JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Confluence of Wealth and Political Power
By Johnny Reb
The Conservative Corporate Welfare State, a “government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich”
Enlightenment Ideas and the struggle against Oppression and Superstition
The Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution of the 18th Century laid the building blocks for liberal democracies and paved the way for the rejection and removal of oppressive monarchical and ecclesiastical regimes and superstitious obscurantist belief systems. Renowned Russian born British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) referred to The Enlightenment as one of the most exhilarating and hopeful episodes in the history of mankind, because, he wrote, “the intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the 18th Century* remain to this day without parallel”. One rival to Francis Bacon’s claim to be the most influential figure in the era of the Enlightenment is John Locke. If Bacon is the father of modern science, Locke could quite accurately be called the father of liberal democracy, the system of government in which sovereign power resides in the people, but where respect for the aspirations of the majority is balanced by respect for the rule of law, universal human rights, and distinct regard for the rights of minorities. But unfortunately the struggle against hierarchical conservative authoritarian systems and anti-scientific thought is far from over.
*One must not neglect the influential philosophers of the 17th Century and the many that followed from the 18th onward to the present day. There was really no special Enlightenment project; but there was a gradual skepticism and revolution of ideas, which overturned centuries of arcane metaphysics and infantile world views, dethroned theocracy and its vile tyranny and superstition, saw the downfall of the Divine Right of Kings, repealed the witchcraft statutes, introduced smallpox vaccination and other medical advancements, ceased to treat infanticide as the product of bewitchment but as a crime, ceased to regard madness as a supernatural occurrence, but as an illness, and generally led to the withering away of religious belief and irrationality under the light of science and reason.
Ignorance of science and the irrational tendencies of people who know nothing of the scientific outlook and its enterprise are disturbingly widespread even today, particularly among the religiously inclined and regrettably, many corporate propagandists and politicians (including the half-wit George W Bush and many other influential members of the Republican Party in the USA and Conservative Party in Canada). What is it about Conservatives that leads so many of them to embrace 12th century cosmology, ethics and socio-political models? Some ignorant of its nature talk about science as if it is restricted to tedious mining for facts like a police detective, when it plays only a very small role or usually no role at all. Science is, as Karl Popper remarked, “one of the greatest spiritual adventures man has yet known”. A new hypothesis or theory is an act of creativity and discovery that differs dramatically from creativity in the arts, because new creations of the scientific imagination must survive a detailed confrontation with experience, peer review and rigorous testing by skeptical critics, but it is an act of creativity nonetheless. What is more, despite the abuses of immoral people using its technological advances for nefarious purposes as in war for example, the discoveries of science make the world a far better place.
The Fight for Democracy is far from Over
Over the past several centuries our ancestors, through difficult and painful struggles against overwhelming odds against entrenched power continued to fight long and often violent struggles for decent and safe working conditions, livable wages and most importantly, voting rights—for un-propertied men, for women, for indigenous peoples, blacks and many others subjected to racism, denigration and ostracism. Perhaps we may be forgiven for assuming that the fight is over and our delusions and errors in thinking that casting a ballot every four years is the essence of democracy, the paragon of civic virtue and the ultimate and sovereign responsibility of a citizen.
Regrettably, the frustration and battle for genuine democracy and citizenship endures so working people need to be eternally vigilant. Voting is merely the beginning of civic responsibility, not its end, and as the right to vote has expanded so has its value been steadily debased and devalued. We need to be far more engaged in the political process and do much more or we will lose it altogether. Representative democracy has surely failed us, having descended into an oligarchic sewer of privilege, corruption and creeping corporatist fascism in which vast disparities of wealth are creating an atmosphere of detachment, despair and futility. The locus of real power is not in the hands of the majority, but elsewhere. In a lengthy essay posted on my web site, I have referred to it as the Conservative Corporate Welfare State. Wealth and property qualifications, poll taxes, and the like are very far from being historical curiosities; they have simply mutated into cunning Machiavellian subtleties and Orwellian doublethink.
