The Koch Brothers and The Atlas Network
The Atlas Network
Hi there pop pickers hope you are all well. So what have we got today then? Well, I have been looking at this thing called the Atlas Network. Essentially it is a set of different think tanks that have been set up over South America in order to instigate dissent, start grassroots protests against governments (but only certain types) and push policy change that ultimately favours big business and rolls back taxes for the wealthy, workers rights, safety provisions and environmental checks. By sheer coincidence it is currently mainly donated to by those charming fellows the Koch brothers.
Look, I know these posts are long but please do take the time to read them (do it at work – hell yeah! Stick it to the man – get paid for subverting the system – come on that's punk as all heck!)
That's kind of the point. People want easy answers and quick solutions and often the detail and the hard work of understanding context is what is important. Not everything can be explained in soundbites or slogans; sometimes you just have to read a lot of stuff.
I realise that makes me seem hugely arrogant but I promise you I am not. I am actually a pretty humble and modest guy. In fact if there was a contest for "who was the most modest" I would definitely win without a doubt, I would smash it, no question. I would totally own that shit hands down.
Alejandro Chafuen has headed up the Koch brothers Atlas Economic Research Foundation - more succinctly known as the Atlas Network since 1991. In that time he has mostly spent his time in the "non-profit, NGO leadership training organisation" working hard to both undermine left-wing social movements and governments in South and Central America, and to boost a more business-friendly atmosphere with worries about worker's rights, safety and environmental concerns taking a firm back seat if indeed they are offered a seat at all. In all likelihood these types of concerns will not only be refused a seat but also denied entry to the building and will be taken round the corner and given a bloody good hiding.
Spurred on by scandals, corruption, outside interference, attempted coups, destabilisation and an artificial drop in the price of commodities such as oil and other exports that South America rely on, the Atlas Network was able to capitalise off the political chaos in the region and promote their own solutions to these problems. Put simply, politicians that will pass policy that is favourable to big business, particularly the Koch brothers and their associates and affiliates.
"When there is an opening, you have a crisis, and there is some demand for change, you have people who are trained to push for certain policies," Chafuen noted, paraphrasing the late Milton Friedman. "And in our case, we tend to favour to private solutions to public problems."
Chafuen credits his work at the Atlas Network as hastening in the right wing elements of the governments in Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil.
For example Fundacion Pensar was an Atlas Network think tank was intrinsically intertwined with the political campaign of PRO and Mauricio Marci, who became President of Argentina in 2015. Similar to members of the Koch funded Heritage foundation finding themselves in advantageous positions within the Trump administration, the government of Marci was, by sheer coincidence I am sure, littered with members of Fundacion Pensar as well as members of Fundacion Libertad another Atlas Network think tank.
What do the Koch's want?
They call themselves Libertarian but then again North Korea calls itself democratic so we shouldn't pay much attention to that nonsense. Their stated goals were succinctly summed up by Peoples world recently:
1.Free trade (rigged in favour of the big transnational corporations; the "free" part is a fig leaf).
2. Elimination of all government regulation that interferes with profit-making. This too is fraudulent; they are perfectly okay with government regulations that cramp the lives of workers and their unions, reduce the legal rights of consumers, etc. The commitment of the Koch brothers to global warming denialism is related to this, as environmental regulations particularly hit the oil and other fossil fuel sectors.
3. Privatization of all aspects of society, with profit-making for corporations as the purpose of it all.
4. Savage cuts in the social safety net so as to lower taxes on corporations and the rich.
5. Willingness to use force, including U.S. intervention in foreign countries, to enforce all of this.
US Foreign Policy?
So here is where it all starts to look a bit murky. The Atlas Network whilst setting up their web of think tanks promoting the interests of big business and always seeming to lean toward business help rather than self determination for a country, also receive funding from the Government of the USA. This funding comes from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, strongly indicating that, at the very least, the interests of the Atlas Network just so happen to coincide with USA foreign policy.
