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America’s Unelected Dictatorship of Money

April 14, 2011

(This article by Paul Street is re-posted from ZNet.)

Imagine if the reigning American media-politics culture approached U.S. policy and society with the same criteria it applies to other countries and governments.  Dominant American media regularly evokes moral outrage in response to crimes perpetrated by official enemies like Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Libya. By contrast, it has little to say about Washington’s mass-murderous bombing and drone-missile demolition of wedding parties, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or about the fact that three million Iraqis died prematurely because of the United State’s criminal invasion and occupation of their country (2003-present) – an ugly little detail deemed unfit to print in the New York Times’ recent front-page reporting of the following remarkable comment from Barack Obama’s “defense” secretary Robert Gates: “Iraq has been an extraordinary success story for the United States  military.”1 The torture and murder of democracy and social justice activists continues free of significant or outraged comment from North American media and political elites in Honduras, site of a vicious right wing coup that the Barack Obama administration briefly pretended to oppose and then sharply supported.2

“The People Need Real Change”

Double standards are also clear in how the dominant media describes the internal politics of different nations. Here is a passage on the struggle for democracy in Egypt on the front page of the Times last Friday:

“‘The people need change, real change,’ Mr. [Sherif] Nafie [a teaching assistant in Cairo University’s journalism department] said…. ‘People are anxious that this post-revolutionary moment will end without them gaining their rights,’ said Ehab al-Kharat, a psychiatrist organizing a new party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “

“‘It is the first time in Egyptian history that people are taking part in running their own institutions and organizations,” he said. “Democracy is not just about electoral ballots and politics at the national level — it is about how you run your organization, how you run your small neighborhood, it is about having a say in every aspect of your life. ‘ ”

“The problem, as both he and Mr. Nafie noted, is that Egyptians lack experience in the give and take of democracy, so the push for change is marked by accentuated hostility and mistrust.”3

“The Wealthy Call the Tune”

Poor Egypt — its struggle to achieve “American-style democracy” will be long and hard! The Times had nothing to say about the critical role that U.S. foreign military and economic “assistance” has long played (to this day) in deterring democracy in Egypt, across the Middle East, and indeed throughout the world. At the same time, the Times report reflected the deeply entrenched and reflexively expressed assumption that American citizens (very few of whom have ever been consulted about U.S. sponsorship of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and elsewhere) enjoy functioning democracy. But do they?

Contrary to the dominant notion of U.S. as a center right country, Americans hold a slew of progressive and democratic opinions. A vast amount of polling data contradicts the widespread assumption and dominant media trope that the United States is a “center-right nation”— even a conservative country.  National opinion polls suggest that Tea Partiers are clearly projecting their values upon a largely reluctant public, which views the lack of government support for progressive policies, rather than “big government” itself, as the major problem plaguing the political system. Public opinion is quite progressive in terms of majority support for social democracy and the left hand of the liberal state [4]:

* Sixty-nine percent of U.S. voters agree that “government should care for those who cannot care for themselves” (Pew Research, 2007).

* Fifty-four percent of voters agree that “government should help the needy even if it means greater debt” (Pew Research, 2007

* Fifty-eight percent believe the U.S. government should be doing more for its citizens, not less (National Elections Survey, 2004).

*  Twice as many Americans back more government services and spending (even if this means a tax increase) as do those who support fewer services and reduced spending (National Elections Survey, 2004).

* Sixty-four percent of Americans would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, May 2007).

* Sixty-nine percent think it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage to all U.S. citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006).

* Eighty percent support a government-mandated increase in the minimum wage (Associated Press/AOL Poll, December 2006).

*  Eighty-six percent want Congress to pass legislation to raise the federal minimum wage (CNN, August 2006).

* Seventy-one percent think that taxes on corporations are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007).

* Sixty-six percent think that taxes on upper-income people are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007).

* Fifty-nine percent are favorable toward unions, with just 29 percent unfavorable (Gallup Poll, 2006).

* 61 percent of Americans support the right of public sector unions to exist and collectively bargain on behalf of government workers (USA Today-Gallup, 2011).

* Fifty-two percent generally side with unions in labor disputes, whereas just 34 percent side with management (Gallup Poll, 2006).

* A strong majority of American voters think that the nation’s “most urgent moral question” is either “greed and materialism” (33 percent) or “poverty and economic injustice” (31 percent). Just 16 percent identify abortion and 12 percent pick gay marriage as the nation’s “most urgent moral question” (Zogby, 2004). Thus, 64 percent of the population thinks that injustice and inequality are the nation’s leading “moral issues.”

