CHARLES KOCH: AT THE INTERSECTION OF RACIAL, CLIMATE, AND ECONOMIC INJUSTICE
December 17, 2015
By Ralph Wilson
The youth of this generation are witnessing the privatization and corporatization of virtually every aspect of our lives. We are not apathetic or lazy, but humbled and mobilizing at the feet of one of the largest human-made clusterf*cks in the history of this planet. Our great challenge is to act quickly and effectively in a dozen directions at once.
Not only do we need solidarity and coordination on a scale never before seen, but we also need a shared understanding of the common roots of our various struggles:
We have awakened into an overdue revival and broadening of the struggle for our civil rights.
We have inherited a world that is slipping into climate catastrophe.
We are bound by unprecedented debt for having the audacity to seek education.
We are left to confront the greatest income inequality in a century.
We are born into a political system that has been almost entirely captured by big money.
I would like to observe one common root: Kansas industrial billionaire Charles Koch.
For decades, Charles Koch has been a crucial part of the radical pro-corporate, anti-public agenda that has shaped our nation into what it is today. Koch coordinates a network of political donors, politicians, political front-groups, think-tanks, and university professors who make up a fully-integrated political machine. This machine has allowed Koch’s influence to touch, and damn, many aspects of our lives.
From 1961-1968, Charles Koch was an active member of the John Birch Society (JBS), a free market extremist organization co-founded by his father Fred Koch and several other wealthy business owners in 1958. The group was forefront in opposing the civil rights movement.
The JBS directly opposed civil rights legislation, and it propagated anti-civil rights literature through a network of “American Opinion Bookstores.” Charles Koch worked in the “pilot” store in Wichita, Kansas. JBS supported violent police suppression of civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama and other southern cities, including a “Support Your Local Police” campaign with bumper stickers and eventually (in 1966) opposing “Civilian Review Boards” that would impose citizen oversight against police brutality. Additionally, JBS’s “What’s Wrong with Civil Rights” campaign claimed African Americans are better off in the U.S. than in other countries and have personal security on par with whites. Though Charles Koch left JBS in 1968 over their support over the Vietnam war, his network has continued to work closely with the efforts of other JBS co-founders.
More recently, corporate America has adulterated the freedoms won by the civil rights movement by creating the modern prison industrial complex through the passage of the “Tough on Crime” initiatives. These initiatives were advanced in large part by Koch funded corporate/legislative liaisons, including think tanks and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Despite Charles Koch’s high-visibility support for criminal justice reform, they continue to fund tough on crime political ads to this day.
Koch Industries is one of the most environmentally destructive corporations in the United States. Its operations include oil & gas refining, tar sands leases and fossil fuel logistics, pipelines, fracking equipment, fertilizer and chemical production, timber and paper production, and other operations that have repeatedly led to pollution incidents.
Koch Industries’ profits fuel the pet politics of Charles Koch, and the company itself is active in Mr. Koch’s political network, cooperatively working with nonprofit foundations, business leagues and SuperPACs under Koch’s control. Reflecting Mr. Koch’s infamous hatred for regulations against his company’s pollution, Charles Koch’s foundations granted $79 million to climate change denial groups since 1997. Charles Koch shrugs off advice from the world’s scientists that global warming is a massive threat to humanity, and ignores the reality that climate change is caused by companies like Koch Industries.
Tuition has more than tripled since the 1970’s, while coming to make up twice as much of the total funding supporting higher education. Though the corporate restructuring of universities has increased administrative costs, this increase in tuition has happened in large part due to radical austerity measures promoted by Koch funded politicians, citing false budget crises to slash education spending, forcing students into unprecedented levels of debt.
While forcing the public sector into increasing austerity, Koch’s network has championed tax breaks and massive deregulation allowing polluters like Koch to externalize their costs. Charles Koch publicly contends that the minimum wage is a major obstacle to economic growth, and has also been instrumental in efforts to destroy labor unions. The Koch network’s efforts aggressively seek to reinforce this inequality.
Money in Politics
Koch’s political operations in the United States have turned electoral politics into a system run by, and for, campaign donors. Koch organizations appear to have played a key role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, opening the floodgates of corporate money into political elections. They then promptly exploited these new campaign finance rules, while also pioneering mechanisms to hide the source of political spending.
Setting the stage for his own success, Charles has capitalized on the political influence granted to wealthy donors by coordinating the spending of other like-minded private executives. The group, composed of just 400 of the country’s 300,000,000 people, plans on spending a collective $750 million around the 2016 elections and certain political projects. Worse yet, Koch’s network has also gained access to the GOP voter database, acquiring a vast extension of their political infrastructure.
When viewed from a common root, these crises (and thus our struggles to overcome them) may appear more coherent. The rise of corporate power we are seeing has not been a coincidence, and what is worse, research is revealing that at the heart of this orchestration is the university; Charles Koch is actively capturing the academic brands of universities, and employing them into his network’s lobbying, public relations, and electoral work.
