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Connecting the Networks: Putting the Kochs into race relations

Published in General Topics

By Salma Sayyid

An insidious, toxic global nexus of right wing, neoconservative organizations from the United States, Europe and South Africa is rapidly gaining momentum as an avowedly racist worldview begins to shape domestic and foreign policy imperatives. From pro white supremacist sympathies emanating from the White House to anti-immigration sentiments of the vexatious Brexit debacle and right wing free marketers in South Africa, the key role players are now flexing their financial muscle with no encumbrances. The time of the muscular neoconservative crusader is upon us!

In Belgrade on 5 April 2019, a former sergeant in Israeli’s military intelligence was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Students for Liberty (SFL), a youth group whose mission is “to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders of liberty”. The sergeant, Yaron Brook, whose parents were born in South Africa, is also the current chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute. Rand was a Russian-American writer and philosopher and the ARI promotes her principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience. Brook is an uncompromising exponent of what rationalizing self-interest means. While appearing on the TV show of right wing neoconservative shrill, Bill O’Reilly, on 17 December 2004, Brook argued categorically on how US forces should deal with Iraqi civilians in Fallujah: “I'm suggesting that we start bringing this war to the civilians, the consequences of this war, to the civilians who are harbouring and helping and supporting the insurgents in Fallujah and other places. ... I would like to see the United States turn Fallujah into dust and tell the Iraqis: If you're going to continue to support the insurgents you will not have homes, you will not have schools, you will not have mosques.”

Brook further argued that if "flattening Fallujah to end the Iraqi insurgency will save American lives, to refrain from [doing so] is morally evil." Brook’s comments are neither surprising nor uncommon amongst this crusading movement of “regime change” advocates comprising billionaire right wing ideologues, white nationalists, Christian and secular Zionists, free market extremists and run off the mill neo Nazis. 

The SFL and ARI are just a small part of an extraordinary influential, US-based network of well-resourced politically connected individuals who are intent on expanding their presence and ideas around the globe. Their tentacles have even reached Africa.

In South Africa, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), Free Market Foundation (FMF), Students for Liberty (Cape Town), Independent Entrepreneurship Group (Ineng), African Liberty Forum, the newly formed Capitalist Party of SA and the new kids on the block, Progress SA, share board members, policy wonks and staff, as well sharing research, policy papers, coordinating their agendas while cloning their sponsor’s international policies and research to fit into domestic politics. More importantly, this cross-fertilization of board members and individuals, globally and locally, enables this network to leverage greater access to a broader spectrum of funding and enjoy greater intimacy to political power. 

At the centre of this global network are the various umbrella organizations in the US providing funding, intellectual cover and anonymity for right wing think tanks, activist groups, university associations, free market organizations and lobbying groups to operate.


Koch Brothers

Amongst the world’s foremost mega-donors to right wing causes are the billionaires Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries. Their combined fortune is approximately $100 billion, ranking them the second wealthiest family in America. 

Their father, Fred Koch, began building his fortune with $500,000 received from Stalin for constructing 15 oil refineries in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Later on, his company, Winkler-Koch, built the Nazis their third-largest oil refinery. According to Jane Mayer, author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, Fred Koch wrote in 1938 that “the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan”. Fred hired a nanny, who was a zealous Nazi, to ensure his children were instilled with his ideas and values. When she left for Germany in 1940, Fred became the single enforcer at home. It is no surprise that the brothers have a penchant for supporting and enforcing right wing policies. Their strategic political and funding philosophy is deeply embedded in their fervent desire to support causes that ultimately achieve their own predetermined objectives.

Writing in The New Yorker in August 2010, Mayer says: “The Kochs are long-time libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.” No doubt the brother’s private agenda drives a global movement that is pro-rich, against corporate taxation, advocates climate change denialism and part of the pro-gun lobby.

An example of their obsessive conservative bent was evident during the run-up to the 2012 US election, when Koch-affiliated organizations raised a staggering $400 million to spend on a campaign, unsuccessful it turned out, to oust President Obama and hand back control of the Senate to the Republicans. At a 2015 gathering of Koch donors, the network announced an unbelievable $889 million spending goal for the 2016 elections.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, ”Koch officials vowed to spend between $300 million and $400 million to shape the 2018 midterm elections”.

