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Capitalism Versus Democracy

It was always just a matter of time before the reemergence of establishment Democrats reminded people why they were booted from power in 2016. As ugly as Donald Trump is and as not constructive as his tenure in the White House has been, the Democratic establishment would rather lose with establishment candidates and retrograde policies than loosen its grip on its service to the oligarchs.

Phrased differently, if Democrats cared about ‘defeating Trump,’ they would offer programs that people want. But they are so firmly in the grip of corporate interests and the oligarchs that they won’t do so. The Republicans are just as beholden, but they offer fewer (manufactured) illusions. They represent the interests of capital. This transparency provides political clarity for those who oppose their policies.

Graph: American politicians act as if the rich minority should control our politics. Policies in the public interest are invariably corrupted through the legislative process to serve them. This is a near perfect inversion of democratic control where the richest 1% + 9% would only exist at the behest of the polity. Because it concentrates wealth, capitalism is antithetical to democracy. American elections will remain a farce until democratic control is put in place.

When announcing a congressional Medicare for All hearing recently, senior Democrats sought to control the admissible language to exclude the phrase ‘Medicare for All.’ They intend to focus instead on ‘access’ to healthcare which keeps health insurers as the extractive layer that has given the U.S. the most expensive healthcare system in the world with the worst outcomes.

What this signals, for those to whom it isn’t yet obvious, is that there are no circumstances short of revolution that will move the Democrats from service to their rich patrons. Given the stakes of environmental crisis, deaths of despair overtaking the hinterlands and military inclinations pushing the U.S. toward wars it can’t win, Democrats are signaling that they would rather go down with the U.S.A. Titanic than offer up the solutions being put forward by young socialists.

Lest the larger picture be missed here, American capitalism, for which claims of ‘efficiency’ have been used to shape and rebuild the world, has produced the least efficient healthcare system in the world in order to fill the pockets of a class that feeds on human misery. Thanks to Obamacare, health insurance executives are now the most overpaid in the entire insurance industry. This, as medical bankruptcies are undiminished since passage of the law.

The illusion of political competition facilitates the lie of democratic control. Republicans deny climate science while the Democrats place the interests of the businesses that are degrading the environment ahead of the popular will when they craft nominally public policies. Look again at the graph above: given the numbers in terms of citizens represented (executives + oligarchs), why would they have any say in the determination of public policies in a democracy?

As was the case in 2016 and for decades prior, the so-called political center is a radical outlier in terms of formulating policies in the public interest. Fifteen times as many people in the U.S. die every year from not being able to afford healthcare than have died in all of the terrorist attacks of the last century. The political ‘center’ is code for the interests of capital. It is killing the planet and bleeding the polity dry. It functioned as misdirection when the vestiges of the New Deal were intact— before ‘precariat’ described everyone who isn’t in the 1%.

The West is now four decades into a neoliberal ‘experiment’ that has failed on its own terms, but that shows no signs of either waning from its own contradictions or being dislodged politically. The political ossification that it has created comes through class control of the public sphere, domination of the political process via campaign contributions and the economic role that corporations have assumed at the heart of Western political economy.

Graph: CO2 emissions are both fact and metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march toward environmental Armageddon. The capitalist version of a Green New Deal is premised on greatly increasing destructive environmental production in order to reduce it at some as-yet unspecified future date. As basic arithmetic has it, 5 + 1 = 6, not 4. An eco-socialist GND requires getting capitalists out of the way while the American political establishment exists to keep them in control. Source: c2es.org

While confusion has been sown around the meaning of ‘corporatism’ that stood at the center of (Benito) Mussolini’s vision of the good life, a defining characteristic of both Italian and German fascism was capitalist-state alliances where state power was used for the benefit of select capitalists and select state actors. Labor unions were systematically disempowered, and the interests of powerful economic and state actors were put forward as those of the polity.

An irony of the present is that with all the mechanisms of capitalist-state control— a capitalist media that places business interests ahead of civic accountability; corporate control that regulates the lives of citizens as surely as totalitarian regimes throughout history; and the systematic immiseration and debasement of the democratic core of the polity; a plurality is still able to look past its own interests to the public good.

A secondary irony is that as true as denunciations of Donald Trump and the Republican Party may be, the Democratic establishment has no history of challenging the substance of their programs in recent decades. Establishment Democrats want to preclude a Green New Deal and Medicare for All as surely as Republicans do. Differences between the Parties are over how to best do so— outright opposition versus killing them legislatively.

And in fact, this difference in strategy suggests the basis of bourgeois loathing of the ‘lesser’ classes. Republicans deny climate science (the ignorant heathens) while Democrats accept its conclusions while continuing to let their donor class dictate policy that perpetuates environmental degradation. Given the stakes, the Paris Accord was a fig leaf placed over a missing environmental policy when Barack Obama gave it rhetorical support.

