A March 3 Business Insider report said that the United States Congress will soon be discussing the “Yachts for Ukraine” Act which, if adopted, would permit US authorities to seize the super yachts and other property of Russian oligarchs, sell them and give the proceeds as aid to Ukraine.
The article took it for granted that its readers would find the purpose of this bill perfectly reasonable. After all, who isn’t disgusted by the obscene wealth of the oligarchs who support a war-making tyrant like Vladimir Putin?
But what about the super yachts, private jets and other assets of the oligarchs of other countries? Don’t they deserve to be confiscated as well? Aren’t they equally obscene?
The global market for super yachts is booming, as is the market for private jets, as the world’s super rich have got fabulously richer while life got harder for everyone else during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Green Left reported recently, Oxfam calculated that the 10 richest men in the world have doubled their wealth since the COVID-19 pandemic began in “the largest increase in billionaire wealth since records began”.
Nine of the ten richest people in the world are not from Russia, but from the West. Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani is number 10.
Oxfam calculated that if a 99% “solidarity tax” was collected on just the wealth gain of these 10 richest men during the pandemic, this could fund “enough vaccines for the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender-based violence in over 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8 billion better off than they were before the pandemic”.
If expropriating the super yachts and other overseas assets of Russian oligarchs, selling them off and turning it into aid for Ukraine sounds reasonable, there is an even more reasonable case to expropriate the wealth gains of the world’s 10 richest men and use it for social good.
The super rich don’t just enjoy luxurious lifestyles, they use their wealth to exercise real power, even in countries with elected governments and some civil rights. Even Australia is ruled by the rich few.
Politics is systematically corrupted by the rich and hence we have serial elected governments that do their bidding.
The world’s oligarchs and plutocrats even put their profits before dealing with the global climate emergency, let alone justice, global poverty and inequality.
Paying their share of tax is an anathema to the super rich so they have got governments competing to offer tax cuts, tax deductions, corporate subsidies and a few tax loopholes their accountants can exploit.
The super rich are also super good at spiriting away their wealth and hiding true ownership of assets. They are so good at this the sanctions against Russian oligarchs may not be very effective because the world’s oligarchs and plutocrats have been busy hiding their assets, BuzzFeed reported on March 3.
The world’s oligarchs and plutocrats are not only blocking serious action on the climate emergency, they are also feeding off war. The Guardian reported thast US defense stocks have soared since the conflict started.
Share prices for Raytheon Technologies, US defence giant and maker of the Stinger ground-to-air missile that Germany wants to supply to Ukrainian forces, has risen more than 10% since the invasion. Raytheon’s stock rose over 4.6% on one day “and has risen more than 18% this year”.
Lockheed Martin, which makes F-35 fighter jets, advanced more than 5.4% on one day. Together with Raytheon, the company manufactures the Patriot missile defense system set to be deployed by NATO in Slovakia.
Northrop Grumman, leading manufacturer of attack and surveillance drones, and Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest US military shipbuilder, stocks have also risen sharply.
Share prices for Britain’s BAE Systems, the largest defense contractor in Europe, Germany’s Rheinmetall, France’s Thales and Italy’s Leonardo have also risen sharply, The Guardian reported.
“Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” reads the epigraph to The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Puzo was paraphrasing the 19th Century French writer Honoré de Balzac.
The historical truth of this idea has been borne out by studies that have traced the wealth of many of the great banks in the US and Britain to modern slavery — the African slave trade.
More generally, capitalism accumulated its initial capital from the plunder of Latin America and the colonies of the East. Australian capitalism has been built upon the ruthless dispossession of the First Nations peoples of this continent.
The wealth of Western banks, and the oligarchs and plutocrats they finance, are as drenched in blood as that of the worst Russian oligarch.
However, the strongest argument for the expropriation of all the world’s oligarchs is not historical crimes but the existential threat the current deployment of their massive wealth poses to humanity and the environment we share with other living species.