How US bil­lion­aires are fu­elling the hard-right cause in Bri­tain

Dark money is among the great­est cur­rent threats to democ­racy. This means money spent be­low the pub­lic radar.

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Ge­orge Mon­biot

This means money that seeks to change po­lit­i­cal out­comes. It en­ables very rich peo­ple and cor­po­ra­tions to in­flu­ence pol­i­tics with­out show­ing their hands.

Among the world’s big­gest po­lit­i­cal spenders are Charles and David Koch, co-own­ers of Koch In­dus­tries, a vast pri­vate con­glom­er­ate of oil pipe­lines and re­finer­ies, chem­i­cals, tim­ber and pa­per com­pa­nies, com­mod­ity trad­ing firms and cat­tle ranches. If their two for­tunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the rich­est man on Earth.

In a rare pub­lic state­ment, in an es­say pub­lished in 1978, Charles Koch ex­plained his ob­jec­tive.

“Our move­ment must de­stroy the preva­lent statist par­a­digm.” As Jane Mayer records in her book Dark Money, the Kochs’ ide­ol­ogy – lower taxes and looser reg­u­la­tions – and their busi­ness in­ter­ests “dove­tailed so seam­lessly it was dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish one from the other”. Over the years, she notes, “the com­pany de­vel­oped a stun­ning record of cor­po­rate malfea­sance”. Koch In­dus­tries paid mas­sive fines for oil spills, il­le­gal ben­zene emis­sions and am­mo­nia pol­lu­tion. In 1999, a jury found that Koch In­dus­tries had know­ingly us­ing a cor­roded pipe­line to carry bu­tane, which caused an ex­plo­sion in which two peo­ple died. Com­pany Town, a film re­leased last year, tells the story of lo­cal peo­ple’s long fight against pol­lu­tion from a huge pa­per mill owned by the Koch broth­ers.

The Kochs’ chief po­lit­i­cal lieu­tenant, Richard Fink, de­vel­oped what he called a three-stage model of so­cial change. Uni­ver­si­ties would pro­duce “the in­tel­lec­tual raw ma­te­ri­als”. Think­tanks would trans­form them into “a more prac­ti­cal or us­able form”. Then “cit­i­zen ac­tivist” groups would “press for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of pol­icy change”. To these ends the Kochs set up bod­ies in all three cat­e­gories them­selves, such as the Mer­ca­tus Cen­ter at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, the Cato In­sti­tute and the “ci­ti­zens’ group” Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity. But for the most part they funded ex­ist­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions that met their cri­te­ria. They have poured hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars into a net­work of aca­demic de­part­ments, think­tanks, jour­nals and move­ments.

And they ap­pear to have been re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful.

As re­searchers at Har­vard and Columbia uni­ver­si­ties have found, Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity alone now ri­vals the Repub­li­can party in terms of size, staffing and or­gan­i­sa­tional ca­pac­ity. It has pulled “the Repub­li­can party to the far right on eco­nomic, tax and reg­u­la­tory is­sues”. It was cru­cial to the suc­cess of the Tea Party move­ment, the oust­ing of Democrats from Congress, and the staffing of Trump’s tran­si­tion team. The

Koch net­work has helped se­cure mas­sive tax cuts, the smash­ing of trade unions and the dis­man­tling of en­vi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion.

But their hands, for the most part, re­main in­vis­i­ble. A Repub­li­can con­sul­tant who has worked for Charles and David Koch told Mayer that “to call them un­der the radar is an un­der­state­ment. They are un­der­ground.”

