With permission from
Dec 13, 2017
One of the most steadfast beliefs regarding the United States is that it is a democracy. Whenever this conviction waivers slightly, it is almost always to point out detrimental exceptions to core American values or foundational principles. For instance, aspiring critics frequently bemoan a “loss of democracy” due to the election of clownish autocrats, draconian measures on the part of the state, the revelation of extraordinary malfeasance or corruption, deadly foreign interventions, or other such activities that are considered undemocratic exceptions. The same is true for those whose critical framework consists in always juxtaposing the actions of the U.S. government to its founding principles, highlighting the contradiction between the two and clearly placing hope in its potential resolution.
The problem, however, is that there is no contradiction or supposed loss of democracy because the United States simply never was one. This is a difficult reality for many people to confront, and they are likely more inclined to immediately dismiss such a claim as preposterous rather than take the time to scrutinize the material historical record in order to see for themselves. Such a dismissive reaction is due in large part to what is perhaps the most successful public relations campaign in modern history. What will be seen, however, if this record is soberly and methodically inspected, is that a country founded on elite, colonial rule based on the power of wealth—a plutocratic colonial oligarchy, in short—has succeeded not only in buying the label of “democracy” to market itself to the masses, but in having its citizenry, and many others, so socially and psychologically invested in its nationalist origin myth that they refuse to hear lucid and well-documented arguments to the contrary.
To begin to peel the scales from our eyes, let us outline in the restricted space of this article, five patent reasons why the United States has never been a democracy (a more sustained and developed argument is available in my book, Counter-History of the Present). To begin with, British colonial expansion into the Americas did not occur in the name of the freedom and equality of the general population, or the conferral of power to the people. Those who settled on the shores of the “new world,” with few exceptions, did not respect the fact that it was a very old world indeed, and that a vast indigenous population had been living there for centuries. As soon as Columbus set foot, Europeans began robbing, enslaving and killing the native inhabitants. The trans-Atlantic slave trade commenced almost immediately thereafter, adding a countless number of Africans to the ongoing genocidal assault against the indigenous population. Moreover, it is estimated that over half of the colonists who came to North America from Europe during the colonial period were poor indentured servants, and women were generally trapped in roles of domestic servitude. Rather than the land of the free and equal, then, European colonial expansion to the Americas imposed a land of the colonizer and the colonized, the master and the slave, the rich and the poor, the free and the un-free. The former constituted, moreover, an infinitesimally small minority of the population, whereas the overwhelming majority, meaning “the people,” was subjected to death, slavery, servitude, and unremitting socio-economic oppression.
Second, when the elite colonial ruling class decided to sever ties from their homeland and establish an independent state for themselves, they did not found it as a democracy. On the contrary, they were fervently and explicitly opposed to democracy, like the vast majority of European Enlightenment thinkers. They understood it to be a dangerous and chaotic form of uneducated mob rule. For the so-called “founding fathers,” the masses were not only incapable of ruling, but they were considered a threat to the hierarchical social structures purportedly necessary for good governance. In the words of John Adams, to take but one telling example, if the majority were given real power, they would redistribute wealth and dissolve the “subordination” so necessary for politics. When the eminent members of the landowning class met in 1787 to draw up a constitution, they regularly insisted in their debates on the need to establish a republic that kept at bay vile democracy, which was judged worse than “the filth of the common sewers” by the pro-Federalist editor William Cobbett. The new constitution provided for popular elections only in the House of Representatives, but in most states the right to vote was based on being a property owner, and women, the indigenous and slaves—meaning the overwhelming majority of the population—were simply excluded from the franchise. Senators were elected by state legislators, the President by electors chosen by the state legislators, and the Supreme Court was appointed by the President. It is in this context that Patrick Henry flatly proclaimed the most lucid of judgments: “it is not a democracy.” George Mason further clarified the situation by describing the newly independent country as “a despotic aristocracy.”
When the American republic slowly came to be relabeled as a “democracy,” there were no significant institutional modifications to justify the change in name. In other words, and this is the third point, the use of the term “democracy” to refer to an oligarchic republic simply meant that a different word was being used to describe the same basic phenomenon. This began around the time of “Indian killer” Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in the 1830s. Presenting himself as a ‘democrat,’ he put forth an image of himself as an average man of the people who was going to put a halt to the long reign of patricians from Virginia and Massachusetts. Slowly but surely, the term “democracy” came to be used as a public relations term to re-brand a plutocratic oligarchy as an electoral regime that serves the interest of the people or demos. Meanwhile, the American holocaust continued unabated, along with chattel slavery, colonial expansion and top-down class warfare.
