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The Superrich Endanger Democracy (zeit.de)
121 points by ericdanielski 39 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

In Denmark we have a fairly recent political party called Liberal Alliance. They were funded by billionaire, bank owner and businessman Lars Seier Christensen for almost 10 years and at their height achieved 7% of the votes and a spot in our government. At some point Lars Seiers brother founded a political party and Liberal Alliance fell out of favour with the billionaire.

In our very recent election Liberal Alliance was decimated and Lars Seiers brothers party was voted in and is now bigger than Liberal Alliance.

Now, I’m not suggesting anything that you will need a tinfoil hat for. There are a lot of reasons things went the way they did for these two political parties, and most of them could have happened without the easy access to money. I do, however, think it’s a worrying show of how just much influence, a single billionaire can have in a small democracy, compared to the average citizen.

Speaking of LA, according to Politiken,[0] their leadership believes their terrible showing in the polls is partly due to a lack of financial support by the Danish industry at large. Specifically, they mention that LA got 3 million DKK less in support this election compared to 2015.

So maybe money does work? Or perhaps the LA's leadership is focusing on exactly the wrong reasons?

[0] https://politiken.dk/indland/politik/FV19/art7244111/Erhverv...

I believe their main problem has not been funding, but rather a clash of very strong-willed individualistic people in the party, people who all desire to be The Man/Woman In Charge, above all.

That tends to create a lot of internal friction, which became very obvious as the election results rolled in, and they all started backtalking each other and pointing fingers.

Maybe it's obvious, but LA is a political party I intensely disagree with. In my perspective, if they want to stand a chance in the next election, they need to do some serious restructuring, otherwise the internal friction will end them.

Root of the problem is the lack of inclination/resources for average person to participate in the democracy as much as a focused entity, especially one who doesn’t need to worry about putting food on the table everyday.

Many people I’ve met are completely apathetic of their voting powers. They don’t want to read current events, research candidates, go to town meetings, and work to inform fellow voters. On the other hand, many people are also burned out from going to work, getting kids ready, making dinner, putting them to bed, working 80 hours a week, etc. And they may not have the cognitive abilities to analyze data to figure out what is true and false.

Democracy relies on having numerous “informed” voters, but what happens when the machine gets so complicated that there are not sufficient “informed” voters?

> Democracy relies on having numerous “informed” voters, but what happens when the machine gets so complicated that there are not sufficient “informed” voters?

Democracy relies on level headed people doing politics.

In Finland we have similar attempt happening just now.

"Movement Now" is just starting. It was created by multimillionaire (net worth $300 Million) member of the parliament after he was denied promised position in the cabinet.


Now, I’m not suggesting anything that you will need a tinfoil hat for.

We had (in Poland) at least one party which suddenly sprung into existence with decent poll results, was very pro big business and had pretty shady financing.

Fortunately they(especially their leader) were incompetent.

What I'm trying to say is that to me your account is not surprising at all.

Why is this a bad thing? Is the implicit assumption here that the electorate is primarily mindless, and that things like advertising or facebook or fake news or russian ad buying is all it takes to directly translate from dollars (or euro or rubles) to votes?

It seems to me to run counter to the democratic idea that an individual’s opinion matters. Either individuals are good at forming their own opinions from the world and voting is the practical realization of that into a government, or the electorate is an unthinking blob to be managed, as it will only vote for that for which it has been sufficiently inundated with propaganda, in which case the whole election is somewhat of a farce to begin with.

Why isn’t the will of the people (given an equal opportunity market for people to buy mass media advertising) respected more?

Everyone is susceptible to propaganda, including you and me. Democracy is based on information, so if you mess with that information, you can most definitely have a noticeable effect. The propagandists exploit the asymmetry of resources and time between them and you. They can lie easily, they have all the time and money to craft careful lies. You don't have all the time and money and domain knowledge to figure out each and every one of their carefully crafted lies. Not to mention other more sinister tactics like tracking you, finding out your biases and using them against you with targeted propaganda campaigns.