* Just 29 percent of Americans support the expansion of government spending on “defense” (a curious term for the Pentagon, which accounts for nearly half of the human race’s military spending and maintains more than 1000 military bases spread across more the 120 nations the world over). By contrast, 79 percent support increased spending on health care, 69 percent support increased spending on education, and 69 percent support increased spending on Social Security (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Views,” 2004)

* Seventy-eight percent of Americans support using “tax dollars…to help pay for…food stamps and other assistance to the poor,” while 80 percent support appropriating tax funding for “retraining programs for people whose jobs have been eliminated” (National Inequality Survey, 2007).

* 67 percent of adult Americans support “having a third political party that would run candidates or President, Congress, and state offices against the Republicans and Democrats” (CNN/Gallup/USA Today 1999).

But so what?  In the U.S. today, politics often seems to be little more than how it was described by the Progressive Age American philosopher John Dewey: “the shadow cast on society by business.” Actual public policy moves in very different, often enough diametrically opposed directions from mere public opinion in “the world’s greatest democracy.” Contrary to democratic theory’s identification of government with the people (the popular majority), none of the opinions bullet-pointed above seem to matter all that much when it comes to policy. As the former Times columnist Bob Herbert recently and quietly noted in his very last column for the nation’s “newspaper of record,” the nation’s “levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want” in the U.S., Herbert candidly acknowledged – a remarkable statement. “The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance…Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.”

That is a remarkable statement nearly two-and-a-half years after a presidential election that Herbert and many other establishment liberals hailed as a victory for progressive transformation.  The American people in 2008, like the Egyptian people today, wanted “change, real change” – something that Obama’s advisors anticipated well in advance as a problem requiring the proper elitist “expectation management” and “expectation calibration” – tasks that Obama’s advisor Samantha Powers called “essential at home and internationally” in February of 2008.5

The Obama administration quickly and boldly became a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same).  With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight, its epic undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the stealth power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.” [5A] As Bill Greider noted in The Washington Post early in the Obama presidency, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.  They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”[5B] The “right people” are found among an elite segment within the top 1 percent that owns roughly 40 percent of America’s wealth and a probably larger share of its “democratically elected officials,” making the U.S. by far and away the industrialized/post-industrialized world’s most unequal, wealth-top-heavy, and (even before the Supreme Court’s much progressive-bemoaned Citizen United decision) openly plutocratic society.

“If it Were Only Republicans Out to Destroy Us”

At least now Americans get to learn Greider’s “blunt lesson” with Democrats at the nominal helm of the corporate-managed fake democracy.  It’s an essential tutorial on the richly bipartisan nature of state-capitalist rule that holds special for “millennial” (18-29 year old) voters and citizens, for whom the election of John McCain would have reinforced the notion that American empire and inequality is just all about Republicans being in power.

The lesson has been deepening this year. Claiming falsely that the American people spoke in the Republicans’ electoral triumph of November 2010, the ever more right-wing Obama has made a number of moves calculated to win the more heartfelt allegiance of top business players. He has continued his pattern of coldly disrespecting his liberal and progressive “base” (comprised of people that Obama’s initial chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel called “fucking retard[s]”) by agreeing to sustain George W. Bush’s deficit-fueling tax cuts for the rich beyond their original sunset date of 2010.  Accepting the false business and Republican Tea Party claim that “overpaid” public sector workers are a leading force behind rising government deficits and economic stagnation, Obama ordered a two-year freeze on federal worker salaries and benefits. He published an Op-Ed in the plutocratic editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal – an essay that praised  “free market capitalism” as “the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known”) and  said that government often places “unreasonable burdens on business” that have a “chilling effect on growth and jobs.” The tone of his editorial suggested that it wasn’t neoliberal deregulation that sparked the financial collapse of 2008, but all those nasty little government rules and guidelines that stifle innovation and growth. 6

Obama signed an executive order calling for a government-wide review of regulations to remove or revise those that supposedly inhibited business. He appointed JPMorgan Chase’s William Daley – a leading agent of the corporate-globalist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under Bill Clinton – as his chief of staff. He put Goldman Sachs’ Gene Sperling (another legendary neoliberal) at the head of the National Economic Council.  He tapped General Electric (GE) CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head his new “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.” The new council’s title referred to specifically American jobs and competitiveness – something that made Immelt’s appointment more than a little darkly ironic: with fewer than half its workers employed in the United States and less than half its profits coming from U.S. activities, New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman noted, “G.E.’s fortunes have very little to do with U.S. prosperity.” 7

Consistent with these rightward moves, Obama’s late January 2011 State of the Union Address (SOTUA) claimed that American business was plagued by the highest corporate tax rate in the world. Obama opened the door to lowering that rate, cautioning – in language that seemed previously approved by the American Enterprise Institute – that he hoped to slash it “without adding to our deficit.” He offered no bold, large-scale economic stimulus, antipoverty or public works programs to address the mass unemployment and economic destitution still stalking the land two years into his presidency. Whether out of political necessity, ideological preference or both, Obama appeared to have pinned his hopes for an expanded economic recovery (vital for his chances of re-election) on appeasing the right and the business class. The former high profile left-liberal Obama supporter (an early member of “Progressives for Obama”) and Princeton professor Cornel West has now quite belatedly acknowledged that the president is “in the process of becoming, very sadly, a pawn of big finance, and a puppet of big business.”7A

As political scientist Michael David Green recently wrote in an epic and jaundiced rant on, “we’d be in bad enough shape if it were only Republicans out to destroy us.” Green elaborated:

“Then there’s the ‘Democrats,’ including the ‘socialist’ leader of the party, Barack Obama…’s Obama, the former anti-war community organizer, is to the ideological right of yesterday’s Dwight Eisenhower, former five-star general, leader of the Normandy invasion, commander of NATO and head of the Republican Party.  As today’s worst elements of the Republican Party (that is, almost all of them) seek to do exactly the things that Eisenhower called ‘stupid’, there is Obama, facilitating their efforts.”

“There are the Democrats, continually adding to the pile of tax giveaways for the rich, and therefore adding to the pile of debt which is now being used as a cudgel to force cuts on essential government services, programs despised by the oligarchy since the beginning.  There are the Democrats, continually adding to the pile of stupid Middle Eastern wars being fought using resources so scarce that medical care must now be cut for the poor and elderly.  There are the Democrats going even further than Republicans in smashing civil liberties and shredding the Bill of Rights.  There are the Democrats, as absolutely unwilling as Republicans to remotely face the very real planetary peril of global warming.  There are the Democrats, continuing to promulgate the failed Bush education policy of No Child Left Behind.  There are the Democrats, turning yet again to corporate ‘solutions’ to health care, which enrich parasitical insurance companies but do nothing for sick people other than to deny them care.  There are the Democrats (led by a black man, no less!), joining the chorus of Jesus Freak freaks in denying civil rights to gays…I think the conservative Eisenhower would sooner have become a German storm trooper than a modern Democrat, let alone a Republican – and on far too many days I’m not sure I can see the difference.”8

The recent weekend budget showdown and “deal” (resulting in the right-leaning meat-axing of $38 billion dollars from the 2011 federal outlay – corporate welfare survived intact) defies majority progressive public opinion by slashing social expenditures for working people and the disadvantaged while sustaining plutocratic tax cuts for the wealthy.  The “government shutdown” extravaganza’s theatrical display of partisan rancor disguises Obama abd the corporate-captive political class’s  forthcoming, bipartisan assault on senior citizens’ medical benefits and other dastardly social “entitlements” that are supposedly bankrupting America – this is as the media refuses to seriously cover the disturbing fact that a large number of leading American corporations (including GE) manage to pay no federal taxes at all.[9] The Times led off the week with a story on Obama’s plan to reduce the deficit by making unspecified “changes” to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – changes the moneyed elites can believe in, no doubt.  Change the rest of can bereave in.

“The Pentagon is Never Threatened With ‘Insolvency’”

Funny how we never hear ominous warning about the terrible possibility that the “defense” department might go bankrupt because of its egregious waste and inefficiency in the use of taxpayer dollars.  As Edward S. Herman noted in July of 2009: “The Pentagon has regular gigantic overruns in its payments for weapons systems and fraud and waste are endemic. But the Pentagon is never threatened with ‘insolvency.’ Its overruns and waste are simply passed on to taxpayers…the taxpayer funds the Pentagon on an open-ended basis without any trust funds or limits beyond what logrolling can produce. After all, it is protecting our ‘national security,’ using the phrase with its usual infinite elasticity to cover anything the Pentagon, its contractors, their lobbyists, and the congressional servants of the military-industrial complex want.”[10] The “right people” (Greider) include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course. The “new” White House has escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America, and now we have Obama’s fake-humanitarian missile intervention in Libya, costing U.S. taxpayers $100 million a day in cruise missile costs alone in the early days, much to the cost-plus profit of the owners of Raytheon – this in a nation (the U.S.) where 19 million citizens (6.3 percent of Americans) live in extreme poverty, with cash incomes of less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level – at less than roughly $11,000 for a family of four.

The irrelevance of the citizenry is especially pronounced at the level of foreign policy. In an uncommonly candid and comprehensive survey of the domestic interests the shape U.S. foreign policy, the elite political scientists Lawrence Jacobs (Northwestern) and Benjamin Page (same school) found that public opinion has “little or no significant effect on government officials” and that the primary influence on policy is “internationally oriented business corporations” (American Political Science Review 99, no.1, February 2005).

“CEOs Didn’t Have to Cry Poor for Long”

The corporate masters, meanwhile, are doing very nicely for themselves, in standard defiance of irrelevant majority popular opposition to excessive and grotesque disparities of wealth and income. A recent article in USA Today reports that, “CEOs didn’t have to cry poor for long…At a time most employees can barely remember their last substantial raise, median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010 as the executives’ compensation started working its way back to pre-recession levels…The big increases in executive compensation are difficult for workers to swallow, given that many Americans are struggling just trying to find a job or make ends meet…” Here are some the most remarkable American 2010 CEO incomes reported on USA Today’s web version of its report: P. Daummon (Viacom) – $84,469, 515; Ray Irani (Occidental Petroleum) – $76,107, 101; Michael White (DirectTV) – $32,932, 618; John Lundgren (Stanley Black&Decker) – $32,570,596; Robert Iger (Walt Disney)- $28,017, 414; Samuel Palmisano (IBM) – $25,180,681; Howard Schultz (Starbucks) – $21,733,013.  How’s that for “executive compensation”? These obscene “earnings” reflect the fact that the S&P Fortune 500 enjoyed a stunning 47 percent profits increase last year [11].  They are certain to stir the entrepreneurial ambitions of the more than 50 million Americans who live in “food insecure” households (homes experiencing recurrent and involuntary lack of access to sufficient food) in the U.S. today – unworthy victims of an officially invisible top-down class war.

Epidemic Depression: A “Not Unreasonable Response” to American Authoritarianism

But let us turn from the commanding heights of national and global policy to everyday institutions and organizations in American life. “Democracy,” the New York Times reminds us with the words of a Cairo teaching assistant in the Egyptian context, “is not just about electoral ballots and politics at the national level — it is about how you run your organization, how you run your small neighborhood, it is about having a say in every aspect of your life.” Indeed, and this is a big problem in the U.S., where citizens ubiquitously report feeling powerless and isolated within and in relation “their” workplaces, schools, local communities and state and local governments. Everyday Americans widely sense that they what they think, know, and feel is of no consequence in how and what decisions are made in the institutions with which they are most directly and regularly (if often passively and involuntarily) engaged. With good reason: those organizations and the communities tend to be strictly hierarchical, with unforgiving internal authority structures, and are often no less beholden to the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” than the nation’s dominant “two” parties.

That closet despotism crushes democracy and human vitality at the individual, family, and community levels. It penetrates, destroys, and limits the daily experience and consciousness of hundreds of millions of Americans, creating artificial consumer “needs,” and stealing the leisure time, mental balance and material security that genuine popular governance requires.  It forces us to spend the lion’s share of our waking time in the endless pursuit of currency and commodities and threatens us with the loss of basic necessities including food, shelter and (to a distinctive degree among industrialized states in the U.S.)health care if we dare to question the authority of our bosses and others who have more money and hence more power. The relentless neoliberal marketization and monetization of the commons and daily life turns us into money and hence wage and salary slaves, buried in debt and beholden to the insatiable and fickle profit lust of amoral capital and its many hired servants and enforcers. The rising mass of poor and deeply poor always are there, as George Carlin used to say, to scare the shit out of working and middle class people: to keep the employed trudging off to their often alienating and authoritarian workplaces, and, also, it should be added, to reduce the fee that employed people can charge capital for the privilege of renting out and distorting their human productive capacity (labor power). This is all no small part of why “the world’s greatest democracy” the United States is plagued by an ongoing epidemic of mass psychological depression, what the clinical psychologist and social critic Bruce Levine portrays as a “not unreasonable” response to the pressures of corporate authoritarianism in a “market fundamentalist” state wherein government has merged in totalitarian fashion with transnational corporations, breeding mass feelings of hopelessness and helplessness among tens of millions of (ex-) citizens[12]. Along with an endemic stealth societal racism that remains deeply entrenched and more cloaked than ever in the time of the nation’s first black president, it is also part of why and how the United States is the world’s leading prison state, home to nearly two and half million incarcerated persons. Another curious marker of greatness for the nation that U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (in her speech in support of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq) once described as “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.” 13

“Put Down Those Posters and Pick Up Those Clipboards”

It is exciting that Wisconsin’s messianic right-wing maximalist governor Scott Walker’s Koch brother-backed assault on public sector unions sparked a massive outpouring of popular resistance in February and March of 2011.  But look how quickly the masses who poured into the streets – more than a few of them carrying posters that likened “imperial Walker” to the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak (the Egyptian trade union leader Kamal Abbas reciprocated by sending Wisconsin workers a statement saying that “We Stand With You as you Stood With Us” [14]) – have been de-mobilized by union officials eager to bid down the price of public sectors’ labor power as long as the governor can be forced to relent in his assault on the labor bureaucrats’ right to enjoy comfortable coordinator class salaries on the basis of the automatic union dues check-off. Labor “leadership” has succeeded in squelching talk of a general strike, getting workers back on the job, and encouraging union members and their supporters to focus their anger and energies on the effort to recall Walker and return the other state-capitalist austerity party (the Democrats, whose top official Obama actually opposed the Wisconsin protests[15]) to nominal power. “Put down your posters and pick up a clipboard” was the actual command issued by one state Democrat speaking to tens of thousands of workers and their supporters outside the Madison Capitol Rotunda last March 12th. Taking orders from one wing of the unelected money dictatorship (the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation and other of the hard right business class ilk) at the top, the G/Tea.O.P. governor Walker has been counting on other expressions of that dictatorship – capitalist media’s limited toleration for labor rebellion and the cash credit, and employment-based health care dependency of working people, many of whom live one paycheck to the next – to combine with the moral weakness and corruption of union leadership to tamp down the Wisconsin protests. Meanwhile, the Republican governor and legislature of Ohio have passed an even more vicious assault on public sector union power that affects considerably more workers without meeting one tenth the poplar protest seen in Wisconsin. Democratic governors across the nation have joined their Republican counterparts in trying to balance state budgets on the backs of the poor and working class and failing to try to make the rich and powerful continue pay an adequate share[16]. The struggle against the U.S.-backed post-Mubarak military dictatorship has continued in the streets and factories of Egypt[17] even as the Wisconsin struggle has been significantly channeled safely back into that timeworn “coffin of class consciousness” (to quote the late radical American historian Alan Dawley) the American two party ballot box.  Along with the suppression of popular democracy movements against U.S-supported authoritarian regimes across the Middle East (most notably in Bahrain and Yemen) and the horrors of nuclear power epitomized by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant, both the ongoing Egyptian revolution and the Wisconsin workers’ struggle have been booted off prime time media coverage by Obama and NATO’s imperial adventure in Libya [18]and the kabuki theater of imminent and averted “government shutdown” in Washington.

There should of course be political options beyond the narrow confines of the corporatist “one and half party system” (Sheldon Wolin). That’s how most Americans have long felt about the slim range of electoral and policy choices served up by the national political establishment. Too bad! The Supreme Court, closely allied with unelected dictatorship, has spoken on this matter more than once, saying in essence:  “no, subjects, you shall have just two relevant [business] parties because we say so and what we say goes.”19

The Democratization of the United States?

A recent public opinion poll conducted by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland finds that a preponderant majority of Americans think that “it would be positive for the United States if the Middle East were to become more democratic and a solid majority would favor this happening” even if this resulted in the region being more likely to oppose US policies and “U.S. interests.” The “American public,” World Public reports in a recent headline, “sees [the] democratization of [the] Middle East as positive for US” [20]. That’s good to know, but, of course, the American people have little to do with the shaping of those policies and the definition of those interests. Americans looking for democracies to create, support, protect, and repair would do well to focus on “the homeland,” the world’s only superpower, where domestic authoritarianism – potentially a new and dangerous form of totalitarianism (“corporate-managed democracy”)in the view of some dark observers[21] – carries particularly grave consequences to democratic possibilities the world over. The people need change, real change, at home, no less than abroad. My sense is that the American public would see the democratization of the United States as a very positive development indeed.

(To see all footnotes for this article go to ZNet.)


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