In spite of certain minor changes over time, the U.S. republic has doggedly preserved its oligarchic structure, and this is readily apparent in the two major selling points of its contemporary “democratic” publicity campaign. The Establishment and its propagandists regularly insist that a structural aristocracy is a “democracy” because the latter is defined by the guarantee of certain fundamental rights (legal definition) and the holding of regular elections (procedural definition). This is, of course, a purely formal, abstract and largely negative understanding of democracy, which says nothing whatsoever about people having real, sustained power over the governing of their lives. However, even this hollow definition dissimulates the extent to which, to begin with, the supposed equality before the law in the United States presupposes an inequality before the law by excluding major sectors of the population: those judged not to have the right to rights, and those considered to have lost their right to rights (Native Americans, African-Americans and women for most of the country’s history, and still today in certain aspects, as well as immigrants, “criminals,” minors, the “clinically insane,” political dissidents, and so forth). Regarding elections, they are run in the United States as long, multi-million dollar advertising campaigns in which the candidates and issues are pre-selected by the corporate and party elite. The general population, the majority of whom do not have the right to vote or decide not to exercise it, are given the “choice”—overseen by an undemocratic electoral college and embedded in a non-proportional representation scheme—regarding which member of the aristocratic elite they would like to have rule over and oppress them for the next four years. “Multivariate analysis indicates,” according to an important recent study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination […], but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.”
To take but a final example of the myriad ways in which the U.S. is not, and has never been, a democracy, it is worth highlighting its consistent assault on movements of people power. Since WWII, it has endeavored to overthrow some 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically elected. It has also, according the meticulous calculations by William Blum in America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, grossly interfered in the elections of at least 30 countries, attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders, dropped bombs on more than 30 countries, and attempted to suppress populist movements in 20 countries. The record on the home front is just as brutal. To take but one significant parallel example, there is ample evidence that the FBI has been invested in a covert war against democracy. Beginning at least in the 1960s, and likely continuing up to the present, the Bureau “extended its earlier clandestine operations against the Communist party, committing its resources to undermining the Puerto Rico independence movement, the Socialist Workers party, the civil rights movement, Black nationalist movements, the Ku Klux Klan, segments of the peace movement, the student movement, and the ‘New Left’ in general” (Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom, p. 22-23). Consider, for instance, Judi Bari’s summary of its assault on the Socialist Workers Party: “From 1943-63, the federal civil rights case Socialist Workers Party v. Attorney General documents decades of illegal FBI break-ins and 10 million pages of surveillance records. The FBI paid an estimated 1,600 informants $1,680,592 and used 20,000 days of wiretaps to undermine legitimate political organizing.” In the case of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (AIM)—which were both important attempts to mobilize people power to dismantle the structural oppression of white supremacy and top-down class warfare—the FBI not only infiltrated them and launched hideous smear and destabilization campaigns against them, but they assassinated 27 Black Panthers and 69 members of AIM (and subjected countless others to the slow death of incarceration). If it be abroad or on the home front, the American secret police has been extremely proactive in beating down the movements of people rising up, thereby protecting and preserving the main pillars of white supremacist, capitalist aristocracy.
Rather than blindly believing in a golden age of democracy in order to remain at all costs within the gilded cage of an ideology produced specifically for us by the well-paid spin-doctors of a plutocratic oligarchy, we should unlock the gates of history and meticulously scrutinize the founding and evolution of the American imperial republic. This will not only allow us to take leave of its jingoist and self-congratulatory origin myths, but it will also provide us with the opportunity to resuscitate and reactivate so much of what they have sought to obliterate. In particular, there is a radical America just below the surface of these nationalist narratives, an America in which the population autonomously organizes itself in indigenous and ecological activism, black radical resistance, anti-capitalist mobilization, anti-patriarchal struggles, and so forth. It is this America that the corporate republic has sought to eradicate, while simultaneously investing in an expansive public relations campaign to cover over its crimes with the fig leaf of “democracy” (which has sometimes required integrating a few token individuals, who appear to be from below, into the elite ruling class in order to perpetuate the all-powerful myth of meritocracy). If we are astute and perspicacious enough to recognize that the U.S. is undemocratic today, let us not be so indolent or ill-informed that we let ourselves be lulled to sleep by lullabies praising its halcyon past. Indeed, if the United States is not a democracy today, it is in large part due to the fact that it never was one. Far from being a pessimistic conclusion, however, it is precisely by cracking open the hard shell of ideological encasement that we can tap into the radical forces that have been suppressed by it. These forces—not those that have been deployed to destroy them—should be the ultimate source of our pride in the power of the people.