Sure, but isn’t that the nature of the beast? If propaganda works on everyone, and people get to vote, then what is the meaningful difference between propaganda and campaigning?

I really don’t see how this isn’t a system working as intended. Freedom of expression is freedom to spread propaganda.

Either the electorate is to be respected and their opinions held as valid regardless of their media consumption, or propaganda is too dangerous and effective and elections are just a farce. I’m not sure you can have it both ways.

> The propagandists exploit the asymmetry of resources and time between them and you.

And concentration of resources as happens with Social media and news channels

> Why isn’t the will of the people (given an equal opportunity market for people to buy mass media advertising) respected more?

Because some people don’t like the implications of what the public wants. Around the west you’re seeing a dramatic shift in people becoming more conservative in certain fronts, especially on the points of immigration and nationalism. The folks who dominate the kinds of sites that write about that stuff can’t abide by that. So they have strong incentives to denounce that all as the product of sheep-like voters being influenced by propaganda.

It seems to me to run counter to the democratic idea that an individual’s opinion matters.

I would agree with you, if we wouldn't live in a day and age where facts are relative and truth is completely malleable.

While it is certainly problematic it doesn't change the fact that the fault is ultimately with the voters and their lack of critical thinking and evaluation skills which makes it effective.

The scenario is akin to computer security. Sure it is wrong for a hacker to manipulate flaws in the system enmasse but the underlying susceptibility to the bullshit is the root cause. Even if you stop that bad actor the root cause remains open to all with evil intent.

If I were to spend trillions on the worst political campaign - say "lets ban the anti-retrovials and give everyone AIDS" in a remotely sane electorate I would have essentially zero impact other than the massive reputational damage I would take. In a terrifyingly insane one where the worst casually proposed idea achieved 100% acceptance the entire populace would be dead without outside military intervention.

Fixing it is easier said than done but would involve education and deep investment in critical thinking.

What is special about this day and age? For reasons of manipulation of large numbers of people, this has always been true. He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.

An important note about Liberal Alliance is that they are not a liberal party in the American sense.

They claim to somewhere between classical liberal and libertarian, but they are in fact by-the-book Ayn Rand objectivists. However that label has some negative connotations (for good reason), so officially they stick to the claims of classical liberalism, libertarianism and individual freedom above all.

It's a very interesting party, and as their recent collapse has shown, a party of very strong-willed individualists.

Money is not magic. Yes it opens doors when it comes to political power, but it also paints a big fucking sign on the head of the spender, that this dude is the one to milk. They do get milked much more than they actually influence anything, the whole while having their heads inflated about their importance.

What about doing politics yourself?

Want power? — cling to men with more power.

My advice, drop in onto their caucus and start talking something big. Dress smartly. Make an impression of you being a "big man."

Believe me, it works.

I was a complete nobody on a work visa in Canada, yet I crashed on nearly every caucus party Christy Clarke had over 6 years I was there, and was making sure to make big fuzz with my appearance every time.

Vox has much more interesting and detailed takes on this issue. See for instance the current season of their Future Perfect podcast, and this episode in particular:


A few articles that go through the same information as summaries or interviews for those who don't want to listen to the whole thing:




Isn't it Lobbying that is a threat to democracy? That's (the) one industry I think we should regulate the shit out of...

Its more complicated than that.

Sure, a lobbyist pays $10k a plate to fund a politician.. But its not buying a vote. The lobbyist is buying face-time with the politician.

And given a rapport over many times, the politician learns to trust the lobbyist. Those other people (citizens) don't really know anything, the politician thinks. The lobbyist comes from inside industry, and 'really' knows what's happening and why.

Lobbyists are just a paying type of royal advisors. And even if they weren't paying cash for plates of food, they would use their backing interests' money and power to exert 'assistance' in other ways.

Anyone gets face time with a politician to discuss their special interest is a de-facto lobbyist.

