whew. Who are these even…for? We’ll come to that, because these weird things…are artifacts of…a broken global economy…an age of failing democracy…the dystopian times we live in…all the above, squared. 

The sneakers are everything you’d expect: gold, overpriced, tacky, emblazoned with a giant flag, the irony of that coming from a man who led a mob to storm the Capitol obliviously lost. But this isn’t really about sneakers. It’s about oligarchy, autocracy, how societies collapse, and how our world lost its way.

We’ll get there beginning with a little bit of context.

The Line Between Oligarchy, Autocracy, and Authoritarianism

Who is Trump? What kind of madness is this—$400 fascist sneakers—anyways? 

Trump is something very much like an American oligarch. One aspiring to be America’s first proper autocrat, now openly authoritarian, revealing in being “dictator for a day.” The sneakers, of course, are redolent of the aesthetics of oligarchy—you could readily imagine them adorning the heels of what my friends only half ironically call the “war criminal” class worldwide. Tacky’s an understatement, and the golden hue, of course, is something that’d make Midas blush.

The point to understand is that there’s a clear line between oligarchy and autocracy. It’s a cycle, in fact, but let’s begin with the line. Societies, mismanaged, develop great concentrations of wealth and power, usually accompanied by corruption on a grand scale. This is oligarchy, and in the modern sense, we associate it with cronies who control national energy grids, or water systems, or financial systems. Trump, for his part, built a property empire.

A fraudulent one, as it turns out. What the spate of cases now arrayed against Trump are about—at least a significant chunk of them—is undoing his empire. That is, unravelling his status as an oligarch. Like most oligarchs, Trump’s wealth turns out to have been a house of cards, jerry-rigged, manipulated, overstated, leveraged. There’s a difference between legitimate wealth and oligarchy—oligarchy is wealth at a scale that’s obscene, and raises the eyebrows, because of course, it reeks of something wrong, perhaps even criminal. 

The line between oligarchy and autocracy is as old as time. Think of Rome. The Triumvirate, which was so crucial to its collapse, was made of Pompey, Rome’s most famous general, Caesar, it’s most ardent populist, and Crassus—Rome’s richest man. Crassus brings to mind modern oligarchs—notorious even in Rome for his greed, poor taste, and overweening hubris.

When we think of the world today, perhaps the macro trend which defines this age best is the implosion of democracy. I’ll highlight it for you again.

Macro Trend: Democratic Collapse. Democracy’s more than halved, from over 40% of the world, to 20%, in just two decades. It’s current rate of decline is 10% a decade, putting its twilight within recent sight and reach.

But why is democracy collapsing around us? The decline of democracy goes hand in hand with another macro trend—hyper inequality. There’s regular old inequality, which means that some get ahead faster and further than others, but on average, the tide lifts all boats. Hyper inequality, the hallmark of this age, is different—we live in a world where the average person’s living standards and well-being are now falling, and yet immense concentrations of wealth are only growing.

This is the picture of modern oligarchy. And it goes much, much further than Trump, if we’re observant and fair. We know, for example, just how immensely destructive social media is—it warps our societies, destroys kids mental health, provides an arsonists’ accelerant for disinformation and lies, and so forth. And yet, of course, Big Tech is making fortune upon fortune, despite—because of—it all. Oligarchy is a feature of our world today, sadly—not just something we might have observed in ancient Rome or even Russia.

Still, Russia exemplifies its trajectory best. What happens to societies which allow wealth and power to concentrate to irrational degrees? They decline from democracy to autocracy, or, in Russia’s case, fail to develop as democracies. What we see in Russia today—violence, brutality, the elimination of any form of criticism, let alone dissent, the ending of opposition figures in open ways—all that gives us some idea of what’s in store for America as an autocracy. Perhaps moderated by what shell is left of the rule of law and democratic institutions—but autocracy is autocracy, and the tyrant’s word is usually stone.

So the sneakers are hardly just sneakers. They symbolize all this—the line from oligarchy to autocracy, and how slippery that slope is.  

The question that Trump’s numerous court cases raise is: can you undo an oligarch’s rise to autocracy by undoing his oligarchy? The question to that answer isn’t clear-cut. In many cases, it’s too late. The power base has shifted from corrupt business dealings and empires to genuine political potency. If you can control a nation’s destiny, you don’t need to quibble much over bottom lines—just hand a crony control of a power grid or what have you, and take a 30% kickback. The issue in this case is the race to stop Trump, before it’s too late, and whether or not that can be done is very much an open question. Having had his property empire unravelled, Trump’s shifting to…another hustle, con, “business model.” 

