We have previous discussed in these pages a new and largely ignored form of insurgency warfare: the globalized elite’s coordinated, targeted efforts to dispossess the general public. Dr. Robert Bunker (on the staff of the US Army War College) and Pamela Bunker coined the term “plutocratic insurgency” to describe this novel form of warfare. In a brilliant series of articles published on the Small Wars Journal website, Bunker has made a compelling case that what he calls “extra-sovereign actors” (i.e., globalized elites moving themselves and their capital freely across international boundaries) have been permitted to wage non-traditional warfare against the societies in which they operate.
Bunker’s work is ground-breaking, and his ideas deserve wide dissemination. I have done what I can in this regard, devoting a podcast program specifically to this topic. He argues that we need to expand significantly our definition of what constitutes “insurgency.” Some features of the insurgency we have already discussed: targeted job obsolescence, the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the lack of student loan debt relief, the silencing of dissent in mainstream media, and the erosion of public educational standards. Most recently, Dr. Bunker has published two additional articles featuring other features of the plutocratic insurgency: the privatization of public spaces, and the construction of “techno-palaces” for extra-sovereign actors.
The “Techno-Palaces of the Global Elites”
In July 2017, Dr. Bunker described how extra–sovereign actors physically remove themselves from the squalor and turbulence of the societies in which they parasitically operate. The following excerpt describes the phenomenon:
Who: The global elite of the world. Only about 40,000 extra-sovereign individuals are able to afford the ten-million dollar plus price of the units in the more prestigious of these residential towers.
What: The building of techno-palaces (e.g. ‘needle-towers’ and other post-modernist architectural forms) that provide full amenities and are guarded 24-hours by private security personnel.
When: These new urban residences of a transnational plutonomy began to be completed in 2014 and are now spreading to key nodal global city hubs.
Where: This phenomenon initially took place in New York City due to its concentration of global financial capital and limited building space, however, concentrations of global elites in other key cities of the world are also now moving into similar residences though they presently tend to be less expensive.
Why: These residences are likely being purchased due to a combination of factors including their locations in major global financial centers, luxury appointments, high-technology feel, secure nature, and the networking environments they provide to the world’s richest families for business facilitation and marriage alliances between their offspring.
Analysis: One of the authors became aware of the existence of what are, essentially, the new ‘techno-palaces’ of the global elite when travelling to New York City earlier this year. At the time, the One57 (“The Billionaire Building”—Image 2), 432 Park Ave (“Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere”—Image 3), and 56 Leonard (“Jenga Skyscraper”—Image 4) high-rise residences—while quite amazing—made little sense. These post-modern architectural structures seemed like they had been erected in the city as part of a bad B movie ‘alien colonization’ story line which it turns out—tragically for the American middle and lower classes—is not too far off the mark.
It turns out that they are being marketed to the global elite—comprised of about 40,000 extra-sovereign citizens (representing about .000005% of the world’s 7.5 billion population)—who are buying them up in what has quickly developed into a seller’s market. The New York City abodes have an average price in the +$10 million range and represent a component of what we term ‘Dark Globalization.’ Living in high-tech skyscraper enclaves guarded by 24-hour private security forces has become another visible road sign on the way to that dystopian future in which a few ‘haves’ possess massive wealth well beyond the rest of the world’s population combined—with an unbridgeable gap in between.
The first of these structures began appearing in New York City with the completion of the One57 building in May 2014 along with the growing number of such completed structures now beginning to drastically alter the city skyline (See Images 2-7, 9). Their erection is due to a combination of factors including the desirability of living in a global hub that generates great financial wealth, a shortage of buildable land within key sections of the city, and an excess of disposable wealth accumulated by the world’s elite. Recent advances in construction techniques have further allowed for the building of very thin ‘needle’ structures that are extremely tall in size—rivaling that of the world’s tallest buildings, even such as One World Trade Center—yet are very narrow at their base.
