How Capitalism Killed Democracy
No matter who wins elections, the rich still rule
Media, especially liberal media, keep telling us “our democracy is in danger” from Donald Trump, or from ‘foreign interference’ in elections. In reality, democracy in the USA died long ago. Capitalism killed it; politics has become a reality TV show that only serves to hide the real power structure. Whoever wins elections, the billionaires and big corporations still make all the important decisions.
What is democracy anyway? Democracy means rule by the many, which Aristotle, the first political analyst, explained meant rule by the poor. (There are far more poor than rich.) Oligarchy means rule by the few, meaning by the rich. Both democracy and oligarchy can take many forms, and social classes fight for forms that serve them.
Democracy is clumsy, and in the long run, oligarchs usually win. Since revolutions brought an end to absolute monarchies and a start to modern democracies in the 18th and 19th centuries, the oligarchs have found ways to corrupt democratic governments and turn them into de facto oligarchies.
As a result, despite all the nonstop news and entertainment around elections and politics, a 2014 Princeton study showed that the US was already far more oligarchy than democracy. Other researchers have said the Princeton study overstated the control of the rich, but I think it didn’t go far enough, as I’ll explain.
The government you can see isn’t the real government. When we look at actual governmental structure, the appointed or elected Secretaries, Ministers, Directors, and Governors of various agencies and states have loads of assistants, advisors, deputies, undersecretaries and other bureaucrats who do the real work and make the day-to-day decisions. A new administration may bring in new people at the top, but any bright ideas they may have about serving the many and not the few are likely to be suppressed or ignored until they learn to do things the approved way.
This consistency is especially obvious in foreign policy, which never changes, no matter who is elected. Remember how many times Donald Trump said he was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan? It never happened on his watch. Dept of Defense bureaucrats (a category which includes many generals) simply ignored him. They floated stories in the media like “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan would take years.”
Then, when Trump was out of office, those same bureaucrats decided to leave Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. They abandoned millions of dollars worth of equipment and sacrificed their Afghan allies.. The chaos of the withdrawal was blamed on President Trump by Democrats or on President Biden by Republicans, but neither had control over it. Pentagon bureaucrats did.
Where do government bureaucrats come from? Many come from the corporations they are supposed to regulate. Executives move from corporations to government offices and back so often that the connection is called a “revolving door.” Two of the most glaring, top-level revolvers:
Economist Larry Summers — went from an undersecretary of the Treasury to President of Harvard University to managing partner at the hedge fund D. E. Shaw & Co., where he advised other financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and others. Then, he became President Obama’s chief economic advisor, where he oversaw the massive bank bailouts which started with the 2009 crash and have continued under Trump and Biden.
These ongoing multi-trillion dollar bailouts are the reason for current inflation, not small amounts of debt relief or tiny wage hikes given to the working class. Summers has overseen all the bailouts from various positions in the revolving door.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin graduated from the US Military Academy in the 70s and spent 40 years working his way up to be a 4-star general. He retired from the armed services in 2016 and joined the boards of arms giant Raytheon Technologies, the steel company Nucor, Tenet Healthcare, and Auburn University. On December 7, 2020, President-elect Biden nominated him Secretary of Defense. From this position, he oversees wars and military buildups around the world.
People like Summers and Austin have thousands of colleagues — over two million of them actually — filling government at every level. Many were educated in elite schools such as Harvard and Yale, Georgetown or University of Chicago. They know their job is to serve the corporations, and they believe in their work.
They also know there will be lucrative jobs awaiting them in the private sector when they go through the revolving door. Many enjoy gifts and investment tips from their corporate friends while they’re still in government. They know who to call when they want to get something done or are unsure what to do They pass those contacts on to new bureaucrats when they arrive from Harvard or wherever.
This is what the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin meant when he said, “The capitalist state is bound by thousands of threads to the capitalist class. The working class cannot simply lay hold of the state [e.g. by winning an election — DS] and use it for its own ends.”
The role of elected officials
The rich may control the bureaucracy, but they still need leaders to bring the people along. That is why they go to such great lengths to elect leaders who will speak for them, a true puppet government.
Barack Obama was a superstar puppet. With his African father, he could pose as an alternative to business as usual. With his vague but eloquent promises of “hope and change,” he drew millions of disaffected young people and people of color back into an electoral process they had rejected. As a result, his party won massive majorities in the House and Senate in 2008.