The Kochs’ chief political strategist is Richard Fink, who approached the brothers in 1977 to urge them to turn their libertarian ideals and love of “free markets” into political advocacy. Fink developed a three-stage model of social change: universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”; think tanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”; and then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, think tanks, journals and movements in the US and via conduit organizations globally. The most prominent being the State Policy Network, the Atlas Foundation and the Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. Donors Trust and DCF allow wealthy individuals and philanthropic organizations to donate to right-wing causes (and even hate groups) with anonymity.

These Koch-funded networks have launched strident attacks on climate science, criticized clean energy and stifled debate on renewable energy via an army of front groups. They have also worked with big tobacco companies, like Phillip Morris, to stop common-sense regulations and public health measures on smoking. In fighting the tobacco cause, the Kochs refined their game plan that they would use to continue to fight against anti-pollution legislation, workers rights and subverting participatory democracy.

According to a 2013 investigation by the US Center for Media and Democracy (Exposed: The State Policy Network The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government): “When the Kochbrothers want to see lower corporate taxes and fewer pollution regulations so Koch Industries can see higher profits, contributing to right-wing think tanks that aggressively call for lowering – or eliminating – corporate taxes and removing environmental regulations serves as an investment that aids their corporation as well as their personal agenda.”

The vast array of front organizations, think tanks, corporate lobbyists, educational programmes, political and consumer groups, pro-free market advocacy organizations are affiliated or indirectly funded by Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Institute, and Charles Koch Foundation. The scale of this powerhouse’s influence and resources was demonstrated at an exclusive Charles Koch Foundation event in 2018, when about 500 Koch donors — each committing at least $100,000 annually — met for the Foundation’s weekend "seminar" that had the usual cast of elected politicians and high-profile political influencers.

Under US law, Koch Industries, which is privately owned by Charles and David, is not obliged to disclose who it funds, in effect meaning that the total amount Koch Industries has spent on advancing the right-wing agenda of its leaders and organizations will never be revealed.The Institute separated from the Foundation in 2011 and has rebranded itself as an “organization specifically dedicated to educating the next generation of professional leaders” with libertarian-minded internships, grant funding and professional development courses. 


Atlas Network

Washington-based Atlas Network (formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation)is a think tank that promotes free market economic policies around the World.  Founded in 1981 Atlas openly funds right-wing activities in more than 90 countries. With an annual budget of almost U$ 11 million, it actively funds and promotes neoconservativeorganizations from funding political activity around the world, each movement is supported by “formation institutes”, which are free to receive funds to carry out their agitation. 

In Brazil where organizations such as the Free Brazil Movement (MLB), the Liberal Institute and Students for Liberty Brazil emerged in Brazil’s political landscape, publishing books and organizing demonstrations as well as providing training and lectures to hand-picked leaders.

On the relationship between Students for Liberty (EPL) with the Free Brazil Movement, Juliano Torres, executive director of the Brazilian branch of EPL, was quoted by journalist Marina Amaral in an article for Agencia Publicia: “We receive money from foreign organizations as well, such as Atlas. Atlas, with Students for Liberty, are our main donors. In Brazil, the main organizations are Friderich Naumann, a German organization, which aren’t allowed to donate money, but they pay for our expenses”.

Various corporations and foundations helped Atlas to donate more than U$ 4 million to various organizations around the world in 2014. Companies such as Google, Exxon Mobil and organizations such as DonorsTrust, State Policy Network were just some of their donors. This neoconservative network has reshaped political power in country after country and at times has acted as a covert arm of U.S. foreign policy, with Atlas-associated think tanks receiving under the radar funding from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a critical extension of American quiet diplomacy.

Atlas Network’s modus operandi is simple: “It gives grants for new think tanks, provides courses on political management and public relations, sponsors networking events around the world, and, in recent years, has devoted special resources to prodding libertarians to influence public opinion through social media and online videos.”