A precursor to these techno-palaces may be the $1 billion dollar ‘Antilla’ residence of Mukesh Ambani—an industrial, technology, and property magnate—built in Mumbai and completed in November 2010 (See image 1). While only 568 feet tall, it is technically a single unit residence, as opposed to the more typical 1,000 feet tall skyscrapers containing dozens of global elite palatial suites. For less affluent billionaires than Ambani, bargain penthouses (singles up to quads) are going at more affordable prices ranging in the $50 through $250 million range with about $90-100 million now appearing to be a popular price for the most elite among them.
The expectation is that—now that these ‘techno palaces’ are becoming the de facto global elite residences in New York City—they will begin to emerge across the globe in its major financial centers. This is already seemingly the case with their construction being mimicked in a number of other major financial cities worldwide such as Sydney, Hong Kong, and Tokyo and, with more sensible height limits of course placed upon them, in London (See Image 8). One architect interviewed in 2016 already noted that in the United States “San Francisco, Miami, and Boston already have mini–needle towers underway,“ and “Other cities such as Seattle and Atlanta will follow.”
Following that bad alien colonization storyline, the projection is that in the coming decades the new extra-sovereign masters of humanity will raise up many more such gleaming towers to look down from as they further separate themselves from the rest of us. Like master puppeteers, these scions of predatory capitalism are engaged in a sustained global insurgent campaign that is neither understood nor recognized by lesser political elites, the middle strata, or the masses. Instead, we simply marvel at the pretty new shimmering needle-like structures arising in our cities, quite blissfully unaware of the dystopian socio-economic futures they may represent for our children and our children’s children.
Readers are encouraged to visit Bunker’s original article, where additional citations and photographs of the buildings in question are provided.
Privatizing Urban Public Spaces
An even more sinister feature of the plutocratic insurgency is the creeping confiscation of lands and resources in the public domain. Bunker explains this in detail:
Privately owned public spaces (Pops) are becoming key fixtures in cities around the world. This privatization of public space creates corporately controlled spaces governed by obscure private rules and policed by private security entities with minimal state control. A lack of transparency (as the rules governing policing of these spaces are not always made public) challenges free movement and liberties in these ‘pseudo-public spaces’ that are reminiscent of feudal enclaves. This situation removes public spaces from the commons and places this territory in the hands of corporate or plutocratic elite rather than under state control.
What is often not appreciated is that the curtailing of free speech and other rights goes hand-in-hand with the confiscation of public lands. Instead, the media distracts the public with dramatic or lurid images of “demonstrators” clashing with each other. At the same time, the land on which such groups fights is being stolen right out from under them both.
Privately owned public spaces (Pops) include small plazas, atriums, arcades, gardens, terraces, and small parks, squares, snippets (micro-parcels) and other indoor and outdoor spaces on private land open for public use through an easement or zoning concession. In some cases, developers were allowed to build taller or denser structures if they provided public access to public space. Over time, some of the property owners reverted to sole private use by denying public access, limiting operating hours or allowing adjacent tenants (like cafés) to usurp the space and violate public use provisions. In San Francisco, they are known as Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces (POPOS), emphasizing outdoor venues.
In addition to private spaces developed for public use, there is a trend for existing public spaces to be ‘adopted’ by private corporations or public-private partnerships (P3) essentially privatizing public space. These “sales’ of public goods for limited public use or private use have the potential to be abused and deny the public their traditional right to the commons. In New York City, for example, over half (182 of 333) of the Pops were violating their usage requirements agreements with the City.
In San Francisco, the diversion of public space to private use has increased civic tensions in as many components of San Francisco’s urban spaces (bus stops, parks, plazas, streets, and sidewalks) are limiting public access. These limits threaten freedom of movement, recreation, speech, and expression through increased privatization, policing, and reduction of public spaces. This denial of access to the urban commons is similar to the wealthy denying access to beaches,waterways and rivers such as the Thames.
In London centuries of tradition are being erased as cash-strapped local councils sell off public squares and parks to corporations and foreign landholders. As the Guardian has observed:
“The public spaces of London, the collective assets of the city’s citizens, are being sold to corporations – privatised – without explanation or apology. The process has been strategically engineered to seem necessary, benign and even inconsequential, but behind the veil, the simple fact is this: the United Kingdom is in the midst of the largest sell-off of common space since the enclosures of the 17th and 18th century, and London is the epicentre of the fire sale.’’
