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The Rich Have Impunity
Do you live in a capitalist society? Are you rich? For extra bonus points, are you a white man? Oh yeah, one last question, are you a rapist and/or a sexual predator of children? Well, as recent events have evinced, you essentially have complete impunity from the law, so don’t worry.
In an example of the US “Justice” System at its finest, it has just been announced that rapist and child predator (of his own children) Robert H. Richards IV, the millionaire great grandson of du Pont family patriarch and robber baron Irenee du Pont, will be returning home a free man. This is the despicable human being who raped and assaulted his own son and daughter on multiple occasions between 2005 and 2007. But Richards is a rich white man, you see, so, in a capitalist “democracy,” he is immune from punishment.
The Huff Post reports:
Richards was initially indicted on two counts of second-degree child rape, felonies that translate to a 10-year mandatory jail sentence per count. He was released on $60,000 bail while awaiting his charges.
Richards hired one of the state’s top law firms and was offered a plea deal of one count of fourth-degree rape charges — which carries no mandatory minimum prison sentencing. He accepted, and admitted to the assault.
In her sentence, Jurden said he would benefit from participating in a sex offenders rehabilitation program rather than serving prison time.
The story has been making its way around the corporate media, journalists and readers truly surprised that the contemptible rapist and child predator is getting off virtually scot-free, failing to see the systematic nature of the issue. Rape your children, and, if you’re rich, you’ll get probation. After all, as the state Superior Court judge ruled, Richards would “not fare well” in prison, so I guess that’s a good reason to let him go free, right? Many are terrified, wondering how such a disgusting crime could go unpunished in the US, the “land of the free,” the world’s greatest “democracy.” With even the most cursory of looks at history, nonetheless, we should not be surprised.
Richards’ exculpation is by no means a “rare,” isolated incident. In a capitalist system, the rich largely have impunity from the law. In a patriarchal capitalist society, for rich men, this is even more true. In a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society, rich white men can basically do whatever they want. Collective historical memory in the US is quite amnesiac (we live in the “United States of Amnesia,” Gore Vidal famously insisted), but we needn’t reach far back to find a variety of examples. Most prominently, just two months ago, Dylan Farrow, in her first public statement in over 20 years, bravely published an open letter in the New York Times, detailing the horrific sexual crimes her adopted father, Woody Allen, repeatedly committed against her when she was only seven years old. The ensuing burst of white male apologetics and mansplaining surely demonstrated that something had struck a chord with the white-supremacist-capitalist-
Such a response should not come as a surprise. In Hollywood—the institutional detritus left behind when capitalism monopolizes an entire artistic medium—patriarchy, white supremacy, capital, and stardom mix in a most mephitic stew. Allen is symptomatic of a much larger white-supremacist-capitalist-
White male movie stars are not alone in these regards. Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, one of rock’s most celebrated guitarists in one of rock’s most celebrated bands, stands as another example, among many, of celebrity rapists who today freely roam the world. Upon seeing a 14-year-old whom he considered attractive in a nightclub, Page had his tour manager Richard Cole tell her “Jimmy told me that he’s going to have you whether you like it or not,” and throw her in his limo, threatening “you f-cking move and I’ll f-cking have your head.” But, hey, “‘Stairway to Heaven’ is brilliant!” the apologist earnestly reminds us. “Can’t we just forget that it was written by, oh, you know, a rapist and sexual predator of minors and just enjoy the music?” No. Not if you have any ounce of compassion for survivors of rape and sexual assault. Richards isn’t a famous artist, but he has money, he’s white, and he’s a male—and in a capitalist society, those are the most important factors.
Reaching back just a bit more, perhaps you might remember the incident just three months ago, in which an inebriated rich white 16-year-old boy slaughtered four people and injured seven, crashing his father’s company car. The NY Daily News most eloquently described the incident. “Wealthy brat Ethan Couch killed four people, including a mother and daughter, while blacked-out drunk and driving 70 mph on a rural road in June. Defense attorneys said the boy suffered from ‘affluenza’ [a fictitious disease, of course] and blamed the boy’s parents, saying they gave him everything he wanted and didn’t teach him about consequences.” The Daily Mail, among others, noted the irony that this very same judge did not exercise such leniency months before in sentencing a 14-year-old black boy to 10 years in federal prison after he punched a man, accidentally killing him. Like Richards, the 16-year-old trust-fund kid was sentenced to counseling, not prison. His legal team “proposed sending him to a posh Southern California treatment facility that would cost his family $500,000 a year.”
If we really want to go far back in history… how ’bout we talk about the 2008 financial crisis? How many Wall Street executives directly responsible for the crisis were arrested? I’ll just borrow the “complete list of Wall Street CEOs prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis,” published in the incredibly business-friendly Washington Post:
1. No one.
3. Wall Street’s lawyers are amazing.
4. Etc. Etc.
“So, yeah. Zero Wall Street CEOs are in jail,” it reports. Sure, the “Justice” System did some lip service. A “few loan officers — small fish — have been convicted of various offenses related to the financial crash. But none of the big bankers have faced any charges.” The rationale? Well, you can’t arrest your magical “job creators”! They’re “too big to fail.”
At the same moment, nonetheless, we must ask ourselves: What of the human costs of their crimes? Because of their crimes, how many families were made homeless? Because of their crimes, how many people had to go hungry? Because of their crimes, how many people died because they didn’t have access to medication, or to adequate healthcare?
