Verging on Plutocracy? Getting Real About the Unelected Dictatorship

In politics as in medicine, excessively mild remedies are typically based on overly placid diagnoses. Look, for example, at the highly esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner’s recent letter of congratulations and advice to Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in The Nation. As I have argued in a previous CounterPunch essay, Foner’s missive failed to correct Sanders on the candidate’s incredibly tepid and watered-down definition of democratic socialism as little more than a Scandinavian welfare state. It sent Eugene Debs spinning in his grave when it argued that “socialism today” is about “the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism.” Those were the exact same words used by Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic Party presidential debate, reflecting on what she feels is occasionally necessary to preserve the profits system and what she felt should never be confused with socialism.

There’s one part of Foner’s letter that I forgot to mention in my previous essay even though it is intimately related to his alignment with milquetoast radicalism and Hillary’s fake-progressive corporatism. It comes at the beginning of the letter’s sixth paragraph, when he says that contemporary socialism seeks “to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy.”

I’m all for and indeed about empowering ordinary people, but I had to stop and read that statement a second time and ask myself: did the nation’s leading left-liberal historian really just describe contemporary U.S. politics as merely verging on plutocracy? You don’t have to be a radical Marxist to think that’s pussyfooting around the matter. Over the past three plus decades, liberal mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported last year, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which party holds the White House or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. – what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’

“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”

In a telephone survey of more than 1100 randomly selected U.S. adults last Spring, the New York Times reported, the paper and CBS found that the U.S. citizenry stands to the progressive and populist left on numerous key political-economic issues. Pollsters working for the two corporate media giants learned that:

*Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.

*61% of Americans believe that in today’s economy it’s mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.

*83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.

*67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.

*57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.

*“Almost three-quarters [74%] of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.”

*68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people “earning” – the pollsters’ term (a better one would be “taking”) – more than $1 million per year.

*50% of Americans support limits on money “earned” by top executives at large corporations.

*“Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

These were noteworthy findings. Consistent with numerous surveys revealing a preponderantly progressive populace in the U.S. over many years, they show majority support for greater economic equality and opportunity, increased worker rights, a roll-back of corporate power, and trade regulation.

The U.S. economic power elite has a response to such popular sentiments: So what? Who cares? To be sure, as the Times noted in reporting the above opinion data, “These findings help explain the populist appeals from politicians of both parties, but particularly Democrats, who are seeking to capitalize on the sense among Americans that the economic recovery is benefiting only a handful at the very top.” But that’s just the game of American politics, whose essence Christopher Hitchens once usefully described as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

Nobody understands this harsh reality better, perhaps, than Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street backers.  A report in the widely read insider online Washington political journal Politico last April was titled “Hillary’s Wall Street Backers: ‘We Get It.’” As Politico explained, “Populist rhetoric, many say, is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich…It’s ‘just politics,’ said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of Clinton’s Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried-interest loophole as president…” One Democrat at a top Wall Street firm told Politico that Hillary’s populist rhetoric was “a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated [rich] people are…If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is.”

From Dewey’s Shadow to Chomsky’s Cloud

Beneath the Hitchensian fake-populist campaign words and posturing, progressive public opinion is pitilessly mocked by harshly lopsided structural realities and policy deeds in the U.S. America is mired in a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject financial corporatocracy so extreme that the top 1 percent garnered 95% of all U.S. income gains during Barack Obama’s first administration and owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth – this along with a majority of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. That’s how the militantly corporatist and globalist Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement – a transparently authoritarian and secretive measure designed to protect corporate 1% assets from public oversight and accountability at home and abroad – has managed to march its way through both branches of the U.S. Congress. It is championed by a militantly neoliberal Democratic U.S. President who won the White House by posing as a progressive and has consistently given the nation what the left-liberal journalist William Greider has called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” As Greider noted early in the dismal, dollar-drenched Obama administration, Americans “have…learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it” And little to spend on the rest of us, the 99%, left to ask “where’s our bailout?”

