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How Capitalism Destroyed American Democracy: Part 2 (of 3)Daniel Johnson Salem-News.com
Ding! Americans do not live in a democracy but a plutocracy. Wake up and smell the coffee.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - Item: “When you think of Bush and his team, it's hard to believe so much harm could be done to so many by so few. (H. D. S. Greenway in the Boston Globe)
Item: “No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the sources of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.” (P. J. O’Rourke)
Item: “Our current political systems seem to have created a decision making whole that actually in many ways is stupider than any one individual. …You get us all together collectively , and you look at something like what we’re doing with our carbon-dioxide output, and we’re acting about as smart as protozoa. We’re pooping up our environment and poisoning ourselves.” (Thomas Homer-Dixon, Director, University of Toronto Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies)
Item: “When we look back over the past eight thousand years, it is clear that the most irritating characteristic of human beings is their passivity. The mass of people accept whatever happens to them as cows accept the rain.” (Colin Wilson in A Criminal History of Mankind)
In Part 1 (see: How Capitalism Destroyed American Democracy: Part 1 - Daniel Johnson Salem-News.com), I reviewed Vance Packard’s 1960 book The Waste Makers. I argued that any appearance of democracy in North America has been nullified and undermined by the twin capitalist idols of growth and consumption.
Many, if not most Americans, believe that growth and consumption are good things . But Packard noted that US oil consumption had tripled in the fifteen years since end of WW II. “With only one seventh proved reserves, the US is consuming more than half the world’s production.” The imbalance has increased through the years and even the oil shocks of the 1970s did nothing to wake up the American people. The immoral result is that Americans are so rich because so many others in the world are poor. But Americans can’t feel smug. The same wealth imbalance exists within their own country. Says Thomas Homer-Dixon,
“We really need to start thinking hard about how our societies—especially those that are already very rich—can maintain their social and political stability, and satisfy the aspirations of their citizens, when we can no longer count on endless economic growth.”
In December 2006, a UN study found that the richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth. When Reagan began his presidency in 1980, US CEOs received 43 times what the average worker made.By 2005, CEOs earned 411 times as much.
What is democracy?
The fundamental ethic behind democracy is co-operation.
The fundamental ethic behind capitalism is greed.
Don’t be fooled. Greed and self-interest are not the same thing. Adam Smith promoted self-interest as a positive social and human motivation; greed, on the other hand, he vilified.
Ergo: Greed and cooperation are like oil and water; they don’t mix, and they never will!
Theory of democracy
Democracy is, literally, rule by the people; the concept formally originating in Greece, 25 centuries ago. The American people, believing they have reached the pinnacle of democracy, that shining light on the hill, are a people either significantly brainwashed, or severely deluded. I believe it to be the former.
In the movie “The American President”, Michael Douglas is president (this is before Martin Sheen captured the nomination), and he is being outrageously attacked but he doesn’t respond, avoiding what he says is a character debate.
His aid, Michael J. Fox, tells him his numbers are sliding because he is not talking back. At the conclusion of the argument, Fox says: The people “want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage. And when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” Douglas replied that “they don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”
The fundamental questions in the establishment of a democracy says Yale political scientist emeritus Robert A .Dahl are:
1. What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town? A city? A country?
2. Once the organizational unit has been established, who among its members should constitute the demos?
3. What organizations should be established to allow the people to govern?
4. When there are differences of opinion (policy), as there inevitably will be, who should prevail and under what circumstances?
5. Assuming majority rule, what should a majority look like?
But a basic question preceding all these is: Why should the people rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy?
Overall, says Dahl, “a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the demos [the people] and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative.” This belief is widely held in America, but is so contradicted by reality, that the result is not democracy at all, but kakistocracy—rule by the worst.
In the 19th century Charles Darwin revolutionalized the life sciences with his theory of evolution by natural selection. The response of religionists today is to look at the world and say—could this all have come about by accident? Their answer is called Intelligent Design.
Similarly, we can look at our social and economic world and ask: Could it have come about from Democratic Design? That is, is the America of today a polity that has been democratically selected?
The origins of democracy
Small, early groups of people, tribes, naturally fell into democratic-like ways provided the group was sufficiently independent of control by outsiders to permit members to run their own affairs. This assumption has been supported by studies of non-literate tribal societies, which suggest that democratic government existed among many tribal groups during the thousands of years when human beings survived by hunting and gathering. It was probably the most “natural” of political systems.
When the lengthy period of hunting and gathering ended and humans began to settle in fixed communities, primarily for agriculture and trade, the conditions that favoured popular participation in government seem to have become more rare. Greater inequalities in wealth and military power between communities, together with a marked increase in the typical community's size and scale, encouraged the spread of hierarchical and authoritarian forms of social organization. As a result, popular governments among settled peoples vanished, to be replaced for thousands of years by governments based on monarchy, despotism, aristocracy, or oligarchy, each of which came to be seen—at least among the dominant members of these societies—as the most natural form of government.