The Role of the University
The ever-adapting crisis of capitalism has recognized that academia poses one of the most significant threats to corporate dominance. In 1974, Charles Koch says plainly:
"[W]e have supported the very institutions from which the attack on free markets emanate. Although much of our support has been involuntary through taxes, we have also contributed voluntarily to colleges and universities on the erroneous assumption that this assistance benefits businesses and the free enterprise system, even though these institutions encourage extreme hostility to American business. We should cease financing our own destruction and follow the counsel of David Packard, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, by supporting only those programs, departments or schools that ‘contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system.'”
Free inquiry will expose, and therefore destabilize, corrupt power structures. Only when systems of oppression can be demonstrated clearly, can such truths empower the public to take appropriate and effective action.
This became excruciatingly clear to Koch and the executors of the radical corporate agenda. The mass mobilization of corporate interests in the 1970’s is considered by conservative legal scholars to be a “counter-mobilization” against the “entrenched” socially progressive policies won during the 1960’s civil rights movement, environmental movement, and others. [Teles, 2008]
It is generally accepted that the Powell memo in 1971 was the earliest blueprint for the cultural promulgation of capitalism in the United States, as well as an early warning that academia would mean ruin for free-enterprise. This survival plan has been significantly updated by Charles Koch and his billionaire insurgents.
In 1996, the Charles Koch Foundation described its model for generating private policy change through the coordinated funding of the political machine that Koch has created over the decades. In addition to funding university researchers to create “intellectual raw materials,” Koch recommends that donors fund think tanks to mold the research into a “usable form” (policy reports or model legislation), as well as ”implementation groups” (astroturf groups) to leverage the final policy change.
In effect, this political machine is an influence pump, with each cycle pulling influence out of the hands of the public and putting it into to the hands of the few.
With the addition of massive political spending enabled by Citizens United, Fink’s model is running according to plan. A group of donors is coordinated twice annually at secretive Koch’s donor summits to fund universities, think tanks, astroturf groups and politicians as part of Fink’s ‘integrated strategy.” Leaked documents show that 2010 attendees were instructed that “free enterprise is more than an economic system-- it is a moral imperative, and we must defend it at all costs” . With Charles Koch acknowledging that roughly 2/3 of the Koch network’s $750 million war chest for the 2016 elections now earmarked for “research and education” , universities are showing themselves to be the crux of Koch’s long term vision.
A national network called UnKoch My Campus has begun to push back against the integration of the university into the political strategy of billionaires. Charles Koch’s undue influence on campus was first revealed in 2011 by Florida State University professors, exposing the vast control sought by Koch in return for money. The influence has only worsened since then.
The Center for Public Integrity has released details from within a recent political summit hosted by Charles Koch, wherein Koch Industries executives reveal that their activities on campus are intended not just for research, but for training and recruiting for their political efforts:
The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline.
Here is a video of the spread of Koch’s reach into universities:
Corporate interests not only realized that academia poses the greatest threat to corporate dominance, but it also holds the last hope for the survival of capitalism. The appearance of legitimacy that corporate interests are purchasing through their “philanthropy” is at the heart of their political strategy. The political machine they have built exists on multiple scales; local, state, and federal level, as well as across individuals, organizations, and networks of organizations.
...Should Inform Our Strategy
Koch’s top-down network of political corruption is digging in for the long haul, and any viable “counter-mobilization” against the entrenchment of corporate interests will have to match its breadth and scale. Therefore, only with a shared understanding of Koch’s structure and strategy can we guide the upward formation of grassroots coalitions to most effectively resist full corporate capture of the state, and with it, the full subversion of the public interest by the private.
More often than we care to find, when a problem is related to privatization or corporate power, following the money will often lead to Koch, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, or their other counterparts. UnKoch My Campus is dedicated to helping to provide any intersectional research that can help reveal the common roots of our struggles, Charles Koch being one of many.
The activities of Koch’s network continue to make this more actionable by the day, as they are openly revealing themselves as complicit in everything our generation is fighting against. Koch and their colleagues openly mock students working against rape culture, fossil fuels, and white supremacy on their campuses as “groupthink” and “campus orthodoxy,” or as the “intellectual shallowness” that “western civilization has devolved to.” See a video of Koch personnel and their colleagues openly laughing at rape victims, mocking “hands up-don’t shoot” (8:28), and denouncing trigger warnings and micro-aggressions (19:11).
Along with the deep intersections of all systems of oppression, the cultural and political structures put in place to protect those systems of oppression also greatly intersect. The more we use common language and imagery of Koch’s corporate-political machine we have to frame our local struggles, the more likely it will be that public interest grassroots organizers will find opportunities for intersectional targets, strategies, and coalitions. It is such a commonality that could allow us to build an increasingly shared narrative on an increasingly large scale, allowing us to begin exposing and striking at the common roots of our problems.
Editor's note: the blog originally appeared on WeArePowerShift.org