There are literally myriad more examples of impunity for the rich in capitalist history, but let’s spare the redundant details, the variations on the same repugnant motif. The rich can commit crimes resulting in the deaths of thousands and thousands of people, but they have the privilege of shirking responsibility. Their corporations will be charged for the crimes they themselves committed. (After all, corporations “are people too,” aren’t they!) Sure, the company might be disbanded, but the same criminal capitalists, the same “creative” entrepreneurs, will start a “new” business under a new name. Say hello to the new corporation, same as the old corporation.
In the rare instances in which the rich are actually charged (and, for emphasis, this is rarely the case), they can afford the best lawyers. They can afford the bail. They can afford to bribe “justice” officials. Their wealth brings them prestige—the same prestige that inspires the jury (if there is one) to exculpate them (“How could such a reputable rich person commit such a horrendous crime?!”). Did I mention they can afford the best lawyers? That’s over half the battle.
When rich people (especially rich white people) are caught with large amounts of drugs, they go to rehab. When poor people (especially poor people of color) are caught with small amounts of drugs, they get decades, even life sentences, in prison. Judge Jan Jurden insisted that Richards get treatment. Don’t get me wrong, treatment is great. “Punishment Fails. Rehabilitation Works.” But treatment isn’t the problem. The problem is that, in a capitalist system, only the rich get treatment. Everyone else just gets locked away. Yes, we need a completely new punitive system, one that emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation over simply locking someone up for the rest of their life (and then enslaving them, forcing them to work for corporations). Until that day arrives, nonetheless, the rich should receive the same punishment everyone else is meted out. Under capitalism, this is not and will not be the case. The poor are pathologized as “inherently” criminal; it is supposedly “in their nature.” The rich, on the other hand, are given a second chance. They’re always given a second chance—a permanent second chance, interminably refreshed after each wrongdoing, no matter how heinous.
Capitalist apologists point to a small modicum of examples of rich white men facing adequate punishment for their horrific crimes, in attempts to argue that the “Justice” System is equitable, and that Richards is just an unfortunate exception, but their evidence is anecdotal, individual, isolated, non-representative. Everyone slips through the cracks; even the rich sometimes slip through the cracks in the very system they shaped to serve their interests. The problem extends further, beyond just impunity. In a capitalist system, not only do the rich have impunity; they create many of the very same laws from which they are immune. Lobbyists create laws in the service of the rich. Politicians cannot win elections without the support of large financial institutions. (93% of congressional candidates with more funding win elections.) Few articulate this situation as well as Glenn Greenwald, in his recent book With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. He begins the first chapter writing
Wealth and power have always conferred substantial advantages, and it is thus unsurprising that throughout history the rich and well-connected have enjoyed superior treatment under the law. In the past, those advantages were broadly seen as failures of justice and ruefully acknowledged as shortcomings of the legal system. Today, however, in a radical and momentous shift, the American political class and its media increasingly repudiate the principle that the law must be equally applied to all. To hear our politicians and our press tell it, the conclusion is inescapable: we’re far better off when political and financial elites-and they alone-are shielded from criminal accountability.
It has become a virtual consensus among the elites that their members are so indispensable to the running of American society that vesting them with immunity from prosecution-even for the most egregious crimes-is not only in their interest but in our interest, too. Prosecutions, courtrooms, and prisons, it’s hinted-and sometimes even explicitly stated-are for the rabble, like the street-side drug peddlers we occasionally glimpse from our car windows, not for the political and financial leaders who manage our nation and fuel our prosperity.
Greenwald’s insistence that there was indeed a moment in the past in which the rich and powerful (two sides of the same coin, in a capitalist society) genuinely believed that “the law must be equally applied to all” might be a bit misguided (there certainly has never been such a moment in the US, particularly considering the fact that, only five decades ago, black Americans were explicitly not equal to white Americans under the law), but otherwise, truer words have rarely been spoken. In a capitalist system, the more capital, the more wealth, one has, the more power one has. The powerful need not worry about breaking laws. They can rape, steal, even murder as they wish. The world is their oyster. They bought it, after all.
“Meritocracy” is a myth—it is today, and it has been from the very beginning. All you need to succeed in a capitalist “meritocracy” is privilege. It is the capitalist system that propagates and reifies this privilege—in the form of bourgeois supremacy, of white supremacy, of male supremacy, of cisheterosexual supremacy. A capitalist system is invariably a plutocracy, whether or not it calls itself “democratic.” Richards inherited his family’s wealth—wealth extracted from countless workers, and from their countless drops of sweat and blood—and, with it, he was endowed with hallowed privilege, privilege to do whatever he wants, without fear of retribution. Richards’ impunity is symptomatic of a much larger rape culture that says that men can do whatever they wish with women’s bodies, without punishment. Richards’ impunity is symptomatic of a much larger capitalist system that says that rich people can do whatever they wish with anyone’s bodies, without punishment.
The exculpation of Robert H. Richards IV is a symptom of the capitalist system. This is how capitalism works, this is how capitalism has always worked, and this is how capitalism will continue to work. If it is to carry on like this, it is to destroy us—through anthropogenic climate change and ecological destruction, through global war, through immiseration. If we ever want a truly just society, one in which rich criminals are not free to carry out their horrendous acts with impunity, we must create a society in which wealth is not the arbiter of all, in which no person can create laws in the service of their interest. That is to say, we must create atruly democratic society—a society that is not just politically democratic, but economically democratic. In other words, we must create a socialist society.
Ben Norton is an artist and activist. His website can be found at http://bennorton.com/.