Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries & Corporate Power in America
Simon & Schuster 2019
“Anti-capitalist feelings in the United States are probably more virulent today than ever before,” billionaire Koch Industries head Charles Koch told a gathering of the right-wing think-tank The Institution for Humane Studies in 1974.
This speech was part of a decades long strategy by Charles and his brother David to shift US politics to the right to serve the interests of billionaire such as themselves.
In Kochland, Charles Leonard traces the growth of Koch industries through seven years of research. Leonard has interviewed many Koch executives, traders and even whistleblowers to peel back the secrecy of Koch Industries. He gives us a glimpse of a company that has built itself into every aspect of US life while avoiding any accountability or transparency.
Their father Fred Koch, who founded what would become Koch Industries in 1940, was an extreme right winger who helped the Nazis construct their third-largest oil refinery, which produced fuel for the Luftwaffe. Fred was also a founder member of the John Birch Society, believing that Republican president Ike Eisenhower "was a tool of the Communists”.
The Koch brothers would continue to further this right-wing project after Fred's death in 1967. In 1980, David ran for US Vice-President for the right-wing Libertarian Party. Although he only gained 1% of the vote, the Koch brothers found political influence by contribution $245,000 to Republican senator Bob Dole. David served as Dole's US presidential campaign chair in 1996.
However, it was Charles who was responsible for slowly building up the power of Koch Industries power from the 1970s and increasing its political influence through a network of astro-turfed right-wing organisations such as Americans for Prosperity. David, meanwhile, would launder the families names via millions in charitable donations to institutions such as the New York State Theatre at Lincoln and the Hall of Fossils at the National Museum of Natural History.
From the mid-1970s, Charles developed his long-term strategy to change the way US citizens thought about the market and the role of government. It was a four-pronged strategy consisting of education, media outreach, litigation and buying political influence. Secrecy was key, as was Charles' personal management philosophy, known as Market-Based Management (MBM).
Anyone working at Koch Industries was indoctrinated into the MBM philosophy. MBM was used to crush union power as Koch Industries successfully undermined the Oil and Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) at Pine Bend, Minnesota in 1972-73 and the International Boatmen Union (IBU) at Georgia-Pacific, Warehouses in Portland, Oregon from 2008-16.
With their wealth, Koch Industries lobbied for tax cuts, deregulation and attacks on workers' rights as part of its more than 40-year trend towards privatisation of everything from public education to water access.
Leonard documents how the conglomerate has committed hundred of environmental, workplace, labour violations, among others. This includes allegedly stealing oil from Native American reservations and systematic theft of oil by mis-measuring amounts removed from storage tanks.
Since 1991, Koch Industries have been funding and fuelling climate denial through various different lobbying groups. This included doing what they could to kill public transit projects because any attempts to deal with the impending climate catastrophe would stop Koch Industries from making profit at any cost.
This would culminate in 2010, with the Koch Brothers -bankrolled far-right Tea Party movement taking control of the US Congress and Senate, effectively killing any attempts to implement a carbon tax. That same year, the Citizens United ruling in the US Supreme effectively removed limits on corporate donations, benefiting the Koch brothers immensely.
Leonard writes: “During the Obama years – the years when Americans for Prosperity warned repeatedly about the threat of creeping socialism – Charles and David Koch’s fortune more than doubled once again. At the end of the Obama administration, Charles Koch was worth $42 billion. Together, Charles and David were worth $84 billion, a fortune larger than Bill Gates’."
Kochland provides a damming account of Koch Industries misdeeds, showing its catastrophic impacts on society in pursuit of its profits. However Kochland's greatest flaw is the refusal of Leonard to condemn the Koch Brothers despite this evidence.
Instead, Leonard believes the MBM philosophy was not just a guidebook for operating companies, “but for operating entire societies. The proper shape of American society was the shape of Kochland.”
Upon the death of David in August 2019, Jacobin writer Branko Marcetic called him an “evil man who dedicated his life to evil. Humanity will be coping with the damage he did for centuries.”
Marcetic goes on to state: “It may be impossible to quantify exactly the damage done by the Kochs’ right-wing network.
“We can only hope that whatever hell David Koch has gone to, it resembles the one to which he spent his entire life trying to condemn the rest of us.
"But ultimately, this isn’t about Koch or any of his abominable family.”
The only reason the Koch brothers have been able to get away with it is “because of the colossal wealth they were allowed to hoard, which they parleyed into political power that they then used to set the world on the path to crisis,” writes Marcetic.
Kochland, despite its flaws, is a valuable book for revealing so much about the true nature of the Koch Brothers.