“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” — unknown
Both conspiracy theorists and Marxists share a flawed viewed of history, of “us versus them.” Conspiracy theorists see a world run by a “secret cabal” and Marxists see one run by resource and labor exploiters. But they’re both saying the same thing: people at the top have their boot on our throats. So, who is pulling the strings? The answer is nobody. History isn’t “us versus them,” but rather “them versus them.” It’s a battle between whoever is in first place with whoever is in second or third place. All the resulting ages and victory parades are just stories that we tell ourselves.
Bernie Sanders likes to call out the 1%, but it’s still too many people. 1% of America is still three million people, and most of them are preoccupied with renovating their second homes or picking private schools. No, the “powers that be” is more specific. It’s literally a handful of people, maybe ten, i.e. one small band of billionaires versus another small band of billionaires.
Consider the American Revolution. Was it the result of an enlightened march towards freedom? Or was it really a conflict between the New Money colonial entrepreneurs and the Old Money British landowners? By historian Howard Zinn’s account, the Revolution wasn’t even a popular war, with estimates of between one-fifth and one-third of the people supporting it. And forget about the war being about freedom; it was hypocritical from day one, with slavery being literally enshrined in the Constitution.
Likewise, the American Civil War was between the New Money Northern industrialists and the Old Money Southern plantation holders. World War II was a race to see which industrialists would get to have which spheres of influence (i.e. free-trade zones). The 2008 recession was a battle between Lehman and Goldman. In other words, the “secret cabal” that runs the world isn’t that secret. All we have to do is look at the board of directors of the top companies and realize that their squabbles manifest into our major conflicts.
If you consider otherwise confusing modern events, such as Brexit, they begin to make sense in this “multi-aristocratic” model. Brexit is a war between German free-traders and British industrialists. The crisis in Hong Kong is a war between the friends of Xi Jinping and the former friends of Xi Jinping. The red versus blue state conflict in the U.S. is a war between Democrat billionaires (i.e. George Soros) and Republican billionaires (i.e. the Koch family).
Is this perspective an over-simplification? Can you really boil down every major flashpoint in history to a war between first and second place? Let’s take a deeper look at one of the greatest conflicts of all, the so-called “good war” or “people’s war”:
The “People’s War”
There are conspiracy theories that say the Rockefellers funded Hitler, or that Bush’s grandfather helped Hitler’s rise to power. The truth is that multiple millionaires, on both sides of the Atlantic, are responsible. To understand World War II, you have to look at the entanglements between American financiers and German industrialists, for which there is no better evidence than the three capital-P Plans that came before and after the War: the Dawes, Young, and Marshall Plans. All three American plans were attempts to capture value from the German Industrial Revolution through free-trade agreements. Less charitably, as Howard Zinn puts it, these plans could be conceived as proposals for American “sphere of influence” in continental Europe.
The Dawes Plan (1924) and the Young Plan (1930), both of which came before the start of World War II, were debt repayment plans for Germany’s war reparations in the First World War. The latter plan was named after Owen Young, the founder of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which was the dominant electronics and communications firm in the U.S. for five decades. (Imagine a Zuckerberg Plan or a Bezos Plan today to restructure debt in war-torn Ukraine.) Both plans were collaborations with J. P. Morgan Jr. and his business partner, Thomas Lamont. The plans directed American bankers to loan German industrialists billions of gold marks to fund coal extraction from the resource-rich Ruhr valley between France and Germany.
Meanwhile, another millionaire, a German by the name of Fritz Thyssen (whose conglomerate Thyssen Krupp is still active today), was seeking his own reparations from the German government. Thyssen was getting investors from both Americans and Germans, and by 1926, after the formation of United Steelworks, he controlled more than 75% of Germany’s iron ore reserves. By 1929, German industry was second only to the U.S., but it was largely in the hands of America’s leading financial-industrial groups.
