The death this August of right-wing multibillionaire David Koch immediately unleashed a spate of extensive obituaries in the corporate media. These mini-biographies describe him and his brother Charles Koch as “philanthropists” and financiers of right-wing ideas and political movements.
The media attention on David Koch’s death brings to mind a quote from Karl Marx: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” (“The German Ideology,” 1845)
Capitalist fortunes come from the exploitation of labor, that is, from robbing the working class of the wealth that only workers can produce. Rich people sometimes put aside a small part of this loot and donate it. Usually they avoid paying taxes when they donate. In return for this “philanthropy,” they get their names on hospital and university buildings, museums and concert halls.
With “philanthropy” they buy respect from creative and intellectual circles they have done nothing to earn. They also buy intellectuals who justify the ill-gotten wealth of the ruling class.
Marx’s quote was subtle. Applied to contemporary U.S. society dominated by a capitalist ruling class that supports different political models − all of them pro-capitalist − it means the following: Since this class pays intellectuals for their output, that output must make no challenge to private property and the ability of the capitalists to exploit labor.
David Koch was less subtle. His father, Fred Koch, did business with Adolf Hitler and later founded the ultra-right, anti-communist John Birch Society. David and Charles Koch were no rebels from this family history. They accepted their inheritance − their combined wealth was estimated recently at $100 billion − and used a piece of their annual income to further the ideas of their particular far-right section of the capitalist ruling class.
The Koch brothers − and other big capitalists − have taken this “philanthropy” to a more direct and blatant level. They set up think tanks, foundations that make grants to universities and researchers, and political action groups − all to promote their very reactionary ideas. They even use organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a supporter of the Tea Party, to get legislature passed enshrining these ideas as political policy.
All capitalist “philanthropy” builds the reputation of the donor and in general disseminates ideas acceptable to the capitalists. The Kochs’ donations home in on promoting right-wing ideas, with a veneer of libertarianism.
Despite the libertarian cover, Koch philanthropy is not only anti-worker and anti-environment, it is also racist and misogynist. Because the Koch foundations promote right-wing candidates, they abandoned classical libertarian ideas against government intervention to back the anti-woman attack on abortion rights.
The Kochs attack all government intervention that aids the workers and the poor. They denounce any regulation of industry for health or environmental reasons. They promote groups that try to prevent African Americans and other oppressed people from voting.
In addition, the Kochs want no regulation that might curtail the profits made by their extensive oil, gas and chemical industry holdings. This includes paying researchers to offer arguments against climate change.
David Koch’s inherited wealth worked to implant his super-rich family’s poisonous political ideas into society, making those ideas one version of ruling-class ideology. His death does nothing to change this process.
Those who fight to overturn capitalist society must battle those pro-capitalist ideas as well as fight to separate the wealthy from the riches that allow them to control ideas. Ultimately, to overturn capitalism, the workers and oppressed will also have to fight against the apparatus of state power that protects the wealth of the rich.