Edited by Spencer Ackerman
“WE ARE JOINING with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets,” Biden told the oligarchs popularly considered to be propping up Russian strongman Vladimir Putin during his State of the Union on Tuesday evening. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.” I agree with President Biden: No war but the class war.
That little slip of the tongue—“ill-begotten”—is maybe my favorite part of his speech. It suggests that the fortunes of oligarchs are conceived in sin, and that may be the truest thing about wealth any president has ever said. Fortunes of billions of dollars are evil. Even in the rare case that they are not built on human suffering, they cannot be maintained except by evil means.
The most prominent Russian businessman in the world is Oleg Deripaska, the undisputed winner of the “aluminum wars” of the 1990’s. His victory came after purchasing an aluminum plant in the Siberian mining town of Sayanogorsk to construct a massive metals empire; Deripaska defended his fiefdom using contacts in the FSB and his own private army. A disgruntled rival once threatened to demote him from leadership of his aluminum plant with a grenade launcher.
There’s a lot of talk, from Biden and others, about “Russian oligarchs.” But even if the focus is purely on people whose lives and fortunes began in the former USSR, the ultra-wealthy belong to the world.
In the 1990’s, wealthy rivals competed to buy state assets off the corpse of the Soviet Union in rigged auctions that gave away the riches of communities all across Russia and Eastern Europe to the worst among them. These men were the wealthy scions of privilege and corrupt bureaucrats who could turn a small fortune into a large one, and a large fortune into world-breaking sums of money they could wrap around vital international markets in electronics and fossil fuels.
The vastly wealthy Roman Abramovich bought a 50 percent stake in Russian oil company Sibneft for $100 million through multiple front companies in 1995. Ten years later, he sold his company to state oil company Gazprom for $13 billion. Now Abramovich owns the UK’s Chelsea soccer team, which owes him $2 billion. He says he is selling it and will have the proceeds from the sale distributed through a new charity to victims of the war on Ukraine; at the risk of cynicism, I would say that charity, should Abramovich actually found it, seems worth keeping an eye on.
Biden expressed an unwillingness to impose sanctions that will interfere with the aluminum markets; that is almost certainly a reference to Deripaska. Other markets that touch ordinary lives could be affected by property seizures, too: The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has a rule requiring insurance companies to disclose buyers behind shell companies making “all-cash” purchases of expensive apartments in six overpriced cities. In 2017 FinCEN announced that those disclosures were uncovering buyers with another record of suspicious activity with shocking regularity—in some 30% of pricey apartment sales, in fact. And people wonder why the San Francisco and Manhattan real estate markets are so tight.
It’s hard to enforce laws that try to limit money laundering. The U.S. government will happily seize the treasury of Afghanistan, but when it comes to seizing 650 Fifth Avenue, a skyscraper apparently owned in part by the sanctioned state bank of Iran, well, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination applies with ironclad certainty to rich defendants, and even a verdict against them isn’t enough to wrest away an asset that size. Should we extend those same rights to prisoners whose parole is regularly denied for invoking the same clause of the same amendment? Since we’re trying new things, that seems like another good place to start!
I don’t mean for this to sound like conspiracism. I don’t think the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, the most powerful prosecutor in the country, intentionally screwed up the acquisition of a billion-dollar building. That would please pretty much no one except lawyers for the Iranian government. What I do think the outcome of that particular case demonstrates is that our justice system simply isn’t set up to punish people with vast wealth.
In most cases, this system itself is the punishment. You are shunted from uninterested factotum to uninterested factotum and if you can’t jump through the right hoops, you go to prison, where the bureaucracy manages both direct physical violence and a constitutional carve-out for slavery. The most reliable way to avoid all this is to pay a team of lawyers whose business it is to get wealthy people into and out of the courthouse with a minimum of inconvenience, and thus if you try to sic this system on people like Deripaska, Abramovich, or, say, Jeff Bezos, who brazenly lied to Congress about Amazon’s crooked business practices, they can simply hand it off to their army of bureaucracy-navigators.
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Perhaps, since Musk is the heir to his parents’ South African emerald mine fortune and has taken $4.9 billion from the public coffers to sell luxury cars and expensive energy systems, we could consider him, and Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel, who created the technical infrastructure necessary to for Donald Trump’s ICE to violate international law by torturing small children, for this sort of treatment, as well. Joe Manchin personally nixed the public program that had cut child poverty by 30% in less than a year of its existence; take his shit, too. He can ride on his boat on alternate Thursdays if he meets my proposed work requirement for sitting Senators. (Disclosure: I personally benefited from the child tax credit program. I took my kid on taxi rides to the zoo and stuff. It was great.)
Take away Musk and Bezos’ literal rocket ships. Make them into innovative public housing for the people Bezos underpays and forces to pee in bottles so they can ship counterfeit goods more quickly. Sell Palantir’s assets and use the proceeds to fund free psychiatric care for immigrant children. After all, we wouldn't want to sully this moment of recognition—finally seeing billionaires for what they are and the threat they pose—with some sort of national Exceptionalism. One thing we've surely learned by now is that capital isn't really from anywhere so much as it takes from anywhere it can. Borders are for the little people. Why should a passport trouble us any more than it troubles an oligarch?
Put their yachts into service as public transportation as New York City's newest ferry fleet. Serve complimentary champagne to people coming home from work. Hell, have the MTA serve complimentary champagne to people going to work. This is our money. As Biden definitely meant to say, every billionaire is a policy failure.
SPENCER HERE. Just to amplify Sam for a second. I'm not going to link to any tweets because no one needs to be made hot but I've seen people with military backgrounds telling some spectacular jokes about JSOC missions to destroy the Russian oligarch superyachts. Pains of inconsistency unfortunately compel me to observe that that's a bit war crime-y. A solution: confiscation and the creation of a people's Navy. Its mission is to liberate yachts of all flags. Such daring can take us from gangsters of capitalism to pirates of socialism.
Shortly before I edited Sam's piece, I checked out this episode of CrimeThinc's Ex-Worker podcast that amplifies the voices of Ukrainian anarchists discussing the context of what was, at the time of the recordings, an invasion that did not seem inevitable to them. I haven't finished it yet but I'm finding it valuable. If you're not familiar with Ukrainian anarchist traditions, my friend and bandmate Mike Duncan recently released a wonderful Revolutions episode centered on Nestor Makhno.
Finally, right as we finished this edition, the Supreme Court rejected critical testimony sought by Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn—Abu Zubayah—in a Polish criminal investigation over complicity in his torture. Coverage of this development will occur in the very next edition of FOREVER WARS. That one might be a few days late because of reasons. For now, here is a quote from Joseph Margulies, a longtime attorney for Abu Zubaydah.
"While the fractured majority voted for dismissal of this action, we are pleased that the Supreme Court confirmed that the United States Government tortured Abu Zubaydah, and agrees there is a pathway for him to finally uncover the truth about what happened to him at the hands of the CIA during a critical part of his detention. We plan to act accordingly."