The Daunting Power of Money and Corruption
In 2002 Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York after spending more money per voter on his election than any other candidate in US history. He then spent $84 million in 2006 for re-election with $32 million devoted to mindless rhetorical sound bites on TV. When that sort of obscenity can be unleashed for political power at the Municipal level, what are we in for at the Federal level? Campaign contributions and other forms of political spending by the wealthy and the big corporations have assumed that old exclusionary function, and only those who can afford the price of admission are capable of running for office or exercising their political will. Politicians are literally “owned” by wealth and power via their campaign funding and vast formidable lobbies. Voters still matter, of course, but only as raw material in a political facade to be shaped by the actual form of political influence—namely money—which molds the body politic by propaganda, Orwellian rhetoric, coercion and outright lies, aided and abetted by a complicit lapdog corporate media, realizing itself in the submissive docility of the voting public.
The republican variation* of representative democracy that informed the minds of the men of the Enlightenment who drafted the US Constitution had a name for this state of affairs: “corruption”, a term that suggested far more than sheer bribery. Corruption, in its institutional form, denotes an economy of influence and the degeneration of republican forms of government into despotism, and typically comes about when the private ends of a narrow faction of privileged citizens succeed in capturing the machinery of government. Its prevention was one of the primary concerns of the framers of the American Constitution such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Citizens, like states, are susceptible to the disease of corruption, and in the classical republican understanding, a corrupt government is one that has allowed its private and narrow personal interests to trump those of the general public. The radicalism of the American version of the concept of a republic consisted in founding a state on the premise that the public interest might be best served by the assertion of private interest, and that a large, well-regulated republic might withstand corruption by absorbing the diverse competing interests of a large and diverse population. The regulatory mechanisms that were put in place to mitigate the dark side of capitalism, fortified by the lessons of the Great Depression, have been rescinded over the past 30-40 years of neo-conservative economic models, resulting in systemic corruption and a series of economic bubbles, busts and final collapse in 2008. Sadly, the failed economic model continues, awaiting the next global economic breakdown, thus demonstrating the gross stupidity of the free market dogmatists who control the reins of power.
*The sense of “republicanism” employed here is not in any way to be confused with the Republican Party in the United States.
Most traditional republicans throughout history have understood history from a cataclysmic standpoint, the life cycle of republics as inevitable disintegration into fascism, oligarchy, theocracy, monarchy and other forms of despotism. James Madison, in particular, sought to escape that tragic cycle. His principles were sound, his institutional blueprint was brilliant, and yet his program has failed.
Prosperity and Power based on Exploitation and Death
The time has come for us to reckon with that tragedy. In addition, a historical reality most of us are unprepared to admit (and this has been promoted by cultural fictions, educational, political and media indoctrination and feel good fairy tales for at least the past two and a half centuries) is that the so-called Western Democracies have built their prosperity and wealth via massive land theft and horrific uncivilized violations of human rights and basic human decency, primarily of the individual, social and political sort, by imperialism and colonial conquests, racist policies, slavery and a 500 year genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the world, suppression of the right to vote for workers, women, minorities and indigenous peoples, supporting brutal dictatorships in the service of corporate exploitation of resources and people and much more. These actions have been justified by appealing to high-minded mantras such as “bringing Civilization and Christianity to the savages”, “the white man’s burden” and more recently “bringing democracy and freedom” to the targeted countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, countries we attack both economically, socially and militarily - and subsequently annihilate.
The US today enables Israel’s genocidal policies against the Palestinians, policies that one Israeli official has compared to 19th century US genocidal policies against Native Americans and in the new 21st century invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on false pretenses, murdering countless numbers of civilians and creating millions of homeless refugees. Moreover, the pious and power hungry Catholic British Prime Minister Tony Blair loaned the British army to his American masters, as did other NATO countries, all of whom find themselves committing war crimes that violate the Nuremberg benchmarks, ethical standards ironically drafted by the United States after the Second World War following the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals. Countries complicit in the American imperialistic wars invade countries in which they have no national interest but for which they receive an American pay check just like the murderous corporate mercenaries the US also hires. Can any person with a few neurons firing still believe the rhetorical rubbish from duplicitous government officials and obsequious corporate media hacks who attempt to justify these criminal foreign intrusions? Many gullible Americans obviously do believe because when the propaganda machinery is let loose leading up to an impending imperialistic venture, most follow like docile sheep in a Pentecostal congregation or lemmings heading over a cliff. Most believed the outrageous lies about the reasons for the Invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The shameless prevarications by “Uncle Tom” Colin Powell* at the United Nations just days before the invasion of Iraq was sickening and pathetic. Ironically we hypocritically criticize China for some of these very violations of human decency despite the fact that our exploitive economic development has been far more undemocratic, brutal and enduring than what is happening in China right now. The United States is both morally and financially bankrupt and their imperial empire is in steep decline regardless of the fact their ugly wars and foreign intrusions continue as dire domestic problems are exacerbated. One could forcefully argue that their impending collapse will be a good thing for the rest of the world because from the beginning, the United States has exploited, enslaved, invaded and slaughtered ruthlessly in the name of Manifest Destiny, Democracy, fighting Communism and host of other vacuous patriotic and noble sounding slogans.
