Selected passages from

Democracy For The Few

Michael Parenti

There is a marked relationship between economic power and political power. Democracy is repeatedly violated by corporate oligopoly. Ruling elements must intentionally strive to maintain and advance the conditions of hegemonic rule. Our government more often represents the privileged few rather than the general public. Policy decisions are seldom neutral. Someone once defined a politician as a person who receives votes from the poor and money from the rich on the promise of protecting each from the other. And former president Jimmy Carter observed: “Politics is the world's second oldest profession, closely related to the first [prostitution].” Many people share this view. For them, politics is little more than the art of manipulating appearances in order to sell oneself, with the politician acting as a kind of prostitute. While not denying the measure of truth in such observations, I take a broader view. Politics is more than just something politicians do. Politics involves not only the competition among groups within the system but the struggle to change the system itself, not only the desire to achieve predefined ends but the struggle to redefine ends and pose alternatives to the existing politico-economic structure.

The very organization of the federal government reflects its close involvement with the economy. Politics and economics are two sides of the same coin. This close relationship is neither neutral nor merely coincidental. Governments evolve through history in order to protect accumulations of property and wealth. In nomadic and hunting societies, where there is little surplus wealth, governance is rudimentary and usually communal. In societies where wealth and property are controlled by a select class of persons, a state develops to protect the interests of the haves from the have-nots. As wrote John Locke in 1689: “The great and chief end... of Men's uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of Property.” And Adam Smith, the premier exponent of early capitalism, wrote in 1776: “The necessity of civil government grows up with the acquisition of valuable property.” And “Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor.”

Power belongs to those who possess the resources to enable them to shape and influence the actions and beliefs of others, such resources as jobs, organization, technology, publicity, media, social legitimacy, expertise, essential goods and services, organized force, and – the ingredient that often determines the availability of these things – money.

Sometimes the complaint is made: “You're good at criticizing the system, but what would you put in its place?” – the implication being that unless you have a finished blueprint for a better society, you should refrain from pointing out existing deficiencies and injustices. It is unreasonable, however, to demand that we refrain from making a diagnosis of an illness until we have perfected a cure. People can leave political life alone, but it will not leave them alone. One ignores the doings of the state only at one's risk.

To expose these abuses is not to denigrate the nation that is a victim of them. The greatness of a country is to be measured by something more than its rulers, its military budget, its instruments of dominance and destruction, and its profiteering giant corporations. A nation's greatness can be measured by the democratic nature of its institutions, by its ability to create a society free of poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation, imperialism, and environmental devastation. There is no better way to love one's country, and strive for the fulfillment of its greatness, than to entertain critical ideas that enable us to pursue social justice at home and abroad.

One should distinguish between those who own the wealth of society and those who must work for a living. The very rich families and individuals who compose the owning class live mostly off investments: stocks, bonds, rents, and other property income. Their employees live mostly off wages, salaries, and fees. The distinction between owners and employees is blurred somewhat by the range of incomes within both classes. “Owners” refer both to the fabulously wealthy stockholders of giant corporations and the struggling proprietors of small stores. But the latter hardly qualify as part of the corporate owning class. Among the victims of big business is small business itself. Small businesses are just so many squirrels dancing among the elephants. Every year over 30,000 of them go out of business.

You are a member of the owning class when your income is very large and comes mostly from the labor of other people, that is, when others work for you, either in a company you own, or by creating the wealth that allows your investments to give you a handsome return. The secret to wealth is not to work hard but to have others work hard for you. This explains why workers who spend their lives toiling in factories or offices retire with little or no wealth to speak of, while the owners can amass considerable fortunes. Workers, for example, employed in manufacturing alone produced at least $1.64 trillion in value added, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, for which they were paid $363 billion in wages, or less than one-fourth of the market value created by their labor.

Workers endure an exploitation of their labor as certainly as do slaves and serfs. The slave obviously toils for the enrichment of the master and receives only a bare subsistence in return. James Madison told a visitor shortly after the American Revolution that he made $257 a year on every slave he owned and spent only $12 or $13 for the slave's keep. Slavery was a very profitable system. Under capitalism, however, the portion taken from the worker is not visible. Workers are simply paid substantially less than the value they create. Indeed, the only reason they are hired is to make money off their labor. If wages did represent the total value created by labor (after expenses and improvements), there would be no surplus value, no profits for the owner, no great fortunes for those who do not labor.

