Die, Billionaire, Die: How Pittsburgh’s Oligarchs Still Control Us From the Grave

June 11, 2017 – By Ron Read


Pittsburgh’s history is fraught with Romero-like oligarchs who have done terrible, unspeakable acts, but who are nonetheless still treated with reverence here in Pittsburgh. They have done things that only the lowest of the low would do! Damnable acts such as: Wage Theft, Cruelty To Workers, Embezzlement, Insider Trading, War Profiteering, Spreading Falsehoods, Monopolization of Markets, Debauchery, Speculation, Union Busting, Securities Fraud, Murder(!), and Financing Climate Destruction are also acts these evil doers and their companies have taken delight in. And worst of all… they won’t die!

The cold, dead hands of people like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Thomas Mellon, Charles M. Schwab, Richard Mellon Scaife, and countless other oligarchs still cling to the levers of power even as their bodies and souls fester in the ‘Great Void of Death’. While alive men like Carnegie, Frick, and Schwab made life hell for workers with their union-busting and deplorable working conditions. Other men like Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, spread propaganda to lead people down a false path of racism and paranoia. And Scaife’s grandfather, Thomas Mellon, started Mellon Bank, which helped provide money for companies like Exxon, Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, Alcoa and countless other organizations that exploit the environment and monopolize markets. However, while these men fit the 20th century bill of the 1%, their memorials and buildings are not defamed and their legacies live on in Pittsburgh.

Like undead creatures from a nightmare, these oligarchs still influence and encourage reactionary thoughts and unsavory businesses while the media sings their praises as philanthropists who saved the city. Thomas Mellon left us Mellon Bank, which later became BNY Mellon, a financial institution tied to numerous banking scandals and war profiteering. Andrew Carnegie and Andrew W. Mellon’s University became a chief researcher and recruiter for the U.S. military-industrial complex. Richard Scaife’s foundations continue to finance right-wing media and leadership organizations to encourage America’s best and brightest to become capitalist ghouls. And Henry Frick may have left Pittsburgh with parks, buildings, and a foundation named after him, but the public forgets his penchant for killing union men in the name of preventing collective bargaining.

So, why is it that these men still haunt the living? Why do they live on? Perhaps it’s because the public is not well-educated about the evils of these men’s deeds, and people in general are scarcely imbued with class consciousness at all. Meanwhile, many who would oppose the legacy of the oligarchs are pacified by the billions of dollars they have poured into charities, foundations, and non-profits. Their generosity can be summed up with the old phrase: “They steal in the morning, and they give half of it back in the afternoon.” Had the oligarchs not taken so much from their workers, consumers, and the environment to enrich themselves, we may not have need of their foundations and charity.

Following the previous line of scoundrels, a new batch of billionaires has taken control of our lives. Men like Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel, and Craig Mundie control our tech industry. Others such as Lloyd Blankfein, Larry Summers, Jaime Diamond, and James Moynihan honor the Wall Street mantra, “greed is good.” And to make sure our political system does as it’s told, the likes of Sheldon Adelson, the Koch Brothers, and Robert Mercer finance the politicians who harm us most.

The answer to this question, “how do we send these demons back to hell?”, is not a simple one. We must begin an important conversation about historical memory and honoring the true heroes of Pittsburgh. We could start by requiring that schools teach students the wicked ways of the Scaifes and Carnegies, while having them read of the many labor, social, and environmentalist groups that fought against them. These groups’ stories are about history as much as they are about class war, and we should sing their songs before we even mention someone like Mellon. Buildings and institutions could also be renamed for the workers and victims of the oligarchs’ greed, with plaques indicating what the landmark used to be named and why it was changed. We shouldn’t forget our history, but we shouldn’t be forced to honor the wicked either.

Ron Read is a 2017 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Law School & a member of the Thomas Merton Center’s Anti-War Committee.

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