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The U.S. is Not a Democracy, It Never Was
« on: December 13, 2017, 02:20:21 PM »
https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/13/the-u-s-is-not-a-democracy-it-never-was/

December 13, 2017
The U.S. is Not a Democracy, It Never Was

by Gabriel Rockhill


Photo by Daniel Huizinga | CC BY 2.0

One of the most steadfast beliefs regarding the United States is that it is a democracy. Whenever this conviction waivers slightly, it is almost always to point out detrimental exceptions to core American values or foundational principles. For instance, aspiring critics frequently bemoan a “loss of democracy” due to the election of clownish autocrats, draconian measures on the part of the state, the revelation of extraordinary malfeasance or corruption, deadly foreign interventions, or other such activities that are considered undemocratic exceptions. The same is true for those whose critical framework consists in always juxtaposing the actions of the U.S. government to its founding principles, highlighting the contradiction between the two and clearly placing hope in its potential resolution.

The problem, however, is that there is no contradiction or supposed loss of democracy because the United States simply never was one. This is a difficult reality for many people to confront, and they are likely more inclined to immediately dismiss such a claim as preposterous rather than take the time to scrutinize the material historical record in order to see for themselves. Such a dismissive reaction is due in large part to what is perhaps the most successful public relations campaign in modern history. What will be seen, however, if this record is soberly and methodically inspected, is that a country founded on elite, colonial rule based on the power of wealth—a plutocratic colonial oligarchy, in short—has succeeded not only in buying the label of “democracy” to market itself to the masses, but in having its citizenry, and many others, so socially and psychologically invested in its nationalist origin myth that they refuse to hear lucid and well-documented arguments to the contrary.

To begin to peel the scales from our eyes, let us outline in the restricted space of this article, five patent reasons why the United States has never been a democracy (a more sustained and developed argument is available in my book, Counter-History of the Present). To begin with, British colonial expansion into the Americas did not occur in the name of the freedom and equality of the general population, or the conferral of power to the people. Those who settled on the shores of the “new world,” with few exceptions, did not respect the fact that it was a very old world indeed, and that a vast indigenous population had been living there for centuries. As soon as Columbus set foot, Europeans began robbing, enslaving and killing the native inhabitants. The trans-Atlantic slave trade commenced almost immediately thereafter, adding a countless number of Africans to the ongoing genocidal assault against the indigenous population. Moreover, it is estimated that over half of the colonists who came to North America from Europe during the colonial period were poor indentured servants, and women were generally trapped in roles of domestic servitude. Rather than the land of the free and equal, then, European colonial expansion to the Americas imposed a land of the colonizer and the colonized, the master and the slave, the rich and the poor, the free and the un-free. The former constituted, moreover, an infinitesimally small minority of the population, whereas the overwhelming majority, meaning “the people,” was subjected to death, slavery, servitude, and unremitting socio-economic oppression.

Second, when the elite colonial ruling class decided to sever ties from their homeland and establish an independent state for themselves, they did not found it as a democracy. On the contrary, they were fervently and explicitly opposed to democracy, like the vast majority of European Enlightenment thinkers. They understood it to be a dangerous and chaotic form of uneducated mob rule. For the so-called “founding fathers,” the masses were not only incapable of ruling, but they were considered a threat to the hierarchical social structures purportedly necessary for good governance. In the words of John Adams, to take but one telling example, if the majority were given real power, they would redistribute wealth and dissolve the “subordination” so necessary for politics. When the eminent members of the landowning class met in 1787 to draw up a constitution, they regularly insisted in their debates on the need to establish a republic that kept at bay vile democracy, which was judged worse than “the filth of the common sewers” by the pro-Federalist editor William Cobbett. The new constitution provided for popular elections only in the House of Representatives, but in most states the right to vote was based on being a property owner, and women, the indigenous and slaves—meaning the overwhelming majority of the population—were simply excluded from the franchise. Senators were elected by state legislators, the President by electors chosen by the state legislators, and the Supreme Court was appointed by the President. It is in this context that Patrick Henry flatly proclaimed the most lucid of judgments: “it is not a democracy.” George Mason further clarified the situation by describing the newly independent country as “a despotic aristocracy.”

When the American republic slowly came to be relabeled as a “democracy,” there were no significant institutional modifications to justify the change in name. In other words, and this is the third point, the use of the term “democracy” to refer to an oligarchic republic simply meant that a different word was being used to describe the same basic phenomenon. This began around the time of “Indian killer” Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in the 1830s. Presenting himself as a ‘democrat,’ he put forth an image of himself as an average man of the people who was going to put a halt to the long reign of patricians from Virginia and Massachusetts. Slowly but surely, the term “democracy” came to be used as a public relations term to re-brand a plutocratic oligarchy as an electoral regime that serves the interest of the people or demos. Meanwhile, the American holocaust continued unabated, along with chattel slavery, colonial expansion and top-down class warfare.