The sums going to owners, then, are aptly called unearned income on tax reports. While corporations are often called “producers,” the truth is they produce nothing. They are organizational devices for the exploitation of labor and accumulation of capital. The real producers are those who apply their brawn, brains, and talents to the creation of goods and services. The primacy of labor was noted in 1861 by Abraham Lincoln in his first annual message to Congress: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Contrary to a widely propagated myth, the USA is not composed mostly of a broad affluent middle class. The top 1 percent own between 40 to 50 percent of the nation's total wealth (stocks, bonds, investment funds, land, natural resources, business assets, etc), more than the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent. True, about 40 percent of families own some stocks or bonds, but almost all of them have investments of less than $2,000. Taking into account their debts and mortgages, 90 percent of American families have little or no net assets.

The greatest source of individual wealth is inheritance. A large majority of the “self-made” super-rich received crucial start-up capital from a family member or inherited fortunes. If you are not rich, it is because you lacked the foresight to pick the right parents at birth. Studies show that, despite the well-publicized cases, rags-to-riches is a relatively rare exception. Most people die in the class to which they were born. The poor usually stay poor, no matter how hard they toil. In fact, there is less upward social mobility today than a generation ago. The level of inequality in the United States is higher than any other industrialized nation, and it continues to grow.

The real wealth is within the super-rich stratum, a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the population, some 145,000 taxpayers, who increased their aggregate income by almost 600 percent in the last three decades (adjusting for inflation). The share earned by the rest of the top 10 percent rose far less, and the real income earned by the bottom 90 percent fell by 7 percent. In addition, the Treasury Department says that the super-rich find ways, legal and illegal, to shelter much of their income from taxes. So the gap between them and everyone else is much larger than even these figures suggest. The tiny top fraction that composes the super-rich is not thirteen times but thousands of times richer than the poorest quintile. Few of the people who study income distribution seem to realize how rich the rich really are.

The power of the wealthy business class is like that of no other group in our society. The giant corporations control the rate of technological development and availability of livelihoods. They relegate whole communities to destitution when they export their industries overseas to cheaper labor markets. They devour environmental resources, stripping our forests and toxifying the land, water, and air. They command an enormous surplus wealth while helping to create and perpetuate conditions of scarcity for millions of people at home and abroad [scarcity = dependency = control; abundance = choice = freedom]. And they usually enjoy a predominating voice in the media and the highest counsels of government. A small number of giant corporations control most of the U.S. Economy's private sector. In 2004 the largest fifty U.S. And foreign firms collectively hauled in $4.8 trillion in earnings.

Companies sometimes run at a loss, yet their top executives still richly reward themselves. When bicycle makers Schwinn/GT went bankrupt, the company handed $2 million in bonuses to its CEO – and then asked a bankruptcy court to keep the bonuses secret. American Airlines was brought to the edge of bankruptcy by its executives, who then voted themselves huge bonuses and millions in extra pension benefits. The more workers the boss can lay off and the more profit he can squeeze out of the remaining workforce, the more he is rewarded. Still, it should be remembered that the average CEO collects only about 3 or 4 percent of a company's profits. The rest is distributed to its super-rich stockholders, those who do not work for it and who are vastly richer than the company's executive officers, a with the Waltons of Wal-Mart.

Corporations are hailed by some as great job providers. In fact the top two hundred transnational corporations account for more than a quarter of the world's economic activity while employing hardly one-hundredth of one percent (0.01) of the world's workforce. The capitalist seeks to raise profit-ability bydownsizing (laying off workers), speedups (making the diminished work force toil faster and harder),downgrading (reclassifying jobs to lower-wage categories), and using more and more part-time and contractlabor (hiring people who receive no benefits, seniority, or steady employment). So the idea that all Americans are in the same boat, experiencing good and bad times together, should be put to rest. During recent recessions, corporate profits grew to record levels, as companies squeezed more output from each employee while paying less in wages and benefits.

Wealth and poverty are not just juxtaposed, they are in a close dynamic relationship. Wealth creates poverty and relies on it for its own continued existence. Without slaves and serfs, how would the master and lord live in the style to which they are accustomed? Without the working poor, how would the leisurely rich make do? Were there no underprivileged, who wold be privileged?

