On December 28, the New York Times ran an article about a small group of powerful people in Minnesota. The members of the Itasca Project, who aren’t elected, are, in the words of Times journalist Nelson D. Schwartz, “a private civic initiative by 60 or so local leaders to further growth and development in the Twin Cities.” But rather than exposing the group as a secret cabal running things in a large American city, the article reads more like an advertisement. Schwartz calls the 13 men and women of the Itasca Project’s Working Team “The Establishment 2.0,” and he doesn’t seem to mean it in a bad way.
From their borrowed perch on the 38th floor of an unnamed but identifiable Minneapolis skyscraper, the Itasca Project’s goal is to shape regional economic policy through direct collective influence on lawmakers. The group has successfully pushed through a gas tax increase to fund transportation infrastructure, state support for local businesses, as well as a government agency to attract new companies. Soon, they want to get involved in education reform, shoving McKinsey consultants and their rubrics on public schools. Schwartz credits the Itasca Project with a peculiar kind of friendly Midwestern ethic, but their behavior isn’t so strange. It’s just what capitalists do.
When we Americans talk about capitalism, it’s usually as an economic system that complements the political system of democracy. Competing capitalists keep the state from accumulating too much power, and the elected government puts a regulatory check on business interests. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In practice, it goes a little differently. Think of the presidential election: Not one person has cast even a primary ballot, but the wealthy have already spent untold millions preparing our choices. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was forced to drop out of the campaign in September for lack of funds. His particular demise is no loss for the country, but if even a union-busting midwestern Republican can’t afford to compete, then how much of a choice do we really have?
The Itasca Project is just one example of existing oligarchy, and a surprisingly open one at that. But even if they don’t announce themselves on the cover of the Times business section, groups of millionaires exercise undue influence on every aspect of American life every day. There are millionaires who back each national Party and some who back both. Their foundations conduct diplomacy with foreign heads of state and their Chambers of Commerce accompany the American government wherever it operates. There are groups of millionaires who determine education policy, communications policy, agriculture policy, monetary policy, and whatever other policy you can think of. There’s even “The Patriotic Millionaires,” a group of — yes, millionaires — devoted to reducing the political influence of … millionaires. A member of their advisory board, the aptly-named textile tycoon James Richman, has given thousands of dollars to both the Clinton and Bush 2016 presidential campaigns.
Democracy isn’t supposed to be a vehicle for wealthy people to hedge their bets, but the open secret is that capitalism is more than just an economic regime. It’s a total social system, and it’s ruled by a small class of people, not elected representatives as such. The practices that we think of as making up democracy — like voting, volunteerings, protesting, writing op-eds — are just part of what determines the structure of American social reality, and not a very big part when it comes down to it. Between “money is power” and “all power to the people,” we know which one describes life in the United States.
The Itasca Project is particularly brazen, and not just in their willingness to talk to the Times. Their name even means something to the effect of “True Capitol.” Schwartz reports that they took Itasca from a state park where business leaders meet, but the park got the name from a lake, and the lake got its name from Henry Schoolcraft, an early 19th-century Regional Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Itasca is not a native name, but Schoolcraft liked making up Indian-sounding words out of Latin. Itasca comes from the Latin veritas (true) and capitulo (head), because the lake is the headwaters for the Mississippi. In addition to language games, Schoolcraft liked stealing land on behalf of the U.S. government.
In 1836, Schoolcraft negotiated the Treaty of Washington with the Ottawa and Chippewa nations, in which they ceded millions of acres on Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. But Treaty translator and Ottawa leader Andrew Blackbird described the Treaty as made “not with the free will of the Indians, but by compulsion.” When the US welched on their contract obligations and then abrogated them under another treaty 19 years later, the Ottawa and Chippewa had no recourse. Schoolcraft’s fake Indian names whitewash a history of nationalized theft and what scholars call “accumulation by dispossession.” Itasca is a perfect title for a group of white Midwestern oligarchs meeting on stolen land.
In the Times story, Schwartz is impressed that the Itasca Project doesn’t fracture on partisan political lines. But the ultra-rich aren’t apolitical; they’re super-political. Not “super” as in very, or great; “super” as in above. As Donald Trump has announced again and again during his presidential campaign, money and power don’t have a party affiliation. Both the Republican and the Democratic National Committees are run by the same class of people, and that class exercises power through overlapping cabals that, like the members of the Itasca Project, are united in common goals. So if you want to know what the American political system really looks like, imagine a thousand Itasca Project conference rooms across the country, each full of smiling millionaires.