The Elutera Foundation was formed in Honduras shortly after the USA sponsored coup in 2009 that just so happened to oust Manual Zelaya, the leftist leader of the country. Guillermo Pena, the leader of this think tank, just so happens to have been a regular attendee, for several years, at Atlas Network training seminars. In early 2010 Porfirio Lobo Sosa, a more right leaning candidate became President and ever since Sosa and the Honduran government have looked to Elutera for advice on policy decisions.
Just so you know, it was this coup and the tyrannical government that followed that was the primary reason behind the migrant caravan we were all supposed to be terrified of not so long ago.
The Instituto Liberal was founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1983 and was one of the first Atlas Network affiliate in South America. It also received funding from the US governments National Endowment for Democracy and was founded by Donald Stewart, a construction magnate who made his fortune working for Brazil's military dictatorship whilst being paid by USAID. The group is best known for sponsoring Rodrigo Constantino, a journalist and arsehole known as the Breitbart of Brazil.
The Interdisciplinary Centre of Ethics and Personal Economics of Rio de Janeiro is a religious think tank of Atlas that develops theological arguments for policies that benefit the entrepreneurs and businesses. The centre replicates the model of the U.S. Acton Institute financed by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education who is also connected to Turning Point USA and other Koch affiliates. Its editorial board includes Alejandro Antonio Chafuen and Ives Gandra da Silva Martins, the lawyer who was involved in framing the arguments for the political trail of Dilma Rousseff and the arguments to prevent the trial of her successor, Michel Temer.
The Atlas Network boasts of having affiliations with at least 450 different think tanks all over the planet. The network has 13 affiliated entities in Brazil, 12 in Argentina, 8 in Chile and Peru, 5 in Mexico and Costa Rica, 4 in Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia and Guatemala, 2 in Dominican Republic, Ecuador and El Salvador and 1 in Colombia, Panama, Bahamas, Jamaica and Honduras.
Recently they have boasted of involvement with the anti government protests in oil rich Venezuela and also of backing the current President of Chile Sebastian Pinera.
Corruption and scandals involving all spheres of the political spectrum have been sweeping Brazil for some time now. The countries history is very complicated and I have neither the knowledge, skill nor time to fully explain all the ins and outs. However in its recent history The Atlas Network was again able to capitalise on the wave of anti government sentiment and somehow steer it clearly towards blaming socialist or welfare schemes and touting big business as the saviours who would wrest control and drag the citizens from the jaws of doom (you know, just what big business has its well deserved reputation for).
Most of the anger was directed at President Dilma Rousseff and most of it came from the Free Brazil Movement, known by its Portuguese initials, MBL. This is a group seemingly made up of concerned politically motivated millenials, however a surprising amount of them seem to have received some type of training in political organisation in the USA – I am sure this too is just a coincidence. Most of the outrage was directed through campaigns on social media (hmm where I have I heard that tactic before) and most demanded the end to help for the poor and welfare policies – a topic usually favoured by big business rather than oily, hormone filled teens who are traditionally more focussed on watching Scooby Doo in an ironic fashion and lying about their bedroom prowess.
Dilma's governments greatly increased the social safety net for the poor, while expanding the rights of women, minorities, and other oppressed groups. They also strengthened the position of workers and their unions, and, very importantly, broke with the neoliberal "Washington Consensus" on issues like free trade and privatization of human services. This just didn't sit right with the Atlas Network who felt, "Hang on! Fuck them; we want all of the pie!"
There are now around thirty organisations in Brazil with similar tactics and ideas that just so happen to be connected to the Atlas Network. Helio Beltrão, a former hedge fund executive who now leads Instituto Mises, a non-profit named after the libertarian philosopher, Ludwig von Mises confirmed this in a series of interviews. He also revealed that the Atlas Network hope to privatise the Brazilian postal service as a step to wide spread privatisation of all services across the country.
Rousseff was replaced by Michel Temer, who enjoyed a popularity approval of merely 7% indicating that he was about as popular as a blue comedian at your grandmother's funeral. He spent much of his time trying to approve mass deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest but wasn't entirely successful. He was replaced in 2018 by Bolsanaro, who wasn't shy at all about rolling back workers rights, human rights and environmental protections. He was in all likelihood helped into power by Cambridge Analytica, who at that time were in Brazil. By strange coincidence Bolsanaro's campaign followed the Cambridge Analytica model of spreading fear and lies over social media.