Most of our food supply and farmlands, as well, are dominated by a handful of agribusiness firms that control 80 percent of the food industry's assets and close to 90 percent of the profits. Contrary to popular belief, large commercial agribusiness farms do not produce more efficiently than small farms, especially when real costs are taken into account. Small, biodiverse farms are actually quite productive. Agribusiness mass-production techniques damage topsoil, cause enormous waste runoffs, and produce heavily chemicalized crops and livestock. The family farm uses less pesticides and herbicides, does not voluntarily resort to genetic engineering, and is concerned about farm waste disposal and preserving the cleanliness of its ground water, which it uses for its own purposes. Family farms treat their livestock in a healthier and more humane way, injecting less antibiotics and hormones in the livestock. They are also more economical in their use of fuel and top soil, and by providing primarily for local markets, they have lower transportation costs. With the growth of corporate agribusiness, however, regional self-sufficiency in food has virtually vanished.

Much of the food we eat today contains genetically engineered ingredients, created by big biotech companies like Monsanto. The long-term effects of such “Frankenfood” on our health are unknown. Monsanto and others are marketing “terminator seeds” that create crops which do not produce seeds of their own. As with all genetically modified seeds, the terminator seeds are patented; it is a crime for farmers to save their own seeds for planting. The resulting genetic uniformity wipes out natural diversity, making crops more vulnerable to disease and pests. This increases the need for pesticides and herbicides beyond what is used on conventional crops. These pesticides are often manufactures by Monsanto and other companies that also make the seeds. Small farmers have had their crops contaminated by genetically modified pollen drifting over from distantly located agribusiness lands. These farmers then have been successfully sued and bankrupted by Monsanto because some small portion of their crop (accidentally) contained genetically engineered plants and therefore constituted an infringement of the corporation's “property rights.”

Those who say that private enterprise can answer our needs overlook the fact that private enterprise has no such interest, its function being to produce the biggest profits possible. People may need food, but they offer no market until their need (or want) is coupled with buying power to become a market demand. When asked what they were doing about widespread hunger in the United States, one food manufacturer responded with refreshing candor: “If we saw evidence of profitability, we might look into this.”

The difference between need and demand also shows up on the international market also. When the “free market” rather than human need determines how resources are used, poor nations feed rich ones. Beef, fish, and other protein products from Peru, Mexico, Panama, India and other Third World countries find their way to profitable U.S. Markets rather than being used to feed the hungry children in those countries. The children need food, but they lack the money; hence, there is no demand. The free market is anything but free. Money is invested only where money is to be made. Under capitalism, there is a glut of nonessential goods and services for those with money and a shortage of essential ones for those without money. Stores groan with unsold items while millions of people are ill-housed and ill-fed.

The human value of productivity rests in its social purpose. Is the purpose to plunder the land without regard to ecological needs, fabricate endless consumer desires, produce expensive goods like automobiles requiring costly upkeep, pander to snobbism and acquisitiveness, squeeze as much toil as possible out of workers while paying them as little as possible, create artificial scarcities in order to jack up prices – all in order to grab ever bigger profits for the few? Or is productivity geared to satisfying essential communal needs first and superfluous desires last, caring for the natural environment, the public's health and well-being, educational opportunities, and cultural life? Capitalist productivity-for-profit gives little consideration to the latter set of goals.

It is argued that the accumulation of great fortunes is a necessary condition for economic growth, for only the wealthy can provide huge sums needed for the capitalization of new enterprises. Yet in many industries, be it railroads, aeronautics, nuclear energy, communications, or computers, much of the initial funding for research and development came from the government (that is, from the taxpayers). It is one thing to say that large-scale production requires capital accumulation but something else to presume that the source of accumulation must be the purses of the rich. Giant corporations leave much of the pioneering research to smaller businesses and individual entrepreneurs. The inventiveness record, for example, of the biggest oil companies is strikingly undistinguished.

Defenders of the free market also claim that big production units are needed for the modern age. However, bigness is less the result of technological necessity and more the outcome of profit-driven acquisitions and mergers. When times are good, the capitalists sing praise to the wonders of their free-market system. When times are bad, they blame labor for capitalism's ills. Workers must learn to toil harder for less in order to stay competitive in the global economy, they say; then business would not move to cheaper labor markets in the Third World countries. It is a race to the bottom. But workers who take wage and benefit cuts “in order to remain competitive” often end up seeing their jobs exported overseas anyways, because their wages have not been reduced to the level of wages in Indonesia or China. In capitalist societies, if people cannot find work, that is their misfortune. No free-market economy has ever come close to full employment. If anything, unemployment is functional to capitalism. Without a reserve army of unemployed to compete for jobs and deflate wages, labor would cut more deeply into profits.