Un­til now, there has been no ev­i­dence that Charles and David Koch have funded or­gan­i­sa­tions based in the UK. But a few weeks ago, a reader pointed me to one line he found in a form sub­mit­ted to the US gov­ern­ment by the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion, which showed money trans­ferred to a com­pany that ap­pears to be the US fund­ing arm of a UK or­gan­i­sa­tion. Once I had grasped its sig­nif­i­cance, I set up a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the in­ves­tiga­tive group DeS­mog UK. We could scarcely be­lieve what we were see­ing.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion has cho­sen to fund is at first sight as­tound­ing: a US or­gan­i­sa­tion es­tab­lished by an ob­scure UK-based mag­a­zine run by former mem­bers of a tiny Trot­skyite splin­ter group. But the harder you look at it, the more sense the Koch do­na­tions ap­pear to make. The name of the mag­a­zine is Spiked. It emerged from a group with a com­i­cal his­tory of left fac­tion­al­ism. In 1974, the In­ter­na­tional So­cial­ists split after a dis­pute over arith­metic in Vol­ume 3 of Das Kap­i­tal. One of the new fac­tions formed the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Group. In 1976 it split again, and one of the splin­ters formed the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Ten­dency. It was led by a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Kent called Frank Furedi. In 1981 it changed its name to the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist party.

In 1988, the party launched a mag­a­zine called Liv­ing Marx­ism (later LM). By then, it had aban­doned many of its former con­vic­tions. In 2000, it closed after los­ing a li­bel case: it falsely claimed that ITN had fab­ri­cated ev­i­dence of Serb atroc­i­ties against Bos­nian Mus­lims. But as soon as the mag­a­zine folded, a net­work of new groups, with the same cast of char­ac­ters – Furedi, Claire Fox, Mick Hume, Bren­dan O’Neill, James Heart­field, Michael Fitz­patrick, James Woud­huy­sen – sprang up to re­place it. Among these or­gan­i­sa­tions were the In­sti­tute of Ideas, the Academy of Ideas, the Man­i­festo Club and a new mag­a­zine, Spiked. It had the same edi­tor as LM (Hume) and most of the same con­trib­u­tors.

We found three pay­ments over the past two years from the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion. They amount to $170,000 (£130,000), ear­marked for “gen­eral op­er­at­ing sup­port”. The pay­ments were made to Spiked US Inc. On Spiked’s do­na­tions page is a but­ton that says “In the US? Do­nate here”. It takes you to the PayPal link for “Spiked US, Inc”. Spiked US, in other words, ap­pears to be its US fund­ing arm. Beyond a postal ad­dress in Hobo­ken, New Jersey, it is hard to see what pres­ence Spiked has in the US. It ap­pears to have been es­tab­lished in 2016, the year in which the Koch do­na­tions be­gan.

When I asked Spiked what the money was for and whether there had been any other pay­ments, its man­ag­ing edi­tor, Viv Re­gan, told me that the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion has now given Spiked US Inc a to­tal of $300,000, “to pro­duce pub­lic de­bates in the US about free speech, as part of its char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties”. She claims Spiked US sup­ports pro­jects “on both the left and the right”. The Koch Foun­da­tion has funded “a free speech-ori­ented pro­gramme of pub­lic de­bates on cam­pus ti­tled the Un­safe Space Tour” and four live events, the first of which is ti­tled “Should we be free to hate?” She told me: “We’re very proud of our work on free speech and tol­er­ance, and we are proud to be part of the pro­gramme.”

But I have been un­able to find any pub­lic ac­knowl­edge­ment of this fund­ing. Nei­ther on the videos of the de­bates, in the posters ad­ver­tis­ing them nor in re­ports of the events in Spiked mag­a­zine is there any men­tion of the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion.

From what I could see of the ti­tle slides in the videos, they ac­knowl­edged an or­gan­i­sa­tion

called the In­sti­tute For Hu­mane Stud­ies, but not the foun­da­tion. Spiked has yet to re­ply to my ques­tions on this mat­ter.

The Koch broth­ers are fa­mously care­ful with their money. Ac­cord­ing to Mayer, they ex­ert “un­usu­ally tight per­sonal con­trol over their phil­an­thropic en­deav­ours”. So what might have at­tracted them to this ob­scure or­gan­i­sa­tion?

Spiked mag­a­zine, edited by O’Neill, ap­pears to hate left­wing pol­i­tics. It in­veighs against the wel­fare state, against reg­u­la­tion, the Oc­cupy move­ment, an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ists, Jeremy Cor­byn, Ge­orge Soros, #MeToo, “black priv­i­lege” and Black Lives Mat­ter. It does so in the name of the “or­di­nary peo­ple”, whom, it claims, are op­pressed by the “anti-Trump and anti-Brexit cul­tural elites”, “fem­i­nis­tic elites”, “green elites” and “cos­mopoli­tan politi­cians”.

