Cooking the Books 1 – Ill-gotten gains

In his State of the Union message on 1 March President Biden told the Russian oligarchs: ‘We are coming for your ill-begotten gains’, ‘your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets’. The audience, including billionaire senators, rose to their feet in a standing ovation. Watch them at: This side of the Atlantic, Sky News (28 February) reported that ‘Boris Johnson says Russian oligarchs will no longer be able to hide “ill-gotten gains” in UK’ and Liz Truss, the very undiplomatic Foreign Secretary, had said:

‘There are over 100 billionaires in Russia. We have compiled a hit list of oligarchs. We are working through and putting the cases together, and every few weeks we will sanction new oligarchs. We will be targeting oligarchs’ private jets, we will be targeting their properties, we will be targeting other possessions that they have and there will be nowhere to hide.’

In the House of Commons, a Tory MP, Bob Seeley, referred to the Russian capitalists as ‘kleptocrats’ (Times, 2 March).

The present Russian capitalist class amassed their wealth in the first instance when after the collapse of the USSR the new Russian government, as advised by free-market ideologues from the US, decided to sell off the state-owned industries. A small group, mainly members of the ruling nomenklatura but also dodgy businessmen who had flourished on the margins of soviet state capitalism –such as Roman Abramovich – were able to acquire these assets on the cheap, often via bribery and gangsterism (incidentally, the same happened in Ukraine). But this was just the ‘primitive accumulation’ of their capital, akin to what happened in England when capital was originally accumulated through overseas plunder and the slave trade.

Once accumulated in this sort of way, capital becomes respectable and is invested and used up but is then renewed and expanded through the productive activity of wage-workers, with by far the greater part of what they produce being appropriated by the capitalists as surplus value, the source of profits, and of the dividends and bloated ‘salaries’ that afford them a luxurious lifestyle. This taking of the unpaid labour of the producers is the source of the wealth of the Russian capitalists. That’s how they ‘got’ their ‘gains’. But this is no different from how billionaires everywhere get theirs, including in Britain and America. Their wealth, too, is ‘ill-gotten’, being legally stolen from the producers.

Anyway, what is an ‘oligarch’? What is a ‘kleptocrat’? In what way, if any, do they differ from a Western capitalist or billionaire?

According to the dictionaries, oligarchy is rule by a few (from the Greek word for few ‘oligos’) and ‘kleptocracy’ is power in the hands of thieves (from the Greek word for thief). Socialists used to call capitalists ‘plutocrats’ (as in Clause 6 of our Declaration of Principles), with power in the hands of the rich (from the Greek ‘ploutos’). All three terms are equally apt, alternative descriptions of the ‘1 percent’. They are rich. They are few. And they are thieves.

The Western billionaires cheering on the expropriation of the wealth of their Russian cousins should be wary. It might set a precedent and the day come when a delegate of the socialist majority will mount the rostrum to tell them: ‘We are coming for your ill-gotten gains, not just your yachts, your luxury apartments and your private jets, but your land, your factories, your means of transport and communications, all the means for producing wealth that you have appropriated. And you will have nowhere to hide.’

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