Some people say there is plenty of work available; unemployment results because individuals are just lazy. But when unemployment jumps by a half-million or more during an economic slump, is it really because a mass of people suddenly found work too irksome and preferred to lose their income, medical coverage, and pensions? When decent jobs open up, vast numbers of the “lazy” line up for them.

Americans have also been taught that they are the most well-off people in the world. The truth is, the United States is 49th in the world in literacy, and 37th in health care even while spending more on its (profiteering) health industry than any other nation. Of twenty industrial countries, the United States has the highest poverty rate, and highest rate of youth deaths due to accidents, homicide, and other violence. Americans work longer hours per year and get less vacation time than workers in any other industrialized country. Given the improvement in disease prevention and lifestyle, including more physical exercise and less smoking, U.S. life expectancy is up to an all-time high of 77.6 years in 2005. But the United States still rates 50th in life expectancy and shows increasingly high rates of hypertension and obesity. One of every five U.S. adults is functionally illiterate. Estimates of homelessness vary from 1 to 3 million, almost a third of whom are families with children.

Children in poverty are more likely to be born at a low birth weight, die in infancy or early childhood, and be plagued with serious ailments, including diseases associated with malnutrition. They are more likely to suffer from untreated illnesses, be exposed to environmental toxins and neighborhood violence, and suffer delays in learning development. Young and elderly poor suffer a “silent epidemic of oral disease,” from tooth decay to mouth cancer, due largely to poor overall health and inability to pay for dental care or dental insurance. As one columnist noted, “If the president on his visit to China had witnessed Chinese peasants eating from garbage cans, he almost certainly would have cited it as proof that communism doesn't work. What does it prove when it happens in the capitalist success called America?”

It is difficult for those who have never known serious economic want to imagine the misery it can cause. People living under the crushing burden of poverty – without enough money for rent, food, and other necessities, in unsafe crime-ridden neighborhoods and deteriorated housing – suffer an inordinate amount of unattended pathologies, including depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Drops in income and even most jumps in unemployment rates bring discernible increases in illness, emotional distress, substance addictions, suicide, and crime. Over 30 percent of Americans have experienced some form of mental problem such as serious depression. Tens of millions are addicted to alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs. Millions more are addicted to medical drugs such as amphetamines and barbiturates. The pushers are the doctors; the suppliers are the dug industry; the profits are stupendous.

In sum, the story of the United States' great “affluence” has a grimmer side. The free market is very good for winners, offering all the rewards that money can buy, but it is exceedingly hard on millions of others. Poverty creates problems in nutrition, health, housing, and neighborhood safety. These problems in turn lead to cognitive deficiencies, poor school performance, and limited employment opportunities. Contrary to the prevailing social mythology, the U.S. capitalist system squanders our natural resources, exploits and underpays our labor, and creates privation and desperate social needs, serving the few at great cost to the many, leaving us with a society that is less democratic and increasingly riven by wealth and want.

American capitalism represents more than just an economic system; it is an entire cultural and social order, mostly by and for the rich, a plutocracy, composed overwhelmingly of affluent business people. A fact of real significance is that almost all of “our” cultural institutions are ruled by non-elected self-perpetuating boards of affluent corporate representatives who are answerable to no one but themselves. We the people have no vote, no portion of the ownership, and no legal decision-making power within these institutions.

We are taught to think that capitalism breeds democracy and prosperity. The private enterprise system, it is said, creates equality of opportunity, rewards those who show ability, relegates the slothful to the lower rungs, creates national prosperity, and bolsters democracy. Little is said about how capitalism has supported and flourished under some of the most brutally repressive regimes and impoverished Third World nation. The private enterprise system places a great deal of emphasis on commercial worth: how to sell, compete, and get ahead. As Ralph Nader notes, the free market “only stimulates one value in society – the acquisitive, materialistic, profit value.” What about the values relating to justice, health, occupational and consumer safety, regard for future generations, and accountability in government?