Sure, "lobbying" can get scummy if you push the graft envelope but for the most part "lobbyists" are just people from special interest groups who have made a career out of arguing their case to the politicians.

Any concentration of power is a danger to democracy.

We understood that already, and separated the legislature, an executive, and judiciary branches of power. They are not bad, they are necessary, but you don't want them to mix.

We are now learning that the power of money must be separated as well. Money is not bad, but it should not mix with the rest.

And right now, they happily do.

Actually, Marx figured that out in the 1800's. If you have two classes of people, the more powerful class will take control of government and advance interests for themselves.

Not the same. Marx assumes you should have no rich people. Separating powers does not imply that. It just implies rich people should be isolated the other powers.

No, he doesn't assume you should have no rich people. He wants there to be only one class of people, regardless of total wealth. There are two classes in capitalism, owners and workers. In Marx, there is only worker-owners.

Rich is a relative term. You can't have everybody that is rich. You are only rich to relative to somebody who is not.

I've lived in West Africa for 2 years, and here you have plenty of "rich man of the village". But you would not consider them rich yourself.

Money and political power transfer naturally to each other.

In authoritarian countries, the ruler is usually superrich billionaire. In the western world there are limits, but they work better to one direction than another.

Clever politician may be able to get millions, but rarely hundreds of millions and never billions. Billionaires however can turn their money into politics. Only direct middling for political campaign is limited. Superrich can create institutions, whole universities, think tanks, academic positions, grants and lobbying groups. Even political parties.

Agree on the premise that the superrich can be a threat to democracy, however this article argues a fallacy, the superrich has a lot of lobbying power because the political system has en-massed a lot of political power in a few entities, like the EU.

The superrich then only needs to lobby a few entities instead of every country in Europe, or every region for that matter. Just take the latest lobbying success against the citizens of EU, the content filter & the link tax, proposing those two on the national level would never have been possible, because of the ease of circumvention, but on a EU level it can actually be enforced.

If you want to keep transnational organizations like the EU, then you need to make it immune to lobbying, which first of can't be done and maybe not even wanted. Not all lobbying is immoral per se, because parliaments are not experts on every subject, it becomes immoral when it has an obvious quid pro quo situation.

What you is left with is to stop people of becoming superrich and/or stripping wealth from the already existing superrich. Good luck passing that in any legislative chamber we have today.

Democracy will take care of the "Superrich" (that will probably include most people on HN)

I just hope we do it sooner, using regulation and taxation, rather than later using pitchforks. But if the superrich keep successfully distracting the populace with bigotry and other sideshows, we might miss that exit.

Pitchforks won't work. The superrich learned from history and own private armies. Also, they don't live in the same town as the people with the pitchforks. Possibly not even the same continent.

They live within marching distance of some people with pitchforks. Beverly Hills isn't that far from Watts. Midtown Manhattan isn't that far from Harlem. And so on.

You and I have very different concepts of "superrich".

I seriously hope so, but I doubt it. The problem is that we have ever more militarized police and, thanks to digitalization, basically a real-life 1984 scenario. Our German Interior minister actually wants access to Alexa and friends for the secret services.

If the issue of massive inequality isn't taken care of, we are headed for even more of a cyberpunk dystopia than we are already living right now.

Pay no mind to the sinister undertones.

First step in Germany would be lock politicans up that take money from special interest groups and rich people and/or have another "side-" job in industry at the same time. Also lock politicians up when they take a relevant industry job afterwards.

Reality is politicians take a lot of money but do not need to declare where they take it from and right after their politician career will get well paid job from the people they regulated a short time before.

I am not agreeing with this opinion.

Think of the same comment put the other way around. What do you think of people "selling their vote for a mere promise of free sausages?"

To the point about inequality, it’s pretty clear that you can’t have political equality coexisting with dramatic economic inequality, because the mass of people would just vote themselves all the money until the discrepancy was eliminated. The measure of economic power of a group and the measure of their political power is always closely related.

