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Rolling Back Democracy

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The United States is often described as a liberal capitalist democracy.  Accordingly, it is assumed that a capitalist economy and a political democracy are mutually reinforcing and complementary institutional mechanisms. But, in fact, it is well known that the two exist in perpetual tension.

In their classic work, Democracy & Capitalism, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis provided a valuable framework for understanding this tension as a “clash of rights”.  A capitalist economy is based on property rights while a political democracy is based on citizenship rights.  Market power, based on the unequal distribution of income and wealth, drives the first; people power, based on the equal distribution of civil rights and liberties, drives the second.    A common conflict arises when the capitalist class, for example, believes that they have the right to do with their property whatever they wish while the larger citizenry may organize to restrict the unbridled use of property, or place limits on how it can be used. In this way, citizenship rights are used to organize against and to challenge property rights.

Today under the political-economic regime of neoliberalism, property rights trump citizenship rights as reflected in economic development policies that privilege supply-side solutions – e.g. lower taxes, fewer regulations, weaker unions – over democratically deliberated community-based priorities. The particular property interests of corporate organizations are assumed to automatically represent the general interest of the larger community. The distinction between the two has been erased with the former taking precedent over and subsuming the latter.

However, the political legitimacy of the neoliberal supply-side model, and the larger instruments of social control and law enforcement that ensure its domination, is coming under increasing challenge.  This began to appear with Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter forms of dissent, and intensified with direct action protests associated with the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was also apparent during the 2016 election campaign with the rise of anti-establishment candidates Trump and Sanders. With the Electoral College appointment of Donald Trump as President, and his cabinet appointments and policy initiatives, it has now generated and galvanized an even broader upsurge in opposition to the deepening neoliberal policies and police state practices, and wide swaths of the population are currently engaged in the exercise of their citizenship rights through unsanctioned means.

Presently, under the Trump administration, we see simultaneously the radical expansion of property rights under the guise of deregulation alongside an equally radical effort to curtail citizenship rights. The tension between capitalism and democracy has never been so clear cut. While the corporate oligarchy is gaining the deregulation of their property rights, this must be safeguarded by a tighter regulation of citizenship rights because democratic forms of oppositional expression can challenge and frustrate the prerogatives of capital.

This dilemma for capital is clearly and candidly expressed in the words of Trump supporter — and Republican Convention speaker — high-tech billionaire Peter Thiel who wrote “I no longer believe liberty and democracy are compatible… Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”

One manifestation of the war on citizenship rights is the ongoing criminalization of protest — a blatant attempt to roll back citizenship rights as they pertain to the First Amendment.  It has taken a variety of forms from: filing riot charges against 214 people who protested during the Trump inauguration; ten states proposing laws making it a felony crime to assemble in groups to express political dissent; the ability to charge protesters with “criminal identity concealment”; the classification of protesters as “economic terrorists”; the Department of Homeland Security using “potential domestic terrorist” to classify protesters; and in Oklahoma a law supported by the oil and gas industry passed that imposes mandatory felony sentences of $100k and ten years in prison for actions directed at “critical infrastructure”.

President Donald Trump’s lawyer recently filed a brief arguing that protesters “have no right” to “express dissenting views” at campaign rallies because they infringe on the rights of the candidate.  Trump has responded to the protests against his administration by claiming that protesters are paid, or objecting because the “election is over”.

Regarding the latter, the implication is that citizens are only expected, or perhaps allowed, to express their political views during the officially sanctioned elections held every two or four years. This conforms to what the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin described as a “managed democracy” where increasingly in the United States citizen participation is demobilized and deactivated except during regularly scheduled periods when the masses are permitted to choose between two corporate controlled political parties.

But even within the narrow bounds of the electoral arena, the franchise is under attack through restrictions on voter eligibility and registration requirements aimed at suppressing already marginalized segments of the populace. And while the public has been fixated on FBI Director Comey, and the Russian connections, Trump signed an executive order to form the Advisory Commission on Election Integrity that can only mean Federal government-sanctioned restrictions of voting rights.

In addition to these direct efforts at rolling back the rights of citizens to participate in various forms of political expression, there has been an ongoing and successful movement to transport property rights that grant power and influence on the basis of income and wealth into the political arena. This is represented by the shift from a system based on one person-one vote to one dollar-one vote.  Campaign contributions, the Citizen’s United and McCutcheon Supreme Court decisions, and the rise of super PACs are all aimed at allowing property rights to be the basis for citizen influence, an inherently undemocratic enterprise. .

The conflict between labor and capital, as Bowles and Gintis demonstrated, is often played out in this kind of struggle to transport the property rights of the capitalist economy into the political arena, or conversely the citizenship rights of the political arena into the capitalist economy. Capital pursues the former; labor the latter. Unfortunately, the struggle has been a one-sided affair; there is presently little countervailing power on the labor side able to stem the decided advantage of capital.

As the scale tilts steadily toward property and away from citizenship rights, we will find ourselves moving further from democratic, and closer to authoritarian, capitalism.

David Jaffee is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Florida.

David Jaffee is Professor of Sociology at the University of North Florida.

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