Among the key institutions of plutocratic culture is our educational system. From grade school onward, students are given a positive picture of America's history, institutions, and leaders. Teachers tend to concentrate on the formal aspects of government and accord scant attention to the influences that wealthy, powerful groups exercise over political life. Instructors who wish to introduce a more critical view do so often at the risk of their careers. School texts seldom give more than passing mention to the courageous history of labor struggle or the corporate exploitation of working people at home and abroad. Almost nothing is said of the struggles of First Nations people (or Native American “Indians”), indentured servants, small farmers, and Latino, Asian, and European immigrants. The valiant history of resistance to slavery, racism and U.S. expansionist wars remains largely untaught in our schools.

Schools and media are inundated with informational materials provided free by the Pentagon and large corporations to promote a glorified view of the military and to boost privatization, deregulation of industry, and the wonders of the free market. The corporate structure increasingly permeates higher education. More and more college presidents and other top administrators are drawn directly from corporate America with no experience in teaching, research, or university administration. Corporate logos are appearing in classrooms and student union buildings. In academia, politically radical faculty, and even students, have suffered negative evaluations and loss of stipends, grants, and jobs. Journalists, managers, bureaucrats, and most other professionals who wish to advance in their careers learn to go along with things as they are and avoid espousing views that conflict with the dominant economic interests of capitalist society.

One agent of political socialization is government itself. Hardly a week passes without the U.S. president or some other official feeding us reassuring pronouncements about the economy and alarming assertions about enemies who threaten us from abroad or within. Helping them in their efforts are the news media, whose performance as an agency of political indoctrination is staggering. But the worst forms of tyranny are those so deeply ingrained, so thoroughly controlling, as not even to be consciously experienced as constraints. In capitalist society, mass advertising sells not only particular products but a whole way of life, a glorification of consumer acquisitiveness. People are expected to operate individually but toward rather similar goals. Everyone competes against everyone else, but for the same things. “Individualism” in this corporate-dominated culture refers to acquisitiveness and careerism. We are expected to get what we can for ourselves and not be too troubled by the problems faced by others. This attitude, considered inhuman in some societies, is labeled appropriately as “ambition” in our own and is treated as a quality of great social value.

Whether or not this “individualism” allows one to have control over one's own life is another story. The decisions about the quality of food we eat, the goods we buy, the air we breathe, the prices we pay, the wages we earn, the way work tasks are divided, the modes of transportation available to us, and the images we are fed by the media are usually made by people other than ourselves.

People who occupy privileged positions within the social hierarchy become committed to the hierarchy's preservation and hostile toward demands for a more equitable social order. According to one study, upper-income people were most opposed to equality of political power for all groups, while lower-income respondents were the firmest supporters of equality. Economically deprived groups are seen as a threat because they want more, and more for the have-nots might mean less for the haves and have-it-alls.

Class bigotry is one of the widely held forms of prejudice in American society and the least examined. The plutocratic culture teaches that material success is a measure of one's worth, and since the poor are not worth much, then society's resources should not be squandered on them. In capitalist society, the poor are generally seen as personally deficient and lacking in proper values, the authors of their own straitened circumstances. Rarely are they considered to be the victims of poverty-creating economic forces: high rents, under-employment, low wages, unattended illnesses, disabilities, and other such blessings of the free-market paradise. As the American humorist Will Rogers once said, “It's no crime to be poor, but it might as well be.”

In a society where money is the overriding determinant of one's life chances, the drive for material gain is not merely a symptom of a greed-driven culture but a factor in one's very survival. As corporate power tightens its grip over the political economy, many people have to work still harder to stay in the same place. Because human services are based on ability to pay, money becomes a matter of life and death. To have a modest or low income is to run a higher risk of insufficient medical care, homelessness, and job insecurity, and to have less opportunity for education, recreation, travel, and comfort. Thus, the desire to “make it,” even at the expense of others, is not merely a wrong-headed attitude but a reflection of the material conditions of capitalist society wherein no one is ever really economically secure except the super-rich, and even they forever seek to secure and advance their fortunes through further capital accumulation. For those who enjoy the best of everything, the existing politico-economic system is a smashing success. For those who are its hapless victims, or who are concerned about the well-being of all and not just themselves, the system leaves much to be desired.

Americans of all political persuasions profess a dedication to democracy, but they tend to mean different things by the term. In this book, democracy refers to a system of government that represents both in form and content the interests of the broad populace. Decision makers are to govern for the benefit of the many not for the advantages of the privileged few. The people hold their representatives accountable by subjecting them to open criticism, the periodic check of elections, and, if necessary, recall and removal from office. Democratic government is limited government, the antithesis of despotic absolutism.

But a democratic people should be able to enjoy freedom from economic, as well as political, oppression. In a real democracy, the material conditions of people's lives should be humane and not insufferable. Some writers would disagree, arguing that democracy is simply a system of rules for playing the political game, with the Constitution and laws as a kind of rule book, and that we should not try to impose particular economic agendas on this open-ended game. This approach certainly does reduce democracy to a game. It evades the whole question of cui bono? Who benefits from this game?

The law in its majestic equality, Anatole France once observed, prohibits rich and poor alike from stealing bread and begging in the streets. And so the law becomes something of a fiction that allows us to speak of “the rights of all” divorced from the class conditions that often place the rich above the law and the poor way below it. In the absence of certain material conditions, formal rights are of little value to millions who lack the means to make a reality of their rights.

Take the “right of every citizen to be heard.” In its majestic equality, the law allows both rich and poor to raise high their political voices: both are free to hire the best-placed lobbyists and Washington lawyers to pressure public office-holders. Both are free to shape public opinion by owning a newspaper or television station. And both rich and poor have the right to engage in multi-million-dollar election campaigns to win office for themselves or their political favorites. But again, this formal equality is something of a fiction. What good are the rules for those millions who are excluded from the game?

We are taught that capitalism and democracy go together. The free market supposedly creates a pluralistic society of manifold groups, a “civic society” that acts independently o the state and provides the basis for political freedom and prosperity. In fact, many capitalist societies – from Nazi Germany to today's Third World dictatorships – have private enterprise systems but no political freedom, and plenty of mass destruction. And the more open to free-market capitalism they become, the poorer they seem to get. In such systems, economic freedom means the freedom to exploit the labor of the poor and get endlessly rich, and little more than that. Transnational corporate capitalism is no guarantee of a meaningful political democracy, neither in Third World countries nor in the United States itself.

When it works with any efficacy, democracy is dedicated to protecting the well-being of the many and rolling back the economic oppressions and privileges that serve the few. Democracy seeks to ensure that even those who are not advantaged by wealth or extraordinary talent can earn a decent livelihood. The contradictory nature of “capitalist democracy” is that it professes egalitarian political principles while generating enormous disparities in material well-being and political influence.

Some people think that if you are free to say what you like, you are living in a democracy. But freedom of speech is not the sum total of democracy, only one of its necessary conditions. Too often we are free to say what we want, while those of wealth and power are free to do what they want to us regardless of what we say. Democracy is not a seminar but a system of power, like any other form of governance. Freedom of speech, like freedom of assembly and freedom of political organization, is meaningful only if it is heard and if it keeps those in power responsive to those over whom power is exercised.

Nor are elections a sure test of democracy. Some electoral systems are so thoroughly controlled by well-financed like-minded elites or rigged by dishonest officials that they discourage meaningful dialogue and broad participation. Whether a political system is democratic or not depends not only on its procedures but on the actual material benefits and the social justice or injustice it propagates. A government that pursues policies that by design or neglect are so steeply inequitable as to damage the life chances of large sectors of the population is not democratic no matter how many elections it holds.

A democratic citizenry should not succumb to uncritical state idolatry but should remain critical of the privileged powers that work against the democratic interests of our nation and its people.

The “Founding Fathers” who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the Constitution strove to erect a strong central government and they agreed with Adam Smith that government was “instituted for defense of the rich against the poor” and “grows up with the acquisition of valuable property.”

Contrary to what is commonly taught, the history of the United States has been marked by intense and often violent class struggles, with the government playing a partisan role in these conflicts, mostly on the side of big business.

With the advent of World War II, business and government became ever more entwined. Occupying top government posts, business leaders were able to freeze wages and let profits soar. Immediately after the war thousands of government-owned facilities were sold off as “war surplus” for a pittance of their actual value, representing a major transfer of public capital to private business. From the 1950s to today, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have supported the corporate business system with huge military spending programs, subsidies, and tax favors. We now have a corporate state that plays an increasingly active role in sustaining the capital accumulation process. It fulfills that role by taxing the many to subsidize the few, and by privatizing the nation's national resources that are nominally the property of the American people.