Then, about 500 B. C. E. conditions favourable to democracy reappeared in several locales, and a few small groups began to create popular governments. Primitive democracy, one might say, was reinvented in more advanced forms; The most crucial developments occurred in two areas of the Mediterranean, Greece and Rome.
During the Classical period (corresponding roughly to the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.), Greece was not a country in the modern sense, but a collection of several hundred independent city-states, each with its surrounding countryside. In 507 B.C.E., under the leadership of Cleisthenes, the citizens of Athens began to develop a system of popular rule that would last nearly two centuries. To question (1), then, the Greeks responded clearly: The political association most appropriate to democratic government is the polis, or city-state.
But what democracy is, is not a settled issue says Dahl: “In political theory, democracy describes a small number of related forms of government and also a political philosophy. Even though there is no specific, universally accepted definition of 'democracy', there are two principles that any definition of democracy includes, equality and freedom. These principles are reflected by all citizens being equal before the law, and having equal access to power. Additionally, all citizens are able to enjoy legitimized freedoms and liberties, which are usually protected by a constitution.”
Equality before the law and equal access to power are, I think, the key aspects of any democracy.
The democracy of inequality
The 18th century philosopher Marquis de Condorcet said: “It is easy to prove that wealth has a natural tendency to equality, and that any excessive disproportion could not exist, or at least would rapidly disappear, if civil laws did not provide artificial ways of perpetuating and uniting fortunes…” The built in biases in the law is the fundamental problem in modern democracy.
In his book Capitalism and Freedom conservative Nobel economist Milton Friedman argued that “a central element in the development of collectivist sentiment…has been a belief in equality as a social goal and a willingness to use the arm of the state to promote it.” What, he asked, is the justification for state intervention? “The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market is, ‘To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.’ The operation of even this principle implicitly depends on state action. Property rights are matters of law and social convention. As we have seen, their definition and enforcement is one of the primary functions of the state. The final distribution of income and wealth under the full operation of this principle may well depend markedly on the rules of property adopted.”
But what are the rules of property that allow the Forbes 400— 400 hundred individuals—count ‘em—to control $1.3 trillion of wealth?
Said economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his book The Good Society: “It is an unequal contest: the rich and comfortable have influence and money. And they vote. The concerned and the poor have numbers, but many of the poor, alas, do not vote. There is democracy but in no slight measure it is a democracy of the fortunate.”
If American democracy actually works, here are some of the results.
Nobel economist Paul Krugman writes: “The real incomes of the top .01 percent of Americans rose sevenfold [700%] between 1980 and 2007. But the real income of the median family rose only 22 percent, less than a third its growth over the previous 27 years….Moreover, most of whatever gains ordinary Americans achieved came during the Clinton years. President George W. Bush, who had the distinction of being the first Reaganite president to also have a fully Republican Congress, also had the distinction of presiding over the first administration since Herbert Hoover in which the typical family failed to see any significant income gains.”
America was founded in the 18th century on the philosophical ideas of the so-called Enlightenment philosophers John Locke, David Hume, Jean Jacques Rousseau, et al. But, said Rousseau in The Social Contract: “No citizen shall be rich enough to buy another and none so poor as to forced to sell himself…”
Ding! On this point American democracy has failed.
Gun violence and terror
The majority of Americans want some sort of gun control. Bob Herbert writes:
“This is the American way. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when the country’s attention understandably turned to terrorism, nearly 120,000 Americans have been killed in nonterror homicides, most of them committed with guns. Think about it—120,000 dead. That’s nearly 25 times the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The United States is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate. Gun deaths average about 80 a day, 34 of them homicides, according to U.S. government statistics.
In an effective democracy, there would be some form of gun control.
As Nanci McGonigal posted in a NYT blog Sept 30: “They say America is the land of the free, but since I moved to Germany 5 years ago, I feel considerably more free than I did in the US. Why? Because I don’t have to worry about someone shooting me.”
In the Blog by Timothy Egan, he writes:
"If it was peanut butter or pistachio nuts taking down people by the dozens every week, we’d be all over it. Witness the recent recalls. But Glocks and AKs — can’t touch ‘em. So we’re awash in guns: 280 million.
"Live with it, gun owners say, and if our murder rate is three times that of the United Kingdom and Canada, five times that of Germany, that’s the deal. The price. For consolation, I guess, there is the fact that the homicide rate has been flat for some time, down from the highs of the 1980s. Still, nearly 17,000 Americans are murdered each year — about 70 percent by guns — and 594,276 lost their lives betweens 1976 and 2005."
Ding! American democracy fails, again.
