Omidyar and the Oligarch’s Code: Enabling Extremism, Monetizing Dissent
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Wednesday, 04 June 2014 00:22

India is now in the hands of Narendra Modi — a lifelong member of an unabashedly neofascist paramilitary group. His chief claim to fame is presiding over the wanton slaughter of more than 2,000 Muslims as a provincial chief minister — and getting away with it. A staunch neoliberal as well as a neofascist, he is preparing to unleash the by-now standard “shock doctrine” tactics of the pernicious neoliberal cult on the whole country: unrestricted corporate rapine aided by a heavy-handed, all-surveilling militarist state, waging war on the poor — and the very notion of a common good.

What is surprising is that Modi’s rise to power has been aided for years by substantial support, direct and indirect, from an American billionaire widely regarded by the left as one of the world’s great champions of dissent: Pierre Omidyar. But perhaps this is not so surprising when you consider that Omidyar now stands to reap millions if not billions of dollars from Modi’s vow to open up India’s burgeoning e-commerce market to foreign companies — like Omidyar’s eBay, as Mark Ames reports at PandoDaily.

Ames provides a detailed look at Omidyar’s extensive involvement with Modi and his sinister movement. The story could serve as a companion piece to Ames’ earlier investigation into Omidyar’s relentless efforts to “monetize” philanthropy — turning it into a money-making tool for a small elite while wreaking havoc among those it is ostensibly trying to help. A key element in this monetization of human misery on the part of Omidyar and his cronies is the privatization of state services aimed at providing some measure of support, opportunity and social justice for ordinary people. In country after country, our neoliberal extremists are pushing policies to turn every aspect of human community into profitable enterprises under corporate control.

To do this, of course, one must also “monetize” democracy itself. Thus, as Ames and others have pointed out, Omidyar has also been active in “pro-democracy” NGOs and other organizations in foreign countries, working closely with Washington to bring down regimes considered insufficiently open to the strip-mining of national wealth and resources by Western elites. The aim, as in Ukraine, where Omidyar’s partnership with government was particularly active, is to replace the regimes with technocrats willing to stick the shock doctrine cattle prod to their own people.

The nature of the regime being overthrown doesn’t matter, by the way. It might be an ugly corruptocracy like the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine, or populist movements like the long-running attempts to overthrow Chavismo in Venezuela, or liberal democracies like the government overthrown in Honduras with Barack Obama’s collusion in the early days of his hope-and-change presidency.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter what kind of regime replaces the government targeted for overturning. Saddam Hussein’s brutal secular authoritarianism was replaced by brutal sectarian authoritarianism in Iraq (one closely allied to Iran, no less). Moamar Gadafy’s secular authoritarianism in Libya was supplanted, with NATO bombs, by religious radicals allied with al Qaeda, who are now apparently in the process of being overthrown in turn by American-backed military authoritarians. The secular authoritarianism in Syria is being attacked by Western-backed rebels led by perhaps the most vicious religious fanatics on earth. A Ukrainian government dominated by dodgy oligarchs has been replaced by … a Ukrainian government dominated by dodgy oligarchs. Washington and its billionaire buddies don’t care about the ideology or religion or representativeness of a client regime; they just want the leaders to play ball.

And now, a corruption-riddled secular government in India has been replaced by a religious extremist party led by a man unrepentant about the thousands killed under his watch, a staunch adherent to a group that praises Hitler. But Modi possesses the one all-important quality for acceptance by the Western elite: he’s a man “we can do business with.” (If Saddam Hussein had sold off Iraq’s oil industry to Chevron, BP and Halliburton in 1991, he would still be in power — and welcome in Washington — today, no matter how his own people were suffering.)

I’m sure Pierre Omidyar does not personally support Hindu nationalism or neo-nazi paramilitarism or the slaughter of thousands of innocent people in deliberately fomented religious rampages.  He’d probably rather not see such things in the world. But in the immortal words of The Godfather II’s Hyman Roth: “It has nothing to do with business.” If Modi is where the money is, that’s where you go.