There’s a nugget, in there, too. Oligarchy and autocracy are flavors of the same poison. In economics, we call it “looting.” In pop-speak, it’s called a “grift,” though I think that understates the case. Oligarchy is wealth extracted, not earned in any value-creating way—basically, finding ways to bilk and cheat people. I control the power grid, now you pay me an extra 25%. The sneakers, of course, are a low-level grift of their own kind—a way to part relatively poor Trumpists from their hard-earned cash. It’s about the money, in other words, and the power is a means to that end. The looting is the point of oligarchy and autocracy. Have we ever seen a humble dictator? Not many, anyways.

All of this raises pretty fundamental questions about a basic democratic value. Equality. What is equality, anyways? In the American understanding, equality’s been a long-contested notion. What does it mean for people to be “equal”? Of course, people weren’t equal at all, for a very long time. Then came “equalities” of “opportunity,” “choice,” and so forth. 

America’s struggled with the notion of what equality is and means. Economic equality’s long been ruled out. Equality, under American political thinking and jurisprudence doesn’t mean, emphatically, anything like “we should all have equal resources, at minimum.” This is closer to the European and Canadian understanding of equality, where universal public goods guarantee everyone a minimum set of resources—retirement, healthcare, education, and so on.

When a society doesn’t take equality seriously enough, the line between oligarchy and autocracy inches forward, and ultimately, becomes a vicious cycle. Autocrats are made by oligarchs, who turn around and make more oligarchs. On and on it goes. The best defense a society has against this—the only real inoculation we know of—is to prevent the malady from setting in. And we do that by taking equality seriously, ensuring that a society’s genuinely equal, in terms of resources and rights, precisely so that immense concentrations of wealth and power don’t end up warping it and depriving it of democracy and freedom.

America’s battles over equality have hardly ended. Equality’s the fundamental issue behind the “culture wars,” which are poorly named. It’s hardly a “war” if you think I shouldn’t exist, but I don’t think the same about you. It’s hardly much of a war when one side’s engaging in the open violence, hate, and spite. In the end, a deeper understanding of equality’s key to America regaining—and then developing—its democracy. Being equals is certainly a threat to those who are used to being above, superior, and in control—and that’s the problem that America faces. Europe had ages of revolution and wars, in which questions of equality were central. America’s civil war led to the Jim Crow era and the threadbare compromises of Reconstruction, which gave way to segregation. Equality is a pillar of democracy, but in America, it’s been neglected for far too long—without deeper equality in all its forms, America faces the continued descent from oligarchy to autocracy. It’s in this respect, too, that young people and minorities are now so critical of Biden—equality appears to be a value that’s secondary for him, and the Democrats, in many deep senses.

America’s a microcosm of the world—don’t think I’m singling it out. Remember hyper inequality as a macro trend? One reason this age is dystopian is that the class structure of modernity has frayed and is in the process of collapsing. We don’t really have a healthy socioeconomic structure—middle class, working class, legitimate wealth (whatever that means.) Instead, we have the rich, who became super, then mega, and now ultra rich, as a global class, jetting between London and St Tropez, living on yachts, collecting penthouses and mansions nobody lives in. Then we have the remnants of the working and middle classes, for whom living standards and well-being are now falling year upon year. Beside that we have generations of young people bearing the shock and brunt of downward mobility, from the West’s “Gen Z” to China’s “lying flat generation.” The class structure of modernity is a house of cards of collapsing in on itself.

That, of course, is what’s behind the sudden rise of the far right globally—and the startling implosion of democracy. As people’s fortunes wane, as insecurity, instability, and meaninglessness wrack their lives, they turn to strongmen, and against one another. They lose trust and faith in institutions in the modern sense, and regress, atavistically (that means “a longing for a bygone age,” more or less) past nationalism, right back to fascism, authoritarianism, theocracy, and empire. Hyper inequality and democratic implosion are the Romeo and Juliet of our civilization, which appears to be trapped in a kind of suicide pact at the moment, because of course, electing a Trump and wearing his $400 sneakers is hardly likely to fix your broken life—just make it that much worse, even if you have a fleeting, momentary thrill of power along the way.

This is where we are as a civilization—trapped in the pincers of hyper inequality and global democratic implosion. Is there a way out? What is it? History is watching us, wondering. And waiting. The spirit of civilization—is it sleeping, or is it comatose? Has life, in the forms of wisdom, truth, grace, and courage, left us, for an age? Or is there another chapter to write in the story of human civilization and democracy, before it all unravels further and faster? You tell me.

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