Americans depend on the expertise of economists at the highest levels. But, writes Jared Bernstein in the preface to his book Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries): “Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us.” Bob Herbert agrees:
“Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them. They were treated ruthlessly whenever they tried to organize. They were never reasonably protected against the savage dislocations caused by revolutions in technology and global trade.”
Ding! American democracy has failed to manage an economy of the people, by the people and for the people.
Roger Cohen, in reviewing The Myth of American Exceptionalism , by Godfrey Hodgson concludes:
“The high number of its prison inmates is exceptional. The quality of its health care is exceptionally bad. The degree of its social inequality is exceptionally acute. Public education has gone into exceptional decline. The Americanization of the Holocaust and uncritical support for Israel have demonstrated an exceptional ability to gloss over uncomfortable truths, including broad American indifference to Hitler’s genocide as it happened.”
Ding! American democracy has failed to deal with the real world.
The helplessness of the individual
In 1910, before he was elected president, Woodrow Wilson said:
“Most men are individuals no longer as far as business, its activities or its moralities, is concerned. They are not units, but fractions; with their individuality and independence of choice in matters of business they have lost their individual choice within the field of morals. They must do what they are told to do, or lose their connection with modern affairs. They are not at liberty to ask whether what they are told to do is right or wrong. They cannot get at the men who ordered it—have no access to them. They have no voice of counsel or protest. They are mere cogs in a machine which has men for its parts.”
A year ago, when W was still president, NYT columnist Thomas Friedman wrote:
“I’ve always believed that America’s government was a unique political system—one designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots. I was wrong. No system can be smart enough to survive this level of incompetence and recklessness by the people charged to run it.”
Ding! If the election and re-election of George W. Bush is American democracy in action, then democracy gets an F.
The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes noticed—as many of us have—that when left to their own devices, people have a tendency to make a mess of things. His genius lay in the discovery that we do not necessarily make these messes because we set out to harm one another. Often the mess occurs simply because our attempts to secure our own self-interest are collectively self-defeating. So if our “natural” inclination is to mind our own business and look after our own interests, then life in a “state of nature” would be unbearable.
Political scientist Harold Laswell defined politics in the title of his 1935 book: Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. Personality research, he said, has shown “that the individual is a poor judge of his own interest. The individual who chooses a political policy as a symbol of his wants is usually trying to relieve his own disorders by irrelevant palliatives.” Sound familiar?
A 2005 survey, from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that 64 percent of Americans supported the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in schools.
Ding! Put to a democratic vote, America could become a global laughing stock as The Flintstones is presented as a “documentary” series.
The health/death debate
The Congress and House of Representatives are having problems passing any kind of legislation to give affordable health care to all Americans. Nearly 50 million Americans do not have health care and because of this thousands die every year.
Ding! The pursuit of life is not constitutionally guaranteed to every American.
Democracy and the Law
Simon-Henri Linguet, a lawyer in pre-Revolutionary France, was disbarred from practice because he was critical of both the law and property: “Laws are destined above all to safeguard property. Now as one can take away much more from the man who has than from the man who has not, they are obviously a guarantee accorded the rich against the poor. It is difficult to believe, and yet it is clearly demonstrable, that the laws are in some respects a conspiracy against the majority of the human race.”
Jacques Necker, who controlled French finances, was sacked on the eve of the French Revolution said: “Almost all civil institutions have been made by property owners. One might say that a small number of men, having divided the earth among themselves, made laws as a union and guarantee against the multitude.”
Democracy is intended to counter this reality.
Returning to Rousseau in the Social Contract: “The universal spirit of laws in all countries is to favour the stronger against the weaker, and those who have against those who have nothing; this disadvantage is inevitable and without exception.” He added: “Humanly speaking, the laws of natural justice, lacking any natural sanction, are unavailing among men. In fact, such laws merely benefit the wicked and injure the just, since the just respect them while others do not do so in return.”
Ding! Americans do not live in a democracy but a plutocracy. Wake up and smell the coffee.
After this depressing piece of journalism, I have to go on and say that I believe there is hope. For that see Part 3 forthcoming!
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which explains why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class—a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue, although a lot of his views could be described as left-wing. He understands that who he is, is largely defined by where he came from. The focus for Daniel’s writing came in 1972. After a trip to Europe he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Alberta, and Calgary in particular, was extremely conservative Bible Belt country, more like Houston than any other Canadian city (a direct influence of the oil industry). Two successive Premiers of the province, from 1935 to 1971, had been Baptist evangelicals with their own weekly Sunday radio program—Back to the Bible Hour, while in office. In Alberta everything was distorted by religion.
Although he had published a few pieces (unpaid) in the local daily, the Calgary Herald, it was not until 1975 that he could actually make a living from journalism when, from 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman (1979-1993), Canada’s top business writer (notably a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting with the CBC. You can write to Daniel at: Salem-News@gravityshadow.com
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