And just as he is monetizing philanthropy and democracy, Omidyar is now monetizing dissent. He has laid out a quarter of a billion dollars to finance a “dissident” media empire, built on the cornerstone of the NSA documents Edward Snowden gave to Glenn Greenwald. Both Omidyar and Greenwald have been adamant that this is to be profit-making enterprise — like all of Omidyar’s philanthropy.

The revelations from the Snowden cache have indeed been shocking and important — but their effect has been curiously muted. The sound and fury provoked by the revelations among the political-media class have thus far signified … nothing. All we have seen are a few tepid “reform” proposals whose chief aim is to entrench the Stasi-state activities even further, giving them ‘legal’ form and fobbing off any lingering concerns with toothless ‘oversight’ schemes. (Along the model of the rubber-stamp secret FISA courts.) There is a credible school of thought that the revelations have actually been good for the National Security State: people now have the image of an all-pervasive, all-powerful government, able to watch them at all times, to come into their homes, their lives, their minds through their computers and phones. A government that could take them out — via the now openly acknowledged, even celebrated death squads run out of the White House — or take them away. (Who hasn’t made a joke about some untoward comment landing them in Gitmo — a gallows humor that both masks and bespeaks a genuine fear.)

For those in power, it’s good for people to be afraid — afraid of outsiders, of “terrorists” and “illegal aliens” and “Muslims”; and afraid of themselves, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing under the all-seeing eye of the Potomac panopticon. People who are afraid are more obedient. They keep their heads down, they toe the line. They don’t challenge the system — because the system is too powerful. Oh, of course, you can let all kinds of Tea Party nuts run loose, denouncing “tyranny” in health care and carrying machine-guns into restaurants and standing their ground against uppity drakes and what all. They never challenge the real system — the unholy alliance of oligarchy and state power. Hell, they love it! They love the rich elite. They love state power as long as it’s not aimed at helping anybody (except people who look like them, of course).

This applies to dissent from the left as well. As in foreign policy, the elites don’t care what kind of ideology or “dissent” they face — as long as it poses no genuine threat to the Unholy Alliance. That’s always been the essence of the real “American exceptionalism,” the trick that other empires and dominators never quite learned: you can let people say anything they want, reveal anything they want — as long as it doesn’t actually change anything. Meanwhile, if you let people know how powerful you are, how all-pervasive you are — they will end up policing themselves.

So here we have Omidyar. He has close ties to the White House, has visited there often, works closely with Washington in “public-private partnerships for democracy” that, as in the Ukraine, sometimes somehow end up overthrowing democratic governments. At the same time, he now employs many of the most famous dissident journalists in America.

His most prominent employee, Greenwald, constantly affirms his belief that we should indeed have a powerful and far-reaching security state — it should just be “reformed” and “overseen” by people he approves of. (Snowden has voiced the same opinion.) Greenwald has also famously stated that he didn’t look into and doesn’t care about Omidyar’s other activities. Making loot off the poor by monetizing philanthropy? Supporting religious fascists, subverting foreign governments? So what? If he supports my project, my cause, that’s all that matters.

This is not a form of dissent that threatens any system of power.

The chief aim of Omidyar’s new media venture, it seems to me, is to domesticate dissent. There is virtually no chance that First Look Media will challenge the essence or legitimacy of the actual ruling system: oligarch-corporate dominance backed by a militarist state. No doubt it will tear the bark off a few wild outgrowths here and there — which can be a useful exercise for keeping various factions within the Security State in line, or allowing them to “let off steam” by taking down their internal rivals a peg or two. Fear is not just for foreigners and the home folks out there; every system of domination employs fear against its own agents as well. And certainly there will be genuinely spontaneous revelations too, not just strategic leaks by inside players jockeying for position.

But again, all this will take place in an arena controlled by one of the chief beneficiaries and big-time players in the system itself. It will take place in a domesticated setting. The powers that be will know that the system itself is not under threat. They will know that the only goal of any revelations will be “reform”— or sometimes not even reform, just “debate.” And “reform” and “debate” can always be managed by those who control the levers of power — and the media where the “debate” takes place.

Again, I think the NSA revelations from the Snowden cache are shocking and important. I’m glad that some of them have seen the light of day. But I believe the end result will be what we saw with the perhaps even more shocking revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib in 2004. Does anyone remember that? When the first horrific pictures leaked out (and there were even worse ones held back), one could see, for a moment, a genuine, palpable shock go through the system of power. I remember well the look on the faces of the panel of senators who had been shown the full range of pictures and heard some of the evidence of the systematic tortures inflicted by American soldiers and agents in the Iraqi prison. There was genuine consternation. There were trembling voices. There was talk of shame lasting for generations. There were murmurs that the government would fall, that a crisis was at hand.

And what happened? Nothing. Nothing happened. A few grunts were vilified and prosecuted, but those who had devised, directed and approved the systematic torture rolled on in power and privilege. A few months later, the very administration whose leaders were responsible for the torture — and for an illegal war of aggression that had killed tens of thousands of innocent people by that point — was re-elected to office.

I believe we will see the same end result from the Snowden revelations. Shock horror (and mock horror, in many cases), the deep-frying of millions of pixels on the subject, the windy suspiration of forced breath from dozens of gabbling gobs on television — then nothing.

2. Who is Modi?
But who is Modi? What sort of politician has America’s leading bankroller of dissent given his copious support to? Pankaj Mishra has written one of the best articles that I've seen on the situation. From the Guardian:

Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder's belief that Nazi Germany had manifested "race pride at its highest" by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or "Hinduness". In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as "child-breeding centres".

…  His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country's biggest corporations. His closest allies – India's biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

India’s chattering — and ruling — classes now laud Modi for his “pro-business” reforms that promote “growth.” But as always in our global neoliberal utopia, “growth” has a rather narrow definition: it means big swag for the powerful and squat-all for everyone else. Mishra:

[India’s economic growth] turns out to have been based primarily on extraction of natural resources, cheap labour and foreign capital inflows rather than high productivity and innovation, or indeed the brick-and-mortar ventures that fuelled China's rise as a manufacturing powerhouse. "The bulk of India's aggregate growth," the World Bank's chief economist Kaushik Basu warns, "is occurring through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end of the income ladder." Thus, it has left largely undisturbed the country's shameful ratios – 43% of all Indian children below the age of five are undernourished, and 48% stunted; nearly half of Indian women of childbearing age are anaemic, and more than half of all Indians still defecate in the open.

Of course, Modi would not be in power today if not for the utter and complete moral  and political failure of the institutions of secular democracy. The spectacular corruption of the long-ruling Congress Party — which has also allied itself to the New Hyperfeudalists while also milking the state for private gain and the mindless, meaningless perpetuation of political power for its own sake — has opened the door for well-financed fanatics to step in and offer what seems to be an alternative to a system that everyone knows is broken. This is happening across the “democratic” world, where the willing surrender by “centrist” parties to hyperfeudalism has hollowed out the political core, leaving millions of people adrift in lives of decline, hopelessness, and slow degradation. Civic and social infrastructure have rotted (along with the physical infrastructure) — again, through the willing, at times gleeful choices of “centrist” elites: especially those, like Britain’s New Labour and America’s Clinton-Obama Democrats, who pretend to “progressive” ideals while whoring themselves to the gilded gangsters of the oligarchy.

These parties and their leaders stand for nothing, they stand up to no one, they have swallowed whole the poison of rapacious hyperfeudalism and murderous militarism. And they offer nothing to anyone but more of the same decline and degradation. And so everywhere, the far right is on the rise, stepping into the ruins with lies and ignorance that play on the worst elements of human nature, feeding on the fear of people losing hope and giving them simplistic excuses for their distress: “Blame it on the darkies, the immigrants, the heretics, on whatever group is the Other (or can be made to seem the Other) in an otherwise pure, special nation. Always, at every turn, the justified anger, fear and bewilderment of the people must be turned away from those who are actually responsible for it — their masters, their overlords — and projected onto the weakest, most vulnerable, least protected groups in the society.