*Powell, by the way, was the man who tried to cover up the Vietnam War atrocity of the Mai Massacre in 1968, so no one should be at all surprised about his pack of lies at the UN.
Money talks - and it’s singing an onerous death march for democracy
On the home front the corruption of our institutions manifests itself in a variety of ways, but none as dramatic as the disparities of national wealth which, in recent decades, has shattered records formerly set during the “Robber Baron” or Gilded Age of the late 19th century and in the late 1920s. The genesis of our problems was in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan unveiled to America a program of economic nonsense and lies so transparent that even an intellectual slug and ingratiating plutocrat like George H. W. Bush called it "voodoo economics". This rare gem was uttered when he was challenging Reagan for the Republican nomination. Once Bush had lost it, he then decided to go after the Vice Presidential nomination on the Reagan ticket and not surprisingly Reagan’s preposterous economic agenda was suddenly just fine thank you very much. The “Voodoo” utterance critique was silenced forever as expediency, prudence and ambition trumped ethics, a long held tradition in the world of business and politics.
Reagan’s profligate game plan for America was to grant massive tax reductions to Big Business and the obscenely wealthy and spend like a drunken sailor on the military and imperialistic ventures - and yet somehow by some mystical sleight of hand or faith-based stratagem, balance the budget. Perhaps he consulted Nancy and her astrology charts on this one. So Reagan was no math major in college you might say; but the math involved in dismissing Reaganomics as rubbish is elementary school arithmetic, not advanced calculus. If the Republican kleptomaniacs actually told the truth about their agenda, who in their right mind would vote for them, other than the wealthiest 2% of Americans?
So the inevitable occurred. During the two terms of Reagan and the single term of George H W Bush they managed to quadruple the national debt and the gap between rich and poor began decisively to widen during their profligate presidencies. Then the semi-literate buffoon Baby Bush came along in 2000 with the same economic snake oil and doubled the national debt during his catastrophic two terms. The total share of income of the wealthiest 10 percent of American families was well within the postwar norm until 1982, when Reagan’s regressive policies of militarism, attacking unions and working class people and orchestrating a massive, decades-long transfer of national wealth to the corporations and the already wealthy that ended up in tripling the national debt. The trend continued unabated under Bush I and even Bill Clinton, who shamelessly appropriated the Reagan agenda but somehow without the huge deficits, with the transfer becoming even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever growing share of national income. The rest of us simply saw our piece of the pie diminishing with our incredible shrinking paychecks. As I write today in the autumn of 2010 conditions for the working classes are as bad as they have been since the Great Depression.
As mentioned, the trend accelerated dramatically under the bumbling stooge George W. Bush, and by 2007 the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans (families earning more than $109,630) were taking in 50 percent of the national income. In 1980 the top 1 percent of Americans received 10 percent of the national income; by 2007 the superrich (those with income above $398,900) had increased their share to 23.5 percent. The average increase in real income for the bottom 99 percent of American families between 1973 and 2006 was a mere 8.5 percent, whereas the richest 1 percent saw a 190 percent rise in real income.
Such a distortion of the nation’s balance of wealth did not come about by accident; it was the result of a long series of calculated policy decisions—about industry and world trade, taxation and military spending, made by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete and steel buildings—policies that were bought and paid for by the less than 1 percent of Americans who actively participate in our capitalist “democracy for the few” by making huge donations to political campaigns to whatever of the two mainstream corporatist parties of wealth and privilege would do their bidding.
Gross inequalities in wealth are antithetical to democracy, creating a vicious and perverse feedback loop in which the interests of the wealthy and the centers of power in government become further entrenched and detached from those of the general populace. The entrenchment is now systemic and needs to be dismantled completely with grass root movements and political activism that reflect the will of the majority. Last night my wife and I sat through a rerun of the prophetic 1976 Academy Award winning movie Network in which a fired news anchorman played brilliantly by Peter Finch undergoes a psychological meltdown, wildly proclaiming on his final newscast: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” I thought to myself, this reaction is profoundly relevant to our present predicament. We need to get off our collective asses and express the same rage over the corporate heist of our public assets and democracy. Then we need to follow up with action. The only thing these criminals understand is fear, fear of an all-out working class revolt. It’s perplexing that there are not millions in the streets protesting the criminal bailouts alone. In Europe where people are more in tune with what is happening to them it is already happening, with increasing incidents of outrage and civil disobedience. The other day in Spain there was a general strike with 70% participation. Down with the Conservative Corporate Welfare State!
Abraham Lincoln Rolls over in his Grave
The subtitle of this paper is an updated version of a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln, “government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.” Any honest examination of world history plainly shows that democracy and huge disparities of wealth have never been able to co-exist and over the past 30-40 years of neo-conservatism and their steady funneling of wealth further upward to those who already have most of it, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our democratic institutions. Some of the best recent empirical work in political science has shown that for most people, assuming a viable option, will vote for the party who they perceive is acting in accordance with their economic interests. Many however fall for the proverbial election time rhetoric from the traditional Liberal and Conservative Parties who claim to be votaries of the working class. But they never have been. When they are elected, the working classes are inevitably betrayed. People do care about the real issues that concern them but during election campaigns debate over real issues is tightly controlled and a smoke screen of empty rhetorical phrases such as “family values” and transitory antagonisms over tertiary or irrelevant moral issues such as homosexuality or abortion rights usually dominate. What people really care about is freedom and lack of coercion, peace, meaningful well paying jobs, and government supported universal health care and education. But these vital perennial concerns of the people are shifted aside by those in power and, with the exception of election time demagoguery, always has been the norm. Health care, social security and education are repeatedly underfunded and with the recent economic meltdown and subsequent global depression, are being slowly decimated. In the United States there are efforts afoot to privatize the entire public education system. One begins to believe that our public deficits have been a deliberate contrivance, an excuse to dismantle all things public that serve the common good. The excuse for underfunding is always that there’s no money for these vital concerns – but there’s always money that’s available for corporate bailouts and imperialistic wars, literally trillions that appear seemingly out of nowhere. Big Business preaches laissez faire, informing government to leave them alone – until they face financial difficulties or bankruptcy - and then they run for the government trough. It’s the Nanny State to the rescue. The capitalist dictum of “flourish or die” and the law of the jungle are suddenly abandoned and axioms such as “too big to fail” are invented for public consumption and the real meaning of capitalism as the Conservative Corporate Welfare State is unleashed with full force.
Unfortunately, economic improvements for the vast majority of North Americans over the past three or four decades have been so paltry that they are easily glossed over by cynical manipulations by the sycophantic neo-conservative economists who saturate both the corporate offices and the bureaucracies of our governments. Moreover, since 9-11 people have been distracted even more than the norm from the real domestic issues that deeply concern them by the paranoia and hysteria over terrorist threats, instigated primarily by the propaganda of their own government and its complicit lapdog media. In addition, they are working harder and longer hours for less pay than at any time in the past several decades. The available free time that is so important for personal reflection, examination and discussion of politics and world events, so crucial to the functioning of any legitimate democracy, is often non-existent.
In the United States since the early 1980s, the Democratic Party has largely abandoned its commitment to policies that serve the material interests of most Americans and has joined the Republican Party in a shameless competition for the patronage of large corporations and the superrich. The Democratic Party in 2008 took office after a landslide victory, controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency and was succeeding the most reviled administration and dumbest and most incompetent President in US history. They had an historic opportunity to enact reform with their bully pulpit. They did nothing of the kind. The Republicans could have been banished to the political wilderness for decades. They were not - and have now re-invented themselves under the aegis of half-wit crypto-fascists like Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and the misguided Tea Party movement.