One of the organisations that helped arrange mass protests against Rouseff was Instituto Millenium, a think tank founded by the Atlas Network in Brazil in 2006. Strangely it also received funding from Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Grupo RBS and AmCham Brasil – a trade organisation made up of American businesses. This all tends to point towards the Atlas network clearly being an arm of American foreign policy.
Fernando Schüler, an academic and columnist associated with Instituto Millenium, explained how young social media users were exploited to spread the message the think tanks wanted. "With technology, people could by themselves participate, organize at low cost — WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, using networks, a kind of public manifestation,"
Organizers against Dilma had created a daily barrage of YouTube videos mocking the Worker's Party government, along with an interactive scoreboard to encourage citizens to lobby their legislators to support impeachment. Schüler hoped to copy the model of Margaret Thatcher, who relied on a network of libertarian think tanks to push unpopular reforms. Some of you may remember that Thatcher was not what we would call universally popula
Schüler has admitted that the Free Brazil Movement and his own think tank receive financial support from local industrial trade groups, but the movement had succeeded in part because it is not immediately identified with the political parties, most of which the general public views with suspicion. He argued that the only way to radically reshape society and reverse popular sentiment in support of the welfare state was to "wage a permanent cultural war to confront left intellectuals and the media."
This I found particularly similar to America and Europe's culture war which is promoted by that pork scratching come to life, Steve Bannon, in almost identical terms. These movements too, rely on being framed as organic when in fact they are directed and for the benefit of big business and the extremely wealthy.
One of the people that does this in Brazil is Rodrigo Constantino. Constantino is a blogger who has attracted a large and easily angered following. It is Constantino that is popularly credited with spreading the narrative that Worker's Party supporters are limousine liberals, wealthy hypocrites that flock to socialism to claim the moral high ground while, forgetting their roots, serving only themselves and disregarding the working classes they claim to represent. This idea has gained much traction amongst his followers.
The "Breitbartization" of public discourse is but one of the many ways the Atlas network has ingeniously influenced political debate. (Ironic when they themselves are funded by some of the wealthiest people on the planet)
Atlas has been steadily expanding its association of operations by providing grants for new think tanks, giving courses on political management and public relations, sponsoring networking events around the world, and, in recent years, have been devoting more and more time to the new and hugely popular tactic of attempting to covertly influence public opinion through social media.
The Atlas Network even runs a competition to encourage viral videos that promote their ideology or denigrate the welfare state. Some might say "well that's juvenile and pathetic don't they cry themselves to sleep each night in shame in a cold empty bed?" You are half right, it is pathetic and childish but it will gain traction, instil a sense of community and also provides the necessary separation from the corporate entity itself in the eyes of the public. James O'Keefe, of Project Veritas fame has appeared before Atlas to explain his methods. Basically he tries to set up an series of increasingly unsuccessful undercover video stings "catching out liberals" for all sorts of nefarious acts. Sadly, thus far he has exposed no-one and achieved absolutely nothing apart from receiving some pretty hefty criminal charges but that doesn't seem to have disheartened him or his fans so kudos to them. One has to admire their optimism for future projects. You may remember that O'Keefe is also paid for his work by Robert Mercer of Rebel Media, Nina Rosenwald of Gatestone Media and also by the Koch's via their Heritage Foundation.
From the Intercept:
"Among its other exploits of late, Atlas has played a role in a Latin American nation roiled by the region's most acute political and humanitarian crisis: Venezuela. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by author and activist Eva Golinger, as well as State Department cables disclosed by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, reveal U.S. policymakers' sophisticated effort to use Atlas think tanks in a long-running campaign to destabilize the reign of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.
As early as 1998, Cedice Libertad, Atlas's flagship think tank in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, received regular financial support from the Center for International Private Enterprise. In one grant letter, National Endowment for Democracy funds marked for Cedice are listed to help advocate "a change in government." The director of Cedice was among the signatories of the controversy "Carmona Decree" supporting the short-lived military coup against Chávez in 2002.