Mishra’s article is an important, multi-leveled, in-depth look at what’s happening in India — and, by extension, in so many other parts of the world.  I highly recommend that you read it in full.

3. Omidyar’s Role
So that’s Modi. What exactly has Omidyar done for him? Ames has the details:

Omidyar Network, as Pando readers know, is the philanthropy arm of eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Since 2009, Omidyar Network has made more investments in India than in any other country in its portfolio. These investments were largely thanks to Jayant Sinha, a former McKinsey partner and Harvard MBA, who was hired in October 2009 to establish and run Omidyar Network India Advisors.

During Sinha’s tenure, Omidyar Network steered a large portion of its investments into India, so that by 2013, India investments made up 18% of Omidyar Network’s committed funds of well over $600 million, and 36% of the total number of companies in its portfolio.

In February of this year, Sinha stepped down from Omidyar Network in order to advise Modi’s election campaign, and to run for a BJP parliamentary seat of his own. Sinha’s father, Yashwant Sinha, served as finance minister in the last BJP government from 1998 (when his government set off the nukes) through 2002. This year, Sinha’s father gave up his seat in parliament to allow Jayant Sinha to take his place.

…Shortly after Sinha left Omidyar Network to help Modi win, Modi gave a speech calling for opening India’s e-commerce market to foreign companies such as Ebay, whose largest shareholder is Pierre Omidyar. The message was clear: Modi is the candidate of hi-tech India, violent ultranationalism notwithstanding.

…To be clear, this isn’t just a case of an Omidyar staffer who just happened to become a supporter of Modi. In fact, Pando has learned that Sinha has a long history of working for Modi and his Hindu supremacist BJP party, starting before he joined Omidyar Network and continuing during his tenure as the organization’s managing director and partner in India, when Sinha oversaw tens of millions of the Redwood City-based fund’s investments in the country.

Just last month, senior BJP party leader Shiv Shankar Prasad Gupta told a news conference that Jayant Sinha “worked in Modi’s team for two years (2012 and 2013)” — while he was simultaneously leading Omidyar Network’s India branch. What Gupta didn’t do was explain the full extent the relationship between Sinha, Omidyar Networks, the BJP and the US Government. Here are the highlights:

• While still heading Omidyar Network India Advisors, Jayant Sinha simultaneously served as adirector in the BJP party’s main policy think tank, the India Foundation, founded by the hardline former director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, Ajit Doval. The India Foundation has been described as “doing all the backroom thinking on economy and security-related issues to prepare policy stances for the BJP”;

• The India Foundation, besides incubating Jayant Sinha’s pro-business agenda, also pushed hardline policies to target India’s peasant Naxalite insurgency, made up of India’s poor indigenous peoples. The India Foundation produced a propaganda film that pushed for “zero tolerance” against what it called “Red terror.” The India Foundation also argued that Christian missionaries allied with “Maoists” to forcibly convert Hindus to Christianity — a typical BJP slur that has incited countless Hindu lynch mob attacks on India’s Christians;

• While heading Omidyar Network India Advisors, Jayant Sinha repeatedly called for India’s government to allow foreign direct investment into e-commerce, a move that would directly benefit eBay, where Pierre Omidyar’s billions are tied up as the company’s largest single shareholder; an Omidyar Network-funded NGO was accused of using its access to Indian lawmakers to secretly lobby for a bill allowing foreign direct investment into India’s e-retail sector;

• In late February, just weeks after Sinha quit Omidyar Network to advise Modi’s campaign, Modi gave a speech in favor of allowing foreign e-commerce firms to enter India’s markets; eBay has been investing heavily into Indian e-commerce firms in hopes of entering the potentially lucrative market;