Its ar­ti­cles re­peat­edly de­fend fig­ures on the hard right or far right: Katie Hop­kins, Nigel Farage, Alex Jones, the Demo­cratic Foot­ball Lads’ Al­liance, Tommy Robin­son, Toby Young, Ar­ron Banks, Vik­tor Or­bán. They are por­trayed as vic­tims of “McCarthyites” try­ing to sup­press free speech. It de­mands the hard­est of pos­si­ble Brex­its, in­sist­ing that “No deal is noth­ing to fear”, as it would al­low the UK to scrap EU reg­u­la­tions. But what it ap­pears to hate most is en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. It rails against “cli­mate scare­mon­ger­ing”, and has called for frack­ing and coal pro­duc­tion to be ramped up. It blamed the Gren­fell Tower dis­as­ter on “the moral fer­vour of the cli­mate change cam­paign”. It mocks the idea that air pol­lu­tion is dan­ger­ous and has pro­posed abol­ish­ing the plan­ning sys­tem. “We need to con­quer na­ture, not bow to it,” it con­tends. “Let’s make the ‘hu­man foot­print’ even big­ger.”

Spiked’s writ­ers rage against ex­po­sures of dark money. It car­ries numer­ous ar­ti­cles by peo­ple from the ob­scurely funded In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Af­fairs and from the Cato In­sti­tute. Its edi­tor also writes for Rea­son mag­a­zine, owned by the Rea­son Foun­da­tion, which has re­ceived $1m from the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion over the past two years. Its en­thu­si­asm for Trot­sky is highly se­lec­tive. As one of Spiked’s writ­ers noted in 2002, his cen­tral mes­sage was that “the re­treat be­hind na­tional bound­aries is a recipe for re­ac­tion”. Yet the mag­a­zine’s de­fence of both Brexit and Or­bán, Hun­gary’s rightwing prime min­is­ter, is founded on the no­tion of na­tional sovereignty. Spiked seems to have re­mem­bered ev­ery­thing Trot­sky wrote that could be re­cruited to the cause of cor­po­rate cap­i­tal and the hard right, and for­got­ten all his, shall we say, less en­thu­si­as­tic mus­ings about those forces.

Above all, its po­si­tions are jus­ti­fied with the claim to sup­port free speech. But the free­dom all seems to tend in one di­rec­tion: free­dom to lam­bast vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple. The Un­safe Space tour that the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion fi­nanced was heav­ily slanted to­wards this line. Yet, when I ex­er­cised my free­dom of speech in send­ing my ques­tions to Spiked, I was de­nounced on the front page of the mag­a­zine as a “McCarthyite”.

This is its favourite in­sult, which it uses pro­lif­i­cally to dis­miss le­git­i­mate in­quiries and cri­tiques. The usual term for ask­ing awk­ward ques­tions about pow­er­ful in­ter­ests is jour­nal­ism. Isn’t open in­for­ma­tion and trans­parency a cru­cial com­po­nent of free speech? Spiked has also called for schools, uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ments to be “cleansed” of “the ma­lign in­flu­ence” of green NGOs, which it de­nounces as “the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist en­emy within”. Some friends of free speech, these.

The Kochs are men­tioned in sev­eral Spiked ar­ti­cles, but no cor­re­spond­ing in­ter­ests are de­clared. An ar­ti­cle in 2016, when Spiked US re­ceived $170,000 from the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion, at­tacked the Stand­ing Rock protests against the Dakota Ac­cess pipe­line, in which the Koch broth­ers have a ma­jor in­ter­est.

Is this the ex­tent of the Koch broth­ers’ in­volve­ment with groups based in the UK? Who knows? I have not yet had a re­sponse from the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion. But I see these pay­ments as part of a wider pat­tern of undis­closed fund­ing. Democ­racy with­out trans­parency is not democ­racy.

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