Edit: ok downvoters, name me one example of any society ever in which political and economic power for some class of people was out of balance. Rome? No, the patricians has all the economic and political power. The ussr? No, the high ranking party members had all the economic and political power. China? No. The United States? No. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-poli...

So if the rule is that economic and political power tend towards equilibrium, then the corollary is that moments of disequilibrium are followed quickly by economic or political change. For example, the rising French business class in an environment where the aristocracy has all the power was followed by the French Revolution. And as the article points out, the emergence of a global economic elite is followed by that elite coopting all the governments of the world. On the other side, the rise of strong unions was quickly followed by a period where there was a lot of political empowerment by the masses.

So, if I might suggest a solution, the answer to a situation where corporate power is transnational is a transnational union movement; something like an international congress of unions or maybe like the IWW.

You can get close to that if you have a limited government, so that the mass of people can't just vote themselves all the money. (Though, if it's enough of the masses, they can vote a change in the limits on government...)

I don’t understand- are you saying that if you had a limited government, you could have a situation where the people with the power and the people with the money were different people? Because I feel like that’s not what you’d get. If Emma Goldman and others are correct though, you might get a situation where the both power and money were distributed fairly equally. But they’d still be in the same hands.

Let's start with the assumption that you have people with money. Let's even suppose that they're probably the people who end up in power. If you have a limited government, they don't have much power.

If you have a federal government with the power that the US government had before 1930, you don't have as much money being spent on campaigning and lobbying, because the influence isn't worth as much, because the government can't do as much.

Back to your comment that I was replying to. What I meant was, with a limited government, if the bottom 90% of the people want to take all that the top 10% have, if "taking all that the rich have" isn't one of the things that the government is allowed to do, then the 90% can't do that. ("Allowed" in the previous sentence means "allowed by the constitution", not "allowed by the people in charge".) In a country actually ruled by law, there are genuine restrictions on what the government can do...

... until there aren't. The US Constitution can be amended. It was amended to allow for income tax, for example. If the 90% wanted it badly enough, they could probably get it, but it would take more than just yelling at their representatives. They'd have to actually go through the process.

Then there's the problem that you seem to be talking about in your reply, that the representatives tend to be from among the rich. That puts another obstacle on the peoples' ability to just take what the rich have...

... until the people get tired of it all, take over the streets, and just burn it all down.

You are too stuck in the present time with the present form of government- look at this like you were an alien from outer space. To an alien there’s no hard dividing line between a corporation and a government. And throughout human history a myriad of political forms, permanent and temporary, have existed, and all of them wield political power in one sense or another.

In the example you just gave, with the government just standing by, political power devolves to the major corporations acting in the area. Early US corporations historically had their own police forces and armies (the pinkertons). In the late 1800s strikers fought many gun battles with private security hired by barons such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, using in some cases artillery and machine guns. Does that not count as political power?

Historically, the idea that a freer market and capitalism go hand in hand with democracy does have some merit. The fact that business became a more important factor for the power calculus meant that it was possible to challenge the autocratic status quo, and democracy was an alternative that was naturally favoured by many businesspeople at first because it promised a more meritocratic system.

Nowadays, the super rich have more power in practice than many of the autocrats who were thrown out by democratic movements of the long forgotten past, so their hubris leads some of them to work towards establishing autocratic structures again, believing that those will always work in their favour (newsflash: they don't, but that's another topic). Since capitalism alone does not put a check on this development, it is no longer a good ally of democracy. Still a useful tool when applied with measure and combined with other tools, but not an ally.

I think a pretty good argument can be made that fall of the Roman Republic was a consequence of Rome's increasing business interests abroad, and the increasing importance of military leaders executing interventions, eg in Greece, in support of those interests.

I also want to point out that with respect to the connection or divorce between capitalism and democracy, there is no conflict between capitalism and slavery, in fact slavery is the purest expression of the capitalist ideal, since slavery is basically elevating property rights above personal/human rights.