A recent article in the Washington Post described how the current US tax-‘reform’ bill is being shaped; and it describes, basically (at least as far as tax-law changes are concerned), the operation of a US dictatorship by the super-rich.
First of all, however: there is no longer any realistic question as regards whether the US in recent decades has been a dictatorship, or instead a democracy. According to the only scientific analysis of the relevant data, that has been done in order to determine whether the US is a dictatorship or a democracy, the US is definitely a dictatorship that’s perpetrated by the extremely richest, against the public-at-large; in other words: the US Government functions as an aristocracy, otherwise referred-to as an oligarchy, or a plutocracy, or a kleptocracy; but, in any case, and by whatever name, it’s ruled by a tiny number of the extremely wealthiest and their agents, on behalf of those few super-rich, against the concerns and interests and needs of the public (everyone else). So: instead of being rule by the public (the “demos” is the Greek term for it), it’s rule on behalf of a tiny dictatorial class, of extreme wealth — by whatever name we might happen to label this ruling class.
That study, by professors Gilens and Page, explained that it examined “1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change,” and it compared those public-policy preferences, by the public, versus the public-policy preferences regarding those same issues, by the super-wealthiest; and, it found that only the public-policy preferences by the super-wealthiest and their paid agents, made any discernible difference, at all, in the likelihood that a given public policy ultimately became enacted into law, in the United States. Whereas the public-policy preferences of the wealthiest do, at far higher than mere random chances, become enacted into laws, the public-policy preferences of the public are (except in political rhetoric and promises — frauds perpetrated to deceive the public) ignored, in the United States.
Here is an excellent six-minute video describing the methodology and findings in that landmark study…
And here is a commentary by former US President Jimmy Carter, in which he says that he knows it’s true.
He said this not on the basis of examining thousands of cases and doing the statistical analysis of the data, like Gilens and Page had done, but just on the basis of his observations of how the US federal government has been functioning in recent decades. And, of course, the scientific study is vastly more reliable than is any individual’s mere opinion about the matter.
Furthermore, there exists evidence that even in some local or state governments in the United States, considerable corruption exists, and therefore an extreme slant prevails in favor of the rich. During June 2016, I headlined about this, “Here Is How Corrupt America Is”, and opened:
The best reporting on the depth of America’s dictatorship is probably that being done by Atlanta Georgia’s NBC-affiliated, Gannett-owned, TV Channel “11 Alive,” WXIA television, its “The Investigators” series of local investigative news reports, which show, up close and at a cellularly detailed level, the way things actually work in today’s America. Although it’s only local, it displays what meets the legal standards of the US federal government in actually any state in the union; so, it exposes the character of the US government, such that what’s shown to be true here, meets America’s standard for ‘democracy’, or else the federal government isn’t enforcing federal laws against it (which is the same thing as its meeting the federal government’s standards).
What was exemplified in this reporting by that excellent investigative team could be called “corporate organized-gangsterism,” and this gangsterism was being led by an operation, “ALEC,” that was founded by politicians whose careers are funded by the Koch brothers and some other US billionaires.
Furthermore, as was mentioned briefly at the opening here, a recent issue of the Washington Post’s “PowerPost” section was titled “The Finance 202: Tax overhaul’s big test comes now”, and it described in detail what was shaping the Trump Administration’s tax-overhaul bill. This article reported that the lobbyists were shaping it 100%. It’s a superb nitty-gritty, down among the weeds, description, of the monetary deals, the horse-trading, that were being made, not only for corporations, but for the wealthiest non-business lobbies, including ‘nonprofit’ ones, but almost all of these lobbies, too, depend overwhelmingly upon billionaires for their funding. What’s being carved-up and served, is being carved-up from governments, and being served to the super-rich. (After all: conservatives say “Government bad, business good,” and Republicans are the conservative Party; so, it’s taking from government, and going to business.)
So: is it any wonder why Gilens and Page found what they did? They found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” (By “mass-based groups” was being referenced what the left often calls “movements” or “grass-roots” organizations. After all, what happened from “Occupy Wall Street”? Nothing. It was a big waste of time and effort. Authentic movements get marginalized, because the billionaires’ ‘news’media despise them. Fake ones, such as the Kochs’ “The Tea Party ‘movement’,” get weaponized, because the billionaires’ ‘news’media treat them extensively, and often grant them respect. Top-down’s the way, in any dictatorship. That includes in America.)
Here is another excellent video – this one 10 minutes long – summarizing the Gilens and Page study…
The only major difference between Republican politicians and Democratic ones, then, is that, whereas Republican ones don’t even need to pretend that they oppose limitless greed (since limitless greed that’s carried out by frauds instead of by outright physical violence — which latter type of coercion is the type that’s employed more by lower-class crooks, anyway, and those are the type of crooks who fill our prisons, not the type who fill our boardrooms — is, essentially, supported by Republicans’ ideology, as ‘being entrepreneurial’ and ‘competitive spirit’), Democratic politicians do need to make that pretense (since their voters are liberals, and liberals don’t share the conservatives’ “Greed is good” libertarian faith). But the outcomes, even when Democrats are in power, are vastly more helpful to the billionaires, than to the public.
Does this mean that Democratic (or liberal) politicians are necessarily more hypocritical than Republican ones are? No. Whereas Democrats pretend to be opposed to the system’s favoring the super-rich, Republicans pretend to be opposed to “sins” and other religious-based shiboleths. Both Parties can win and retain power only by deceiving (defrauding) the public, and serving the billionaires, though in different ways — some conservative, and some liberal. Virtually everything else than that service to billionaires (and to centi-millionaires) is just frauds by politicians, because, at least after around 1970, only the richest 1% or (usually far) less are actually being served by the US federal Government. It’s not the billionaires that are defrauded by politicians; it is clearly the public that is being defrauded by them.
The public are served only to the extent that the public’s interests are the same as the billionaires’ interests. And the Gilens and Page study found that the public’s policy-preferences are simply ignored — not ignored in the political rhetoric, but ignored in the political outcomes.
July 7, 2017
In significant ways popular condemnation of Donald Trump and the corporate titans and billionaires he brought with him to ‘public’ office is cluttered beyond what makes analytical sense. Mr. Trump is the quintessential plutocrat— a self-interested man of inherited means and limited life experience who stumbled upward through political economy engineered to benefit his class. It is this very public nature of his ‘success’ that attaches class culpability to his actions.
If the problem is plutocracy, this is the one that must be addressed. Otherwise, who are these wise and caring plutocrats who are preferred to Mr. Trump? When Hillary Clinton was giving speeches to Wall Street ($21 million in speaking fees in two years), was she speaking to the intelligent, competent and socially ‘woke’ plutocrats who will someday soon save the environment and end U.S. militarism? When Barack Obama was bailing out Wall Street, was he bailing out the good and just plutocrats who really care about the rest of us?
Graph: The economic circumstances of people who have to work— middle-aged breadwinners, has been declining since the onset of the neo-capitalist coup in the mid-1970s. The Clinton ‘boom’ was weak relative to earlier history and the (George W.) Bush and (Barack) Obama booms (a/k/a economic calamities) were weaker still. Bi-partisan political actions have supported the ‘right’ of capitalists to crush labor and that is what they have done. How surprising then are the consequences? Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.
The conceptual challenge of the moment is reconciling the form and function of late-capitalist political economy with its product(s). Even if Mr. Trump were a ‘rogue’ plutocrat, he brought enough of his class-mates into his administration to provide ballast to the ‘ship of state’ were they collectively interested in doing so. The most public political tension now playing out is between those who prefer the veil of ‘system’ against the venal vulgarity of that system’s product now visible for all to see. What Mr. Trump’s political opponents appear to be demanding is a better veil.
The howls of outrage coming from displaced Democrats would be hilarious if they weren’t so pathetic. Quickly, who wrote Barack Obama’s ‘signature’ legislation, the ACA (Affordable Care Act)? A health insurance industry lobbyist named Liz Fowler wrote it. Who are the intended beneficiaries from the ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) provisions of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) ‘free’ trade agreement that Mr. Obama so vigorously supported? Wall Street, hedge funds and multi-national corporations at the expense of national, state and local governments and their citizens.
Furthermore, some fair measure of what is so vile about Donald Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants is that the American government, at the behest of the plutocrats who control it, created serial refugee crises through economic policies and military adventurism. Barack Obama was the ‘deporter in chief’ of economic refugees from Mexico displaced by Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA. Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, supported a right-wing coup in Honduras and then argued that the orphaned child-refugees fleeing the resulting violence should be forcibly returned there.
The charge here isn’t that ‘both parties do it,’ but rather that they— Democrats and Republicans, are partners on the side of reigning plutocrats in a class war against a broadly-defined global working class. Democrats have spent decades cynically overwriting / overriding demands for meaningful employment, food, health care and pension security with identity politics that reduce to the right of people who can afford rights to receive them. Another name for this is class warfare.
Graph: relative labor force participation by race is a function of institutional racism and economic cycles, not a ‘will to work.’ From slavery to convict leasing and Jim Crow, American Blacks have been systematically separated from the product of their labor. White privilege promotes the illusion of absolute working class division where degrees of exploitation define factual outcomes. Graph is: [(white labor force participation – black labor force participation) / white labor force participation]. The division is to (mathematically) normalize the difference to account for economic cycles. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.
To state what was occasionally obvious to earlier generations, the way to support civil ‘rights’ is through inclusive political economy. (Martin Luther King was murdered about the time he started arguing this point). The political problem with Donald Trump isn’t that he’s a boorish bigot. It’s that he has the social power to force his boorish bigotry on the rest of us— power that he inherited as part of his (socially given) ‘fortune.’ And the power to refuse boorish bigots comes from employment, housing, health care and pension security that is independent of the good graces of boorish bigots. Another term for this power is economic democracy.
Here Democrats have long partnered with Republicans to do their masters’ bidding. The imperialist roots of capitalism are found in the neo-colonialist mantra that economic insecurity motivates labor to work harder and demand less in return. From the end of WWII through the early 1970s regularly recurring recessions engineered by the Federal Reserve kept labor scrambling. From the 1970s forward ‘offshoring’ and institutional racism (reserve army of the unemployed) have served this purpose.
It is hardly accidental that the more successful proponents of the ‘free trade’ agreements that have facilitated offshoring have been liberal Democrats. In pushing policies to benefit connected capitalists the language of the Left — against welfare dependence (jobs, not welfare) and economic nativism, were used by cynical liberals to recover pre-New Deal capitalism with entirely predictable consequences. Economic mobility has declined in precise proportion to the concentration of wealth as plutocrats have used their newfound political power to close off economic competition.
In more locally visceral terms, it was only a few short years ago that Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, worried about ‘moral hazard’ when it was proposed that ill-sold home mortgages be forgiven while he shoveled untold billions in public funds to connected bankers and their families and friends. The language used was similar but the facts weren’t— the bankers and their families and friends got the money while those with ill-sold mortgages didn’t.
Hillary Clinton’s much decried declaration against ‘deplorables’ was telling in that it conflated the dim social-pornographic sentiments of the marginally connected and partially and wholly dispossessed with the dismal factual outcomes her major campaign contributors bring into being on a daily basis. Institutional racism (graph above) has waxed and waned with economic ‘cycles’ and not with the moral sentiments of bourgeois hate-mongers and the righteously pissed dispossessed.
To take one dimension of the Democrats’ cynical bullshit at face value: who is to be held to account for institutional racism— the type we can collectively do something about, and who is going to do the accounting? Well, let’s see— Democrats have held (national) power about as often as Republicans over the last half-century and the answer so far is no one and nobody. Any look at initial economic distribution finds the ‘heavy hand’ of government handing out corporate welfare to people and organizations who have the capacity to end institutional racism in labor markets if they were made to— the levers to force the issue exist. But they haven’t been used.
More to the point, when Democrats actually held power (1) the Clintons slashed social spending, demonized immigrants and Black children, militarized the police, built out mass incarceration, pushed racist drug laws and demonized the poor while (2) Barack Obama gave voice to economic austerity while bailing out Wall Street, had a lobbyist for the health insurance industry redesign the health care payments system; ended due process to murder citizens without evidence at will and pushed the power of corporate lawyers to override civil legislation through so-called ‘free’ trade agreements.
This is what plutocracy looks like. In this regard, Donald Trump is archetypal, quintessential. Resisting Mr. Trump while supporting the political economy that gives him social power is paradoxical, and as such, doomed. Bernie Sanders sold his soul to the Democrat party decades ago. If the national Democrats had two functioning brain cells they would support Mr. Sanders up to his election as president and then undermine him to ‘prove’ that socialism doesn’t work. Proof that they don’t have two functioning brain cells is that they didn’t do this in 2016.