A similar phenomenon exists in Canada with both the Liberal and NDP Parties who have moved dramatically to the political right in recent decades to become effectively indistinguishable from Conservatives. In England, the once social democratic Labor Party has, under Tony Blair, become more conservative and reactionary than the British Conservative Party. Political labels these days have been rendered incomprehensible both by distortions of pundits on both the extreme left and right and by the ideological internal transformations of the parties themselves, no longer resembling what they were 40 or 50 years ago. These are disturbing trends. Here at home in British Columbia the provincial Liberal Party under the regressive labor bashing boozer Gordon Campbell does not in any way resemble classical liberalism and is in fact a hard right wing corporatist conservative entity that wants to privatize everything and anything in the Universe. Any human endeavor, according to the crass materialist philistine Campbell, is not worthy of our consideration unless someone somewhere is making a profit. Campbell’s mean-spirited Bill 29 (later declared a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights by the Supreme Court of Canada after years in the courts at a cost to Canadian taxpayers of $350,000,000) was designed to crush the labor unions - precisely what Hitler did in Germany during the 1930s after gaining power. Hitler just went to the next logical step by declaring unions, including the Communist Party and other leftist intellectual movements, illegal. Campbell ought to have been forced to resign over this incident in addition to host of other sordid incidents.* But the right wing corporate newspapers and television outlets that are nothing but platforms and dupes for the Fraser Institute and Campbell’s neo-con administration, saw fit to not cover the disgraceful scandal. My sister-in-law, in her mid-fifties, lost her career over this medieval legislation.
*Piss tank Gordon Campbell was arrested for a DUI in Hawaii a few years back following a drunken binge but our corporate media saved his butt by their refusal to censure him. It was just a minor indiscretion and he ought to be forgiven, they claimed.
Add to pervasive systemic corruption and attacks on working people, the complexities of the proven power of campaign spending to influence election outcomes (political scientist Larry Bartels in his Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age has calculated that each additional dollar spent per voter by a candidate increases the probability of a given undecided voters support by almost four percentage points), and it is easy to see that the average citizen has no hope of preserving what interests he has left, whether they pertain to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. We now hold our noses and cast our inconsequential ballots for a political party whose candidate is invariably a multi-millionaire business tycoon or corporate lawyer; then, disgusted with the inevitable betrayals, delude ourselves into thinking there exists a redeemer from one of the opposing parties that will rescue us from the duplicity of politics and history, only to repeat the gloomy cycle once again.
To add to the exacerbation and frustration, most citizens are fully absorbed in their personal affairs, oblivious and largely ignorant of the veritable details of history, politics and governance. Both spouses usually work to pay the mortgage and feed the family, often working long hours at multiple low-paying jobs. Moreover, they are distracted by a plethora of conservative bias, omissions, distortions, propaganda, mindless patriotism and religiosity and outright lies from an Orwellian corporate dominated news media and their seemingly endless anti-intellectual mind-numbing diversions like Jerry Springer, Survivor, American Idol and Oprah. As the late great social critic and educator Neil Postman declared in the title of one of his books, we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. We are presently so very far from the classical liberal ideal of participatory democracy, of exercising political agency, community and engagement in mutual aid and civic virtue for the common good, that, incapable of pursuing even narrow self-interest effectively, we instead offer ourselves up as impotent, credulous and obsequious dupes, the raw material for special interests many barely understand. The genuine social critics who have been telling the truth about ourselves and our governments for decades (for those willing to make the effort to seek them out) such as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn, have been marginalized and effectively muted by the mainstream media, now controlled by a half-dozen multi-national mega-corporations that fortify and finance the rulers of the conservative corporate welfare state. In the recent bailouts in the US and Europe there was released, seemingly out of thin air, $14 trillion in government welfare for larcenous banks and financial speculators but nothing for the people, many who were their victims of these greedy financial con men and who have lost both their jobs and homes. But the disastrous imperialistic wars and same old failed economic policies continue unabated, as if nothing had happened. The recent farcical G-20 conference in Toronto which cost the Canadian taxpayers $1 billion did nothing but incite a disgusting confrontation with peaceful protestors in order to justify depicting them as uncontrollable thugs, beating them with truncheons and tossing them in jail. Welcome to the Stephen Harper version of the George W Bush fascist police state. The plutocratic faith-based dogmatists who attended the conference refused to entertain any changes to the failed economic model and policies that pushed the global economy into a bottomless pit. They changed nothing and solved nothing. The only way to describe their refusal to examine evidence and learn from past experience is flagrant stupidity.
However, as we have witnessed recently, the political ruling class expresses itself in grossly unmistakable terms by exposing the true nature of our political economy and who the real owners are. First were the ongoing multi-trillion dollar government bailouts in 2008 of villainous banks and financial pirates throughout the United States and Europe who brought the global economy to its knees, resulting in a vicious recession from which there appears to be no way out – certainly not with the doctrinaire neo-conservative half-wits continuing to call the shots. This is the most shameful and outrageous lesson in history to date, a lesson that has demonstrated how the world of politics actually works and whose interest government serves. That ought to be obvious even to the most uninterested observer. Then, last January, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court proclaimed that restrictions on independent corporate expenditures in political campaigns are unconstitutional infringements on the freedom of speech. As a recent Harper’s Magazine article pointed out, much of the judicial literature on the subject, including Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United, simply substitutes the words “speech” and “speak” for the words “spend” and “buy.” Corporations, according to the court’s majority faction, are speakers, real persons who have constitutional rights. When they spend, they speak. Kennedy admits that favoritism and influence can result from campaign spending but he numbs our moral sensibilities when he asserts that far from being objectionable or avoidable, favoritism and influence are the essence of representative politics, that it is right and natural that a representative should favor certain “voters and contributors.” Hail to the chief! Indeed, he continues, “it is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.” With admirable frankness if less than impeccable logic, Kennedy equates not only the act of spending money with speech but also the act of making a campaign contribution with voting. The idea of corruption resulting from the quid pro quo of contribution for legislation troubles him not one iota. “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore,” he repeats, as if a lie may be converted into truth by mere reiteration, “will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
If, following the disgraceful bailouts, there were still any doubts about what sort of government we live under, Kennedy’s opinion should lay them to rest. Indeed, civic virtue has now completed its centuries-long metamorphosis from the republican ideal of the free citizen/ruler to the degraded economic norm of the atomized consumer buying on credit; virtue for us is no more than shopping until you drop and a flawless credit rating. This explains the Wall Street trepidation of a credit crisis because it threatens consumerism, the very foundation of what John Q Public has become. The more abstract, immaterial and financially abstruse our commercial activities and investment vehicles, the more virtuous they become; corporations, fictional beings and human Frankenstein’s of pure greed and amorality, predicated on our collective fantasies, are now the highest expression of political will.
Corporations are evolving under judicial legislation the perfect, immortal citizen/rulers of our capitalist democracy, a virtual republic in which all political speech is marketing and all real citizens are cannon fodder for the corporate mill.
It is a curious metaphysical doctrine, is it not? Corporations are artificial beings, androids theoretically immortal, which come into existence like Gods by means of state charters and reproduce like amoebas by splitting into subsidiaries; mediated by lawyers, they combine in bizarre mating rituals called mergers; they are owned, like slaves, by shareholders who buy and sell their chattel daily; and they possess constitutional rights. Oddly, however, our corporate citizens are denied the right to vote, thus their coercive lobbies. By what logic can a corporation be granted personhood and the constitutional right to speak money, yet be denied the constitutional right to vote? How can our system permit these corporate persons to be enslaved through ownership? Does not the force of all logic and morality require us either to deny the personhood of corporations, or to grant them the right to vote and to free them from slavery? If we insist on maintaining their status as persons, at least let us give ourselves the power, if they commit serious crimes against property, to incarcerate corporations or invoke the death penalty. If we could, Goldman Sachs, AIG and Bank of America would be lined up for the firing squad.
Given the bizarre First Amendment metaphysical nonsense to which a majority of US Supreme Court justices subscribe, it is obvious that mere campaign-finance reform is a non-issue, notwithstanding President Obama’s pious rhetoric following the Citizens United verdict. It seems only a matter of time and legal manipulation before all limits to political expenditures are erased in the name of free speech; the radical doctrines of the Roberts Court admit no foreseeable limit. Even so, the Republican Party and its ideological driven lawyers in the Federalist Society may yet have reason to regret their determined advocacy on behalf of the money-equals-speech heresy. Obama outspent McCain two-to-one during the last election, and there is no reason to believe that all or even most corporate spending this time around will be ultimately channeled to the party of Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and the Tea Party. But hold on! Democrats are likely to benefit as much or more than the G.O.P., even after Kennedy, Scalia, et al. finally get their chance to liberate flesh-and-blood persons, especially that wise and judicious one percent who wish to make their money speak, from the fetters of financial censorship and disenfranchisement. As Obama’s purported reforms, in health care no less than in finance, have demonstrated, the Democrats have made certain that their contributors will secure enviable returns on their political investments. Citizens United is not the root cause of America’s troubles but merely underscores the essential character of a failed democracy.
Republican political theorists have traditionally recognized the centrality of economic class in politics and in the design of stable republican institutions. Past republics, in antiquity and in the Renaissance, were particularly concerned about restraints on the power of the wealthy and preventing them from dominating the institutions of government. Historically, it has been the audacity, arrogance and craving for inordinate share of power by the wealthy that has led to the decline of great republics, not the revolutionary or leveling fervor of the working classes, who just primarily long for social justice and fairness and the freedom to pursue their own passions, projects and life styles.
It is quite justifiable for the rich to pursue their own interests; what is not legitimate is the current exclusion of all other interests from the machinery of the state. A constitutional amendment establishing public financing of elections would be an obvious and reasonable first step toward correcting this imbalance, as would an amendment stripping corporations of their rights as persons. Even better would be a convention, in which we might attempt to introduce new constitutional mechanisms designed to more equitably distribute access to political deliberation. Admittedly, however, the prospects for a constitutional remedy appear remote. Is it possible that the majority of Americans whose interests are not being served have no political will? This doesn’t seem possible; ordinary people desperately want change but are simply too preoccupied with the stresses and excessive time commitments of work and looking after a family.
Although we have often benefited from the activities of public-spirited individuals, even men and women of great wealth who recognize that greed is a sordid moral flaw that is sadly the driving force that motivates most business people and, unless controlled and mitigated, more often than not leads to perverse outcomes. In addition to its dreadful failure in solving world poverty, greed and selfishness are capitalism’s fatal flaws. The United States Constitution was emphatically not founded on the assumption that either citizens or magistrates could be trusted to act selflessly and impartially. If my arguing points can be taken as a call to civic virtue, it is only so within the modern realist framework devised by Madison and his colleagues in 1787, according to whom government is a response to humanity’s seemingly inherent moral shortcomings. Oddly they don’t consider the often more serious moral shortcomings of those in power, a power that many of them covet. It’s my personal anarchical view that the state in all its various forms, including so-called representative constitutional democracies, is like all other hierarchical systems. States are fundamentally oppressive, undemocratic and ultimately become controlled by small self-serving power hungry conservative elites. Consequently they do not work for the majority of people. As expressed in the insightful 1952 movie Viva Zapata, even when a people’s revolution is successful, it eventually descends into this condition, unless the failed model for democracy is changed. Most ordinary people just want to be left alone and are not interested in wielding power over others. But how do we find people to lead and serve as ethical icons who understand power as entailing a profound moral responsibility?
After reading dozens of volumes on ethics and political philosophy, my own political understanding is that government and the state do not work for the vast majority. When it comes to self-government and face-to-face direct democracy, small scale Anarchism seems the only option and is suggested by the exceptional John Steinbeck screenplay of Viva Zapata. Steinbeck’s script for the film is quite consistent with historical fact since Emiliano Zapata, played magnificently by Marlon Brando in the movie, was very much influenced by anarchist ideas introduced in Mexico by people like Ricardo Flores Magón. People are not saints, angels or devils because there are no such entities. So a proper call to civic virtue, mutual aid and the common good are not utopian exhortations that citizens cast aside their private self interested projects and embark on a course of austere self-sacrifice and political action, with their eyes fixed on some transcendent public good apart from their own. We don’t need martyrs, but people aware of the deficiencies of modern representative democracy and the elitist forces and their power of money that are presently controlling and destroying it.
No, what is required if there is a will to preserve representative democracy, is that people take a stand on behalf of their own class interests and against those of the monopolies and transnational corporations that have captured our institutions of government. The paradoxical character of our institutional corruption is that the people have become slothfully uncurious, uncritical and anti-intellectual, atomized, detached and far too absorbed by their ephemeral amusements, distractions and petty cultural disputes to assert their own self-interest against the conservative elites and corporate plunderers who rule and exploit them. This, of course, is what the conservative elite’s and plutocrat’s who control the state, history, education curriculums, the readily available knowledge for mass consumption and the media, want.
Surely, however, the American people have not become so obsequiously servile and defeatist that they will forever submit to the rule of one percent. Surely we are capable of recognizing that the perverse corporate regime that has hijacked so much of our public wealth and fragile democracy is a criminal act of epic proportions. Our Constitution or Bill of Rights unquestionably recognizes the right of a people to alter its mode of government; we have done it many times before. Nothing other than our will stops us from doing so again. We must throw off the shackles of the conservative corporate welfare state and provide new safeguards under a genuine democratic system, above all for the future security of our children and grandchildren.