The new pseudo-private spaces are creating an opportunity for open, accessible public space in economic hard times, but this potential is often short-changed by exclusion and limitation of the traditional freedom of the commons. In London, the beneficiaries of many of these spaces are sovereign wealth funds and the regulations governing their use are secret or the enforcement arms of the Pops won’t share their contents (or don’t know of their existence) making these ostensibly public spaces essentially private in nature. Examples of this type of space include:
“major areas of open land around Paddington Station (encompassing both Merchant Square and Paddington Central), nearly seven acres of open space owned by Arsenal Football Club in Islington, busy shopping and dining plazas in Covent Garden and Victoria, and the pseudo-public area around one of London’s most iconic attractions, the London Eye.”
Such usurpation of public space often yields conflict. Such conflicts have been long recognized as features of the urban ‘power-counterpower’ struggle. Urbanist Jane Jacobs identified early manifestations of the contest for urban land use when describing the negative effects of urban renewal and displacing people (often the urban poor) from neighborhoods to build expressways and refined (or gentrified) public spaces. Mike Davis echoed those concerns when he described urban apartheid in Los Angeles’ spatial segregation, gated communities, and militarized security of privatized spaces in City of Quartz. The culmination of this plutocratic land use paradigm is seen in Bladerunner-like scenarios of wealthy enclave outposts like Dubai and the geographically distributed micro-enclaves known as Pops, and their alter ego the competing global slums.
In London, these struggles came to the forefront during the Occupy Protests. The exclusion of the public from Pops also raises concerning about the plutocratic domination of property, especially since “nearly half the country is already owned by 0.06% of the population and furthering that trend is exacerbating social inequality.”According to the Guardian:
In 2011, the consequences of privatising public land came into sharp focus when Occupy protesters were forced out of Paternoster Square by a court order that revealed that the space was owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company. It seemed, at the time, too dystopian to be true, that the rules imposed by a corporation could supersede the law of the land.
Soon after, we began hearing about confrontations in other pseudo-public spaces, such as on the land of More London, where City Hall is a public island in a sea of privatised open air space owned by Kuwaiti land barons. It transpires that for the past few decades almost every major redevelopment in London has resulted in the privatisation of public space, including areas around the Olympic Stadium, King’s Cross and Nine Elms.
A similar situation occurred when Occupy protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park, New York City—a highly visible privately owned park that raised First Amendment concerns. Policing privatized spaces (Pops) or mass private property raises a number of concerns including fragmenting provision of public safety services and the distribution of rights and authority among public and private actors with private concerns often outweighing public liberty interests as the promotion of corporate interest outweighs concerns for public justice.
Concerns about the outsourcing of accountability and lack of transparency complicate the public-private interaction on these quasi-public spaces. The quest for maintaining public order has resulted in conflicting views over security and access as historically public squares started to restrict access and install ubiquitous CCTV monitoring on private streets and in public places with private security essentially acting in lieu of public police. Among the actions banned in these spaces are begging, homelessness, skateboarding, busking (street music), and a range of typically protected speech: handing out political leaflets, soliciting signatures for petitions, and political demonstrations.
Concerns over privatization and urban land use also complicate the security situation and are evident in São Paulo where squatters have occupied spaces. They have also been voiced in Barcelona where squatters from the Indignodos (15-M) movement occupy public spaces to protest economic and social exclusion.
Rising urban crime and instability have led some to consider privatizing public streets so that persons frequenting ‘public’ gathering spaces can be subject to searches and weapons screening. Such a proposal is currently being considered in Kansas City that seeks to privatize portions of the public streets in the Westport Entertainment District.
Calls to curtail public space and liberties are fuelled by insecurity and fear of street gangs and crime. They also inhibit security by ‘over fortifying’ public spaces in a manner that restricts legitimate use which itself would help contain crime. This manipulation of the spatial dynamics of the city contributes to “the architecture of dissent” where design and land use influences urban protest, crime, and conflict.