• Under Sinha’s guidance, in 2010 Omidyar Network gave its first grant to an Indian NGO,Janaagraha, for a well-publicized anti-corruption campaign coinciding with a larger, nationwide anti-corruption campaign that undermined support for the ruling center-left party, dovetailingwith the campaign of the ultranationalist BJP party and Modi as they plotted their return to power. (For more on this, read Arundhati Roy’s excellent piece on the right-wing Western-backed leader of India’s anti-corruption movement, Anna Hazare.) This year’s BJP election landslide victory over India’s ruling center-left government has been widely attributed to anti-corruption politics;

• The Omidyar Network-funded Janaagraha anti-corruption campaigns were enthusiastically supported by USAID officials like Sarah Mendelson, who described herself “a convert” in 2011 after hearing a Janaagraha official’s “spell-binding” speech describing the NGO’s work. The following year, 2012, Mendelson announced a new $55 million USAID program, “Making All Voices Count,” with Omidyar Network as one of its four principal partners, explaining to Congress the program’s larger political purpose: “The political trajectory of a country is ultimately a U.S. national security issue, and as such, we are intimately involved in advancing U.S. national security interests”;

• In 2005, Janaagraha was caught secretly participating in a World Bank-funded water privatization scheme in Bangalore, offering to provide “civil society participation” cover for a program to counter protests from Bangalore’s poor.

…In India, billionaire oligarchs and the business community overwhelmingly support Modi’s ultranationalist politics because Modi has been good for business. And Omidyar’s man has already been offering insight into how Modi will help big business even more.

In the days since India’s election, Sinha told CNBC that India needs “radical reforms” in line with classic neoliberal, pro-business prescriptions, including cutting government subsidies and “restructuring” India’s social welfare programs; “labor reforms”; and “land acquisition” laws. These reforms are a top priority for India’s mining industry giants, foreign investors… as well as USAID and their partners, Omidyar Network.

…What makes this story about Omidyar Network’s relationship to the ultranationalist BJP party important is what it reveals about the nature of Silicon Valley money and politics, and what it reveals about the role NGOs and corporate foundations play in advancing the interests of both US geopolitical power and US corporate profits, under the guise of charity.

A deeper look at Omidyar Network’s activities in India gives concrete insight into the meaning of Silicon Valley “enlightened self-interest.” For instance, many Omidyar Network’s India investments have a dual purpose that neatly coincide with eBay’s strategic agenda in India, a closed off but potentially huge e-commerce market that eBay has been trying to break into. As eBay has invested hundreds of millions in Indian e-commerce startups, Omidyar Network has been subtlety reshaping India’s “ecosystem” in ways that would benefit eBay’s bottom line — like bringing mobile technologyand access to microfinance loans into India’s rural villages and communities, investing in an online classifieds company, and others.

India has a lot of problems, not the least of which is its yawning inequality: On one end, India has the sixth largest number of billionaires in the world; on the other end, India has one-third of the world’s poor: 400 million Indians live on less than $1.25 a day, and half of India’s households have no access to a toilet. It’s hard to see how what they really need are solar-powered battery-operated mobile devices bought with microfinance loans — but easier to imagine how that fits into Omidyar’s agenda. (Let’s not forget that Omidyar-funded SKS Microfinance was implicated in a rash of gruesome suicides by indebted Indian villagers, mostly young women, some of whom drank bottles of pesticides or drowned themselves to avoid SKS Microfinance debt collectors.)

There is much more in Ames’ story as well, which also bears reading in full. Both his story and Mishra's have copious links to more details.

Ames ends with an apt quote from Arundhati Roy:

“As public money gets pulled out of health care and education and all of this, NGOs funded by these major financial corporations and other kinds of financial instruments move in, doing the work that missionaries used to do during colonialism—giving the impression of being charitable organizations, but actually preparing the world for the free markets of corporate capital.”

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