A Roadmap to a Just World – People Reanimating Democracy

DW Global Media Forum “The Future of Growth – Economic Values and the Media (Speech starts at 6:10)

I'd like to comment on topics that I think should regularly be on the front pages but are not – and in many crucial cases are scarcely mentioned at all or are presented in ways that seem to me deceptive because they're framed almost reflexively in terms of doctrines of the powerful.

In these comments I'll focus primarily on the United States for several reasons: One, it's the most important country in terms of its power and influence. Second, it's the most advanced – not in its inherent character, but in the sense that because of its power, other societies tend to move in that direction. The third reason is just that I know it better. But I think what I say generalizes much more widely – at least to my knowledge, obviously there are some variations. So I'll be concerned then with tendencies in American society and what they portend for the world, given American power.

American power is diminishing, as it has been in fact since its peak in 1945, but it's still incomparable. And it's dangerous. Obama's remarkable global terror campaign and the limited, pathetic reaction to it in the West is one shocking example. And it is a campaign of international terrorism – by far the most extreme in the world. Those who harbor any doubts on that should read the report issued by Stanford University and New York University, and actually I'll return to even more serious examples than international terrorism.

The "really existing capitalist democracy"

According to received doctrine, we live in capitalist democracies, which are the best possible system, despite some flaws. There's been an interesting debate over the years about the relation between capitalism and democracy, for example, are they even compatible? I won't be pursuing this because I'd like to discuss a different system – what we could call the "really existing capitalist democracy", RECD for short, pronounced "wrecked" by accident. To begin with, how does RECD compare with democracy? Well that depends on what we mean by "democracy". There are several versions of this. One, there is a kind of received version. It's soaring rhetoric of the Obama variety, patriotic speeches, what children are taught in school, and so on. In the U.S. version, it's government "of, by and for the people". And it's quite easy to compare that with RECD.

In the United States, one of the main topics of academic political science is the study of attitudes and policy and their correlation. The study of attitudes is reasonably easy in the United States: heavily-polled society, pretty serious and accurate polls, and policy you can see, and you can compare them. And the results are interesting. In the work that's essentially the gold standard in the field, it's concluded that for roughly 70% of the population – the lower 70% on the wealth/income scale – they have no influence on policy whatsoever. They're effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy. So the proper term for that is not democracy; it's plutocracy.

Policy throughout is almost the opposite of public opinion

Inquiries of this kind turn out to be dangerous stuff because they can tell people too much about the nature of the society in which they live. So fortunately, Congress has banned funding for them, so we won't have to worry about them in the future.

These characteristics of RECD show up all the time. So the major domestic issue in the United States for the public is jobs. Polls show that very clearly. For the very wealthy and the financial institutions, the major issue is the deficit. Well, what about policy? There's now a sequester in the United States, a sharp cutback in funds. Is that because of jobs or is it because of the deficit? Well, the deficit.

Europe, incidentally, is much worse – so outlandish that even The Wall Street Journal has been appalled by the disappearance of democracy in Europe. A couple of weeks ago it had an article which concluded that "the French, the Spanish, the Irish, the Dutch, Portuguese, Greeks, Slovenians, Slovakians and Cypriots have to varying degrees voted against the currency bloc's economic model since the crisis began three years ago. Yet economic policies have changed little in response to one electoral defeat after another. The left has replaced the right; the right has ousted the left. Even the center-right trounced Communists (in Cyprus) – but the economic policies have essentially remained the same: governments will continue to cut spending and raise taxes." It doesn't matter what people think and "national governments must follow macro-economic directives set by the European Commission". Elections are close to meaningless, very much as in Third World countries that are ruled by the international financial institutions. That's what Europe has chosen to become. It doesn't have to.

Returning to the United States, where the situation is not quite that bad, there's the same disparity between public opinion and policy on a very wide range of issues. Take for example the issue of minimum wage. ne view is that the minimum wage ought to be indexed to the cost of living and high enough to prevent falling below the poverty line. Eighty percent of the public support that and forty percent of the wealthy. What's the minimum wage? Going down, way below these levels. It's the same with laws that facilitate union activity: strongly supported by the public; opposed by the very wealthy – disappearing. The same is true on national healthcare. The U.S., as you may know, has a health system which is an international scandal, it has twice the per capita costs of other OECD countries and relatively poor outcomes. The only privatized, pretty much unregulated system. The public doesn't like it. They've been calling for national healthcare, public options, for years, but the financial institutions think it's fine, so it stays: stasis. In fact, if the United States had a healthcare system like comparable countries there wouldn't be any deficit. The famous deficit would be erased, which doesn't matter that much anyway.

One of the most interesting cases has to do with taxes. For 35 years there have been polls on 'what do you think taxes ought to be?' Large majorities have held that the corporations and the wealthy should pay higher taxes. They've steadily been going down through this period.

On and on, the policy throughout is almost the opposite of public opinion, which is a typical property of RECD.

The U.S. one-party state

In the past, the United States has sometimes, kind of sardonically, been described as a one-party state: the business party with two factions called Democrats and Republicans. That's no longer true. It's still a one-party state, the business party. But it only has one faction. The faction is moderate Republicans, who are now called Democrats. There are virtually no moderate Republicans in what's called the Republican Party and virtually no liberal Democrats in what's called the Democratic [sic] Party. It's basically a party of what would be moderate Republicans and similarly, Richard Nixon would be way at the left of the political spectrum today. Eisenhower would be in outer space.

There is still something called the Republican Party, but it long ago abandoned any pretence of being a normal parliamentary party. It's in lock-step service to the very rich and the corporate sector and has a catechism that everyone has to chant in unison, kind of like the old Communist Party. The distinguished conservative commentator, one of the most respected – Norman Ornstein – describes today's Republican Party as, in his

Leave a comment