Cincinnati: An Oligarchy

Anna Louise Inn Controversy Proves Once Again that We Live under the Rule of the Few, Rich, White Men

Dan La Botz, Contributing WriterDanLabotz2013

If there was any doubt in your mind, the struggle over the Anna Louise Inn has given proof once again that we live in an oligarchy. John F. Barrett, head of multibillion dollar Western & Southern Financial Group, finally succeeded—through law suits, a publicity campaign aimed at discrediting the poor women who were housed there, and ultimately the use of economic power—in forcing the Inn to give in, sell, and move out of his company’s neighborhood.

The Inn, originally established in 1909 through a donation from the Charles P. Taft family— another pillar of the oligarchy—served homeless women who might otherwise have suffered and starved on the streets. Yet despite months of protest by the women’s allies and a great deal of public controversy, the Inn near Lytle Park that housed 70  women at any one time will—Barrett having ground down them down—soon be sold and transformed into a “boutique hotel.” While another center will be built to house the women elsewhere, the goal of getting poor women, some of them African American, out of downtown will have been accomplished. (For an account of the deal that went down see Danny Cross’s “Surrounded by Skyscapers” article in City Beat at http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-25973-surrounded_by_skyscr.html.)

Photo: Public Domain

Photo: Public Domain

What happened to the Inn is part of a pattern of class and ethnic cleansing being carried out by the city’s corporate oligarchy and best exemplified by the 3CDC or Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation’s program of gentrification of Over-the-Rhine. The Cincinnati oligarchy has decided that the path of progress passes over the working poor and the just plain poor. The oligarchy decided that progress passes through the homes they used to live in, the streets they used to walk, the schools they once attended, the park where they once played. Progress passes through the city blocks they once called their community.

The Oligarchy

Just as the economic crisis of 2008 led to a revival of the term “plutocracy,” meaning the rule of the rich, we should also revive and use the term “oligarchy” to describe the city’s economic and political elite. An oligarchy is almost always itself a plutocracy. As I argued in my paper Who Rules Cincinnati? http://danlabotz.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Who_Rules_CincinnatIFinalPDF2.pdf published a few years ago, we live in the Queen City under the rule of the few, a few very rich white men (as well as very few and mostly token women and African Americans) who head the banks, insurance companies, and corporations headquartered in Cincinnati.

They rule the city for the wealthy until we can build a movement that can stop them and put the people who live here in charge to run the city for the majority. Oligarchy is a word perhaps most often used to describe the rulers of the nations of Central  America and the Caribbean, regions where, for hundreds of years, plantation owners, mine owners, and merchants—whether they were called Conservatives or Liberals ruled for the rich. It was government by and for the few wealthy white men who lorded it over small farmers, artisans and the indigenous peoples and enslaved or freed Africans.

But, in truth, most governments around the world have been oligarchies, whether we’re talking about the Arab sheiks, the former Communist bureaucrats or the current Russian mafias, Social Democratic Europe or America under either Republicans or Democrats. The faces of government change while the economic oligarchy remains the power behind the throne, presidential chair, or the congress. What makes Cincinnati distinctive in comparison with cities such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles is that the oligarchy is far more cohesive and less divided by conflicting interests. It is we might say, the oligarchy par excellence.

Cincinnati’s Oligarchy

If you are really interested in this sort of thing (and able and willing to spend $50) you can get the Business Courier 2012 Book of Lists which tells you exactly which corporations dominate this city and the region, who runs them, and how much they make. It is a catalog of the oligarchs. In 2012 the thirteen biggest regional corporations were: Kroger Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Macy’s Inc., Ashland Inc., Fifth Third Bancorp, Omnicare Inc., AK Steel Holding Corp. General Cable, American Financial Group, Cincinnati Financial Corp., Cintas Corp., Chiquita Brands International Inc., and Convergys Corp. The top 25 highest paid corporate executives of these and a few other corporations all make over $1 million per year and the highest paid makes $5.7 million.

These companies are household names not only because their products and services are national and even international in scope, but also because we observe on a daily basis the ways in which their economic and political power determine—directly and indirectly—the most important political decisions in the city.

The oligarchs, like Barrett, are all connected with each other through what are sometimes called “inter-locking directorates,” that is, the very top corporate officials and board members all sit on each other’s’ board. Barrett serves not only as the Western & Southern president and CEO (find his official company bio at: http://www.westernsouthern.com/pdf/JFBarrett_bio.pdf), but he also sits on the boards of Convergys since 1998, of Cintas since 2011, as well as on the board of 3CDC, and he formerly served on the board of Fifth Third Bankcorp. He is a member of two of the country’s most important organizations, the Business Roundtable and the Financial Services Roundtable, bringing him into relationships with other capitalist throughout the country. He is involved as a donor and a volunteer with a number of city charities and private social welfare projects and he has previously served together with other wealthy corporate leaders on the boards of the Cincinnati Arts Association, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Taft Museum. That is, he not only uses his money and power to control his business and the other businesses with which he is involved, but also to influence culture and society more broadly. His eye sees and hand touches almost everything of importance in the city. He is an oligarch.

Stopping the Oligarchy

As an oligarch, Barrett had the tacit support of the Cincinnati business community, though not always its explicit support. Many of the business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Cincinnati, Inc. simply stood quietly on the sidelines, declining to speak out, perhaps because they didn’t want to be identified with Barrett’s bullying of poor women. Their silence, nevertheless, was their complicity. The previous city council spoke out in favor of the Inn continuing to do its work in its historic home, and the city administration did due diligence in fighting Western & Southern’s lawsuit against the Inn and the city. Still we are as usual disappointed with the council member’s lack of courage. No city council person made the defense of poor women his or her cause.

The Anna Louise Inn, its residents, and their allies made a noble effort to try to stop Barrett the oligarch from removing them from their home. In the course of the fight over the last many months an important coalition of forces supported the women including the Cincinnati AFLCIO labor federation, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Cincinnati Teachers Union (CTU). The Episcopal and Presbyterian churches supported the Inn, and virtually all of the sisterhoods of the Catholic women religious stood up and spoke out while the Archbishop himself is expected to speak out in June. While the NAACP never formally endorsed the struggle, they had a spokesperson to their meeting and individual NAACP members joined protests at Western & Southern. Those who have been fighting Barrett and Western & Southern over this issue so long plan to continue, because the fight against corporate power and for the city’s majority is not over.

What we see from this experience that there is in Cincinnati today a clear division between the oligarchy, the power of the few, and democracy, the power of the people. On the one side we have the banks, insurance companies, corporations and the wealthy elite who sit on corporate and civic boards, and on the other side we have the churches, the labor union members, civil rights activists, and many others who simply out of a healthy democratic instinct rush to the side of the underdog. When most people saw a bully beating up poor women, they knew where they stood—and it wasn’t on the side of an insurance company. The fight over the Anna Louise Inn has helped to bring together organizations and individuals committed to a fight against the corporate oligarchy, willing to stand with the downtrodden, prepared to make sacrifices, ready to take action. We need to strengthen and expand this network of activists to become a broader force in the city taking on other issues of financial corporate land grabs. I mean, after all, who will you stand with? Your banker? Or your sister?

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