Plutonomics: A World Run by Plutos, Pluton and Plutonium

Whatever happens, we must not go into a plutonium-based economy. If the concept of a steady state economy can be grasped and started in practice by say, 1980, we may be able to dodge the blind leap...
- Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, (1974) p. 94. [1]

(Greek: πλοτος, ploutos, ‘wealth’ + κράτος, kratos, ‘rule’): a society ruled or controlled by those with great wealth.
A society in which the economic activity of the wealthy minority of the population has grown so preponderant and disproportionate that the economic activity of the rest of the population (the majority) has become insignificant.
(Greek: Πλούτων, ploutōn) was the ruler of the underworld in classical Greek mythology.
Dwarf planet discovered in 1930, named after the ruler of the underworld in classical Greek mythology
Primordial element (a nuclide found on Earth that has existed in its current form since before Earth was formed), radioactive chemical element, atomic number 94, actinide metal, first produced and isolated in 1940 by deuteron bombardment of uranium-238, plutonium-239 and plutonium-241 are fissile (useful in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors), plutonium-240 undergoes spontaneous fission (not useful), plutonium-238 is used as a heat source in radioisotope thermoelectric generators in some spacecraft. Plutonium existed only in insignificant quantities before 1945, but is now a consequential ecological poison and nuclear weapons proliferation hazard because of its deliberate creation by humanity. Named after the dwarf planet, Pluto, which was named after the god of the underworld in classical Greek mythology.

The Greek words plutos and pluton give the English language the homonymous prefix pluto, meaning the same string of sounds refers to two distinct meanings, just as flea and flee have distinct meanings in English that no one confuses. Pluto in plutocrat refers to wealth (derived from the Greek word plutos), while pluto in plutonium refers to the god of the underworld (pluton in Greek). In spite of this being a random coincidence of homonymy, I can’t help but wonder if there is some uncanny synchronicity that Carl Jung would have found worthy of discussion. Here we have a co-occurrence of two similar-sounding words. There is no causal relationship, yet they seem to be meaningfully related, which is just how Jung defined his concept of synchronicity.

The meaningful relationship is evident in the fact that our system of governance is a plutocracy, and it is also a system which wreaks havoc on the planet, using plutonium for its defense, like a god of the underworld that has been called forth to the surface to cast the pall of death over the living world. So I coin the term plutonomics in order to embrace all meanings suggested by the prefix pluto.

The upgraded B-61 dial-a-yield nuclear bomb,
keeping the world safe for plutocracy.
The economist Peter Joseph has explained the nature of this government in his book The New Human Rights Movement, [2] and also in many interviews and videos (see this 50-minute video for an example of one of his critiques). He stresses that we must look at our system from a structural perspective in order to understand the root causes of the problems we are trying to resolve, but few people are doing this. The “progressive” wing of politics, represented by people such as Bernie Sanders or the filmmaker Michael Moore, are made up of people suggesting legislative fixes within the existing system. They fail to recognize that such remedies could only be temporary and partial because they would allow for the present system to continue and eventually push back against them.

Peter Joseph illustrates how all governments in the history of civilization have been created by those who control the economy, for the benefit of those who own wealth. Governments manage the population, raise armies, enforce contracts, and so on, and in all ways they exist for the benefit of those with wealth. The wealthy don’t really want to eliminate government, as some wealthy libertarians believe they should. They may want to eliminate government policies and programs that advance the interests of commoners, but they need government to manage the economy and protect it in international competition with other plutocracies. Joseph states that it is not surprising or problematic that there is “money in politics” in this system, or that lobbyists control legislators and write legislation for them. This is exactly what this system has built into its design. He argues that rather than complain vaguely about the need to “get money out of politics,” we need to recognize the nature of this system and create a radically new one. [3]

Joseph also points out that the present system has evolved beyond plutocracy into what is now called a plutonomy. In 2005, an analyst at Citibank noted this new situation when he advised investors to ignore the old economy and concentrate on the financial flows of the wealthiest minority who now account for the largest share of economic activity. [4] The gini coefficient of wealth distribution is now so extreme that the economic activity of the bottom 80% of the population can just be ignored.

The plutonomy depends on military power to defend its position, and almost eighty years ago, in late 1940, in what was then still just a plutocracy, the leap was made toward the plutonium-based economy when plutonium was first produced at the University of California, Berkeley. Just as American plutocrats once needed “well-regulated militias” to deter and put down slave rebellions, in the 20th century they brought forth the demon “black rock” (uranium ore) from the underworld and made enriched uranium and plutonium in order to preserve the economic order with the ultimate weapon. As the American president reiterated the point in January of 2018: “We must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.” So indeed there is a powerful synchronicity between plutos and pluton. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were even aware of the connection when they developed these terms. Their etymology would be impossible to know for certain.

There are other strange connections between the economy and the poisonous substances that are used to defend it. The disciplines of economics and ecology share common origins in the Greek root oikos (home), as they are both concerned with how humans interact with their environment. Over time, the economy became more virtual and metaphorical, detached from the tangible world.

This is made clear by the numerous ways in which the economy can only be explained with metaphors derived from real world phenomena, and when things go badly in the economy they are compared to the worst nightmares of ecological catastrophe: critical mass, bombs, meltdowns and fallout. Just consider the long list of metaphors that are routinely seen in the media: The “bailout” is of course the most obvious metaphor. The number of bad loans reached a “critical mass” and the real estate market had a “meltdown” that arose from the “perfect storm,” and of course there was “fallout” for investors. Mortgage securities are now considered “toxic” or “radioactive.” “Liquidity” “vaporized,” stocks “cratered,” the economy “fell off a cliff,” the president thinks he can “ride the tiger in order to tame it.” A senator warns of “economic Pearl Harbor.” Credit default swaps are “weapons of mass destruction,” but who cares about any of this if he doesn’t have “skin in the game.” In 2007, a credit “tsunami” was heading our way, but we just stood on the shore watching it roll in. The “bubble” burst. Prices “nosedived” (why not “nosedove”?). Government props up the financial system like a “dam,” refusing to open the “floodgates” that would release the pressure. The credit system must be revived by opening up the “spigot” and sending in a “troop surge” of quantitative easing to do battle, but not before the “sclerotic arteries” of the system are fixed. It needs more “oxygen,” as long as that doesn’t “feed the flames,” but should we bother trying to save a “burning house”?

Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason, [5] noted that the financial industry’s reliance on metaphor to explain itself has become so problematic that the American Securities and Exchange Commission has declared that financial professionals would be “… barred from using metaphors when speaking about the markets and investments.” He quoted one commentator who added, “It’s clear from the research that any discussion of the market and its direction is totally metaphorical. The market is not a thing. We’ve got to stop talking about it vaulting, slipping, inching, bouncing, pushing, resisting, rebounding, rallying, and clawing. This is a sober business, not a Las Vegas cage fight… markets cannot ‘flirt’ with anything.” On the other hand, because the market is not a thing, because it is virtual, perhaps it can only be described with metaphors. “Flirting” with disaster might be the best way to describe what has been going on since 1940.


[1] See also the ecological manifesto Four Changes written by Snyder and others in the early 1970s.

[2] Peter Joseph, The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression (BenBella Books, 2017).

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