The United States is said to be a democracy, but it is also the world's only superpower, with a global military empire of a magnitude never before seen in history. What purpose does this empire serve?

The plutocracy rules, but not always in the way it would like. From time to time, those of wealth and power must make concessions, giving a little in order to keep a lot, taking care that the worst abuses of capitalism do not cause people to agitate against the capitalist system itself. Through much of the 20th century, democratic forces pressed their fight against economic and social injustice. In response, the federal government initiated a limited series of human services. In recent years even these inadequate but important gains have come under attack.

Those of privileged and powerful means believe they have a right to expropriate and use as they wish whatever natural resources still remain on the planet, while passing off their dis-economies onto others. They seem unaware that nature will have its revenge.

Although we have been taught to think of the law as a neutral instrument serving the entire community, in fact it is often written and enforced to favor the very rich over the rest of us.

The corporate-dominated state is more sincerely dedicated to fighting organized dissent than fighting organized crime. The law often appears ineffective when attempting to implement social reforms that benefit the many, but when mobilized against political heterodoxy, law enforcement is pursued with a boundless punitive vigor that itself becomes lawless.

Those who control the wealth of society, the corporate plutocracy, exercise trusteeship over educational institutions, foundations, think tanks, publications, and mass media, thereby influencing society's ideological output and information flow. They also wield a power over political life far in excess of their number. They shape economic policy through the control of jobs and investments. They directly influence the electoral process with their lavish campaign contributions, and they make it their business to occupy the more important public offices or see that persons loyal to them do so.

The mainstream media claim to be free and independent, objective and neutral, the “watchdogs of democracy.” A closer look suggests that they behave more like the lapdogs of plutocracy.

The U.S. political system is said to be democratic, for we get to elect our leaders in free and open elections. Yet, as a democratic institution, the electoral process is in need of serious rescue and repair. There is a two-party monopoly, the system of representation itself discriminates against third parties, redistricting changes the boundaries of a constituency to effect preferred political outcomes, money is a necessary condition, many people fail to vote because they face various kinds of official discouragement and intimidation, and elections are often stolen.

The framers of the Constitution separated governmental functions into executive, legislative, and judicial branches and installed a system of checks and balances to safeguard against abuses of power and to protect the propertied interests from the leveling impulses of the democratic populace. The Congress they created is a bicameral body, divided into the House of Representatives, whose 435 seats are distributed among the states according to population, and the Senate, with 2 seats per state regardless of population. Thus nine states – California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, and New Jersy – contain more than half the nation's population but only 18 of the Senate's 100 seats. Who and what does the Congress represent?

The president, we are told, plays many roles: chief executive, “chief legislator,” commander in chief, head of state, and party leader. Seldom mentioned is the president's role as promoter and guardian of global corporate capitalism. The president is the embodiment of the executive-centered state system that serves corporate interests at home and abroad. Every modern president has served as the politico-economic system's ideological salesperson, praising the “free enterprise” system and hailing America as the greatest country in the world. Presidents tend to downplay problems relating to the economy. Prosperity, our presidents tell us, is here or not far off – but so are the nation's many wild-eyed enemies, be they communists, revolutionaries, terrorists, Islamic “fanatics,” or whatever. There is no shortage of adversaries supposedly waiting to pounce on the United States, thwarted only by huge U.S. military budgets and the ready use of U.S. military force around the world. Whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, the president tends to treat capitalist interests as synonymous with the nation's well-being. The president's prime service is not to democracy but to the global free market. In modern times almost all major presidential candidates have been millionaires either when they first campaigned for the office or by the time they left it. For these reasons, and more, one of the president's main roles is “chief liar,” performed by offering the public a deceptive admixture of populist rhetoric and plutocratic policy.

Bureaucracy can be found in just about every area of modern capitalist society, in big corporations, universities, religious establishments, and other private organizations as well as in governments. A bureaucracy is an organization that (a) mobilizes human and material resources for explicitly defined projects or purposes, (b) is staffed by career personnel with specialized skills and designated responsibilities, and (c) coordinated by a hierarchy of command. Bureaucracies often promote myths of inefficiency; glorify deregulation and privatization; generate secrecy, deception, waste and corruption; create non-enforcement; put public authority in private hands; and generate more monopoly regulation instead of public-service regulation.

