Farewell to Democracy?


As recent events demonstrate so dramatically, the spirit of democracy, the universal impulse to self-government and equality, lives on and thrives, generating mass uprisings against autocratic domination, even in areas where democracy has heretofore had little purchase. However, the reach of global capitalism and the burgeoning debt crisis impose overwhelming constraints and an essentially subaltern status on most late-comers to democratic development. Given also the effective monopoly on armed force of autocratic governments, institutionalized misogyny, the potential divisiveness of ethnic nationalisms and repressive religions among the popular forces, and the consequent fragility of civil society, it is not clear in the early Twenty-First Century that even the most robust democratic institutions will be able to maintain themselves. Still, if unbridled optimism is hardly in order, hopefulness is certainly possible.

However, in the traditional heartland of democracy–Western Europe and its offshoots–the long, world-changing democratic upsurge appears to be coming to an end. After three hundred and fifty years of advance, the counter-revolution is well under way, and there do not appear to be any long-term countervailing forces moving to successfully oppose it. In any event, my concern here is chiefly with the United States, where democratic decline is more advanced, and seemingly unstoppable, than anywhere else in the democratic world. To see how and why this has come about, we have to briefly trace the progress of modern democracy both generally, and in the U.S. in particular.

Historically the rise of representative democracy has been a story of two symbiotic movements. First is the progressive broadening of the scope of active citizenship; of the notion of democratic consent, of every person to count for one, and no person for more than one. We can begin that story at many points, but the Leveller spokesman Thomas Rainsborough’s revolutionary defense of universal manhood suffrage at the Putney Debates is as good a starting point as any:  “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.” What is more interesting perhaps is the reply of Cromwell’s son-in-law, Ireton, that “no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” Despite the fact that Ireton’s argument was that of conventional opinion for almost three centuries thereafter, during that period there were only advances in the extension of suffrage, as workers, peasants, the poor, the unemployed, ex-slaves, immigrants in general and immigrants from colonies of European empires, indigenous peoples, and finally women joined the polity, culminating with the Swiss women’s suffrage referendum in 1971. In all that time until now there has not been a single case of suffrage permanently denied, nor a single case in which suffrage once granted has been withdrawn. Only in the ex-Slave States of the United States was suffrage once extended temporarily rolled back, but this was forcibly imposed by the losers of the Civil War.

This movement, moreover, has entailed not just the universalization of voting rights and the civil liberties consequent on their attainment, but their extension, in more or less attenuated forms, beyond the ballot box. In the constitutionalist and Federalist United States, which through most of the democratic era has been a leader in this progression, this has meant the proliferation of levels of elected officialdom, the ultimate accountability of both governmental and non-governmental entities to elected officials, the right to a jury of one’s peers, the various rights of speech, petition,  and association guaranteed by the First Amendment, and above all the right of workers to organize, to strike, and to picket peacefully. With variations here and there, this has been a story of steady advance. Only in the Communist sphere was representative democracy rolled back, but always, tellingly, in the name of some more pure form of democracy, as in the people’s democracies. And after the fall of Communism, the so-called transition to democracy in that sphere has in most cases been to a more democratic polity than existed earlier. On its Continent of origins and colonial off-shoots, the democratic movement was in principle unopposable: only the Fascists succeeded in governing, briefly, in the name of anti-democracy.

The second trajectory of progress has meant incorporation of the economic realm–the potentially anarchic arena of capitalist accumulation–into the notion of democracy, in recognition that formal political opportunity may be and probably will be empty in the absence of economic rights. The regulatory welfare state, or social democracy, is not some gratuitous add-on to political democracy, but rather the culmination of the democratic movement in its liberal, representative version. It constitutes a partial transcendence of oligarchical capitalism: the admission of persons without capital into not just formal political citizenship but at least some of the possibilities of equal citizenship. In the polity of citizens, everybody counts for one, nobody for more than one, so that at least occasionally voters rather than dollars constitute the majority. Thus the extension of the rule of law to encompass governance over the destructive powers of the free market for labor has often been the most important arena of all for the protection of democratic citizenship [1] If the dogma of the market rules over all, there can be no democratic political equality: One law for the Lion & Ox is oppression.

To be sure, this cursory invocation of democratic progress is an over-simplification: a prescription as well as a description, though a prescription grounded in the actual history of popular demands. Democracy has hardly been everywhere or even anywhere triumphant. The arc of its development, always at least a slow advance, has also always been a struggle, a creation slowly–at times very slowly–in the making. The conventional story that capitalism and democracy arose together, and that the latter was the precondition of the former, is just that: a story–a story that with the rise of China’s authoritarian capitalism has lost all credibility. The two movements were certainly coterminous; but they were often opposed, not happily entwined. Except in the United States the demand for universal suffrage has been everywhere resisted by capital. Even more crucially, from Peterloo through Adalen or Republic Steel, the class conflict of capital against labor has been a history of violent repression even in the capitalist democracies; and perhaps most brutally in the U.S. But the Postwar settlement of the 1950’s–the compromise that traded acceptance of welfarism for the exclusion of Communism in Europe (and of any radicalism in the U.S.)–ended that version of conflict. It presided over what momentarily seemed liked the final acceptance of the Western working classes into full citizenship–although in most of Europe and certainly in the U.S., far from equal participation in rule with corporate power.

