They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy

They Rule:  The 1% vs. Democracy by Paul Street
Boulder and London:  Paradigm Publishers, 2014

Paul Street’s latest book, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy, is his effort to let Americans know that this “land of equality” is really a myth and, like all myths, needs to be removed from our collective consciousness so we can do something about it.  Most clearly, the United States is no longer a democracy in the ways we been (endlessly) told that it is.  He pulls no punches:

The contemporary United States, I find in this volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy.  It is something in between or perhaps different altogether:  a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profits.  It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing and demobilizing the citizenry.  At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression, brutality and coercive control.

In short, he seeks to disabuse Americans of any illusions about our country and what the elites are doing—and will do—to advance their interests as they define them.

He makes oh-so-clear throughout the book that the interests of corporate and financial elites, and their “servants” are, in reality, miles apart from the interests of  “ordinary” Americans, as is generally projected ad nauseum.

Street hones in on first the financial and then the political system.  His argument is that in the early 1980s—during the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan—there was a sea-change in the US economy, as this country shifted from being an industrial power to being one generating and becoming dependent on its financial power.  The ‘80s saw the devastation of industry across the “Rust Belt” of the upper Midwest—think of Flint, Michigan as captured by Michael Moore in his epic “Roger and Me”—and coastal California (especially Los Angeles and Oakland), with the assault upon working people—especially working people of color—their families and their cities and towns.  And, certainly, their unions.

Corporations shifted much of their production from the US to “developing countries” overseas, but they sold their goods and services in the so-called developed world, allowing them to accumulate “first world” profits with only “third world” costs.  Of course, some of these extra-ordinary profits went to the elites themselves, as well as to some of their “servants” highest in corporate hierarchies, but a considerable amount went to politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

This money helped get the “chosen” people elected and, with their desire to remain in office, under control; their interest in getting re-elected insured their adoption of the elite’s interests, but with a twist:  now, politicians portrayed elite interests as public interests.  Along with economic and political obfuscation, media misinformation—and remember, the corporate media’s role is to make a profit, not to provide accurate information—overwhelmed most Americans’ understandings, as the increasingly-corporatized school systems had not trained most people to think critically about what they were being told by “their” leaders.

Joined with all of that is the increasingly militarized police (kept in “fighting shape” through the “War on Drugs”), along with enhanced electronic surveillance systems, which we know more about thanks to Edward Snowden and the journalists who reported his information, and we have the groundwork laid for a “police state.”  Street is clear, however, that this is not the traditional fascism of Mussolini and Hitler, who relied on an activated working class base; the current US elite project is to de-activate, demobilize and ensure that the helplessness felt by many people whose lives have been turned upside down by all these changes keeps them enveloped and pacified.  This, of course, is supported by a “healthy” overdose of sports, inane television and massive amounts of drugs, “entertainment” to aid in pacification.

Street was excited by the Occupy Movement of 2011, as were most radicals.  We actually saw “ordinary” Americans get off their asses and act collectively and dynamically.  Occupy, following the people of Tunisia and especially Egypt, as well as those in Madison, Wisconsin, spread around the world, and gave impetus to the spread of popular, grassroots democracy globally.  Perhaps the most important thing about Occupy was the taking and holding of geographical space in city centers.

The elites didn’t like this.  It’s one thing to allow relatively harmless demonstrations take place and disperse—reinforcing the ideology of freedom of assembly and speech—but it’s another to have their shit put out for all to see over a on-going period of time in areas devoid of police (and therefore, elite) control.  It could not be allowed—and Occupy was devastated countrywide in a simultaneous crackdown by the US Department of Homeland “Security” under the supposedly liberal Democrat, Barack Obama.

Street covers a wide range of issues in this book, and his claims are carefully documented:  he’s not making this stuff up.  He quotes Noam Chomsky early and often, as well as other students of democracy such as Sheldon Wolin.  This is a very well-reasoned, detached, articulate critique of elite, top-down “democracy,” combined with a passionate call for activation, mobilization and politicization of those on the “bottom” of US society.  His solution to the elite project is to activate the large masses of Americans whose interests are not served by the elites, seeking to overcome the extensive individualization engendered by their pacification project (sports, TV and male-dominated pornography) and mobilize them into engaging in collective action.  It is a genuine call for engagement from the “bottom” of society against the elites at the top.

All of that being said, and appreciated, there are some things that I would have like to see Street incorporate more into the center of his argument.  I think he focuses too much on the United States and while he knows the US is an imperialist power, he largely ignores other peoples around the world and the US effects upon them.  Tied to that, and again he knows this, we really have to understand the United States as more than as a country, but as the heartland of the US Empire, one whose “leaders” have tried to dominate the rest of the world since at least the end of World War II, if not the Spanish American War of 1898:  this means he needs to bring US wars and projects like the CIA and NSA more into the heart of the story.  Once he joins these things into the center of the story, then this would allow him to point out that the US elites can try to dominate the world or they can take care of the American people, but they cannot do both:  a message that can help his project to activate people as they see the elites are not interested in helping the “ordinary” public.

I also think he’d be better served by focusing more on the environmental devastation going on, which is being led by the growth economies (i.e., capitalism) in the US, as well as China and elsewhere.  Much of this production is of crap that helps continue the pacification of people around the world:  can anyone say flat screen TVs and the latest cell phones?  Again, I think foregrounding more of this connection could only serve to help activate people.

And, finally, there is no mention of the labor movement and why its’ leadership continues to insist on the value of the Democratic Party for most people, confining politics into the truncated, elite-dominated, electoral realm.  Ravaged by 35 years of neo-liberal economics, of which all value in life has been made subservient to the elite efforts to profit, Labor’s “leaders” have failed to educate and mobilize their members (and potentially, most Americans) to find solutions that meet their needs.  It seems that something needs to be said about that, too.

Nonetheless, Paul Street has made an admirable contribution to pulling the curtain back on the elites of the present-day United States.  Now it’s up to the rest of us to utilize Street’s work to utilize this knowledge, share with our friends and neighbors, and to escalate our efforts to make popular democracy a reality in this country—and the world.

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana.


  1. avatar
    Arby July 19, 2015 9:30 pm 

    “traditional fascism of Mussolini and Hitler” might not be bad, but I find myself leaning to ‘historical fascism of Mussolini and Hitler’. Always do discussions about fascism today veer into details pertaining to fascism, the big notorious fascism, of the past, namely Hitler’s and Mussolini’s. Meanwhile, Despite the rhetoric of unhinged segregationists who claimed that everything they were against was Hitlerian or Nazi or fascist. Talk about projection! But it does sort of suggest that a simple, useful definition of fascism (strength from unity, in a nutshell) is in order. My way of expressing is this: The capitalist class joins forces with the political class and cuts out the people, but not overtly. The people are given fake democracy and told that if they can vote, then they have democracy. Who, especially among the harried, will bother looking for what they haven’t lost? But a moment’s reflection reveals the scam. On the subject of labels, Just consider how the capitalist class and the rich, who rail against evil socialism, are so good at socialism themselves (with insurance schemes like too big to fail that depends on the wider society to always be there, with bail-outs, for the risk-taking speculators and bankers for example). It turns out that the Right is really quite expert at collectively problem-solving and collectively society-building. But, as believers in inequality, that is always socialism that it does only for it’s class. And that class hews to this dark world’s paradigm of ‘riches for the strongest’, a game in which there ‘has to be losers’. These are people who have modded themselves into monsters, into believers in inequality and fascists. They get a kick out of surviving by taking the means of survival from others.

    “Mocking federal attempts to “legislate love,” southern conservatives conjured up images of secret police and government thugs enforcing racial equality at gunpoint. The FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Committe of 1941], southern opponents [of equality, civil rights and integration] warned, would unleash an American “Gestapo” that could raid offices, seize private records, and haul businessmen off to a “kangaroo court.” Allusions to Nazi persecution resonated with alarmed constituents back home.” -page 80 of “Defending White Democracy – The Making Of A Segregationist Movement & The Remaking Of Racial Politics, 1936-1965” by Jason Morgan Ward

    Meanwhile Franklin Roosevelt “likened the southern “feudal system” to European fascism.” (pg 26)

    While I do tend to prefer the simple definition of fascism I offer here (and like to equate the term with corporatism, neoliberalism and nazism), I must say that the historical fascism of Hitler and Mussolini does offer substantive, relevant case history examples of the rise of fascism today. I marvel at the way nationalism is used by a self-aware fascist cadre in places like Ukraine and Israel and India, where, supposedly, each fascist group utterly hates the other for it’s race. They aren’t crazy, Are they? “Join us in freedom, but quit visiting other countries.” There’s a great neo-nazi slogan.

  2. avatar
    Paul Street January 8, 2015 6:34 pm 

    Original draft of the book had an entire chapter on the ecological crisis. Decision driven by word count considerations was to consolidate that material into a big section in the chapter on why inequality matters and perhaps do a future book on the ecological crisis and capitalism (I think others are doing that topic fairly well so probably not going to happen now). The original title was “They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy and a Decent Future” (with decent future referring to the ecological crisis) Still, I think the ecological crisis is in They Rule fairly strong (and tied there directly to growth ideology and the growth addiction of capitalism…and to wasteful production and consumption) actually…. and certainly to a degree and in a way that distinguishes the book from the plethora of volumes about US plutocracy and inequality that have come out in recent years. Empire is there too (especially in the chapter on “how they rule”) and part of why there isn’t more on Empire is that I’ve done so much on that topic (same on ecology) elsewhere, especially on Z, but also again and above all word count considerations. I actually think the main thing missing in the book is race (though here again, I have so much elsewhere on that topic), which is barely mentioned. Also, nothing really on how “the 1%” rules at the state and local level. I think the book’s main strengths include framing the story of US ruling class power in a broader-than-usual historical framework and (following Marxists like D. McNally and R. Wolff) in terms of capitalism the exploitation system.(this second is a big distinction from the bestselling narratives, i.e. Ferguson, Taibbi, Stiglitz, etc.)…also going into the different and many modes of ruling class power (including time poverty, a very underestimated factor) and the conclusion on what is to be done, which argues basically that the primary question is organization (we have no shortage of reform proposals and revolutionary visions, but we have a huge organizational deficit). I at least would have needed more space/word count to really do justice to a lot of what Kim rightly wants to see more on. I am thinking of an annotated collection that would include some of my better essays on empire and ecology and racism alongside my better plutocracy/corporatism essays…all of Dr. King’s “triple evils that are interrelated” plus ecology. But annotated collections are hard to see these days unless you are Chomksy or somebody else famous. I agree on the US labor “movement,” of course.

  3. Tom Johnson January 7, 2015 10:03 pm 

    The US has never been a democracy in either the constitutional/legal sense or in reality. It is a nation founded by white male property and slave owners.
    It was based on land, wealth and lives stolen from Africans (later African Americans) and the indigenous peoples of North America.

    Of course there have been numerous rebellions and fights against the basic social relations created by the “founding fathers,” but our history continues to define our present.

    Today, we are the flagship nation of the global capitalist empire and that empire is destroying the possibility of human life and other life on this planet.Our liberation comes from joining in the global revolution however we can, knowing the odds are not good, seemingly impossible.

  4. Richard Bluhm January 7, 2015 2:46 pm 

    “…to make popular democracy a reality in this country–and the world.” And they all lived happily ever after.

    I know, I’m being facetious. But nobody wants to have the conversation. It’s too dark. That conversation is about the Four Horsemen. They are at a gallop. Seven billion people are ungovernable and their footprint on Planet Earth is ruinous in countless ways. Predatory economics garners enemies and blowback, and that’s what we’re all about. We’re breaking this beautiful planet. We defecate where we eat. We’re relying on technology to save us, and it won’t. Have you looked at the sky lately? One more horseman following up the rear is our insufferable distraction and systematic desensitization to cruelty. We’re treating one another badly. Occupy had that right. We ALL have more in common with one another than we have with the 1%, but their incessant propaganda divides and conquers us. The freest thing in America is propaganda, and we prefer being spun like tops and played like fiddles rather than dealing with the 1% juggernaut.

    So as much as the corporate coup is complete, there’s going to a big reckoning sooner rather than later for the 100%. I want to have that conversation, but few others do.

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