Edit: not saying capitalism is equivalent to slavery. I’m just saying that the conflict between capitalism and freedom can be boiled down to a conflict between human rights, and property rights.

There is a key premise in this article. That premise is there is some unadulterated Will of the People that democracy is meant to uncover, and the Capitalists are subverting it.

To me the flaws in that premise seem pretty straightfoward - there is no truth that democracy seeks to uncover. Democracy is a highly effective release valve so that if the situation becomes intolerable then the ruling class is changed out. If you want to change the world, you need to convince the ruling class that change is needed, or the people that something else needs to be tried.

The idea that some people have more decision making power than others isn't some subversive perversion of what is good in the world, it is normal. Democracy is fantastic compared to a monarchy - the competition is systems where a lunatic ruler can appoint a horse to government. That is a pretty simple example of why democracy should be preferred.

Capitalism and Democracy are bedfellows because they are both the best systems we know of for filling roles that need to be filled - how to allocate resources and who gets to be in charge respectively. The problem isn't that the wealthy are also powerful, the problem is that the people are as disorganised and fractured in opinion as the politicians who represent them.

> To me the flaws in that premise seem pretty straightfoward - there is no truth that democracy seeks to uncover.

Sure there is. In fact, you are about to illustrate it unwittingly:

> Democracy is a highly effective release valve so that if the situation becomes intolerable then the ruling class is changed out.

The truth democracy seeks to uncover is “is the leadership intolerable”; the corruption of democracy into plutocracy frustrates discovering g that answer as he weighting of political power by wealth biases toward showing the actual ruling class as tolerable irrespective of whether that is the mass feeling, and makes democracy a led effective safety valve.

The articles reasoning is flawed: It does not recognize that the rise of the new far right is in answer to neoliberalism and globalism. The problems they are describing are caused by this old neo liberal anti-nationalist but still right wing agenda. I guess it is confusing to them that the current Italian government both is cracking down on immigration and for the first time is introducing long term unemployment insurance. Unrestricted immigration was also the weapon of choice for the elite in the US in the 19th century. You could pit Germans against Irish against former Slaves and it is still one of the reasons that today there are so little social benefits, because people think “those people” will take advantage of it.

I guess it is not surprising because the Zeit has been the mouthpiece for a globalist neo-liberal elitist agenda in Germany for a long time. Their editor in chief is a warmongering (has argued for a preemptive attack on Iran for example) Havard educated neo liberal.

It seems that the far right can never ever take responsibility for their own bigotry and I am sick of seeing the illogic of "it was the immigrants made me racist and caused me to make things worse for everyone. Obey us or else!"

If their petty bigotted spite is such that they would rather see no benefits when they are in need than benefits to all including "the other" the problem is clearly them. It certainly isn't some fiscal calculus involving actual resource constraints and yields.

It doesn't require some secret imaginary elite - they are perfectly capable of causing backwards ruination on their own. Even if they stumble upon an obvious truth (cooperation with outgroup would benefit us) they blame the outgroup's existence for the lack of cooperation instead of their moronic bigotry.

The truth is the problem has always been them and their bigotry. Deprived of an other they will other themselves and deploy divide and conquer tactics - on themselves. Set the dark brown hair against the black or A blood type against the Bs.

Everybody likes thinking they are in the class above the one they are in, which requires having a class below.

I suspect that there is a civil war going on between billionaires that filters down to a proxy war on the political stage.

A lot of capital has tied itself to economic efficiency, which has a strong tendency to dictate globalism, which also lent it political support from both classical liberals and modern liberals (note, I am not using the word 'liberal' in the broadest sense, commonly used in the USA), for whom the increase in on the ground freedom of labour and capital was mostly considered worth the cost of creating the ultra rich.

Now however, a block of the newly created ultra rich have the wealth of small nations and are asking themselves, 'What if everywhere was small nations, wouldn't it be nice if we could become sovereign and rule openly over a balkanised mass of city-states?'.

