ZNet, April 16, 2015. “We have very different views of how society should be organized.” So said US President Barack Obama on his recent meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. “I was very direct with [Castro],” Obama added, “that we are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.”
Leaving aside how Obama thinks society should be organized, let’s take a look at how U.S. society actually is organized – at what Noam Chomsky amusingly calls “really existing capitalist democracy, ‘RECD,’ pronounced as ‘wrecked.’” Popular self-rule? The self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy is an ever more transparently plutocratic nation where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than 90 percent of the population and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected officials.” The richest 400 Americans have between them as much wealth as the nation’s bottom half. Six Wal-Mart heirs together possess as much net worth as the bottom 42% of the population. And since wealth is power, as Western political thinkers since Aristotle have long understood, majority public opinion is technically irrelevant in the US today. The most unequal of the world’s rich and industrialized nations by far, the purported model of popular governance is ruled by an “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) that works relentlessly to “take the risk out of democracy” through numerous means that include but go far beyond merely the funding of elections.
You don’t have to be a Marxist, left-anarchist, or other kind of “dangerous radical” to note that popular governance or democracy has been badly trumped by concentrated economic power in the US. In a study released last April and scheduled for publication in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported that U.S. democracy no longer exists. Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2012, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (M. Gilens and B. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” April 9, 2014).
Nobody should be surprised. “We must make our choice,” US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies, hardly a Left radical, noted in 1941: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Or as the “ordinary citizens” I grew up around used to say: “money talks, bullshit walks.”
A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” The story contained a link to an interview in which Gilens explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”
It’s not about “big government” versus “the free market.” It’s about who government and indeed society serves: the wealthy corporate and financial Few and its endlessly selfish, accumulation-addicted agenda or the working class majority and the common good.
Society? As far as many of the money masters are concerned, the right wing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got it right. “There is,” the Iron Lady said, “no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families…. people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves…People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” The comment applied to the poor and working classes, not the fat cats. It exempts the wealthy few who regularly look to government entitlements to help protect and serve their obligation to fill their pockets (a topic to which I shall return later in this essay) even as they insist in the names of fiscal discipline and personal responsibility that benefits and protections for the poor and the working class majority be slashed
“Fighting Inside the 40-Yard Lines”
Obama is well adapted to the cold authoritarian reality of RECD. His policy has consistently served elite corporate and financial interests. In December of 2013, he advanced some revealing reflections before some friends atop the US capitalist class at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries,” Obama mused, “the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.” As the left, actually socialist writer Danny Klatch commented, “It was a touching ruling class moment. At a time of bitter partisan warfare in Congress and frequent mudslinging by business executives, a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president and realize that they really aren’t so different after all. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties – that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.”
It goes back to the beginning of his presidency and before. Obama rode a wave of popular and progressive hope and the promise of universal health care into the White House as the nation fell into the Great Recession, itself caused to no small extent by the nation’s leading giant and arch-parasitic financial institutions. He had Democratic majorities in both the US House and the US Senate and majority working class US population that was deeply angry at nation’s wealthy elite, which, understood as the literal top 1 percent, owned more wealth than almost all of the rest of the nation. What did Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress deliver? The venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider put it well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it” (emphasis added). And little to spend on the rest of us, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” left to ask “where’s my bailout?”
Bamboozled “progressives” were foolishly “disappointed.” Left critics (including this writer) and Obama himself had long given abundant warnings that the silver-tongued champion of “Hope” and “Change” (also corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign key words in 1992) was just another corporate-imperial neoliberal Democrat wearing false rebels’, fake-progressive clothes. Obama always understood very well that Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” applied only to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of government that represent past popular victories and protect the poor and broad populace against poverty, insecurity, and oppression. The “right hand of the state” – the parts of government that distribute wealth and power upward, fight wars abroad, and punish and imprison the poor and working class – are to remain well-fed.
How sad to hear Raul Castro declare in Panama his “admir[ation]” for Obama and to describe the president as “an honest man” whose supposedly good “behavior has to do with his humble origins” (this after Castro actually apologized to Obama for recounting the history of US imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean). Not a good sign.
From Shadow to Dark Enveloping Cloud
The fact that majority opinion on numerous key issues stands to the left of the Democratic Party’s “40 yard line” is technically irrelevant in U.S. politics, which the great American philosopher John Dewey reasonably described in 1931 as “the shadow cast on society by business.” Eighty-four years later, Dewey’s characterization seems mild: corporate and financial power is more like a deadly vapor that has seeped into the pores of US politics, culture, and society, poisoning even private experience and consciousness. As Chomsky noted after the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”
Among the many areas in which U.S. public opinion is far more egalitarian and social democratic than either of the reigning “parties” is on the matter – of no small significance to the question of “how society should be organized” – of wealth distribution. As business professor Michael Norton and psychologist Dan Ariely have shown, most Americans think that the ideal distribution would be one in which the top 20 percent owned between 30 and 40 percent of the privately held wealth and the bottom 40 percent had between 25 and 30 percent. They are unaware of the reality – that the top fifth owns nearly all U.S. wealth and the bottom two quintiles possess close to nothing – thanks to the 1 percent’s ownership and control of the nation’s media, politics, and educational systems.
Savage Inequalities, Weak Society
It would be one thing, perhaps, if everyone was well fed, clothed, and cared for under this corporate and financial oligarchy. Sadly, however, 16 million US children – a shameful 20 percent of those children – live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. One seventh of all US citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally). Hunger, homelessness, and extreme poverty are visibly evident in and around any and all U.S. cities. The shocking U.S. poverty rates for Black (36%), Native American (35%), and Latino children (31%) are disgraceful in a nation that is described by its “leaders” as the world’s great egalitarian model for “how society should be organized” – as what former US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson once called (in a speech calling for Congress to authorize George W. Bush to invade oil-rich Iraq if he wanted to) “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.” In Chicago, which Obama has long deceptively called his “home city” (the president is actually from Honolulu), 11 percent of the population lives in “deep poverty,” at less than half the poverty level. Roughly a third of that dangerously poor population are children. Half are Black, hardly surprising in a society where median white household wealth is 22 times that of Black median household wealth. The ferocious racial disparities persist and deepen while the U.S. continues to congratulate itself over the supposed great victory over racism represented by the election of a “first Black president” – a technically Black chief executive who has been remarkably reluctant to discuss U.S. racism in any serious way and has recurrently lectured Black Americans on their own supposed personal and cultural responsibility for their persistent position at the bottom of the steep US socioeconomic pyramid.
Poverty is only of many of many problems resulting from the savage inequality that lurks at the dark heart of “how our [U.S.] society is organized.” There’s a considerable health and social science literature on the alienation and sickness (both physical and mental) that people (even privileged persons) experience in radically unequal societies like the US. In their groundbreaking book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), the British health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provided hard evidence showing that numerous key measures and indications of human well-being and (conversely) human dysfunction – life expectancy, mental illness, healthy body weight, disease rates, friendships, social cohesion, trust levels, educational performance, literacy, violence, racial and ethnic conflict, child abuse, status-seeking, soulless consumerism, civic engagement, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, environmental destruction – are affected less by how wealthy a society is than by how unequal it is Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor do far more poorly on all of these measures and traits than do more equal societies. They are worse off for everyone in them, including even the well-off. More equal societies produce healthier, happier people than do less equal societies whether comparisons are made between “rich nations” (i.e., egalitarian Norway vs. the hierarchical US) or between “poor nations” (egalitarian Cuba vs. hierarchical Brazil).The United States shows up again and again on the wrong and unhealthy side of Wilkinson and Pickett’s measures – consistently scoring at or near the bottom of the rich nations when it comes to life expectancy, infant mortality, child well-being, stress, depression, happiness, social capital, isolation, trust, addiction, mental illness, suicide, homicide, obesity, heart disease, addictions, literacy, numeracy, and other key measures.
Human rights? Beyond its cruel denial of union organizing and collective bargaining rights to hundreds of millions of U.S. workers, its abject failure to guarantee highly quality and free or even low-cost health care to its citizens, its notoriously weak social safety net, and its nasty police habit of murdering mostly unarmed Black men (more than 300 killed by “peace officers,” each year, including 100 just this last March), the United States has in the last four decades emerged as the world’s leading prison state by far – a curious accomplishment for the “Land of the Free.” With more than 2.3 million prisoners (two thirds of whom are Black and Latino), the US is home to a twentieth of the world’s population but a quarter of its prisoners. It puts more Black men behind bars than in college. Along the way, “post-racial America” (didn’t it elect a first Black president?) has saddled 1 in 3 of its adult Black males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record, famously labelled “the new Jim Crow” by law professor Michelle Alexander.
Freedom of assembly? Here, again, Obama has little to tell Raul Castro on how to proceed in a democratic way. We might recall the widespread, coast-to-cast police state shutdown of the Occupy protestors who spoke out against the rule of “the 1%” in the fall and winter of 2011. The repression was coordinated to no small degree by the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security. It occurred in hundreds of cities and towns across the nation. In Oakland, California, the city’s “progressive” Democratic Mayor Jean Quam decided to crush the movement with an iron first in a pre-dawn raid. In the still dark hours of the very early morning of October 25th, 2011, heavily armored and visor-wearing riot police from no less than ten Bay Area jurisdictions assaulted protestors with a barrage of rubber bullets, batons, chemical agents, and concussion grenades. The attack was described by a downtown security guard who beheld a brutal rush on peaceful protesters, a precursor of later scenes televised from Ferguson. Missouri:
“I witnessed the raid on the Occupation Oakland camp… after 4:30 in the morning, and it was terrifying…there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in…. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…There were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents …They shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp…and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation…It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany …It had that tenor. …The helicopters, and the lights, and the loudspeaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside…. They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my mind’s eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper…”
This “Nazi”-like raid put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries. The White House had nothing to say about this chilling police-state assault on public assembly and free speech, launched 16 hours after Obama raised a million dollars from wealthy Americans in the same metropolitan area (across the bay in San Francisco). Obama was silent again weeks later when the New York City police swept down on the original Occupy Wall Street (OWS) site in New York City on the orders of Wall Street titan-turned New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By one account:
“The area around Zuccotti Park was subject…to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown… they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the [OWS] kitchen, as well as the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM… police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.”
Bloomberg’s “media blackout” on the raid violated international human rights law. A report published in the summer of 2012 documented 130 incidents of excessive force by the NYPD – actions that violated protestors’ civil and human rights – during the occupation and over subsequent months.
If Obama wants to see police state repression of popular protestors, he might want look at his “hometown” Chicago, where local, county, state, federal and private gendarmes confronted anti-NATO protestors with a colossal assemblage of high-tech repressive power in May of 2012. Activists there were unjustly detained and falsely accused on crassly concocted “terrorism” charges. It was recently revealed that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) spies on the phone conversations of social justice protesters with a technology (the “StingRay”) that lets police track and listen to private cell phones (without the knowledge of cell phone companies). That is a gross violation of citizen-activists “constitutionally guaranteed” privacy and protection from unjust search. And recently we have also learned from The Guardian (UK) that Chicago police take detainees to an “off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site.” This “homeland” rendition site is located in the city’s predominantly Black and poor West-Side neighborhood North Lawndale, in a warehouse known as Homan Square. Homan Square’s “black site” prisoners are “disappeared,” held incommunicado while not being entered into the department’s citywide booking database. “It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make police station visits” a Chicago lawyer told The Guardian, that “if you can’t find a client in the system, odds are they’re there” (at Homan Square). Other police state abuses carried out at Homan Square include beatings, prolonged shackling, denying’ attorneys access to the “secure” facility, and holding people without legal counsel.
Free World Media
A free press? Independent media? Consistent with its possession as a leading and money-making asset of the 1%, the US mass media is a bastion of power-serving propaganda and deadening twaddle designed to keep the masses loyal to their masters in Big Business and to the imperial state. It regularly portrays the United States as a great model of democracy and equality. It sells an image of the US as a society where the criminal rich are rich because of hard and honest work and where the poor are poor because of their laziness and irresponsibility. The nightly television news broadcasts and television police and law and order dramas are obsessed with violent crime in the nation’s Black ghettoes and Latino barrios, but they never talk about the extreme poverty, the absence of opportunity imposed on those neighborhoods by racism, by mass structural unemployment, and by under-funded schools. The nightly weather reports tell of ever new record high temperatures and related forms of extreme weather. They never relate these remarkable meteorological developments to anthropogenic climate change, a topic that US media refuses to discuss in a serious manner.
US citizens regularly see pictures of people who are angry at the US around the world. The US media never gives them any serious discussion of the imperial and mass-murderous US policies and actions that have created that anger, leaving millions of American to ask in childlike supreme ignorance “Why do they hate us? What have we done?”
US newscasters and their print media counterparts routinely parrots and disseminates the often preposterous foreign policy claims of the imperial elite. As far as you can tell from “mainstream” US media, Washington’s global aims are always benevolent and democratic, Washington’s clients and allies are always good guys. Washington’s enemies are always nefarious and Washington’s victims as undeserving and incidental. Elections in other countries that are won by politicians that Washington likes because they can be counted on to serve the interests of US corporations and the military are portrayed in the media as good and clean elections. But when elections put in power people that Washington doesn’t like, people (like Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro) who can’t be counted on to serve so-called “US interests,” then the media portrays those elections as corrupt. When Americans or people allied with Washington are killed or injured abroad, they are “worthy victims” (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky) and receive great attention. The people who are killed or injured by the US and US clients and allies are anonymous and “unworthy victims” whose experience hardly merits mention in US “mainstream” media.
Uncle Sam can occasionally make mistakes, but he is never immoral, criminal, or imperial in that media. This is consistent with the doctrine of so-called American Exceptionalism, which decrees that the US along among great powers in history seeks no selfish or imperial gain and that the US has nothing really to learn from other nations and people.
As the US Marxist commentator Michael Parenti once remarked, US “Newscasters who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine art of evasion…with great skill they skirt around the most important parts of a story. With much finesse, they say a lot about very little, serving up heaps of junk news filled with so many empty calories and so few nutrients. Thus do they avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance. It is enough to take your breath away.”
Recently we had an extraordinary episode in US media – the firing of a leading national news broadcaster, Brian Williams of NBC News because of some fibs told in connection with the US invasion of Iraq. It would be nice to report that he was discharged because he repeated the Bush administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s supposed connection to 9/11. In reality, however, Williams lost his job because he falsely claimed to have been riding on a helicopter that was forced down by grenade fire during the initial invasion. If transmitting Washington’s Orwellian untruths about Iraq were something to be fired about, then the “mainstream” news media would have to get rid of pretty much of all its top broadcasters.
Meanwhile, new US box office records have been set by a Hollywood movie called “American Sniper,” a film that celebrates a sociopathic US soldier who is reputed to have killed more than 150 Iraqis during the US occupation of Mesopotamia.
US media is every bit as propagandistic and biased as the Soviet Union’s media (never termed “mainstream” in US discourse) ever was, but there’s differences of course. One distinction is that the Soviet Union was open about it. Every day at the bottom of the front page of Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia you could see at the bottom of page one the initials of two individuals. As everyone in Russia knew, those were the initials of that edition’s government censors. Comedians joked about it in Soviet Moscow’s night clubs. US media is no less censored and distorted but you’ll never see the names or even the initials of those who are responsible at the bottom of a US newspaper. And you’ll never hear a late night US comedian joke about how US media supports the American Empire.
There’s nothing surprising about this media conduct. The U.S. media is owned by giant corporations representing wealthy investors with a large interest in both American state capitalism in the reigning imperial order. One should never be fooled by the large number and types of channels and stations on a typical US car radio or cable television set, or by the dazzling large number and types of magazines and books you can find at a typical Barnes & Noble bookstore. Currently in the US today, just six gigantic global corporations – Comcast, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS, The News Corporation and Disney – together control more than 90 percent of the nation’s print and electronic media, including cable television, airwaves television, radio, newspapers, movies, video games, book publishing, comic books, and more. Three decades ago, 50 corporations controlled the same amount of US media. The ever-deepening concentration has been assisted by oligopolistic legislation (the 1996 Telecommunications Act was key) that the leading media firms helped write.
Each one of the six media giants is a diversified multi-media conglomerate with investments beyond media, including the military Asking reporters and commentators at one of those giant corporations to tell the truth about what’s happening in the US and the world is like asking the General Motors company newspaper to tell the truth about wages and working conditions in GM’s auto plants in Mexico.
“Our Free Market System”
Obama, it is true, campaigned against the extreme economic inequalities mentioned at the beginning of this essay in 2008 and 2012. In the run up to his re-election, he said more than once that economic inequality was the nation’s leading problem. But so what? Pretending to care about inequality is what corporate-friendly Wall Street-captive captive Democratic Party politicians have been doing for decades, consistent with the once Left Christopher Hitchens’ pithy and all too accurate description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” The arch-neoliberal Big Business-friendly Bill Clinton (a champion of the arch-regressive anti-labor and ecocidal North American Free Trade Agreement and the reckless de-regulation of leading financial institutions) did the same thing in 1992 and 1996. The dismal dollar Democrat Hillary Clinton will follow suit this and next year, as in 2007 and 2008. Released two days ago (I am writing on Tuesday, April 14, 2015), the slick and outwardly progressive online video belatedly announcing Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy has her claiming to be concerned that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. Everyday Americans need a champion,” Clinton says, “and I want to be that champion.”
After Obama’s “blunt lesson about power,” only bamboozled fools could possibly take such rhetoric seriously. Neither the Clintons nor “honest” (according to Raul Castro) Obama have ever meant a single word of the progressive- and populist-sounding heroic they’ve let slip from their lips in their efforts to win votes from their party’s working class base. The “beacon to the world of the way life should be” is approaching the first $5 billion presidential (s)election in 2016. “Hillary, Inc.” has built up a preemptive money machine so gargantuan than it will smash previous fundraising records and prevent rivals from mounting any serious opposition in the primaries. “It’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen,” a top Democratic donor gleefully told The Hill, “The numbers will be astounding.” The numbers are driven by giant contributions from super-wealthy donors who have no interest – quite the opposite in fact – in seeing government serve the “everyday Americans” in whose name Hillary is running. Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford provides some sobering context on what’s going on:
“[The United States is] a nation of more than 300 million people in which politics has become the sole property and domain of the rich. The rich decided some time ago that Hillary Clinton would be the virtually unchallenged presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. The 48 percent of Americans that express an affinity with the Democratic Party have not yet chosen Clinton. There has been no primary election in any state. But, that does not matter because the selection process that counts occurs in the boardrooms and mansions and private clubs and getaways of the rich. Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the millionaires’ campaign circuit, the rich man’s primary. In the process of pleasing the rich, they have become rich, themselves….Hillary hopes to spend two and a half billion dollars of – mostly – rich people’s money in the 2016 campaign. Wealthy people will be just as generous with the Republican candidate. The outcome on Election Day is absolutely certain: the rich man’s candidate will definitely win, and the people will lose – because they have no candidate in the major parties.”
At the same time, the steep socioeconomic disparities that Obama purports to be disturbed about are precisely the consequence of the capitalist profits system he has repeatedly upheld as the source of America’s purported exceptional greatness and “unmatched prosperity.” They are the natural outcome of what he called in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope “Our greatest asset…our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system.”
Here, again, you don’t have to be a Marxist or other kind of anti-capitalist to appreciate the dark reality beneath the flowery rhetoric. As the liberal MIT economist Lester Thurow noted 19 years ago, “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man [sic] one vote,’ while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and inequalities in purchasing power are what capitalist efficiency is all about. Individual profit comes first and firms become efficient to be rich. To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not” (The Future of Capitalism [NY, 1996], 242). My copy of the eminently patriotic Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution…are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”
It is worth noting, consistent with Webster’s, that capitalism has little to do with “the free market.” The top US profit-making entities from the leading financial institutions on down are heavily dependent on state subsidies and other government “entitlements” and protections – corporate and Wall Street welfare Obama has shown himself eager to extend and expand even as 95% of the nation’s income growth went to the nation’s top 1% during his first term.. Don’t take it from radical anti-capitalists like me. As Chomsky has noted, a 2013 study by the International Monetary Fund “attributes the profits of the big banks almost entirely to the implicit government insurance policy (‘too big to fail’), not just the widely publicized bailouts, but access to cheap credit, favorable ratings because of the state guarantee and much else. The same is true,” Chomsky added, “of the productive economy. The IT revolution, now its driving force, relied very heavily on state-based R&D, procurement and other devices. That pattern goes back to early English industrialization.”
If there’s one immutable fact to take away from the liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s celebrated volume Capital in the 21st Century (2014), it is that wealth, left to its own devices, inexorably concentrates in capitalist economies. Proving this thesis with more than two centuries of heroically discovered and compiled data, Piketty shows that there is nothing inherent in the workings of “free market” capitalism to block, much less roll back, that tendency. The only things that have reduced inequality under the bourgeois system have been extraordinary crises like the Great Depression and the last century’s two world wars and related political/policy interventions on behalf of downward redistribution. With inequality in the rich nations currently approaching “levels equal to those observed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Piketty observes that “wealth [capital] is once again flourishing. Broadly speaking,” he demonstrates, “it was the wars of the twentieth century that wiped away the past to create the illusion that capitalism had been structurally transformed” (Capital in the 21st Century, p. 118). “Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge,” Piketty shows, “have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality – or in any case not as much as one might have imagined in the optimistic decades following World War II.” It was the so-called Golden Age of western capitalism (1945-1970) following the Great Depression and the two cataclysmic world wars – a period of significant downward wealth and income distribution in the core (rich) nations of the world capitalist system – that marked the real anomaly in the history of capitalism. The sweeping re-concentration of wealth and income over the last four decades of hyper-capitalist “neoliberalism” have been a return to the systemic norm.
State-socialist Cuba, for all its own flaws and problems (many of which trace to US aggression and embargo), has escaped the savage and extreme disparities that are evident in the US. The result is a much healthier and happier society. It is also a much more environmentally sustainable society. The U.S. is the world’s leader in total accumulated carbon emissions and is home to the biggest per capita carbon footprint on the planet. By contrast, the makers of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (UNHDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the UNHDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” – the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas. This remarkable accomplishment is an achievement of no small significance in an age of ever more imminent US-led environmental catastrophe resulting from capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels. It is no mere accident. Beyond a fuel and currency shortage, it reflects considerable eco-socialist innovation in the use and development of alternative fuel sources, technologies, and practices on the part of the Cuban state.
Whatever went on between Barack Obama and Raul Castro in Panama, one thing is clear: the former doesn’t have shit to say to the latter (or anyone else) about “how society should be organized.”
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is an author and political commentator in Iowa City, Iowa.
1. For elaboration, please see Chapter 5, “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power,” in Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).