A 2006 cable laid out a strategy from U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield for funding politically active nonprofits in Venezuela: "1) Strengthening democratic institutions, 2) penetrating Chávez's political base, 3) dividing Chavismo, 4) protecting vital U.S. business, and 5) isolating Chávez internationally."
In Venezuela's current crisis, Cedice has promoted the recent spate of protests against President Nicholás Maduro, Chávez's embattled successor. Cedice is closely affiliated with opposition figure María Corina Machado, one of the leaders of the massive anti-government street demonstrations in recent months. Machado has publicly recognized Atlas for its work. In a videotape message delivered to the group in 2014, she said, "Thank you to the Atlas Network, to all freedom fighters."
Why the oil barons of Koch Industries might have an interest in oil rich Venezuela is anybody's guess. However one particular bone they might have to pick is the fact that previously Hugo Chavez had kicked them the hell out of his countries affairs. As Reuter's reports:
"Koch Industries said on Monday it had received no word that Venezuela nationalized Fertinitro, a large fertilizer maker in which the U.S.-based group has a substantial stake.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez announced on Sunday the takeover of Fertinitro, one of the world's main producers of nitrogen fertilizer, days after vowing to radicalize his socialist "revolution" following legislative elections last month.
Koch has a 35 percent stake in Fertinitro and Venezuelan state-run petrochemicals company Pequiven has 35 percent. Saipem (SPMI.MI), a unit of Italy's Eni (ENI.MI), holds 20 percent and local brewer and food company Polar has the rest.
"Koch Fertilizer has not received any official or informal notice, nor have we received any notification from Fertinitro regarding any disruption," a Koch spokeswoman told Reuters by email. "We are attempting to obtain details and information."
Chavez has put much of the OPEC member's economy into government hands during his 12 years in power. He has said he will accelerate the pace of reforms after the opposition won 40 percent of National Assembly seats and almost half the popular vote in Sept. 26 parliamentary elections."
According to U.S. journalist Greg Palest, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez refused to sell Venezuelan crude oil to Koch Industries because of their interference in his country's internal affairs. In December of 2017, the Koch brothers sued Venezuela to demand immediate payment of a $400 million judgement by an international settlement tribunal on compensation for property Venezuela had nationalized.
I assume like all business men they took this on the chin and never once held a grudge.
What is the point?
The main point of these think tanks is twofold. Not only to bribe or persuade politicians to enact policy that benefits business but also to alter the perception of such acts as tax breaks for the wealthy, environmental rollbacks, reduction of social support networks, reduction of human rights and workers rights as somehow good for the greater society – also painting welfare and socialist ideas such as minimum wage or universal healthcare as rabid communism where as bailing out the banks or taking taxes from the public to build a vanity project or rebuild a castle – that's just dandy.
So who are they?
Well the main sponsors of the Atlas Network are Koch Industries, MasterCard and ExxonMobil. However as the intercept points out:
"The Trump administration is littered with alumni of Atlas-related groups and friends of the network. Sebastian Gorka, Trump's Islamophobic counterterrorism adviser, once led an Atlas-backed think tank in Hungary. Vice President Mike Pence has attended an Atlas event and spoken highly of the group. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Chafuen were close through their leadership roles at the Acton Institute, a Michigan think tank that develops religious arguments in favour of libertarian policies — which now maintains an affiliate in Brazil, the Centro Interdisciplinar de Ética e Economia Personalista.
Perhaps Chafuen's most prized figure in the administration, however, is Judy Shelton, an economist and senior fellow at the Atlas Network. After Trump's victory, Shelton was made the chair of the NED. She previously served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition effort. Chafuen beamed when he talked about it. "There you have the Atlas people being the chair of the National Endowment for Democracy," he said."
Rex Tillerson – the current USA Secretary of State, used to work very high up in ExxonMobil. I assume this is just another one of those crazy coincidences.
Now hang on just a minute, some of you might be saying, Trump and the Koch brothers don't get along – ha! See you're an idiot and I bloody well knew it all along. Plus your hair is stupid and you should stop wearing band t-shirts, you're a grown man for god's sake.
Ok fair enough. However, some of that previous statement is inaccurate.