This actually existing regime, then, has two defining characteristics that render it less than simply a democracy. First, though the lawmakers are freely elected they have a source of power distinctly separate from those to whom the laws are addressed and on whose behalf they are nominally made; and second, though the state is not merely its police force or public relations agency, capital usually calls the tune and a culture of secrecy consequently envelops the state. Properly such a regime should be called not simply a democracy nor a representative government, but rather a “representative oligarchy.”2

In the practice of representative oligarchy, the sovereignty of the people exists, but only notionally. Though the de jure rulers in the United States are not rulers in virtue of wealth or economic power, the de facto rulers are, because no one can become a ruler without their support and approval. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the U.S. regime has not always been one simply of oligarchy, representative or otherwise. Rather, over the past three centuries capitalist economies and democratic or quasi-democratic political institutions have in fact developed side by side. This is a case not of mutual support, but rather of a very fragile and often temporary compatibility. The result is that in any capitalist society oligarchy and democracy coexist in a barely concealed struggle for dominance. As long as free and fair elections exist–a circumstance no longer to be taken for granted in the U.S.–so does the potential for majority representation. As long as capital is amassed in the hands of a minority, so does the potential for oligarchy; for the offsetting or overcoming of votes by money. Where the determining power of voting and thus of political party conflict  is extinguished we call the result oligarchy; where money cannot buy votes or more importantly policies, there is representative government, the modern version of democracy.

What determines the balance of the opposed forces at any historical juncture is a question that is not easy to answer, for it is not self-evident exactly what is at stake. Just as the ideology of political democracy was triumphant for more than three centuries, so too was the ideology of capital accumulation. Fascism challenged it not at all; Communism only to the extent of asserting that a classless society would be more efficient at achieving the universal goal of economic progress. Neo-Malthusians and communal anarchists aside, even in the midst of intra-capitalist warfare no one doubted that capitalism (or its Communist successor) would ultimately be a material cornucopia (especially in the U.S.). Both authoritarian and liberal capitalisms had the boom-bust crises that Marx described, but these were supposedly endogenous to the system: an institutional or political but not a natural limit. As for the pre-capitalist world, it existed almost entirely (Japan aside) as a source of loot; not as a competitor in the race for production and profits. After World War II, global capitalism meant little more than the North exploiting the South (or the West the East).


Now all that has changed. With the coming energy crisis, the onrush of climate change, and the development of full-scale capitalist production in much of what was once the Third [or Second] World, the regime of accumulation through exploitative competition is for the first time truly global and foreseeably finite. What Lenin described as the labor aristocracy of the imperialist nations, its standard of living supported by exploitation abroad, can no longer feel secure about its relative place in the world. Instead it is just one participant in the “race to the bottom”–a race in which China’s ability to extract absolute surplus value from oppressed workers stands as a shining example to capitalists everywhere. As though to underline a reality that the commentariat prefers to ignore, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was followed by the abolition of all Ba’athist legislation: except for the outlawing of unionization in the dominant public sector–including the nationalized oil industry–which the American occupiers left in force. Capital’s class war knows no boundaries. Nor can labor’s domestic regimes offer it much protection even if they so desired, as the requirements of the international capitalist class, enforced by institutions such as the World Bank and the I.M.F., are sharply at odds with the traditional modes of state protection or regulation. In this situation, then, the working class–any working class–is disposable; and the political parties that it once identified with are all either dead or dying. In the United States, e.g., where the role of wealth is much more transparent than in most European economies, this year corporate donations flow to the G.O.P., whereas two years ago they flowed to the Democrats. But it’s the same money from the same sources doing the same job of ensuring support for their comparative position–but most definitely not that of their workers–in a hyper-competitive world. Even the debate over “out-sourcing” has become irrelevant, as capital relocates itself to wherever labor is most exploitable.

Moreover, the nature of representative oligarchy today is such that  policy differences have narrowed almost to the point of non-existence; or where they do exist, as in say the field of financial re-regulation, the economic power of the sector that is supposed to be regulated ensures that no Party will really do that job, or even discuss how it might be done best. Everyone knows this; and everyone who pays attention also knows the material outcome of the inequality squeeze. Put simply, the wealthy won’t pay for public goods or collective welfare, and the declining middle class can’t. To take but one of many examples: the aging of the population is a pending demographic and policy disaster, yet the only approach ever discussed publicly is the destructive idea of cutting back or worse, privatizing social security–presumably so it can share the same visible fate as private pension-dependency and home ownership.

That is to say, democracy has always been heavily contested terrain, and the balance of power has not always or even most of the time favored it. Still, more democracy, the drive for political equality, has always been high on the agenda of popular movements.3 Now, this description is seriously questionable. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the condition of democracy in the United States has changed drastically. What is new at this historical juncture is that representative oligarchy itself only barely mimics the institutions of representation. The American polity is foundering in a perfect anti-democratic storm created by, in combination, a depth of inequality that appears unyielding to any prescription and that is maintained by a sclerotic political system; a state that can be mobilized only for self-destructive imperial adventures; a dangerously irrational subset of the citizenry fed toxic propaganda by an hypertrophied mass media; and a financial plutocracy that seems to have outreached all possibilities of containment. If this tendency continues, democracy will become less a contested terrain and more a land of myth and legend.

Today, everywhere in the West the unstoppable mass migrations of labor and the popular response to them call into question the very foundation of the democratic revolution. Anti-immigrant activity (often aimed at long-time citizens), has set its face against the last frontier of inclusion, and the present constellation of U.S. politics suggests the prospect that millions of law-abiding residents will be permanently excluded from the polity (many of them incarcerated for long periods of time in a secretive prison system). In the same vein the classic reactionary turn against “internal enemies” is again unleashed: now against Muslims, in the name of preventing “terrorism”: the new version of “Communism,” and even more menacing for its very abstraction. Resistance to the full acceptance and integration of both groups is the final, potentially unbreachable barrier against the centuries-long democratic surge.