“Plutocracy” seems almost mild to describe the rotten, dollar-drenched deep state of affairs. I am reminded of Marx’s phrase “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” of Edward Herman and David Peterson’s notion that America is ruled by “an unelected dictatorship of money,” and of the late Sheldon Wolin’s notion that the United States was a “corporate-managed democracy” advancing a populace-demobilizing “inverted totalitarianism” of concentrated capitalist and imperial power. Also relevant is former Republican Congressional staffer Mark Lofgren’s suggestion that Wall Street is “the ultimate owner” of the “Deep State” that rules America beneath the more “visible” surface state and “marionette theater” of parliamentary politics and campaigns. This is because “it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice— certainly beyond the dreams of a salaried government employee…. The corridor between lower Manhattan and Washington,” Lofgren observes, “is a well-trodden highway for the personalities we have all gotten to know in the period since the massive deregulation of Wall Street: Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner, and many others.” Examples are not limited to top government staff “connected with the purely financial operations of the government.” Take former leading and legendary U.S. General David Patraeus, whose perceived skills at peddling Deep State influence garnered him a highly rewarding position at a giant Wall Street private equity firm (KKR) after he left “public service” in disgrace. As Lofgren notes, “the membrane between government and industry is highly permeable.” The pay grade is much, much higher in “industry,” or, more commonly, in finance.

Eighty-four years ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey significantly observed that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

Dewey’s bleak metaphor seems mild today. Four decades into the neoliberal era, however, the moneyed elite’s abject domination of the nation’s political and policy processes has reached a level that almost defies belief. Noam Chomsky put it well three years ago, in the wake of the grotesque elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, when the leaders of both of the major parties agreed to slash government expenditures in standard defiance of majority citizen support for increased public investment to address mass unemployment. “Since the 1970s,” Chomsky observed, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”

Bernie Knows the Score

Sadly enough, even the Bernie Sanders’ campaign is a symptom of the plutocracy that Foner thinks we are approaching. Sanders is running on a reasonably progressive domestic policy agenda (including single payer health insurance, a significantly increased federal minimum wage, major federal jobs and infrastructure programs, progressive taxation, a financial transaction tax, etc.) that finds wide favor with the nation’s hidden progressive working class majority. Nobody stands closer among the current crop of U.S. presidential candidates to the nation’s majority social-democratic opinion than Sanders – nobody except the officially invisible Green Party candidate Jill Stein. And yet is fairly well understood within the U.S. power elite not only that a nominal socialist and domestic policy progressive like Sanders has a snowball’s chance in Hell of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee or of getting any significant part of his domestic policy program into the Democratic Party platform.

Sanders understands the harsh plutocratic deep-state of U.S. affairs himself. Bernie is willing to create some embarrassing moments for Hillary Clinton – on her revolting Iraq War vote and the outsized campaign contributions she has received from Wall Street executives (Mrs. Clinton’s claim in the second Democratic presidential debate that those contributions merely reflect Wall Street’s gratitude for her role in advancing federal money to restore lower Manhattan after 9/11 surely ranks as one of the most transparently disingenuous and sociopathic statements in recorded political history.) But the fact that he is not seriously trying to win the Democratic nomination or even to shape the Democratic Party policy agenda is clear from his refusal to substantively and directly attack the longstanding militant neoliberal corporatism of his “good friend” Mrs. Clinton; from his eager willingness to run interference for her on her ridiculous and criminal use of a private email server as Secretary State; and from his advance surrender of his political and policy leverage inside the Democratic Party. As Ralph Nader recently noted, “the Democratic establishment and their operatives are amused by Bernie Sanders, day after day. They’re not fearful, they’re amused, because he’s given up his bargaining power” by announcing from the start that he will back the eventual corporate-Democratic nominee. More than once on the campaign trail and in the debates, Sanders has said things that could easily be taken to mean that he understands his real role as to help boost Democratic Party voter turnout in the 2016 elections by playing his part in the Hitchensian con.

If Sanders is serious about attacking the existing plutocracy – we passed the “verging on” stage some time ago – to represent majority-progressive public opinion, he will at least demand something in return for his loyalty to the deadly corporate-imperial sociopathy Hillary Clinton in the general election. Don’t count on much in that regard. Sanders seems content to lift the vote for the Democrats by helping give the party an ill-deserved populist sheen this election cycle and then to return to his comfortable perch as Vermont Senator for Life. Bernie’s no dummy. Unlike his professor fan Eric Foner, the real world politician knows the plutocratic score.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).