In spite of certain minor changes over time, the U.S. republic has doggedly preserved its oligarchic structure, and this is readily apparent in the two major selling points of its contemporary “democratic” publicity campaign. The Establishment and its propagandists regularly insist that a structural aristocracy is a “democracy” because the latter is defined by the guarantee of certain fundamental rights (legal definition) and the holding of regular elections (procedural definition). This is, of course, a purely formal, abstract and largely negative understanding of democracy, which says nothing whatsoever about people having real, sustained power over the governing of their lives. However, even this hollow definition dissimulates the extent to which, to begin with, the supposed equality before the law in the United States presupposes an inequality before the law by excluding major sectors of the population: those judged not to have the right to rights, and those considered to have lost their right to rights (Native Americans, African-Americans and women for most of the country’s history, and still today in certain aspects, as well as immigrants, “criminals,” minors, the “clinically insane,” political dissidents, and so forth). Regarding elections, they are run in the United States as long, multi-million dollar advertising campaigns in which the candidates and issues are pre-selected by the corporate and party elite. The general population, the majority of whom do not have the right to vote or decide not to exercise it, are given the “choice”—overseen by an undemocratic electoral college and embedded in a non-proportional representation scheme—regarding which member of the aristocratic elite they would like to have rule over and oppress them for the next four years. “Multivariate analysis indicates,” according to an important recent study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination […], but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.”

To take but a final example of the myriad ways in which the U.S. is not, and has never been, a democracy, it is worth highlighting its consistent assault on movements of people power. Since WWII, it has endeavored to overthrow some 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically elected. It has also, according the meticulous calculations by William Blum in America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, grossly interfered in the elections of at least 30 countries, attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders, dropped bombs on more than 30 countries, and attempted to suppress populist movements in 20 countries. The record on the home front is just as brutal. To take but one significant parallel example, there is ample evidence that the FBI has been invested in a covert war against democracy. Beginning at least in the 1960s, and likely continuing up to the present, the Bureau “extended its earlier clandestine operations against the Communist party, committing its resources to undermining the Puerto Rico independence movement, the Socialist Workers party, the civil rights movement, Black nationalist movements, the Ku Klux Klan, segments of the peace movement, the student movement, and the ‘New Left’ in general” (Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom, p. 22-23). Consider, for instance, Judi Bari’s summary of its assault on the Socialist Workers Party: “From 1943-63, the federal civil rights case Socialist Workers Party v. Attorney General documents decades of illegal FBI break-ins and 10 million pages of surveillance records. The FBI paid an estimated 1,600 informants $1,680,592 and used 20,000 days of wiretaps to undermine legitimate political organizing.” In the case of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (AIM)—which were both important attempts to mobilize people power to dismantle the structural oppression of white supremacy and top-down class warfare—the FBI not only infiltrated them and launched hideous smear and destabilization campaigns against them, but they assassinated 27 Black Panthers and 69 members of AIM (and subjected countless others to the slow death of incarceration). If it be abroad or on the home front, the American secret police has been extremely proactive in beating down the movements of people rising up, thereby protecting and preserving the main pillars of white supremacist, capitalist aristocracy.

Rather than blindly believing in a golden age of democracy in order to remain at all costs within the gilded cage of an ideology produced specifically for us by the well-paid spin-doctors of a plutocratic oligarchy, we should unlock the gates of history and meticulously scrutinize the founding and evolution of the American imperial republic. This will not only allow us to take leave of its jingoist and self-congratulatory origin myths, but it will also provide us with the opportunity to resuscitate and reactivate so much of what they have sought to obliterate. In particular, there is a radical America just below the surface of these nationalist narratives, an America in which the population autonomously organizes itself in indigenous and ecological activism, black radical resistance, anti-capitalist mobilization, anti-patriarchal struggles, and so forth. It is this America that the corporate republic has sought to eradicate, while simultaneously investing in an expansive public relations campaign to cover over its crimes with the fig leaf of “democracy” (which has sometimes required integrating a few token individuals, who appear to be from below, into the elite ruling class in order to perpetuate the all-powerful myth of meritocracy). If we are astute and perspicacious enough to recognize that the U.S. is undemocratic today, let us not be so indolent or ill-informed that we let ourselves be lulled to sleep by lullabies praising its halcyon past. Indeed, if the United States is not a democracy today, it is in large part due to the fact that it never was one. Far from being a pessimistic conclusion, however, it is precisely by cracking open the hard shell of ideological encasement that we can tap into the radical forces that have been suppressed by it. These forces—not those that have been deployed to destroy them—should be the ultimate source of our pride in the power of the people.

 
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More articles by:Gabriel Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill is a Franco-American philosopher and cultural critic. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne. His books include Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (2017), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (2016), Radical History & the Politics of Art (2014) and Logique de l’histoire (2010). In addition to his scholarly work, he has been actively engaged in extra-academic activities in the art and activist worlds, as well as a regular contributor to public intellectual debate. Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill
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The New Gilded Age: First Time Arrogance, the Second Time Vengeance
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2018, 04:10:02 PM »
https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/01/08/the-new-gilded-age-first-time-arrogance-the-second-time-vengeance/

January 8, 2018
The New Gilded Age: First Time Arrogance, the Second Time Vengeance

by David Rosen


Photo by Anirvan | CC BY 2.0

In his 1852 essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Marx recalls a saying from Hegel, “that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.”  Marx adds, “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Often forgotten, Marx follows with an equally telling observation: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  He warns, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”  That nightmare defines 21stcentury U.S. politics.

In 1873, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, a popular work that satirized the greed and political corruption of the modern era.  The term “gilded age” stuck, signifying a period lasting from the 1870s to 1910s.  It epitomized the rise of a new class of capitalists, the “robber barons,” who promoted innovation with shady business scams that fostered corporate tyranny.

Working with other corporate buccaneers and backed by unscrupulous speculators, these tycoons of old formed giant trusts that monopolized the production and distribution of essential goods.  Economic power fostered political influence.  The robber barons controlled Washington, D.C, politics as well as many state and local governments.  While they engaged in private gluttony, they imposed social and moral tyranny on the poor, workers and new immigrants.

During the 1884 election campaign, a telling political dinner-party took place at New York’s legendary Delmonico’s Steakhouse.  A couple hundred of the nation’s economic elite attended this lavish fundraising gathering for James G. Blaine, the Republican presidential candidate.  One of those in attendance was Jason “Jay” Gould, the financier who controlled the Union Pacific Railroad, Western Union and other companies.  He is remembered today, nearly a century-and-a-half later, for famously proclaiming, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

The media picked up on the lavish fête.  Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World carried a front-page cartoon titled, “Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.”  It depicted Blaine and the tycoons dining on such dishes as “lobby pudding,” “navy contract,” “monopoly soup” and “patronage cake.”  The New York Times offered a more telling assessment.  “Blaine’s political sagacity is impeached by his willingness to be seen in the company of these people and to take their money openly at Delmonico’s,” it observed.  Some say that popular disgust over the banquet may have cost Blaine the election to Grover Cleveland.

The term “robber knights” was apparently first applied to Middle Ages noblemen, feudal warlords.  The Times re-coined the term “robber barons” on February 9, 1859, referring to the unethical business practices of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, a railroad magnet and one of the nation’s richest men.

J.P. Morgan was another robber baron.  He was a banker and financial speculator who was central to the formation of General Electric and the consolidation of US Steel.  More critical, in 1895 he “saved” the U.S. gold standard by facilitating the sale of $65 million worth of Treasury bonds.

John D. Rockefeller, nicknamed “The Octopus,” was another baron; he founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870 and, by the ‘80s, controlled about 90 percent of U.S. refineries and pipelines.  The Supreme Court broke up the company in 1911 for violation of antitrust laws.

Andrew Carnegie was still another robber baron.  He built the Carnegie Steel Company that transformed steel production through vertical integration and, by 1889, was the largest manufacturer in the world.  In 1889, workers at one of his plants, in Homestead, PA, struck; led by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, they won a favorable three-year contract.  In 1892, Carnegie tore up the contract, sought to impose lower wages and to break the union.  His actions precipitating one of the major confrontation of the Gilded Age, a bitter strike in which 10 men were killed and 60 were wounded.

Class war was the ghost that haunted the Gilded Age.  It was a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization, marked by a large influx of immigrants from eastern Europe and Asia along with African-Americans migrating from the South to the North.  It was a period in which political corruption was rampant, with businessmen bribing public officials at all levels of government and political machines, like Gotham’s legendary Tweed Ring, turning elections into winner-take-all scams.

The robber-baron elite, and their well-paid accolades, whether political, theological or media puffers, proclaimed an ideology of self-reliance and primitive individualism.  Sadly, deepening despair was intensifying among those most squeezed by the new economic order.  For men, factories, mines and farms were slave pits; for women and children, many worked under torturous conditions, including laboring to 12 to 16 hours per day for pennies. In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was formed to fight for skilled laborers.

The ’92 Homestead strike was but one outbreak of the ever-deepening class war that characterized the early-modern era; during the strike, the anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the plant’s manager.

In 1886, a strike by the Knights of Labor in Chicago led to what is known as the Haymarket Riot when an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into a group of police officers; eight officers were killed in the explosion and the ensuing gunfight.  Eight anarchists were framed for the incident, tried for murder and four were sentenced to death, one committed suicide.  In 1894, approximately 125,000 American Railway Union (ARU) members struck the Pullman Company and Pres. Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to break up the strike; he claimed the strike prevented the delivery of the mail and was a threat to public safety.  In 1901, Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist, assassinated Pres. William McKinley.

The first Gilded Age was driven by the arrogance of a new economic order, one based on the opportunities of industrialization and the vast millions to be garnered.  It spawned a new buccaneer class of capitalists like none-other that preceded them.  While warnings were raised by muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, the robber barons of the first Gilded Age could claim ignorance as to the consequences of their arrogance, their personal greed and political connivances.

Mounting reaction to robber-baron capitalism led to the passage of major antitrust laws including the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), the Clayton Act (1914) and Federal Trade Commission Act (1914).  However, in the wake of 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression and New Deal, ignorance is no longer an excuse. Today’s robber barons know what they are doing – whether in terms of labor relations, environment impact or social consequences, especially growing inequality.

The U.S. is now living through a second Gilded Age.  Where once the robber barons were millionaires, today they’ve added a few zeros to their wealth and became billionaires.  However, they act with no-less impunity, but a greater sense of entitlement.  The Trump administration, together with the Republican-controlled Congress, are functional shills for the current generation of robber barons.  As evident from the recently-passed tax bill, legislators jump when their big-money donors order them to deliver the goods — and they did.

The U.S. economy has rebounded from the 2007-2009 “great recession,” with the stock market hitting new highs, unemployment the lowest in a generation and home prices recovering.  But Americans still haven’t regained the wealth they lost, with incomes remaining stagnant and, on the whole, working Americans worse off than since the late-1990s.  The Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances finds that median net worth for all families (measured in 2016 dollars) dropped 8 percent since 1998.

Most sobering, the poorer you are, the worst your fate – and this is compounded by race, education level, gender and age factors.  America’s poorest, the bottom fifth, saw their net worth fall 22 percent; the broad working class, the second-lowest income tier, were the hardest hit with their net worth shrinking by more than a third (34%); and those dubbed “middle class,” with incomes from $43,501 to $69,500, were barely treading water, with their worth gaining a whopping 3.5 percent.

Since 1998, the top 10 percent saw their worth rise 146 percent.  The share of the nation’s wealth held by the top 1 percent rose to 38.6 percent while that portion controlled by the bottom 90 percent fell 22.8 percent (from 33.2 percent in ’89).  Looking at the nation’s income for the period of 2013 to 2016, the same phenomenon is evident: income going to the top 1 percent climbed to 23.8 percent (from 20.3 percent) while the share going to the bottom 90 percent slipped to about 50 percent (from 54 percent).

And then there is debt, the lubricant of the U.S. post-WW-II “consumer revolution.” During the 2013 to 2016 period, those with the lowest income (below $25,300), saw their debt rise by 57 percent; for the lower-middle class (incomes between $25,301 and $43,500), debt increased 58 percent; and for the middle class (incomes from $43,501 to $69,500), debt rose by a modest 12.5 percent.

The robber barons the first Gilded Age could easily lie to themselves and falsely claim that they did not fully grasp the consequences of their self-serving and exploitative practices; after the Homestead and Pullman strikes, even this lie must have been hard to swallow.

Surely, the robber barons of the current Gilded Age can’t really lie to themselves.  While many champion short-sighted gluttony, or play the fool like the president, the 1 percent know too much to claim ignorance, especially the consequences of their decisions regarding the state of America’s social-economy.  Digital entrepreneurs like Jobs and Gates, Bezos and Zuckerberg, Brin/Page and Musk, together with old-style hucksters like Adelson, Buffett, Bloomberg and even the Koch Brothers, must have studied the 1929 stock market crash, let alone lived through the 2007 housing-mortgage bubble.  One can only wonder what they learned?

Today’s robber barons surely must know that finance-driven capitalism is a shameless hustler’s game.  No matter how much they are celebrated by the ever-adoring media, like their forbearers a century, today’s 1 percent can’t claim ignorance.  Something else must be at play.  Are they acting out of a private vengeance that only makes the U.S., let alone the rest of the world, an increasingly worse place to call home?  Perhaps it’s time for a 21st century version of the Homestead and Pullman strikes to wake them from their self-serving slumber.
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More articles by:David Rosen

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.
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