The Programme: What links Rishi Sunak, Javier Milei and Donald Trump? The shadowy network behind their policies

George Monbiot
Illustration: Nate Kitch/The Guardian

Jan. 6, 2024

The Atlas Network’s dark-money junktanks are behind neoliberal policies around the world. And you may find its leaders on a resignation honours list near you

There are elements of fascism, elements borrowed from the Chinese state and elements that reflect Argentina’s history of dictatorship. But most of the programme for government announced by Javier Milei, the demagogic new Argentinian president, feels eerily familiar, here in the northern hemisphere.

A crash programme of massive cuts; demolishing public services; privatising public assets; centralising political power; sacking civil servants; sweeping away constraints on corporations and oligarchs; destroying regulations that protect workers, vulnerable people and the living world; supporting landlords against tenantscriminalising peaceful protest; restricting the right to strike. Anything ring a bell?

Milei is attempting, with a vast “emergency” decree and a monster “reform bill”, what the Conservatives have done in the UK over 45 years. The crash programme bears striking similarities to Liz Truss’s “mini” (maxi) budget, which trashed the prospects of many poor and middle-class people and exacerbated the turmoil that now dominates public life.

Coincidence? Not at all. Milei’s programme was heavily influenced by Argentinian neoliberal thinktanks belonging to something called the Atlas Network, a global coordinating body that promotes broadly the same political and economic package everywhere it operates. It was founded in 1981 by a UK citizen, Antony Fisher. Fisher was also the founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), one of the first members of the Atlas Network.

The IEA created, to a remarkable degree, Liz Truss’s political platform. In a video conversation on the day of her “mini” budget with another member of the institute, its then director general, Mark Littlewood, observed: “We’re on the hook for it now. If it doesn’t work it’s your fault and mine.” It didn’t work – in fact, it crashed spectacularly, at great cost to us all – but, thanks to the UK’s media, the BBC included, which continue to treat these fanatical corporate lobbyists as purveyors of holy writ, they’re off the hook.

Last year, the IEA was platformed on British media an average of 14 times a day: even more often than before the disaster it helped inflict on the UK. Scarcely ever was it challenged about who funds it or whom it represents. The three peers nominated by Truss in her resignation honours list have all worked for or with organisations belonging to the Atlas Network (Matthew Elliott, TaxPayers’ Alliance; Ruth Porter, IEA and Policy Exchange; Jon Moynihan, IEA). Now, like US supreme court justices, they have been granted lifelong powers to shape our lives, without democratic consent. Truss also put forward Littlewood, but his reward for wrecking people’s lives was blocked by the House of Lords appointments commission.

Argentinians protest against new president Javier Milei's deregulation decree – video

Nothing has been learned: these corporate lobby groups still mould our politics. Policy Exchange, which, as Rishi Sunak has admitted, “helped us draft” the UK’s vicious new anti-protest laws, is also a member of the Atlas Network. We might describe certain policies as being Milei’s or Bolsonaro’s, or Truss’s or Johnson’s or Sunak’s, but they’re all variations on the same themes, hatched and honed by junktanks belonging to the same network. Those presidents and prime ministers are just the faces the programme wears.

And who, in turn, are the junktanks? Many refuse to divulge who funds them, but as information has trickled out we have discovered that the Atlas Network itself and many of its members have taken money from funding networks set up by the Koch brothers and other rightwing billionaires, and from oilcoal and tobacco companies and other life-defying interests. The junktanks are merely the intermediaries. They go into battle on behalf of their donors, in the class war waged by the rich against the poor. When a government responds to the demands of the network, it responds, in reality, to the money that funds it.

The dark-money junktanks, and the Atlas Network, are a highly effective means of disguising and aggregating power. They are the channel through which billionaires and corporations influence politics without showing their hands, learn the most effective policies and tactics for overcoming resistance to their agenda, and then spread these policies and tactics around the world. This is how nominal democracies become new aristocracies.

They also seem to be adept at shaping public opinion. For example, around the world, neoliberal junktanks have not only lobbied for extreme anti-protest measures, but have successfully demonised environmental protesters as “extremists” and “terrorists”. This might help to explain why peaceful environmental campaigners blocking a road are routinely punched, kicked and spat upon, and in some places run over or threatened with guns, by other citizens, while farmers or truckers blocking a road are not. It might also explain why there is scarcely a murmur of media coverage or public concern when extreme penalties are imposed: such as the six-month prison sentence handed in December to the climate campaigner Stephen Gingell for slow-marching along a London street.

But the worst is yet to come. Donald Trump has never developed a coherent platform of his own. He doesn’t have to. His policies have been written for him, in a 900-page Mandate for Leadership produced by a group of thinktanks led by the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation is – you got there before me – a member of the Atlas Network. Many of the proposals in the “mandate” are, frankly, terrifying. They have nothing to do with public demands and everything to do with the demands of capital.

When Friedrich Hayek and others first formulated the principles of neoliberalism, they believed it would defend the world from tyranny. But as the big money poured in, and an international network of neoliberal thinktanks was created to develop and articulate its demands, the programme that was supposed to liberate us became a new source of oppression.

In Argentina, where Milei has stepped into the vacuum left by the gross misrule of his predecessors and is able to impose, in true shock doctrine fashion, policies that would otherwise be fiercely resisted, the poor and middle classes are about to pay a terrible price. How do we know? Because very similar programmes have been dumped on other countries, beginning with Argentina’s neighbour Chile, after Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973.

These junktanks are like the spike proteins on a virus. They are the means by which plutocratic power invades the cells of public life and takes over. It’s time we developed an immune system.

[Top: Illustration: Nate Kitch/The Guardian]