That the Trump administration is littered with alumni of Atlas-related groups and friends should not come as a surprise. Trump’s former counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, is a right wing Islamophobe once headed an Atlas-backed think tank in Hungary and still has links to the Order of Vitéz- a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group - and Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) - a paramilitary fascist group. Notwithstanding these links, US Congressman and co-chair of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, Trent Franks called Gorka "the staunchest friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Michael Rubin of the influential Washington based right wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute, said Gorka "is about as anti-Semitic as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is, not at all." Evidently just a trifling inkling of pro-Israel sentiments is sufficient to absolve one’s anti-Semitic philandering!

US Vice President Mike Pence attended an Atlas event and spoke highly of the organization, while, perhaps the biggest feather in the cap for the Network is the appointment of former senior fellow at the Atlas Network, Judy Shelton, as Trump’s economic advisor and chair of the NED after Trump’s victory. Shelton also served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition team.


Students For Liberty (SFL)

The US-based Students for Liberty organizes student groups and leaders around the world to become a new generation of libertarian leaders. SFL is funded largely by a network of anonymous conservative donors through the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, along with several Koch-affiliated groups. At their annual conference in January 2019, Google was the $25,000 platinum sponsor, while Facebook and Microsoft were $10,000 sponsors each.

The SFL programs are carried out in partnership with other foundations, especially the Cato Institute and the Institute of Human Studies, all these organizations are linked to the Koch family. 

As pointed out previously, Juliano Torres, an executive of the Students for Liberty Brazil, participates in an all-expenses paid international conference and leadership meeting in Washington annually. The reported 2015 budget of the SFL Brazil affiliate was R$300,000. On the launch of the EPL, Torres states it happened after he participated in a 2012 summer workshop for thirty students in Petropolis, sponsored by the Atlas Network. After that, Torres went through several training programs at Atlas: “There is one they call MBA, there is a program in New York, and also online training. We recommend to all people who work in positions of a certain responsibility to also go through the Atlas Network training programs.”

In the last two decades, the 11 foundations tied with the Kochs poured US$800 million into the American network of conservative foundations. Another donor to Atlas is The Templeton Foundation, a right-wing philanthropic organization that sets out to “bridge science and spirituality while – on a not obviously related track – promoting free enterprise.” The Foundation has also dabbled in politics when in 2004 it launched the group ‘Let Freedom Ring’, which was aimed at “getting out the evangelical Christian vote for George Bush.”

With considerably larger budgets than the Atlas Network, these organizations have developed and funded fellowship programs globally, which have been executed by Atlas. 


South Africa

In 2007 African Liberty was “founded as a project of the Cato Institute, thereafter under the auspices of the Atlas Network. It claims “It is a platform for advancing individual freedom, peace, and prosperity in Africa by promoting civil discussion and debate about social, legal, economic, and world issues affecting Africans” according to information on its website.

On the Advisory Board of African Liberty is Frans Cronje, the Chief Executive Officer of SAIRR. In its 2017 Annual Report, SAIRR lists the Atlas Foundation as one of its “significant donors”. Another important donor is the liberal political, climate change sceptics, German-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). According to its website, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is a longstanding partner of the FNF. 

In May 2017 the Free Market Foundation (FMF) together with the Atlas Network and The John Templeton Foundation, hosted the Africa Liberty Forum in Johannesburg. Discussions focussed on the challenges facing Africa and how to “most effectively advance free-market reforms”. 

Key speakers were Leon Louw, cofounder of the FMF, Unathi Kwaza from the Independent Entrepreneurship Group (Ineng) and current board member of the FMF, and a candidate for the newly formed Capitalist Party of South Africa. Other candidates for the Party are Kanthan Pillay and Roman Cabanac. Cabanac is co-host of The Renegade Report, a right of centre web-based talk show. Cabanac is a self-styled “advocate of individualism and anarchism”. Of free market economics and an avowed supporter of Israel. The SAIRR was also represented by its Vice President for Transatlantic Affairs, Garreth BloorBloor was elected to the Cape Town City Council in 2011 as a DA candidate and was subsequently appointed to the Mayoral Committee in February 2013. 

In July 2016, Leon Louw shared a Foreign Policy Panel discussion at a Charles Koch Institute funded gathering. The panel discussed how government actions abroad relate to markets and the economy. Coincidentally FMF advocacy for Big Tobacco follows a similar agenda of the Kochs and other pro-tobacco lobby groups.