This contest is being fueled by two interconnected trends playing out in the global network of cities: criminal insurgency and plutocratic insurgency. These ‘Twin Insurgencies” are changing the distribution of power and profit in the licit, illicit, and grey markets. The contest for spatial domination in cities is long-standing, ranging from the Classical era through the Middle Ages to today’s emerging global network states. Preserving access to public spaces fills an essential role in ensuring access to the political realm—that is, ensuring the physical space and transactions necessary to promote the free flow of ideas in the Agora.
Although it is beyond the scope of Bunker’s article, the confiscation of land by the plutocracy is not limited to urban areas. In the United States, corporate entities have been lobbying the government for years to gain access to the vast tracts of unspoiled national park lands in the western half of the country. The national park legacy of Theodore Roosevelt is now under attack as never before. Corporate entities want to “privatize” (i.e., exploit for their own financial gain) the national parks, or “turn them over” to the states, which is another way of putting these precious resources in the hands of easily-manipulated state legislatures. Since Congress is now largely penetrated and compromised by plutocrat money, we can expect little resistance from the executive branch, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office.
Role Of The Media: Distract And Reframe
One final dimension of the continued progress of the insurgency is the use of the media to “distract” the public and reframe the war in ways that prevent the public from uniting against the plutocratic insurgents. Remember that a necessary condition of the insurgency is that it operates in the shadows. It does not want attention, because if the public really knew what was going on, it would demand immediate action.
Instead, the media’s task is to distract the public. As the public’s share of the pie becomes smaller and smaller, and resources get harder to acquire, a mad scramble for crumbs from the plutocratic table ensues. The public balkanizes itself into groups based on political affiliation, class, ethnicity, religion, or whatever else, in an effort to fight for what little is left. The extremes of both sides of the political spectrum are thus used as “safety valves” to enable the public to blow off steam at favored bugbears, while attention is safely siphoned away from the real threat to public safety: the extra-sovereign actors of the plutocratic insurgency itself.
Education and awareness is a critical component in this fight for the future. We must read, understand, and internalize the words of Sallust about the venality and lack of public accountability of the super-rich:
After riches began to be considered a substitute for honor, and when glory, power, and force followed as a consequence, virtue grew feeble; humble circumstances were held a disgrace, and innocence began to be regarded with malice. As wealth grew steadily, luxury and greed combined with arrogance took possession of the youth. They freely took what they wanted, consumed with reckless abandon, and placed scant value on their own possessions while coveting those of others; shame, modesty, and all things human and divine were thought of as nothing. There was no sense of moderation.
It is worth the effort, when you examine the homes and villas constructed in the fashion of cities, to see the temples of the gods made by our most pious ancestors. Truly they adorned the homes of the gods with piety, and their own homes with glory; neither did they take anything away from their defeated enemies except their license to cause harm. In contrast, the modern individual—that most lazy of men—takes away, using the greatest treachery, everything from our allies that our strong, victorious ancestors left them. It is almost as if inflicting an injury were the same as the rightful exercise of power.
Why should I relate these things? They are credible to no one except those who have seen them: can mountains be cut through by groups of men, or can someone build on the sea? For them their riches seem to have been a mockery; they might have made use of them reputably, yet they rushed to expend them indecently.
The lust for sex, gluttonous eating, and other frivolities advanced in no small way; men acted as women, and women uncovered their modesty; they combed land and sea to find culinary delicacies; they slept before their bodies needed sleep; they waited for neither hunger nor thirst, nor cold or exhaustion, but preempted all these things by their soft-living. These vices incited the youth to wrongdoing once their family resources had run out. A mind imbued with evil habits is not easily kept free from wantonness; and ever more immoderately, their minds had surrendered themselves to all varieties of material gain and profligacy. [Catiline XII et. seq.]
On a personal level, the only antidote to this ethic of amoral materialism is a broad education in the classics (with its timeless emphasis on character, virtue, and public duty); on the public level, we must see the embracing of something akin to Theodore Roosevelt’s “new nationalism” adapted to the needs of 2017. Unless the insurgency is confronted and rolled back, the vast economic inequalities prevailing today will continue, and the ultimate outcomes will be ugly.
Read more on the corrupting influence of unnatural concentration of wealth: