The Contempt for Democracy

Several years ago, two leaked memos on equity strategy by Citigroup described plainly this politico-economic fact: the U.S., U.K., and Canada are not democracies, where the masses of people mattered.  They are “plutonomies.”  The authors report: “In a plutonomy, there is no such animal as “the U.S. consumer” or “the U.K. consumer” or indeed “the Russian consumer.”  There are “rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slices of the income and consumption they take.”  Then there are “the multitudinous many” who from the standpoint of investors simply don’t matter.[1]

There are a few lessons to be taken away from this memo.  First, what is said in private rarely matches what the rich openly profess.  They will praise how free and democratic we are.  Behind the scenes, they laugh all the way from the halls of Congress to the banks they own.  The contradiction between what is said openly and what is silently believed is no accident.  It is essential that corporate elites keep the façade of democratic control alive and that they stifle their hatred of the common citizen.  On rare occasions, a leaked memo like the one above or Romney’s disdainful dismissal of the “47 percent… who believe that they are victims” makes it through to the public.[2]

Usually the reality of capitalist domination is revealed through the contradictions of promises and policies.  So in 2008 President Obama campaigns on a platform of rejecting NAFTA-style trade deals.  Once in office, he pushes for numerous free trade deals including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).[3]  Hilary Clinton can rewrite every single one of her positions from supporting the TPP, to her position on gay marriage, to her close relationship with Wall Street and lack of push for regulatory reform.  She can stand there on the stage and lie about her ‘progressive’ record because she confidently knows the corporate media will not call her out on it.

More importantly, Clinton knows who the real audience is.  It is the “rich consumers” who donate significant amounts of funds to her campaign.  It’s not the “multitudinous many” to whom she merely has to pay lip service. This brings us to the next lesson: your political value is directly related to the amount of wealth and capital you own and control.  If you belong to the multitudinous many for whom the main source of wealth comes from renting your labor-power for a wage, your place in the political arena is as an uncritical spectator.  The most participation you should have is to vote for some politician who serves the interests of concentrated wealth.

This fact, understood well enough by the rich elites and their sycophantic servants in the media and government, becomes apparent when discussion of pragmatism and political expediency is in the air.  It is not politically possible, said Obama, to have universal single-payer healthcare or at least a public option.[4]  A huge majority of Americans support it, but the majority of them are not rich.[5]  Obama’s corporate masters are wealthy and don’t support single-payer healthcare.  So it’s off the table.

58 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana.[6]  Obama still doesn’t support legalization.  Clinton is not ready to take a position citing the need for more research into marijuana.  Her unreadiness only applies now figuring she came out in the past against the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana.  Her reasoning then was hilariously flawed stating that legalizing marijuana would only compel the drug cartels to find new ways to make money such as through increased kidnappings and extortions.[7]  We have to translate her Orwellian language into plain English. “She’s not ready to take a position” means “she doesn’t support legalization, but knows it’s popular among the people.  However, it is not popular among the right kinds of people, like those in the private prison industry that support her campaign.”[8]  We could find similar statements on virtually every one of her policies.

It’s important to remember that while the massive influx of corporate money into campaigns increased elite control of politics, it did not start it.  Even if money were removed from campaigns, the American government would still serve the interests of those who own capital and possess exorbitant wealth.  This is because the United States government is anti-democratic by design.

The Founding Fathers understood this all too well.  Famously, James Madison argued that the Senate was necessary in order to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”[9]  Madison feared that real democracy would lead to a more equitable distribution of property – a fear held by elites since at least Aristotle and probably goes back further still.  In crafting the constitution, efforts were made to limit popular democratic participation – what high school textbooks commonly extol as “checks and balances.”

As the political philosopher Sheldon Wollin said, “Every one of this country’s primary institutions is antidemocratic – antidemocratic in spirit, design and operation.”  By primary institutions, Wollin meant “educational institutions… institutions of government, bureaucratic institutions, major institutions of media and communication” and of course economic institutions.[10]

Take as an example the average workplace.  The worker has no say in the direction or purpose of his or her work.  No input into the conditions in which it is performed.  No voice in how the profits are to be divided up.  No decision on whether or not the business expands, relocates or contracts.  And in many cases, workers do not even choose when they can relieve themselves in the bathroom, forfeiting that basic human necessity to the whim of the employer and manager.

We accept that democracy is good for making political decisions.  Why then do we sacrifice these sacred principles of democracy and freedom when we enter into our places of employment?  Why do we allow most of our waking hours to be spent in conditions that mirror totalitarian states?

Bernie Sanders offers some sensible social democratic reforms.  But we must stress this: so long as popular anger is directed towards surface modifications of the established order, this order that privileges the owners of capital will remain.  There can be no meaningful democracy so long as the real decisions are made in the unaccountable boardrooms of the large monopoly corporations.  We cannot have substantive democracy and submit to private tyranny in the workplace.

We must organize to socialize the means of production.  In other words, workers must seize control of their workplaces and run them democratically in the interests of satisfying human needs, not making a profit for the wealthy few.  Leftists must popularize this fact.  Without workers’ control, there can be no democracy.  This monumental struggle for real freedom will begin once we stop looking to electoral politics to bring us a savior.  No savior will come.  We must fight for ourselves.


[1] Kapur, Ajay, Niall Macleod, and Narendra Singh. “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances.” 2005. http://delong.typepad.com/plutonomy-1.pdf.

[2] “”47 Percent” Remark: Quote of the Year.” Mother Jones. December 10, 2012. http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/12/47-percent-remark-quote-year.

[3] Gallagher, Kevin. “The False Promise of Obama’s Trade Deals.” The Guardian, September 8, 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/sep/08/obama-trade-deals.

[4] Holan, Angie Drobnic. “Obama Statements on Single-payer Have Changed a Bit.” Politifact, July 16, 2009. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2009/jul/16/barack-obama/obama-statements-single-payer-have-changed-bit/.

[5] Jilani, Zaid. “New Poll Finds That 77 Percent of Americans Still Support the Public Option.” Think Progress, August 20, 2009. http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2009/08/20/57173/public-plan-77-percent/.

[6] Jones, Jeffrey M. “In U.S., 58% Back Legal Marijuana Use.” Gallup. October 21, 2015. http://www.gallup.com/poll/186260/back-legal-marijuana.aspx?g_source=POLITICS&g_medium=topic&g_campaign=tiles.

[7] Tau, Byron. “Clinton: Legalization Not the Answer to the Drug War Read More: Http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico44/2012/11/clinton-legalization-not-the-answer-to-the-drug-war-150696#ixzz3ptQZ7qTU.” Politico, November 29, 2012. http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico44/2012/11/clinton-legalization-not-the-answer-to-the-drug-war-150696.

[8] Fang, Lee. “Private Prison Lobbyists Are Raising Cash for Hillary Clinton.” The Intercept. July 23, 2015. https://theintercept.com/2015/07/23/private-prison-lobbyists-raising-cash-hillary-clinton/.

[9] Yates, Robert. “Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787.” Avalon Project. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/yates.asp.

[10] Moyers, Bill. “Sheldon Wolin: The State of Democracy.” Moyers & Company. http://billmoyers.com/content/sheldon-wolin/.

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