The Supreme Court is highly political and by nature something of an aristocratic branch of government. As Chief Justice Hughes once remarked, “We are under a Constitution but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.” The Supreme Court opposes restrictions on capitalist economic power, but supports restrictions on the civil liberties of persons who agitate against that power. The Supreme Court's ideological bias is reflected not only in the decisions it hands down but in the cases it selects or refuses to review. During the last two decades of conservative domination, review access has been sharply curtailed for plaintiffs representing labor, minorities, consumers, and individual rights. Powerless and pauperized individuals have had a diminishing chance of getting their cases reviewed, unlike powerful and prestigious petitioners such as the government and giant corporations.

This country contains a diverse array of interest groups. If this is what is meant by “pluralism,” then the United States is a pluralistic society, as is any society of size and complexity. But the proponents of pluralism presume to be saying something about how power is distributed and how democracy works. Supposedly the government is not controlled by corporate elites who get what they want on virtually every question. If there are elites in our society, they are checked in their demands by conflicting elites. No group can press its advantages too far, and any sizable interest can find a way within the political system to make its influence felt. Government stands above any one particular influence but responds to many. So say the pluralists. But is that true?

Most government policies favor large investor interests at a substantial cost to the rest of the populace. Long and hard democratic struggles have won some real benefits for the public, yet inequities and social injustices of immense proportions continue and even worsen. There is commodity glut in the private market and chronic scarcity in public services. While the super-rich get ever richer, possessed of more money than they know what to do with, the number of people living below or perilously near the poverty level has continued to climb.

In reality, power is structured through entrenched, well-organized, well-financed, politico-economic channels. American government is not rules by a monolithic elite, but when push comes to shove what holds the various elites together is their common interest in preserving an economic system that assures the continual accumulation of corporate wealth and the privileged lifestyles of the rich and super-rich. Although there is no one grand power elite, there is continual communication and coordination between various corporate and governmental elites in almost every policy area, centering around the common interests of the corporate owning class.

Government involvement in the U.S. Economy represents not socialism (as that term is normally understood by socialists) but state-supported capitalism, not the communization of private wealth but the privatization of the commonwealth. It is not socialism that subverts democracy, but democracy that subverts capitalism. The state best protects the existing class structure by enlisting the loyalty and support of the populace, getting them to collaborate in their own mistreatment. The state establishes its legitimacy in the eyes of the people by keeping an appearance of popular rule and neutrality in regard to class interests, and by playing on the public's patriotic pride and fear, conjuring up images of cataclysmic attack by foreign forces, domestic subversives, communists, and now Islamic terrorists.

Having correctly discerned that “American democracy” as professed by establishment opinion makers is something of a sham, some people incorrectly dismiss the democratic rights won by popular forces as being of little account. But these democratic rights and the organized strength of democratic forces are, at present, all we have to keep some rulers from imposing a dictatorial final solution, a draconian rule to secure the unlimited dominance of capital over labor. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis commented, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.”

Why doesn't the capitalist class in the United States resort to fascist rule? Ruling elites are restrained in their autocratic impulses by the fear that they could not get away with it, that the people and the enlisted ranks of the armed forces would not go along. Given secure and growing profit margins, elites generally prefer a “democracy for the few” to an outright dictatorship.

What is needed, then, is public ownership of the major means of production and public ownership of the moneyed power itself – in other words, some measure of socialism. Most socialists are not against personal-use private property, such as a home. And some are not even against small businesses in the service sector. Nor are most against modest income differentials or special rewards to persons who make outstanding contributions to society. Nor are they against having an industry produce a profit, as long as it is put back into the budget to answer needs of society. Not just the costs but also the benefits of the economy should be socialized.

American socialism cannot be modeled on the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or other countries with different historical, economic, and cultural developments. But these countries ought to be examined so that we might learn from their accomplishments, problems, failures, and crimes. Our goal should be egalitarian, communitarian, environmentally conscious, democratic socialism, with a variety of participatory and productive forms, offering both security and democracy.

There is nothing sacred about the existing system. All economic and political institutions are contrivances that should serve the interests of the people. When they fail to do so, they should be replaced by something more responsive, more just, and more democratic. Karl Marx said this, and so did Thomas Jefferson. It is a revolutionary doctrine, and very much an American one.