As reported in the New York Times, despite public falling outs over tariffs and other matters the Trump administrations rollercoaster ride of lunacy has been ideal for slipping through a whole raft of policies and regulatory rollbacks that the Koch's have been after for years.
"A 2014 Washington Post story described the Koch political empire as a "labyrinth of tax-exempt groups and limited-liability companies" designed to "mask the sources of the money." Much of this money continues to go to voter mobilization and television ads and financing the construction and maintenance of some of the most sophisticated and detailed voter lists anywhere.
The Koch network — which in many respects has eclipsed the official Republican Party — has nurtured the careers of a host of politicians from Mike Pence to Scott Walker to Mike Pompeo. Major beneficiaries of the Koch network include the Tea Party, the Cato Institute, the National Federation of Independent Business and groups specifically created to act as conservative counterweights to a panoply of liberal interest groups — for example, the 60 Plus Association and the Center to Protect Patient Rights are conservative alternatives to the AARP.
The Koch's' policy objectives that have been realized since Trump took office are legion: enactment of the $1.5 trillion tax cut; the opening of public lands to mining; the appointment of men and women with industry ties to key regulatory posts; weakened enforcement of worker safety rules; the proposed elimination or rollback of numerous environmental regulations; the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, and the appointment of judges favoured by the Koch's to all levels of the federal bench."
So just to add to the list of shills for big business we have Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Brett Kavanaugh, Sebastian Gorka, Rex Tillerson and Neil Gorsuch. Wooo hooo make America great again etc etc!!!!!!!
Don't believe me? Well here it is from the horse's mouth:
"At a July gathering of Koch network donors in Colorado Springs, Charles Koch took a conciliatory approach when speaking specifically about Trump. Asked if Trump was to blame for heightened national divisiveness, Koch replied:
We're all part of it. None of us are perfect. We've had divisiveness long before Trump became president, and we'll have it long after he's no longer president. I'm into hating the sin, not the sinner.
Koch also told donors, "We've made more progress in the past five years than I've made in the previous 50."
Somehow and for some reason (whatever that may be) Trump has pushed through unpopular actions by convincing his base that they are in fact needed, wanted and good for America:
"An April 2017 Gallup poll, conducted as Congress began consideration of the Koch-backed tax bill (which was passed in December) found that 63 percent of voters believed that the rich paid too little in taxes and 67 percent believed that corporations paid too little. In other words, they were directly opposed to what the bill actually did.
Similarly, a Reuters/IPSOS poll earlier that year found that 61 percent of voters wanted Environmental Protection Agency regulations either strengthened (39 percent) or maintained (22 percent). Nineteen percent backed weakening E.P.A. rules — a prime objective of the Koch's, much of whose wealth derives from the petroleum and chemical industries.
If public opinion were the guiding force, key elements of the Koch's' policy goals would be dead in the water. And without Trump's ethnonationalist appeal, these proposals (for the most part) would not survive either on their merits or on popular support."
Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, was asked about the public perception of the Koch's and Trump being at odds. Skocpol wrote,
"This is mostly sound and fury with little impact. The Koch network has gotten 85 percent of what it has always wanted out of the Trump presidency so far — especially the huge government-starving, upward tilted tax cuts, the evisceration of the EPA, weakening of labor regulations and unions, cuts in social spending, and ultraright judges who will eviscerate government regulatory capacities and further weaken liberal forces."
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia, made a parallel point:
"On most issues the Trump administration, working together with a Republican Congress the Koch's helped to elect, has embraced the vision of the Republican Party that the Koch's have pursued aggressively over the past three decades. That includes implementing massive cuts to taxes, especially on businesses; dismantling the Affordable Care Act; appointing very conservative, free-market oriented judges to the federal judiciary; and efforts to undermine economic and environmental regulations."
One area where the Koch's certainly prevailed was in lobbying the American electoral system to promote basically unlimited donations from single donors via their disparate institutions. Some of you may remember this is how Mercer and Regnery were able to inject such huge amounts of money into Trump's campaign. Due to the shadowy network of NGO's and non-profits owned, run and financed by the Koch brothers it would be all but impossible to get a true picture of the scale of their influence over American and world politics.