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The Second Myth of Democracy
The Myths Upholding Capitalism: Part 5
I want to write a little more about how our narrow conception of democracy, which says that voting and elections, and in the case of United States just two political parties, are sufficient to constitute a real democratic system leaves out so much. Last week I wrote about how the near-total lack of democracy in the work place both hurts the working class and means that our system is not in fact a full democracy. But liberal democracy fails to serve us other ways as well. Maybe the simplest, and definitely the largest way that our political arrangement systemically leaves the working class behind is that it doesn’t provide an adequate check on capitalism, and capitalists. In fact, it essentially ignores the inherent disparity of power that is created by mass disparities in wealth, especially under the current iteration of our election law which allows for limitless campaign donation from the super rich, and even enables them to hide their contributions in murky PACs.
Yet we should be clear that it’s not just the current post-Citizens United world where the richest among us have disproportionate, massive influence over our supposedly democratic electoral system. There is a broad idea at play here, which is that a representative democracy in a capitalist system will always fall prey to anti-democratic tendencies, specifically the rich using their money to manipulate politicians, who will be persuaded to side with them over the wants and needs of the working class. One of the first things I learned in political science 101 was that 90% of the laws Congress passes align with the interests of the top 10% wealthiest Americans. This study was conducted before Citizen’s United, and in fact it uses data spanning from 1981 to 2002. And it simply says what most of us already know to be true. Politicians mostly prioritize the interests of the wealthy, the people who fill their campaign coffers and get them lucrative jobs if they’re ever voted out of office, above the interests of the working class.
That statement alone shouldn’t be too controversial. There’s an abundance of evidence to support it from a wide variety of angles, and if you’re reading this I’d bet you’re not too surprised to hear how dramatically Congress favors the rich. But, I want to focus on the much bigger claim here, and the question at hand that’s an order of magnitude more significant. It’s the systemic question of the role of a representative democracy in a capitalist system, and to what degree it can be counted on to bring us closer to an equitable or fair or just world.
When I wrote last week about the myth that we can have a full democracy while our economic system and workplaces remain wholly undemocratic, I briefly mentioned an extension of this issue, namely the problem that concentrated wealth poses to a democratic political system. What happens under capitalism is the inevitable concentration of wealth. It is fundamental to capitalism that some people control capital, while others, workers, are obligated to sell their time and labor in exchange for the money they need to get by. This distinction between these two groups or classes of people is fundamental to the economic arraignment we live under.
What is less discussed is how this economic situation maps on to the political division we find ourselves under. Having grown up internalizing that a democracy means one person one vote, it took me quite a while to consider what happens to the whole electoral and political process when a small number of people hoard a whole lot of money. There was a brief moment in my childhood where I started to see behind the curtain a bit, and almost began to understand the magnitude of the problem. I had gotten, probably as a gift from my mom or dad, the extremely long biography of Lyndon Johnson written by Robert Caro. Somewhere in those thousands of pages it talks about LBJ’s first Senate election in Texas. Johnson had married the daughter of a very rich man, and what the book discussed was essentially how, in 1940s Texas, whoever bought the most votes and stuffed the most ballot boxes was crowned winner. In that first attempt, LBJ didn’t make it because at the last minute a number of wealthy Texans decided that they wanted his opponent out of the state and off in DC. So he lost. Next time, he won because the money was there. Caro emphasizes that, although there were campaigns and issues and platforms, ultimately money won and lost elections in a way that was even more transparent than what we see today. Reading this as a teenager I started to see just how corrupt, and how flimsy, our supposed model democracy had been not too long ago.
It took me a little longer to see how bad things remain in the present, but between Citizens United and a few other standout moments our political situation started to come into focus for me the in last five or ten years. Yet, absorbing a series of compelling examples was not enough to paint a full picture of a system for me. For that, seeing rules and patterns is required. And one of the core, repeating patterns under capitalism is the devastatingly unequal accumulation of wealth, and the inability of reform to fully remedy inequality. Most clearly, we saw the rise of the robber barons in the late 19th century. These men were able to build wealth and immense power on the backs of tremendously exploited workers and at the expense of indigenous peoples. They saw the American West as ripe for conquest, building railroads and drawing oil from the ground. Workers hadn’t yet won unions and protections, and children were also fair game for their mills and factories. So they built up tremendous wealth and power by the early 20th century, in a manner that required such vast inequality, that when John Rockefeller became history’s first billionaire in 1916 his wealth was equal to 2% of the U.S. economy.
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Today we are again seeing levels of inequality that approximate or even surpass the robber baron era. Government data shows that income inequality, one important metric, actually reached record highs last year, with disparities that surpass any time in U.S. history. And what I posit is that this is inevitable in a capitalist system. In the United States we did see a strong progressive era of the early 1900s, which culminated in many ways in the FDR years and the strong reforms enacted in the New Deal. This progressive legislation did a whole lot of good for a lot of people, and those positive effects continued in many ways into the ensuing two decades, with high taxes for the rich and other reforms temporarily alleviating a substantial portion of the country’s inequality. But we must keep in mind that the most powerful of these policies would not have come about with the Great Depression, and Roosevelt’s desire to protect America from a socialist movement. Likewise, without World War II and the Cold War the high tax rates on the wealthiest may not have lasted as long as they did. And even with all these extreme circumstances, it only took one generation to start reversing these policies, and another to once against reach astronomical levels of inequality.
The other classic example of regulated capitalism used in discussions of this sort is the countries of Scandinavia. But even if you set aside the issue of extraction and harm to the working class people of the global majority, for a brief moment, multiple studies still show inequality rising in these supposedly idyllic lands. The data shows that inequality has in fact been rising slowly for decades, and is now higher than it’s been in 50 years. And not only that, the rationale determined in the research from Oxford linked in the previous sentence is that, “politicians have reduced the generosity of social transfers to improve labour market incentives.” In other words that desires of capitalism have slowly gained ground over the impetus to care for one another and the ability to implement that care on a societal level. This, in a nutshell, is the problem of capitalism and representative democracy. The small percentage of the population that controls between them most of the economy will also have a disproportionate influence in the political arena, and their unquenchable desire for profit will lead them to push for the erosion of much of the good that lies in the way of their thirst.
I don’t think there’s one simple answer to this massive contradiction between what we’re told a representative democracy is and ought to do, and what it really does under capitalism. And, I do think it can at times accomplish good and helpful things, but that ultimately, over time, it trends towards the interests of the richest members of society and away from the interests of the working class in a capitalist economic system. So the long-term solution is mechanisms that build and hold power from below. Democratic and militant unions, strong neighborhood and community organizing endeavors, and in time hopefully a radically different distribution of power. I’m reminded of the Democratic Confederalist model in Rojava where small, hyper-local neighborhood councils are the foundational unit of the political system, with the larger units theoretically, and hopefully in practice, accountable to these councils of neighbors. More, much more, on that another time, but for now please allow this to be a teaser for a radically different approach where the local, smallest units of governance really do have the power. Right at this moment we can also build grassroots power through our organizing, while learning about new horizons and firmly setting our eyes on moving towards them. We can build something radical, and something different, and we know that because people are doing exactly that in ways big and small as we speak. And I’m excited to share more examples of these successes with you in the coming weeks.
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I just want to add briefly that I hope this whole series has been helpful. I think I’ll be returning to it more sporadically from here on out, adding pieces to it when inspiration strikes. Here is the whole series all in one place: https://newmeans.substack.com/s/capitalist-myths
More to come soon, on climate and capitalism. I hope all of you on the East Coast and in Canada are holding up alright, and masking and filtering if you can. All the best, Josh.