As for broadening and deepening the nature of citizenship, the advance of financial and corporate power in the US and of central bank finance in the Eurozone signal the end of that process as well. Most policies relevant to the structural continuation of globalized capitalism cannot possibly be set in legislatures except as rubber stamps–capital desires certainty, not uncertainty and risk, and there is no anti-capitalist mass movement anywhere in sight in the Western democracies. Worse yet, both the turn against inclusion and the surrender of democratic agency are made particularly more poignant in the U.S. by the continuation and extension of unchecked American imperialism, 21st Century style. Six years ago I argued that:  “. . . there is no such thing as a democratic empire. . . . The doctrine of permanent warfare that is integral to the new imperial conception [entails that] government establishes itself as (in Charles Tilly’s words) a protection racket based on fear that it itself creates. Moreover, permanent war is not just a doctrine but a reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Empire creates its own violent reaction, out of the volatile mixture of uneven development and consequent cultural rage. As well, the bloated ‘defense’ budgets it demands for its activities abroad make the egalitarian politics of democracy unaffordable at home; and the opacity that oligarchy demands is further entrenched. At the moment, both major American parties are effectively committed to the militarized politics of empire, and seem especially loath to retreat in the face of that reaction.”4

It is not yet clear what impact the newly aroused democratic forces in the Mideast will have on the suddenly obsolescent partnership of the U.S. with its autocratic allies. Still, at the moment the situation is even worse than before, as the decision-making process spirals further out of control, the political economy of unmitigated recession and budget-tightening puts all non-military government activities at risk, thus promising to worsen the poisonous effects of gross class inequality. Indeed, without the sopping-up effects of the behemoth military/private contractor complex and its domestic counterpart the swollen carceral state, as well as the exclusion of many women from the ranks of those conceptualized as seeking work, real unemployment in the United States would be near Depression-era levels. And what of opposition to the imperial state? The coordinated campaign to destroy WikiLeaks is a clear portent. To put it succinctly, in the wake of 9/11 the American politics of endless enemies has turned into endless war (including the proxy wars of Israel, the tail that wags the oil-saturated American dog), producing yet more blowback in the form of yet more enemies. Foreign policy becomes a question of how much the generals will ask for, as the costs of empire spiral beyond redemption and those who can least afford it pay those costs. These are the real political and budgetary trade-offs of imperialism: say farewell to civilian control of the military; civil liberties; and a renewed pursuit of equality of opportunity.5 Beyond this lies something much worse: a people that accepts, as a normal course of events, the bombing of civilians, torture, kidnapping, indefinite detention, assassinations, secret governments at home and covert wars abroad, has lost touch with the moral basis of civil society. In explanation of this state of affairs, it is sometimes suggested that the shock of 9/11 caused the U.S. as a society to “lose its moorings.” Perhaps: but the extent of the delusions and lies that led up to the politically inspired, geopolitically irrelevant, and self-destructive invasion of IraqBan open secret to anyone at all interested–suggests that the moorings were not very tightly tied to begin with.

Thus it isn’t surprising that the fig-leaf populists of oligarchy’s right wing make no attempt to combat the expanding democratic deficit. They have no objection to growing inequality, whether political or economic, racialized or gendered. They care only about their own taxes: a concern which, as its loyal lapdogs, they are perfectly willing to hitch to the runaway wagon of the plutocracy. As well (with some libertarian exceptions), rather than constitute themselves a check on imperial militarism (as earlier populists did at the turn of the 20th Century) they enable it further by stigmatizing as “unpatriotic” any who oppose it.  Rather than extend the arena of participation and access to strengthen the national economy by the mobilization of its human resources, they try to constrict it. Their activism exists only to empower their own ability to choose or defeat candidates for elective office; their ongoing effort to restrict the voting potential of those whom they disfavor is a rare effort to turn back the clock in latter-day democratic societies. As for opposition to “big government,” this has always and only referred to extensions of the social safety net, of the possibilities of truly equal opportunity, never to the bigness of militarism and empire; let alone “the enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled intervention” that made the free market for labor possible.6

Similarly, its goal is not to bring bureaucracy under popular control via the extension of workplace or community activism,  but rather to eliminate or weaken those efforts, further entrenching the economic power of the forces that work to permanently replace democracy with oligarchy; and to enfeeble the democratic elements of the polity in the face of worldwide competition (much of it from U.S.-owned corporations). Indeed, the organizations it most despises are those that attempt to defend or extend the civil liberties, civil rights, and policies for equal opportunity, that lie at the heart of political equality. The program of cutting taxes, shrinking government, and destroying public education during a time of gross inequality has everything to do with the protection of self-interests and nothing to do with the recognition or advancement of that immense number of Americans who live in poverty, or one paycheck away from it; who are subjected to workplace tyranny; and who are effectively excluded from democratic participation. In every way imaginable, the Right opposes both the inclusiveness and expansiveness that characterized the last three centuries of democratic advance. It is not coincidental that its two great avatars, Thatcher and Reagan, confirmed their political position by breaking strikes.

In this respect there has been much confusion on the Left in the U.S. about the meaning of contemporary populism, as in Tea Party revanchism, most of whose major spokespersons are committed and professional liars or ignoramuses. As though either to retain a tottering optimism or to explain the actions of what is supposed to be a democratically inclined populace (“we elected Obama, after all”), uneasy apologists for the new populists talk about “frustration,” and “mass unemployment,” and the failure of the Obama Administration to deal adequately with the wretched state of the economy. But however true, this is an explanation without an excuse. The continued defection of the Democratic Party from its working-class base may explain the short-run shift in voting patterns in the mid-term elections of 2010, but it has nothing to do with the leaders and activists of the Right-wing movement. Nowhere on the activist Right, that is, does one see the face of deprivation, of exclusion from the polity. On the contrary, these activists encountered no systemic obstacles at all as they stormed the barricades, meeting only the kind of mass media coverage that has become their best recruiting tool. Thus though it may have originated as a spontaneous movement of people (this is very doubtful), the Tea Party entered the electoral arena and remains as a movement of money.8 Some of its troops may be among the permanently unemployed, but overwhelmingly those of whom that is true have not joined the Right. Why would they? The hatred and contempt visited by these “populists” not just on so-called “elites” or public servants but on any powerless persons who deviate from their conception of goodness; and their vindictive collaboration, once in office, with its all-out class warfare–raising taxes on the poor while cutting them for the wealthy–speak for themselves.