The pressure to pay reparations forced the Weimar Republic into hyperinflation. Meanwhile, communism was on the rise in Germany, creating ripe conditions for Hitler to step in as a business-friendly, charismatic leader. Thyssen convinced the Association of German Industrialists to donate 3 million Reichsmarks to the Nazi Party for the 1933 Reichstag election, and he himself donated hundreds of thousands of Reichsmarks. The German chemicals company IG Farben, which was the largest company in Europe at one point, financed 45% of Hitler’s election campaign of 1930. In addition to vaccines, Farben produced poison gases and rocket fuel for the Nazis. Farben was the second-largest shareholder of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and it could be said that Farben and Rockefeller’s business ventures were so coordinated that they could be considered the same entity.
Eventually this German gold rush — or in this case, coal rush — was unsustainable. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led American banks to call in their loans, leading to a trade crunch. By 1933, almost two-thirds of world trade vanished. In this environment, Hitler accelerated the radicalization of Germany. Thyssen disavowed the Nazis but was well-treated despite being sent to a concentration camp. After the war, a denazification tribunal declared Thyssen a “lesser offender” and fined him 15% of his assets. He and his wife then emigrated to Argentina where he died.
World War II was ultimately the violent expression of a race to capitalize from Germany’s Industrial Revolution. The atrocious bodycount that resulted appears in retrospect to be the collateral damage from the competition of a roomful of multi-national millionaires.
I call this non-conspiracy history “Accumulation Theory” because the person at the top is the greatest accumulator, and whoever is second or third isn’t that bad either. As their fortunes rise and fall, the game eventually becomes a zero-sum battle amongst themselves. This is what happened with the collapse of Easter Island.
Jared Diamond, the historian who wrote the book Collapse, says that the history of Eastern Island speaks the most volumes about human nature. The indigenous Rapa Nui people drove themselves to extinction by over-farming their palm trees. (Recent evidence suggests otherwise.) The palms were used for agricultural tools, fishing boats, and most famously, to transport and construct platforms for the famous giant head statues, the moai. The platforms served as stages for ceremonies and entertainment, and they were used by the dozen or so chieftains on the island as a measure of their relative power.
The head-scratching question then becomes, How do you become the last person to chop down the last tree on Easter Island? Or, you could invert the question and ask, How could you let the last tree go to someone else’s tribe and not your own? The same pattern is true with the Morgans, Rockafellers, and Rothschilds of the world. They got to where they are because they were the best at squeezing the last drop out of the system. If it leads to war sometimes, so be it.
The Ancient Greeks had this notion of the Titanomachy (“titan battle”), which was a ten-year battle between the old gods of Mt. Othrys (i.e. Uranus, Gaia) and the new gods of Mt. Olympus (i.e. Zeus and his siblings). In Greek mythology, humans become the unwitting participants in the struggles of greater powers. The Greeks had it right the first time, and so it’s time to repackage the Titanomachy for modern times.
The book that comes closest to revealing Accumulation Theory is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. But just like Bernie Sanders, Zinn misses a key point: while putting the spotlight on the people might feel good, we need to recognize that the drum beat still comes from the towers of power. If we ignore that narrative, then we won’t know who to overthrow nor how to change the tune.
What Can Be Done?
Oftentimes discussing Accumulation Theory makes people depressed. How can we possibly prevent society from eating itself? The first step is to understand and clarify the theory. Before I wrote the above section on World War II, I had no idea that the pieces that would fit so well. I started with the hypothesis that the war was really a protracted battle between multi-national robber-barons, and it didn’t take me long to surface the names Rockefeller, Morgan, and Thyssen. Validating the hypothesis was incredibly satisfying and it reinforced my belief in Accumulation Theory.
How to Hack Accumulation Theory
The second step is to realize that Accumulation Theory is a natural result of network effects and game theory, which means we can use the latter to hack the former. It might be possible to construct policies that redirect accumulation drives. Those at the top have always manipulated politicians for their own benefit, so why can’t we become the manipulators?
Why can’t we construct policies that trick politicians into implementing pro-social programs? I see some hope in examples like the budget sequestration of 2013 where politicians pre-committed to across-the-board budget cuts if they couldn’t produce a “grand bargain” to fix the debt ceiling. Predictably, the politicians failed to make a deal, and alas, the budget was cut. Given the political polarization of the time period, such an outcome would have been impossible if it wasn’t for this politician’s trap.
Ordinary people have never had the kind of access to leaders that patricians have had. But maybe, by maneuvering and manipulating the flow of power from the bottom up, we can change the rules of the game.