This appears at ground level in the spectacle of little old ladies who worship Thatcher, confusingly starting to parrot the talking points of late 1990's anti-capitalists. Boris Johnson saying 'fuck business' during the Brexit negotiations with the EU was no accident. And this transformation has been so fast that people paying close attention to political swings would be prone to whiplash.

Ultimately though, the real power is held by the already globalised Zaibatsus, as they have control of production, so I also suspect that the princelings-to-be may be sticking their neck out a bit far right now.

It's not surprising at all considering NSDAP (name of the orginal Nazi party) stands for "National-Socialist German Worker's Party" (emphasis mine).

Here in Sweden the leader of the most furthest right wing party (Sweden Democratic Party) just recently stated that they are pushing the new ”social democratic” agenda.

This despite being self-proclaimed conservative, nationalist, and right wing during the election.

It’s a bit scary what happens when history is lost on a new generation.

genera1 39 days ago [flagged]

Do you really need an explanation, how Hitler had nothing to with socialism, or are you just spewing far right talking points without regard for fact or reason?

What? My comment was meant as a warning to not fall for far-right, or any other extremist position, not as advertising for far-right positions of all things.

Well, it might've been a honest mistake of someone who believes in horseshoe fallacy, but calling Nazis and Hitler socialist or left-wingers is a very common far right tactic, designed to muddy the waters and distance themselves from a very problematic person, so that's why I was confused about the point you were making.

I believe he/she is referring to the fact that the nazi party rose to power by _claiming_ to be the new socialist worker party.


Socialism is not the opposite of capitalism.

Maybe you’re thinking of a socialist planned economy?

The idea in for example a social democracy is that capitalism thoroughly embraced, but curbed through often reasonable regulation.

Edit - Love the down vote when trying to infuse some nuance: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_socialism

Let me add a personal thought:

I believe anyone claiming to carry some form of socialist agenda would agree that accountability to the people is #1.

In a totalitarian regime, as well as in a completely unregulated market economy this is no longer true for entities of power.

A reasonable balance is to be strived for, IMHO.

Social democracy isn't really socialist, it's just capitalism with some social concerns. Socialism is at its core the social ownership of the means of production; that's pretty incompatible with the private ownership of the means of production, which underpins capitalism.

This is a rewriting of history. Social democracy used to be really big on nationalizing whole industry sectors, to the point of being little different even from self-described "democratic socialists". This changed starting from the 1980s as it became clear that nationalized enterprises are almost always severely dysfunctional.

Today, social democracy mostly agrees with social liberals and neoliberals that nationalization should be used very rarely and sparingly - mostly wrt. inherently-monopolistic "platform"-like businesses such as railways, power grids or telco infrastructure. And even then, these "platforms" should be open for multiple private competitors to operate on, as opposed to providing monopolistic services of their own via vertical integration.

This is really oversimplifying things, in my opinion.

“Some social concerns” is really brushing over a lot of the things that make social democracy a form of socialism.

You’re missing for example that in a social democracy it’s common for private companies affiliated with what you could call “public service” to be in part owned by the state.

These companies most often used to be wholly state owned, but through the market liberal agenda many things have been sold out. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

A lot of what is considered welfare is also not necessarily privatized.

I could go on, but instead I suggest diving down in the topic through the supplied wikipedia link. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_socialism

Here you’ll find social democracy, liberal socialism and democratic socialism described in detail - all part of the value spectrum of socialism.

Also, getting flagged for this opinion seems a bit over the top...

Hitler was a capitalist, as was nazi germany.

If you have researched the topic more, you would've found a that NSDAP was no stranger to nationalisations, and did that with, reportedly, huge popular support.

The link to the German version 404s. Very strange.

It's just an error on their part with the link, the article exists:


I can't find it either. I think it doesn't exist in German.

It's here: https://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2019-04/kapitalismus-demokrat...

Though TFA was originally written in English, so if you're on HN you'll want to read the original anyway.

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