That is, this populist Right is transparently not about material suffering or social exclusion, or the state, whose benefits it happily accepts for itself.  It is about Power. Its primary frustration, expressed over and over in interviews with journalists, is that someone else governs according to some other public philosophy: this is unacceptable. It rejects the foundational values of democracy: that winning elections and only winning elections conveys legitimacy on government; and more crucially, that the legitimacy of winning elections entails, equally, the legitimacy of losing them. Instead, the Right’s angry voice is the voice of unreason, of not accepting the truth of any proposition it wishes not to believe in; and its strongest desire is not to express itself in, but rather to end, the reasoned debate on which democracy depends. Thus under its aegis a large part of “the people” has turned against the discourse of reason: the very essence, both politically and epistemologically, of democracy. How else can peaceful majority rule or even democratic revolution take place, policies be chosen in place of other policies, leaders be preferred to other leaders, except under the aegis of rational argument?7 In its absence, only force or fraud can rule. In this respect, not only is reason the language of democracy, but democracy itself, however dependent for its origination on exceptional moments, and however incoherent in its instantiations, is the politics of reason.. As the combined attack on science and public education continues unabated, lies dominate and democracy withers.

The proper name for this movement is neither conservatism nor populism, but Authoritarian Populism: the guise fascism takes in liberal democracies. Huey Long’s remark that if fascism comes to the U.S. it will come in the name of democracy seems finally apt. The purpose of the authoritarian populists is not to preserve democracy from the intensifying class warfare of corporate and plutocratic wealth, but to overthrow both liberalism and representative democracy while hijacking the democratic language of “the people” and “equality.”9 The emotive language that the Right’s spokespersons use–real men, the real nation, “taking it back,” along with the fetishization of guns and violence, is the vocabulary of classical fascism. In the US this takes the specific form of substituting anti-governmental agitation for representative government; denouncing any version of constitutionalism that both enables the majority to govern and protects minority rights; and in many cases advocating a public religiosity that is close to theocracy. Politically, this means not simply running for election against incumbents, which is the normal democratic process; but first discrediting them as illegitimate decision-makers, unless they carry out the will not of elected representatives and those who voted for them but of the dedicated minority, to whose dogmas and fanaticism they must at least give lip service. Even more, as has become clear in the behavior of the Republican Party, it entails attempting to prevent its elected opponents from governing at all: not to mention issuing barely concealed calls for violence, as in the wake of health care reform, unregulated immigration, or legalized abortion. The pseudo-populist movement culminates in the unabased attempt of the GOP to disenfranchise millions of low-income Americans in the name of an invented threat of “voter fraud”–the first attempt to repeal universal suffrage in modern history. As though illustrating the psychoanalytic concept of projection, the Right treats its opponents’ legitimate electoral or legislative victories as seizures of power, calling for violent self-defense against imaginary enemies.

At the same time, the forces of irrationality and impotent rage are not going to go away, for the response of authoritarian populists to the conjuncture of a never-satisfied demand for political equality and apparently irresistible institutional decline is perfectly logical: sweep the pieces off the board and change the rules of the game so that the unpleasantness of not being history’s chosen winners will simply vanish. Redefine the real world into a fantasy world, in which getting rid of the not-quite-human obstacles to progress–depending on time and place Jews, homosexuals, Mexicans, Gypsies, Communists, liberals, single mothers, women on welfare, whomever–will restore the rightful order of things. As a Seattle man who had assassinated a family he believed were “Communists” told movie-maker Sam Keen, “I’m a skilled welder and I’ve been out of work for two years. It has to be somebody’s fault.” But not that of those who actually disemployed him.10

In a similar vein, though much less dramatically, just before the 2010 midterm elections New York Times reporter Matt Bai wrote sympathetically of a Tea Party activist who became a vigorous opponent of “socialism” and “statism” while visiting Poland, where he saw the government lay off 20,000 auto workers. It didn’t occur to the reporter or his subject that this happens all the time in the United States–except that giant corporations, not “the government,” are responsible for such layoffs (and in fact Tea Party spokespersons are all for laying off masses of government employees!). Marx’s epigrammatic comment, in Wage Labor and Capital, that “battles in [the industrial war of capitalists among themselves] are won less by recruiting than by discharging the army of workers,” is unknown to both of them. In this respect the most well-known spokespersons of the Right no more wish to invade or diminish the prerogatives of the upper class or the leaders of finance than do Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman. This is the economic elite that looted public and private pension funds while complaining about welfare cheats and Medicare frauds; who lobby for giant tax breaks and subsidies and avoid paying their own taxes, all the while complaining about the deficit. A daily reading of The New York Times Business Section of The Wall Street Journal over any period of time reads like a police blotter and makes quite clear that contemporary American plutocracy is a kleptocracy as well, giving new meaning to the old saw: “The law locks up the man or woman/who steals the goose from off the common/but lets the greater villain loose/who steals the common from the goose.”11 This is the real “Tea Party.”

This perfect concordance is what makes this modernized version of fascism, once an historical oddity of the transition to democracy, now its most serious contestant for power. The populists provide a fig-leaf cover for oligopoly and finance capital, which in turn underwrites their fruitless dream of political power while pursuing its own barely hidden and steadily advancing agenda of institutionalizing plutocracy. Unable or unwilling to help create a mass base with those who are truly deprived or persecuted, their search for scapegoats among the latter is logical: who else is available to fill the helpful role of the enemy? This peculiar kind of political logic, in which the least are blamed for the worst, was best described almost a century ago by Wallace Stevens: “I followed his argument/With the blank uneasiness which one might feel/In the presence of a logical lunatic.” The “totalitarian contempt for facts and reality” of today’s counter-revolutionaries, their mass hysteria (e.g., the “Birthers”) their fixation on fanatical religiosity or free-market mythology, is precisely the affair of logical lunatics: who cannot be argued with because they have not made a serious argument. And with their numbers, entrenched economic power, and ability to dominate public discourse in the absence of a countervailing mass movement  or cross-sectoral solidarity, they can abort any effort to escape the rule of unreason. The continually embarrassing attempt to treat them as just another political movement and the GOP as just another political party, is eerily reminiscent of how the political class and economic elite of Weimar responded to the National Socialists.12

The assault on public reason, moreover, is enabled by and enacted through the final crucial addition to the alliance of authoritarian populism, the plutocracy, and the Republican Party. This is the mediacracy that is more advanced in the U.S. than anywhere else. By “mediacracy” we refer to more than just the corporate oligopoly that has taken over the American public sphere, though the impenetrability of that oligopoly to anything but wealth is horrendous. Primarily centered on the structure and practices of television, mediacracy is a regime in which profit-making, ideological theory, and institutional practice become one, all driven by the same unique vision. The owners of the system–and they are very few–strive to make its version of reality so central to our lives that ultimately it should replace the life-world with itself: so that, for example, “equal  opportunity” has come to mean not so much social mobility through careers open to the talents as, more visibly, victory in the televisual world of “reality shows.” But above all, this is true of the political system, which the mediacracy has thoroughly colonized, ultimately eradicating the former’s traditional values and practices and replacing them with its own. These include the cult of celebrity; the voracious appetite for money; an unyielding preference for the ad and the sound bite in place of the public address and for one-sided propaganda in place of public discussion and debate; and most importantly, an unstated presumption that it–the mediacracy–is the only acknowledged source of “facts” and “truths.”13

It is the mediacracy that plays the decisive role of naturalizing and normalizing the discourse of contempt for reason and intelligence (wanting us to “listen to both sides of the argument” in the presence of shameless lying, or always finding two equal and balancing “extremes,” only one of which engages in violent and anti-democratic rhetoric), while excluding from public space any discussion of social needs, human values, and the shortcomings of surplus inequality that might go beyond the boundaries of ruthlessness on the Right and silence at the Center.14 Among the mainstream media, only in the “Business Section” of The New York Times is there serious coverage of the kleptocracy and its accomplices in the Federal government, or some contemplation of the extent to which the capitalist economy is embedded with moral hazard, as industrialists and bankers flit happily from one rewarding position to another, and their companies get the full protection of bankruptcy law, while workers and ordinary citizens bear all the risks of the  risk society. On crucial issues the gate-keeping function of the mass media is no more a neutral one than, to use Lenin’s notorious phrase, is a pistol in the hands of a policeman.

If we imagine a sort of linear scale of discourse moving from Right to Left, there is a barrier well before we get to serious Left discourse that is no more permeable than the Great Wall of China. Conversely, the rise to predominance of Rupert Murdoch’s–and the GOP’s–Fox News also drives the Rightward drift of most of the conventional mass media. Following the logic of “rational” economic man, they strive–with the honorable exception of MSNBC–to take up the vacant space next to Fox and, consequently, they extend the Chinese Wall even further to the right. In this situation there is almost no lie big enough to be challenged as such by the mainstream media. Nor is the mainstream itself immune to the threat of monopoly. Comcast is now attempting to buy NBC; success in this endeavor will put together a powerful–and in many markets monopolistic–cable provider with a major source of content. It would have the power to block NBC’s competitors from Comcast’s customers, as well as further strangling the independence of a network that already, in its ownership of G.E., can be counted on to ignore or denigrate any critique of the media/corporate order. The more the media oligopoly tightens, the further it narrows the public sphere within which democratic debate is supposed to take place and the more the public sphere is hollowed out. Voices of dissent may appear once or twice; the voices of power are everywhere.

To take just one of what could be endless examples of how an unalloyed even if still faintly competitive mediacracy can build public opinion out of hot air (bricks out of straw), Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker reported that “an illuminating Bloomberg poll, taken the week before the election, found that some two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief program are gone, never to be recovered. . . . Reality tells a different story.”15 Indeed, different in every respect. So the Right’s predilection for ideological warfare over any acknowledgment of scientific fact and empirical knowledge has become the carefully cultivated ignorance of the populace. While the self-protectiveness of the mediacracy edges out any possibility of contrary critique entering the public sphere on equal terms, the big-money propaganda barrage of the Right generates rarely challenged disinformation for anyone listening. What this means most crucially is that the fantasized “liberal bias” of “elites” who supposedly dominate the media comes to be seen as manifesting itself simply by expressing any opinion, or any allegation of fact, that is not that of the organized Right. This bullying, which taken seriously makes the exchange of viewpoints simply impossible, is tacitly accepted as though it were gospel by almost all but hard-and-fast liberals.16 The fundamental notion that a statement may be true even if made by the wrong person, disappears. Closing this vicious circle, there is almost no version of Right discourse that will earn the mainstream media’s uncompromising opprobrium, so that racial, religious, and sexual bigotry are now commonplace in political life, not just in Washington and in Republican-controlled state legislatures, but even among the Party’s presidential hopefuls . Now one of the Right’s most prominent spokesmen can recycle language from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–George Soros the Jew as “puppet-master” of a subversive Jewish conspiracy–without reproof from his employers. Where do we last find such a condition at the center of a polity?


Superficially there is nothing new in all this. There has always been a strong, anti-democratic right-wing in the United States, heavily invested in and crucially undergirded by white racism and anti-immigrant fervor; and at times, as in the alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats, it has been dominant. Too, there have certainly always been crudeness and mendacity in the mediated public sphere. But there have also been periods of democratic resurgence, the most recent–the New Deal–lasting for three decades, and witnessing the high point of union membership as well as the Civil Rights Movement and, at the end of the period, the feminist revolution. Both the rise and the fall have the same cause. The labor actions of the 30’s underwrote the liberal era in the U.S.; the Socialist and Communist parties of the early 20th Century, and the outcome of World War II, produced the social democratic successes in Europe. The post-War settlement seemed like a permanent institution; even Richard Nixon paid homage to it, all the while undercutting its grassroots base with the “Southern Strategy” of Kevin Phillips and Lee Atwater.

But the moment of success was an illusion. In the U.S. that same period was witnessing the decomposition of labor, and the decline of heavy industry and technological innovation as the basis for growth in working-class incomes and capitalist profits. All this entailed deindustrialization: the outsourcing of domestic production, the unprecedented rise of non-productive financialization, and a renewed assault on the working class and its organizations by capital, in order to protect threatened levels of domestic profit. Organized labor was forced to shift more and more to the defensive stance of business unionism, and ultimately relegated primarily to the public sector: where its social status is different and, in the U.S., easily racialized, feminized, and denigrated by white opinion; or perceived–as with teachers’ unions–as self-serving. Though plutocracy has not yet reached Europe, even there labor’s power in France has declined drastically into fitful general strikes that neither produce legislation nor reverse working-class decline, while such bastions of social democracy as Sweden and Germany contemplate–or in the latter case seek to enforce on others–the kinds of anti-welfarist legislation and attacks on the social wage that are commonplace in the U.S. but startling on the Continent. The post-2008 scene has allowed conservatives everywhere “to transform a crisis of the banks into a crisis of the welfare state.”17 As the inhabitants of Europe’s Southern rim especially can testify, the “democratic deficit” of the Eurozone is never too great for capital’s ruling class.

As for the U.S., though the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and feminism have brought about great changes, the contemporary beneficiaries of both the trade-union and Civil Rights movements are now isolated minorities (often the same persons); the only successful war that the U.S. has prosecuted in recent times is the war on African-American men. Meanwhile, feminism has lost much of its constituency, while women’s and children’s welfare needs succumb to political marginalization or–as in the case of authoritarian anti-abortion legislation–all-out misogyny; and prominent women participate in the strident remasculinization of public discourse. Now the conjuncture of failing political and economic structures with a critical mass base wedded to an anti-democratic ideology and institutions that produce and reproduce systemic failure, is over-determined. Any potential coalition trying to recapture public power and reinvigorate political equality simply lacks the resources needed to combat the accrued power of non-state actors. The political system, always hostile to popular government, has been decisively turned against majority rule, the principle of one person one vote. No one who matters, it seems, has the will to frontally challenge this state of affairs. Thus “change” is both the mantra of popular but wholly abstract discourse, and at the same time impossible to achieve in any meaningful degree. In that stasis only the power of oligarchy and plutocracy can be, and are being, advanced.

In short, the power of capital has reached an historical zenith in the contemporary U.S. precisely at the moment when independent state power is at a nadir. As recent events show (if anyone doubted it before), no reformist public policy is possible without the negotiated participation and explicit or tacit approval of the sector whose behavior is to be “reformed.” Whatever Party may have formal power, legislation to control banking monopolies is written to conform to the needs of bankers; energy policy (including nuclear) answers to the energy industry; Big Pharma’s profits must be protected if medical progress, as contemporarily defined, is to continue; any change in health care delivery must primarily deliver profits to the medical/industrial complex; agribusiness sets food policy; environmental legislation must not interfere with the profit levels of industries that challenge environmental integrity. As for confronting the effects of the enduring economic crisis, nothing that threatens the total primacy of capital can be considered. The simplest fix for the grossest inequality of any democratic/capitalist society, progressive tax reform–and tax collection–that might reverse the decades-long redistribution of income to the wealthy, cannot even be discussed.18 Above all, again because of the confluence of big money and an ill-adapted political framework, the American State is unable to perform the first duty of any legitimate regime: regulating the procurement and possession of instruments of deadly violence.

With the devastating triumph of plutocracy in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, and the deliberate repudiation of political equality in its successor case, Alabama Free Enterprise Club vs. Bennett, this condition has reached its apogee. The conservative punditry makes a desperate attempt to prove that nothing has happened, that free speech has been preserved, and anyway some Democrats raised more money than their Republican opponents, and some billionaires with no credentials other than their wealth  were unable to purchase victories in Senate or gubernatorial races. But this is just apologetics: it ignores the fact that the next step in this dance is to defund the Democratic Party through a concerted attack on trade unions, its main source of funds and foot soldiers, particularly in statewide elections. In any event, plutocracy is not simply a matter of who wins elections, though the 2010 midterms actually showed that targeted expenditures are able to purchase seats in the House of Representatives. Rather, access first to the electoral arena itself (not to mention the judiciary) and then to the victors once in office, is purely for sale; the agenda is set long before any election has occurred. Winning votes is a side issue; money talks, all else is whispers.19 “One dollar one vote” replacing “one person one vote,” proclaimed shamelessly by democracy’s enemies in the judiciary, instantiates what we must finally call “representative plutocracy.” Plutocracy is no longer merely one element in a mixed regime along with oligarchy and democracy; it now defines the regime.


Though total cynicism often seems warranted, this has not always been the case. In the U.S. the Wagner Act, precipitated by the great wave of strikes and sit-ins of the mid-30’s, redefined labor relations. The Fair Labor Standards Act did the same for workplace conditions, while establishing what was at the time a progressive minimum wage; the Social Security Act, later in concert with Medicare and Medicaid, changed the lives of most (though not all) working Americans. But since then, the minimum wage has fallen into desuetude. Beyond that, under the aegis of the anti-Communist crusade and working through its political arm in the Republican Party, capital negated the legal liberation of organized labor, so that today union-busting, which rivals pornography as one of the nation’s leading “service” industries, has become the signature issue of Republican-controlled state legislatures. It has gutted the FLSA, turning “OSHA” into a curse word; continually strives to eviscerate Social Security; and despite recent crocodile tears over an alleged plan to roll back Medicare, reveals every moment that that “plan” is actually its deepest desire. That is what happens when reforms stop at the edge of the flood without attempting to cross over it: eventually all that is left of them is a shell of performance that begins to disillusion their supposed beneficiaries, and a declining will to prevent their further submergence. The welfare state in the U.S. never had the depth of its European counterpart; race was always the deadly weapon that limited its scope. But the temporary redefinition of labor relations combined with a minimal welfarist and regulatory state did produce a significant reallocation of national income from capital to labor. In the past several decades that shift has been reversed. Now in the U.S., even more so that in Western Europe, in the wake of headlong privatization and the manufactured debt crisis the welfarist regime has become nothing more than the resistance of an obsolete past against an enfeebled present and an onrushing future: crumbling dikes of social policy that in the U.S. match the crumbling infrastructure of the physical nation and the collapse of state and local governments.20 We are witnessing the degradation of civil society, while the (disproportionately non-White) poor and almost-poor, by the millions, are left to find a place on the scrap-heap.

Of course we do not want to forget that organized resistance to the collapse has finally manifested itself. But it would be a major mistake to confuse resistance with transformative political mobilization, even when, as now in Wisconsin, it inspires mass support.  Against violent oppression, resistance may be a mobilizing tool leading to a general uprising; even non-violent resistance may force the oppressors to withdraw. But against a legitimately elected government, however  plutocratic, oligarchical, or unrepresentative, resistance even when successful makes nothing happen. Its goal is to keep things from getting worse, to preserve rights that have not yet been totally abolished, or simply to express opposition. Worse yet, angry “resistance” is now often the shoe on the other foot; it stands for discrimination and majority tyranny against immigrants, not for the enlargement of the democratic polity.

It is still barely possible for the organized forces of progressiveness in the U.S.–the liberal wing of the Democratic Party chiefly–to overcome their timidity, impotence, and dependence on big money, to the extent that specific situations can be kept from getting worse than they already are; public opinion polling often shows majorities for some progressive reforms. But “public opinion” is not a political force. To countervail against the resources of capital, only a mass movement that through some combination of force and persuasion brings the ruling elite to the table can go beyond palliative reforms and bring about necessary structural changes. That would require an historical mass of political actors confronting the logic of overweening private capital accumulation and the domination of the social world that accrues to it, head-on. Those same actors would have to comprehend that the truism about absolute power tending to corrupt absolutely is as true of economic power as it is of the state; and that the contemporary crisis is the result of top-down class warfare rather than the inordinate demands of subordinate classes. To have any chance of bringing about such a vision, the American Left will have to learn to speak a different language from the reformism that is now its only recourse. The defensive, hectoring language of meliorist liberals who cannot imagine a genuine alternative (“we’re no longer # 1!”) often only fuels nationalistic fury.

In the absence of new understandings, and of a new language that would give those understandings a political context as Marxism once did for the Western working class, a temporary reprieve is the best that can be hoped for. If the democratic forces cannot roll back the reign of unrepentant inequality, as they now appear unable and unwilling to do, then eventually the dam will break and the sea of discontent wash over it. A class “compromise” of what Senator Estes Kefauver once called “horse and rabbit stew” is on hand to do the job. This is the equalitarian stew of one to one: one bloated horse for the wealthy, and one limp rabbit for everyone else.  The promise that the party of plutocracy makes to the masses whose support it solicits as the price of this compromise is not at all purely symbolic, as Thomas Frank has suggested it is in What’s the Matter with Kansas?21 What it is, rather, is relatively costless–it doesn’t cost anything (anything immediately evident, that is) to deprive people of rights, to refuse to govern, to lower taxes so much that nothing different can happen. Along with the psychic income (and access to necessary raw materials) of empire and war, that is what plutocracy promises authoritarian populists: a cheap obedience to their self-assertive and disdainful rage, of whom the already downtrodden are the most immediate target. And since the immediate material costs of contemporary warfare are borne only by a volunteer armed force and mercenary private contractors, widespread disillusion about particular conflicts–even among some on the Right–has not yet translated into a general repudiation of imperial nationalism and a significant reordering of the place of “defense” in budgetary priorities.

From this perspective finally we can see that the critiques of President Obama by disappointed supporters, though all too richly deserved,  miss the historical point. The laboristic liberals who fill in the space marked “Left” on the American political map have nothing to offer a president; they constitute a null set. To insist that if only he, or they, had done this, or that, is to ignore the unhappy facts. To adapt Gunter Grass’s pungent description of German Socialist Party  conferences, The Nation editorial board meetings (for example), “are places where we discuss what would have been the case had the opposite happened.”22 There are two hard truths about this politics of the opposite. First, if it could have happened it probably would have; and second, if it had happened the results would probably not have been very different, because the historical forces actually at work are just that: historical forces at work. Admittedly, nothing is once and for all determined; conservative over-reach may yet breed counter-mobilization. What I have pointed to here does not add up to a prediction; it is merely a projection, with emphasis on the negative forces. But to forestall its realization will not be easy. In this sense, “the arm of criticism cannot replace the criticism of arms. Material force can only be overcome by material force; but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses.”23 At the moment, what has seized a critical mass of Americans is historical amnesia and intellectual vacuity, and an overweening sense of individual and national entitlement. It is not yet clear how this politics of social self-destruction can be halted at the gates.


1. The classic discussion of this movement is Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957). Speaking of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent rise of “the free market” in England. Polanyi wrote that “human society would have been annihilated but for protective countermoves which blunted the action of this self-destructive mechanism. . . . Society protected itself against the perils inherent in a self-regulating market system. . .”; and “the principle of social protection (aimed) at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization. . .” (pp. 76, 132).

2 For an extended version of this argument, see Philip Green and Drucilla Cornell, “Rethinking Democratic Theory: the American Case,” Journal of Social Philosophy, v. xxxvi no. 4 (Winter 2005), 517-535. The paragraph which follows is adapted from that essay.

3. On competing ideologies of democracy and equality in the U.S., see Michael J. Thompson, The Politics of Inequality: a Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America (New York: Columbia, 2007).

4. Green and Cornell, op. cit., 528-29. See Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Reuschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 170-71.

5. See Jonathan Kwitny, Endless Enemies: the Making of an Unfriendly World (New York: Congdon and Weed, 1984); and Chalmers A. Johnson, Blowback:: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, 2004). Anyone who may still believe that the Empire’s enemies aren’t “endless” might read The New York Times’ article by Thom Shanker, “News of the Week in Review,” Dec. 12, 2010, p. 3: “Rare minerals. Food and water. Arable soil. Air-cleansing forests. In the intellectual heart of the American military and policy-making world, these are emerging not just as environmental issues, but as the potential stuff of conflict in the 21st century.” So much for those who scoff at the word “Empire.”

6. Polanyi, op. cit., note 2 above.

8. As Ishmael Reed nicely put it, capturing the true nature of the Tea Party in a nutshell, the belief that “the Tea Party is a grass-roots uprising against Wall Street (is) a curious reading since the movement gained its impetus from a rant against the president delivered by a television personality on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.” The New York Times “News of the Week in Review,” Dec. 12, 2010, p. 10.

7. Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach–“The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice”–places rational debate in the context of class struggle but hardly dismisses it, as my underlining makes clear.

9. On authoritarian populism, see Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: “Mugging,” the State and Law and Order (London: MacMillan, 1978); and Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso Books, 1988).

10. Faces of the Enemy (1987), a documentary for PBS, produced by Bill Jersey and Sam Keen, written and directed by Sam Keen.

11. For current and often little-known examples of plutocracy (and kleptocracy) at work, see the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of The American Interest, especially the section on Plutocracy & Democracy: Law, with articles on the courts, lobbying, and tax evasion.  The best account of the great financial crash, and the criminal activities that led up to it, is Matt Taibbi, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010).

12.  The wonderfully descriptive phrase is Hannah Arendt’s, from The Origins of Totalitarianism, with new Prefaces (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Evans, 1973), p. xiv. For more examples, see Jonathan Schell, “And Now: Anti-Semitism,” The Nation, Dec. 20, 2010, 20-22. But here scholarly footnoting is pointless. Tune in to any television or radio outlet of the Right at any time, and you will soon discover a parallel world of non-factuality.

13. For  lengthier discussions of television’s colonization of the life-world, see Jeffrey Scheuer, The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999) and Thomas de Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), and my own (overly complacent) Primetime Politics: the Truth about Conservative Lies, Corporate Control, and Television Culture (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), especially ch. 4, pp. 121ff.  Overall, the best and most compelling of the many works exposing the real nature of the mass media structure are Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times (New York: New Press, 2000); and Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988). Like my own, both these works have been somewhat overtaken by the ferocity of the contemporary Right’s invasion of the public sphere.

14. For an extended explication of the concept of “surplus inequality,” see Philip Green, Equality and Democracy (The New Press: 2000), pp. 69ff.

15. Hendrik Hertzberg, “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, November 15, 2010, p. 32.

16. On this, one of the grossest of all the Right’s big lies, see Primetime Politics, op. cit., and especially Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media: the Truth about Bias and the News (New York: Basic Books, 2003). Alterman’s as yet uncollected bi-weekly articles in The Nation are an essential compendium of the pernicious nonsense that passes for conventional beliefs about and on the media.

17. Ross McKibbin writing about the Tories in the London Review of Books, 18 November 2010.

18.  None of this happened by accident; billions of dollars have been spent to make it happen. For an indispensable history and analysis, see John Ehrenberg, Servants of Wealth: the Right’s Assault on Economic Justice (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).

19. See Money Talks: Corporate PACs and Political Influence, by Dan Clawson et. al. (New York: Basic Books, 1992).  The authors note (ch. 7, p. 191), that if the determinative influence of corporate PACS and their front organizations disappeared, “they might start running it strictly for the votes.” This one-time definitive account of democracy for sale it is now almost obsolescent in the wake of Citizens United.

20. As is evidenced by the recent establishment of an executive dictatorship in the state of Michigan, everything that past generations of political science graduate students were taught about “state and local government” has about as much relevance to “democracy” today as an institutional analysis of the Hapsburg Monarchy.

21. For an elaboration of this argument, see Philip Green, “Cultural Rage and the Right-Wing Intellectuals,” in Michael J. Thompson, ed., Confronting the New Conservatism: The Rise of the Right in America (New York: NYU Press, 2007), pp. 31-55.

22. To be fair, The Nation–of whose editorial board I am member–is an absolutely necessary source of expose and resistance; see the issue of Dec. 27, 2010, for example, or Johann Hari’s Feb. 21, 2011 report on “The UK’s Left-Wing Tea Party.” But its reach is sadly limited compared to Rupert Murdoch’s.

23. From the “Introduction” to the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.”


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Philip Green: Farewell to Democracy?

By Charles Noble: Goodbye to all that? The Very Uncertain Future of the American Welfare State

By Douglas S. Massey: Race and the Stunted Growth and Rapid Decline of American Liberalism

By Teresa Ghilarducci: The End of Retirement

By Claire Snyder-Hall: “Real Housewives” and the Decline of Civic Virtue

By Stephen Steinberg: The Role of Race in the Devolution of the Left

By Henry Giroux: Neoliberal Politics as Failed Sociality: Youth and the Crisis of Higher Education

By Stephen Eric Bronner: Remembering Fitch: Recollections of a Solitary Syndicalist

By Amy Buzby: Review Essay: Surge Protectors? Two Books on the Iraq War

By Charlie Cray: Anna Grear, Redirecting Human Rights: Facing the Challenge of Corporate Legal Humanity

By Geoffrey Kurtz: George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? Essays and Reviews

By Linda Etchart: Pedro Pérez Sarduy, The Maids of Havana

By John G. Rodwan, Jr: Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic