Many people imagine that a country run on the lines of the American republic is a democratic state, that the institutions of America are democratic institutions, that the spirit of such a state is the democratic spirit, and that the philosophy of such a state – the “Rights of Man” is the democratic philosophy. All of which ideas are wrong. The common meaning of the term “democracy”, a form of society in which supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people – is correct enough as far as it goes, and is sufficient in all that it implies. But it implies something very different from the American republic and its institutions.
On November 6, Americans will go to the polls to decide who gets to be blamed for all the country’s problems for the next four years. Politicians supply demons. They supply a singular address for evil upon which you can blame everything. Where the economy is a mess, where people’s mortgages are underwater, it is much easier to find one single person or group of people to blame for all their problems than it is to analyze the extremely complex subject of, for instance, mortgage-backed Wall Street securities, which most people can’t understand. So, you blame taxes, or you blame the bankers or you blame Obama himself.
The American electorate is facing a presidential election in which there is almost no prospect of a constructive debate. The question will be which representative of the elite do Americans hate more? An election frenzy seizes the country because they have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining their destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the mediocrities who have already been chosen for them and who will provide succor for the unelected dictatorship of money. The charade of American democracy can no longer fool the world. US workers are spectators in another episode of the great reality TV elect-a president show. As the grandest spectacle of American politics, the presidential election is a massive commercial, an advertisement, spread all over the major and minor networks, cable televisions, cyber-space, selling a “new and improved” leader like a brand of detergent, offering little democratic aspiration to the world.
A democracy cannot function without a public that is properly informed. Communication should be emancipatory. You can’t have a mandate if the electorate has no idea what it’s voting for. Perhaps the greatest impediment to the rational discussion of ideas is the lies, misinformation and confusion which the media generates on an almost daily basis about possible alternatives to capitalism. Yet these days, it is difficult to ascertain what is real and what is fantasy anymore. Vote for your favourite singer by pressing the number on your mobile. Vote for who you think won the political debate, who had the nicest smile, whose intonation was more appropriate, who looked better? The spectacle of cynical politicians presenting themselves in what they hope will be the most effectively deceptive way is stunningly ugly. The criteria used to evaluate a talent show and political events have been reduced to knee jerk emotion. Are we voting for the latest Simon Cowell protégé or the next leader and commander-in-chief? Who cares, it’s just the same old feel-good X-factor stuff. Join in the media-led cheer-leading from the safety of the arm-chair. We surround ourselves with people and images in order to give our lives meaning in an age of increasing rootlessness. The lines between rationality and emotion, politics and entertainment, news and gossip, became all but lost. The ad industry’s marketing people and political spin doctors all read from the same mind manipulation manual, all learnt from each other and all used the same tug-at-the-heart strings, guilt-trip tactics to convey their messages. The people of the United States are like caged hamsters running endlessly on a proverbial spinning wheel. The media go about the business of misinforming, disinforming, and diverting the people from the source of their misery—which is the system itself. In other words, it’s all about controlling the minds of the masses. “If those in charge of our society—politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television—can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power…”- explained Howard Zinn. Or as Steve Biko said “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
Television advertising, an inherently dishonest and irrational means of communication, has long been the primary vehicle for electoral debate in the United States. It is depressing that American workers should be impressed by – indeed be part of – the slick, high pressure salesmanship and cynical drives for power. To accept the spectacle of the presidential election, a political vaudeville routine, requires a massive feat of amnesia or delusion by the working class. What difference will the victory of one candidate over another in the presidential election really make to the ordinary American? The short answer must be very little. The election is not much more than a public relations exercise where American people are given their “sixty seconds of democracy” to select an emissary of the owning class. The US media add credence to the myth that the presidential election carries real choice by eagerly analysing every tiny perceived difference between the candidates, bombarding the electorate with patriotic rhetoric and fine sounding promises while enthusiastically expounding the lie that the candidates share a common interest with ordinary working people. Their propaganda is heavily loaded with corporate and business ideology and praise for the virtues of the “free-market system” designed to perpetuate the fallacy that capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked, indeed synonymous. The ringing, empty promises spewed out have been painstakingly crafted over hours of toil and argument, to promote an image of each candidate as clever, strong, sincere, honest. The reality, though, is the sordid money-grubbing, back-stabbing rat-race of capitalism; where politicians are merely the message boys of the rich and powerful and where the poor and exploited are left behind. In a symbiotic relationship, big businesses and wealthy individuals fund the campaigns of politicians, and in turn the bought politicians pass laws which rig the game in the interests of their financial benefactors.
And after the “greatest show on Earth” what is the likely out-come – a further dismantling of welfare mechanisms for the poorest, an increased weakening of organised labour and healthcare provisions and the loosening of regulations to control pollution. American business interests will certainly demand the elimination of everything that interferes with capitalism’s domination its ruthless pursuit of profit. This will inevitably lead to increased labour “flexibility” (i.e. worker insecurity), a “liberalisation” of already minimal employment rights, the reduction or abolition of “not-for-profit” welfare services. Corporations will continue to export their operations to other countries where they will ruthlessly exploit cheap labour to reduce costs.
In foreign policy the President will defend the overseas investments and interests of US corporations and the “world global order” of capital accumulation. Where corporations see a further opportunity to expand their profit base into another country, US government influence will be exerted to transform that country’s economy, culture and political life in order to integrate its productive structures into the international system of capital accumulation. If the “natives” cannot be peacefully persuaded to open up their country to outside exploitation, pretexts will be found for military intervention – something that has occurred time and time again since the second world war.
Ordinary working people in the United States will continue to be subjected to a campaign designed to induce fear over “the war on terror”. The US is well practised in this method of social control. None other than General Douglas MacArthur warned in 1957 against this propaganda. “Our government,” he said, “keeps us in a perpetual state of fear – keeps us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervour – with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil . . . to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”
In the United States ideas and principles seem to have disappeared from the mainstream of public debate. It is a time of post-ideological politics – to put in lay-man’s terms “all politicians are the same”. Democrats are interchangeable with Republicans. Differences between them are minor, and none whatever on what matters most. The two parties address the issues of the election not so much as people with differing ideas about the kind of world we should be living in but merely as accountants arguing over ways to manage the economy . And, of course, the big questions being “should we have more tax or less tax” and “where and what should we spend them on”. The public view of politicians is increasingly low. They are seen as careerists and opportunists, liars and sleaze merchants. But they have added to their dubious reputations by also becoming utterly boring. Never was politics less inspired. Morale among Democrats is low because Obama has not been the savior many people expected him to be and he has squandered the good-will so quickly and for so little. Romney, raises little enthusiasm from conservative Republicans, being opposed by the Tea Party, and indeed, if the conservative Republican votes had not been split among conservative candidates, Romney would not be the nominee. But being politicians, they must try to combat voter disillusionment. Behaving like chameleons, they must search for ways to improve their image, re-invigorate old policies and give the appearance that this time things will be different, that this time the electorate will be given exactly what it wants.
The fact that politicians have become mere state functionaries means they have come to share the same ideas and these assume a continuation of the status quo. Whoever wins or loses, the future will be capitalist business as usual. The outcome of US elections carries one truth: namely that whichever candidate becomes president, he has but one remit once in the Oval Office – to further the interests of the US corporate elite. The American president embodies the roles of chief executive, chief legislator, head of state, commander-in-chief, and party leader. But the office also embraces two additional roles. The first is guardian of American capitalism, a role fulfilled by advancing the wealth and power of giant US corporations and their wealthy investors. The second is that of protector of the wider economic system, a role acquired after the second world war when, as Gerald Haines, former diplomat and senior historian of the CIA put it, the United States “assumed, out of self-interest, responsibility for the welfare of the world capitalist system”.
The globalised showmanship of American presidential election is geared and designed to sell one commodity and one commodity only – “democracy” – that the US is a democracy and by virtue of that claim, it gets the privilege of sending its aircraft carriers and fighter jets around the planet to drop bombs on people, facilitated by the Orwellian Newspeak of “human rights” and “humanitarian intervention”, justifying whatever means of violence at their disposal, in every way they deem necessary, to protect their values and their interests, to protect and promote democracy as NATO did in the bombing of Libya. The US Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act, the Guantanamo Bay, the Bagram Air Base, the National Defence Authorisation Act, illegal wiretapping and internet control and censorship are all camouflaged under the spectacle of presidential election that sells “freedom and democracy”.
Politicians and the media insist that we have democracy, that we have free elections which allow us to choose whatever form of government we wish, unlike countries where a single-party dictatorship exists. Such dictatorships usually allow elections where the people may approve or disapprove of given candidates within the dictatorship but have not the freedom to vote for any other parties or for independent candidates. In other words the people have imposed on them by force, corruption or the control of information a specific political regime and have not got the necessary democratic machinery to challenge that regime. Looking at the vast sums of money involved in our allegedly democratic elections we can hardly claim that they are “free”! In fact in most of the so-called democratic countries it could be said that the astronomical costs of challenging for political power have been deliberately manipulated in order to ensure that those who cannot attract rich backers will be denied meaningful access to the democratic process. Effectively this means that in the same way as people in dictatorships are denied the right to make real political changes, in America prohibitive financial restrictions are placed in the way of the working class organising politically to effect real economic change. This does not mean that socialists equate dictatorship and bourgeois democracy. What we can equate is the hypocrisy of bourgeois politicians, who rightly condemn those capitalist dictatorships where political freedom is denied and yet are willing participants and vociferous defenders of a form of capitalism wherein financial impediments exist that make a mockery of real democracy. The idea of a fair and free election would give the ruling class political apoplexy.
After the shouting is over and the whichever new president is inaugurated, capitalism, in America and the rest of the world, remains unscathed. The social system that produces the horrors of war, poverty, insecurity and racial hatred remains intact. The Democrats and Republicans, like the other capitalist parties, can offer no end to these. The Republicans and the Democrats are essentially two wings of the same party – the Business Party – and there’s very little to choose between them. During election campaigns, significant policy differences are downplayed or ignored completely – largely because they don’t exist – and which wing wins depends on which has succeeded in attracting the most investment from sections of the capitalist class, spent the most money, and delivered the most effective PR/advertising campaign. The two-party system has become a delusion. Republicans and Democrats are carbon copies of one another. The Democrats, as a matter of simple fact, have always been the historic enemy of the working class and are but a wing of the capitalist class. They have won election after election on the clear and definite promise, repeated again and again in the most solemn terms, to improve the people’s condition. They have broken those promises as often as they have made them. The working class, whose memories are, unfortunately, very short, and who have not studied political history, have believed them when they made their election speeches; have returned them to power believing that they, and not the Republicans were the real friends of the workers. The net result has been that every time and all the time, no president has helped them; for whatever slight improvements have been effected have been due to the combined action of the working class and to nothing else.
As John Pilger put it at a conference in San Francisco in July of 2009. “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves.”
Conventional political parties endorse the framework of capitalism and compete to win control over the state and to administer the economic system within its boundaries, which necessarily means perpetuating the wages system and the persistent hardship for wage and salary earners. The policies propounded by these parties are similar because they are manifestations of the same political imperative – a continuation of capitalism – and are distinguishable only to the extent that they propose different organisation methods to administer the same economic system. When capitalist interests are threatened by the workers both parties reveal themselves as one class. Politics is the art of keeping a slave class in subjection and although every dispute between the parties ends in a compromise, both sides carry on the sham fight as though complete victory were of vital importance to them to deceive the working class into the belief that the fight is real, and that they are concerned in it. A compromise reached and a new bill or budget passed without the staged protracted noisy debates would be an opportunity lost of deluding the workers. Without this supposed friction and fiction the workers cannot be divided to ensure their (united) support for capitalism. If the party system of the Democrats and Republicans were destroyed, the class line would become the line of demarcation. The British prime minister Lloyd George in 1909 explained ”Is it not a real advantage to the country that there should be two great parties, each capable in turn of providing responsible administration for the service of the Crown [ read Capitalist ]? How much better our system of government, as worked upon this balance, than in those countries where there is a permanent governing class, with all those interests of wealth and privilege massed around them, keeping the rest of their fellow-countrymen in sullen subjection by force of arms”.