Here is the IPCC (UN) report, released a mere two years after Mr. Obama left office, stating that far more radical action is needed to address climate change. Here is IPBES (UN) report, released a mere two years after Mr. Obama left office, stating that far more radical action is needed to address mass extinction. Environmentalists have been providing evidence that radical action is needed for five decades.

The method of the Democrat’s grift is to hand public policy to business interests just as Republicans do, but through abstract devices like trade agreements. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) writes local, state and Federal policies that Republicans put forward as legislative proposals. Democrats push trade agreements that have Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses to prevent governments from passing laws in the public interest.

As the graph of total CO2 emissions (above) suggests, the effect is a continuity in public policies hidden behind a veil of faux political competition. The American bourgeois congratulates itself on its clear understanding of climate change while earning its living in the service of the oligarchs and corporate chiefs who benefit from environmental degradation. Democratic politicians sooth psyches through language of ‘working toward’ and ‘access’ that gets its professional class constituents from one PowerPoint presentation to the next. The point: the bourgeois are an impediment to effective public policies, not its guardians.

With their growing use of loyalty oaths and exclusionary tactics, Democrats have adopted the logic of the radical right for the reasons of the radical right— to protect the business interests of their donor class from rising bolshevism (socialism) and market mishaps. But commies didn’t crap the environment. And market mishaps are an aspect of capitalism, not socialism. So, Democrats are joining Republicans to protect capitalists from the consequences of their own practices.

Those not directly benefitting from it want to be protected from capitalist predation. Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, raising taxes on the rich and having a political voice are popular with the little people. The political establishment also exists to protect the oligarchs and corporate executives from democratic accountability.

The self-aggrandizing ‘Art of War’ drivel of 1980s capitalist mythology posed capitalist warriors competing against one another in the rough and tumble marketplace. By 2000 or so this had given way to K Street lobbyists, congress and the Federal Reserve doing back alley deals to protect them from market failure. Payday loans, government granted monopolies and instigating wars to sell munitions all combine state with private power to extract economic rents— market competition has nothing to do with it.

Any honest assessment of American business— war, financial gamesmanship, environmental degradation and pillaging the polity, would make evident that some fair portion of the oligarch class 1) belongs in prison and 2) should be made to give up its ill-gotten gains. Some politely worded version of this political program would likely win any election hands down, suggesting that the actual political center is a few miles left of the political establishment.

Graph: Any environmental accounting based in history would place the U.S., and more precisely capitalism, front and center as both cause and beneficiary of environmental degradation. The U.S. + the E.U., really Germany and Britain, caused climate change through greenhouse gas emissions from the dawn of the industrial revolution to the present. China has become to major emitter only recently. But Chinese emissions built the export economy that flooded the West with cheap imports. In other words, Western emissions were outsourced. Source: c2es.org

A question to be answered sooner rather than later is: what configuration of political economy is needed to resolve the multiple crises that are underway? With political hopefuls offering policy proposals going into the 2020 elections, those that aren’t tied to workable political economy are likely to be little more than empty posturing.

A Green New Deal and Medicare for All would alter economic relationships. The establishment posture is: we need for ‘our’ political proposals to serve multiple economic interests. Not addressed is that it is these very interests who turned a livable environment and health care into political problems in need of resolution. So why would they be 1) left intact and 2) considered ‘partners’ in resolving the problems they have created?

The path of least resistance within the establishment frame is market-friendly proposals like carbon taxes and public-private partnerships to build renewable energy technologies. The logic is to increase the use of environmentally destructive technologies to reduce them at some future point. Again, 5 + 1 = 6, not 4. The only path to meeting IPCC and IPBES (above) goals will be to reduce cumulative environmental degradation, meaning 5 – 1 = 4.

All of the establishment plans, including those from socialists, are variations on 5 + 1 = 6, again meaning that environmental degradation must increase to reduce it at some future point. This is the same capitalist ‘growth’ logic that isn’t working. Any plan that isn’t at least cognizant of this paradox should be rejected out of hand. Moving from industrial to human-scale agriculture will require land redistribution. If people can reconnect with ‘the world,’ they might even be happier for it.

Through the concentration of economic power, capitalism is antithetical to democracy. Capitalist ‘freedom’ is the freedom of the oligarchs to exert political control through this power. This contradiction explains why the polity has little to no influence over government policies, causing growing antipathy toward the political establishment. Democrats aren’t going to voluntarily abandon their donors and Republicans wouldn’t even pretend to, suggesting that the preferred direction of the political establishment will continue to be hard right.

As Democrats are in the process of demonstrating, existing political economy must be gotten out of the way before there is any chance that solutions to current crises will be workable.

 

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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