In 2015 Ineng and the SAIRR sponsored the first event for the African Students for Liberty‘s Cape Town chapter. The African Students for Liberty (ASFL) is the continent’s affiliate of the US-based SFL.

Ineng has a partnership with the Atlas Network and in January 2015 Ineng “joined the Atlas Network’s global directory, the third group from South Africa and the first from Cape Town to do so”. Two South Africans are currently listed on the Executive Board of the ASFL. Martin van Stadenjoined ASFL in late 2014 as a Local Coordinator and was accepted onto the African Executive Board in August 2015 and served till August 2018. Martin is a Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation and Academic Programs Director of Students For Liberty in Southern Africa. Nicholas Woode-Smith became a Local Coordinator in 2015. In 2016, he became the Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa.  Nicholas co-founded the online publication Rational Standard in 2016 to “provide a libertarian alternative to the mainstream left-wing media in South Africa”. 

Another key player in the Students for Liberty organization is University of Cape Town student, Jordan Seligmann. According to his LinkedIn profile, Jordan currently serves as the Treasurer of the UCT chapter of the ASFL. From November 2017 to November 2018, Jordan was the Secretary of the UCT’s branch of ASFL. From May 2017 – November 2017 he served as Chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (Cape Town) and was elected onto the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies. Seligmann is also the Deputy Chair in Administration of the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (UCT).

An interesting note in van Staden’s resume on the ASFL website is that he lists Stefan Molyneux as his “Favourite Figures in Liberty”. Molyneux is an Irish-Canadian white supremacist political commentator and a white genocide conspiracy theorist who podcasts on Freedomain Radio.  Molyneux frequently hosts white supremacists like Peter Brimelow (founder of the white nationalist website VDare) and Jared Taylor (founder of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance. Molyneux was refused entry to Australia because of his racist views.

In a 2017 interview, Brimelow told Molyneux that white nationalism is "a perfectly fine term" and "a legitimate point of view." Molyneux chipped in that whites had spearhead liberation struggles in non-white regions of the world, including South Africa, but that these regions were "backsliding" after whites had left or became a minority. In a 2018 interview with far right activist and internet personality, Lauren Southern, Molyneux stated that the media and NGOs were under-reporting violence against white farmers in South Africa because they "don’t want to scare the whites in the west with what happens when whites become a minority in a highly aggressive and tribalised world".

Newcomers to right wing campus politics is UCT-based Progress SA. Presently the public face of the web-based organization are Tami Jackson and Scott Roberts who have done the media rounds in Cape Town. Progress SA claims it is a “grassroots movement fighting for a free future in South Africa”. The movement's mission is to “search for a rational, moral alternative to racial nationalism, identity politics and other kinds of totalitarianism.”

On its website, the group does not identify any of its  leadership or office bearers. Ironically, an organization whose mission is to safeguard free speech, information regarding the identity of its website registrant and all contact information is redacted. While platformed by the Renegade Report, Tami Jackson acknowledged that the organization received funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Progress SA has launched a campaign at UCT opposing what it calls the “university's policy framework for decolonising the curriculum”. The group says the proposal would limit academic freedom and introduce “a colour bar” that would allow only lecturers of certain races to teach certain subjects. Predictably it is also opposing the Senate’s resolution in favour of a proposal for UCT to not enter into “any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories”.

 Unsurprisingly, Progress SA posters on the UCT campus are also endorsed by the Students for Liberty.

There is no doubt that there is a growing political and financial alliance between right wing US neo conservatives and South African ngos, think tanks and student organizations. From the Koch brothers to the Institute of Race Relations, Free Market Foundation, Students for Liberty and Progress SA, this network of libertarian, right wing, neoconservative advocacy is finding voice in South Africa at the moment that right wing, white supremacist politics is gaining ground in the US and parts of Europe. This is the ugly face of right-wing politics in the age of Trump!

This toxic politics has consequences both for our democracy, as money from these shady organisations pour into our country; and for Academic Freedom, as this money attempts to influence research directions at our Universities currently starved of funding.

Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2019 11:11