But like it or not, it matters who’s in charge of America. Unlike many on the left, the Socialist Party has always stood by the simple principle of assuming that when voters vote for a party or candidate, they do actually support – no matter how grudgingly or partially – their policies and platform. It is a little patronising to assume that millions of American voters, after months of discussion voted the way they did because they are stupid. We have to credit them with wanting what they voted for, with supporting the policies of the capitalist class and their elected monarch. We don’t vote for leaders to implement this or that decision; we vote according to our ideological inclinations to give them a “free hand” to make decisions. Voters vote presidents out because they appear incompetent, incapable of finding solutions to the daily problems that confronts ordinary people. But government can never solve these problems because their permanent solution lies only in the abolition of capitalism and the wages system. Economic laws that politicians are powerless to change and leave little room for manoeuvre determine what politicians do and how they must react. It is not the dishonesty of presidents that is the problem but rather the economic structure of society. Most wage and salary earners rarely question the structure of society and passively support the system that always works against them. In misguided expressions of defiance that flow from frustration and lack of understanding, voters repeatedly swap Democrat governments for Republican, or Republican governments for Democrat in the hope that it will somehow make a difference. They are always disappointed by the outcome. Mandating a political party to administer capitalism means that workers surrender political power to their class enemy and condone the continuation of their own exploitation, their insecurity and their poverty – a lesson that workers seem unable to grasp as the same mistake is slavishly repeated over and over again. Although the electorate are doing it in decreasing numbers, the ritual of voting one lot in and afterwards blaming them for failure and replacing them with carbon copies, is futile. This produces a culture of cynicism and blame in which an alienated population feel they have no real powers to bring about change. But the fact remains that in most developed countries governments are in office by consent and this brings responsibility back to the majority of people to do more than just vote and blame. They have to realise where their true interests lie, do their own thinking and act on their own behalf. Instead of the delusion of the American democracy aiding the cause of democracy anywhere in the world, it is the fact of the global democratic uprising, the Arab Spring amongst it, aiding the ordinary Americans revolt exemplified by the Occupy Movement against their own degenerated system that is the only cause of hope for future. Millions of people around the globe are out in the street withstanding militarised police brutality. In the Occupy Movement, Americans have joined the world and share in their struggles for a politics of emancipation. People have re-engaged with the battle of ideas.
Only the establishment of socialism can give us a world of peace and plenty. And for that we do not need stage-managed ballyhoo. We need knowledge and the social responsibility that goes with it. America itself has changed out of all recognition in its two hundred years of growth, and will change again. Across the world there are countless examples of sweeping changing to political landscapes from one election to the next. Political freedom offers the best means to make that change, and the tools are to hand were the workers to take them up. Nothing short of fundamental system change will bring about an end to the economic exploitation, corporate control and perpetual wars. Our time and our energy should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our co-workers in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently a movement that will shake whoever sits in the White House. As Howard Zinn again explains “…the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.” In a way, Zinn re-affirms what the most important three words in the American constitution are:“We The People…”
For power to be lodged in the hands of the people does not mean merely that they are to have the widest possible franchise and equal voting power. It implies that the people are to have control of all social institutions, a say in all social activities, the self-management social life. Such a condition of affairs presupposes at the very outset the common ownership by the people of all the means of life.