Obama and the Democrats could now do whatever they wanted. And nothing happened. Nothing changed. His programs were actually moderate Republican programs that didn’t challenge power at all. The people Obama charmed back into the system realized they had been duped and dropped out, and American politics shifted to the Right. Wealth disparities and poverty have increased ever since, while the corporations grow in power.
Reaction on the part of angry white people to this betrayal is a big part of how we got Donald Trump.
Occasionally, an outsider will sneak through. Someone like an AOC or a Cori Bush can win office and make some noise for a while, but they soon find they can’t accomplish anything. Then they either choose to play their role in the puppet show, quit, or become entrapped in some supposed scandal or redistricting that forces them to leave, as happened to Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney.
Two party system
Every capitalist democracy has its own way of keeping control, but in the U.S. they have created an almost unbeatable two party system. Other countries have systems of proportional representation, in which many parties can form and elect people to Parliament (Congress) in proportion to the number of people who vote for them. If you get 20% of the vote, you get 20% of the seats. Other places, including some US cities, use a system of ranked choice voting, where people vote for candidates in their order of preference.
Most places in the US have no such system. There are only two candidates, and whoever gets the most votes for a particular office wins, even if most people hate them. That’s how we get a Congress with a 17% approval rating, who somehow keep getting re-elected.
Elections are fixed in several other ways. Third parties are legally excluded from the ballot in many states. Voting districts are wildly unequal in size. The US Senate includes two Senators from each state, so that some represent 30,000,000 people and others represent a few hundred thousand. But they get the same number of votes in the Senate, including votes for President in the Electoral College. Voting districts are “gerrymandered,” meaning drawn in ways that virtually guarantee wins to the party that does the drawing.
Working class people can be excluded from voting if they’ve been to jail, if they don’t have up-to-date ID, if they owe money to the government, or if they have to work during limited election hours. Black voters are most likely to have their voices suppressed in this way. The voting machines themselves can be easily hacked, especially by the people who own and operate them.
Along with all this, the capitalists have a far more powerful tool to guarantee favorable results. They have the biggest, most sophisticated propaganda machine in history in the form of corporate media.
Media’s extraordinary power
In the 21st Century, very few of us know the candidates or the issues from personal experience. Most rely on media to tell them what’s happening, and the controlled media is the final, most powerful weapon capitalism wields to kill democracy.
In response to the Princeton study that found the U.S. an oligarchy, some academics pointed out that rich people weren’t overruling the majority, because the majority agreed with them most of the time. And they do agree, because the official story is all anyone hears or reads in media. Anything else is called disinformation and suppressed.
In large scale electoral politics, candidates have to get their message out through media, and the media does not repeat messages that displease the billionaires. One can buy media time, which is where most of the billions of dollars spent in US elections goes. Right-wing capitalists like the Koch family spend billions of their own money to influence elections.
The cost of advertising tends to exclude those without access to rich, powerful friends. Their message doesn’t get out.
The stories people believe determine how they see the world and what they do about it. Capitalism has created a story-telling machine that determines what most people believe. Then they vote those stories into power.
What can we do?
Representative democracy under capitalism is over. It can’t be fixed, because those in position to fix it want to keep it a meaningless show. They want their corporations to be able to continue looting the planet and don’t care what it costs working people or the environment. They want a government that helps them loot, not one that sets limits on their greed.
There are alternatives. One would be direct democracy, as they had in ancient Greece, where people actually vote on important questions. This could be done in small communities or theoretically in large groups via the Internet. Another would be an authoritarian system where people and businesses can do what they want, but within strict limits enforced by an authority, as they are in China.
But would such authorities represent people and planet, or billionaires and corporations? I like the idea of a council of authoritative elders (preferably indigenous elders) who must sign off on any policy decision.
Even though most democracy is a puppet show, it still makes sense to me to vote. Parties and candidates do disagree on social issues about which the capitalists don’t care. Laws criminalizing reproductive behavior could vary slightly by who is in office, even if wars, economics, and environmental policies don’t.
Especially at the local level, District Attorneys make huge differences in peoples’ lives by deciding who to prosecute for what. Mayors can have huge influence on their cities including greening them and finding solutions to homelessness.
Whatever we do, we have to remember our pretend democracy is only a tool to confuse, divide, and repress us. It’s okay to participate in it, but don’t worry about ‘defending’ it. We want to blow it up. We can tell everyone who is interested what the real situation is. We might even run for local office ourselves with the express intent of exposing the system.
And we can work outside the system. We can spend more time with real people in the real, physical world and do what it needs us to do.