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Democracy for the Few - cont'd.
Excerpts compiled by Colby Glass.
We think of the United States at the time of the Constitution as an egalitarian society. In fact, "three fourths of the acreage in New York belonged to fewer than a dozen persons. In the interior of Virginia, seven persons owned a total of 1,732,000 acres. By 1760, fewer than 500 men in five colonial cities controlled most of the commerce, banking, mining, and manufacturing on the eastern seaboard and owned much of the land" (55).
"Most troublesome to the framers of the Constitution was the increasingly insurgent spirit evidenced among the people. Fearing the popular takeover of state governments, the wealthy class looked to a national government as a means of protecting their interests" (56).
"...the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia three months later... were determined that persons of birth and fortune should control the affairs of the nation... "To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a [poor majority] faction," wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 10, "and at the same time preserve the spirit and form of popular government is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed." Here Madison touched the heart of the matter: how to keep the spirit and form of popular government with only a minimum of the substance; how to construct a government that would win some popular support but would not tamper with the existing class structure.." (57-8).
"The framers [of the Constitution] were of the opinion that democracy was "the worst of all political evils," as Elbridge Gerry put it. Both he and Madison warned of "the danger of the leveling spirit." "The people," said Roger Sherman, "should have as little to do as may be about the Government." And according to Alexander Hamilton, "all communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born, the other the mass of the people... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right"" (58).
The Constitutional Convention involved many weeks of debates on exactly how to best achieve specific goals. But the goals themselves -- "the new government's ability to protect the interests of property, were agreed upon with surprisingly little debate. On these issues, there were no dirt farmers or poor artisans attending the convention to proffer an opposing viewpoint. The debate between the haves and have-nots never occurred" (58-9).
"In keeping with their desire to contain the majority, the founders inserted "auxiliary precautions" designed to fragment power without democratizing it. By separating the executive, legislative, and judicial functions and then providing a system of checks and balances among the various branches, including staggered elections, executive veto, Senate confirmation of appointments and ratification of treaties, and a bicameral legislature, they hoped to dilute the impact of popular sentiments. They contrived an elaborate and difficult process for amending the Constitution, requiring proposal by two-thirds of both the Senate and the House, and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. (Such strictures operate with anti-majoritarian effect to this day. Thus, although national polls show a substantial majority of Americans supports the Equal Rights Amendment, the proposal failed to make its way through the constitutional labyrinth.)" (60-1).
Indirect forms of representation is another way of discouraging interference with the government by the masses. They have no real access to power.
"...those who argue that the founders were motivated primarily by high-minded objectives consistently overlook the fact that the delegates repeatedly stated their intention to erect a government strong enough to protect the haves from the have-nots... Their opposition to democracy and their dedication to moneyed interests were unabashedly and openly avowed. Their preoccupation with their class interests was so pronounced that one delegate, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, did finally complain of hearing too much about how the sole or primary object of government was property" (64-5).
The Constitution was "blatantly elitist" and "did not have wide backing, initially being opposed in most states" (66). The wealthy resorted to bribes and intimidation. When these failed, they chose to simply not submit the Constitution to a popular vote. Instead, they had the Constitution ratified by state conventions composed of wealthy delegates elected by wealthy citizens -- the rest of the population was not allowed to vote (66).
However, "this assemblage of men who feared and loathed democracy" had to admit that "if the Constitution was going to be accepted by the states and if the new government was to have any stability it had to gain some measure of popular acceptance" (67).
"Land seizures by the poor, food riots, and other violent disturbances occurred throughout the eighteenth century in just about every state and ..colony." Hence, with the Bill of Rights the delegates "reluctantly made concessions under the threat of democratic rebellion... to avoid popular uprisings.. the Constitution.. was a product not only of class privelege but of class struggle -- a struggle that continued and intensified as the corporate economy and the government grew" (67-8).
"As early as 1805... employers used the courts to brand labor unions as conspiracies against properties and the Constitution. Similar charges were brought against workers throughout the first half of the nineteenth century" (70).
The National Guard was established to put down uprisings of workers. Unions were suppressed and anti-monopoly laws which couldn't be applied to business were used to put down "labor conspiracies."
"The same government that had not a dollar for the [poor].. gave 21 million acres of land and $51 million in government bonds to [a] few railroad financiers" (71).
"While insisting that the free market worked for all, business-people showed little inclination to deliver their own interests to the stern judgments of an untrammeled, competitive economy; instead they resorted to such things as tariffs, public subsidies, land grants, government loans, [government] contracts..." (71-2).
"World War I brought industry and government even closer... As of 1916, millions worked for wages that could not adequately feed a family. Each year 35,000 were killed on the job, mostly because of unsafe work conditions, while 700,000 suffered injury, illness, blindness... The ware helped quell class conflict at home by focusing people's attention on the menace of the "barbarian huns" of Germany.. Americans were exhorted to make sacrifices for the war effort. Strikes were now treated as seditious interference with war production" (75).
After the war the "red scare" was the excuse "as the government resorted to mass arrests, deportations, political trials, and congressional investigations to suppress labor unrest and anticapitalist ideas" (75).
The "members of the plutocracy... treated [the] economic misery [of the great depression] as if it were a natural disaster" (76).
"Only by entering the war and remaining thereafter on a permanent war economy was the United States able to maintain a shaky "prosperity" and significantly lower Depression era unemployment" (80).
"Under corporate-state capitalism the ordinary citizen pays twice for most things -- first as a taxpayer who provides the subsidies and supports, then as a consumer who buys the high-priced commodities and services" (83).
"Another way the state keeps the corporate economy afloat is through defense spending. While the military budget is the most costly and socially unproductive means of creating capital accumulation, it is also the most profitable and least troublesome for the big companies, since most of the costs and risks are assumed by the government" (84).
"Over 30,000 companies are now engaged in military production. And military-related government agencies sign 52,000 contracts each day... " (85).
"For over forty years the Pentagon has conjured up the specter of Soviet military supremacy in order to maintain its hold over the public purse. In 1956, Americans were alerted to a dangerous "bomber gap"; in 1960, it was a "missile gap"; in 1967, an "antiballistic missile gap"; in 1975, a "multiple-warhead missile gap." From 1977 through 1981, scare reports described how the Soviets had moved ahead in conventional arms. And in the 1980s, the Reagan administration repeatedly warned of a "military-spending gap" ...In each instance it was discovered that no such weakness existed... But Congress.. has continued to vote record military budgets.." (86).
"True, defense spending creates jobs. So do pornography and prostitution. But there are many more socially useful, less wasteful things that might command our labor and resources. In any case, arms spending provide fewer jobs than any other government expenditure except the space program" (89-90).
"U.S. investments [and foreign aid are] designed mostly to extract a country's natural resources and exploit its underpaid labor... the corporations push out local businesses and buy up the best land for cash export crops leaving less land for homegrown foodds... Thus, poor countries feed and support the corporate interests of rich countries, exporting meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tin, timber, and a vast array of other products, while their own peoples are increasingly undernourished and ill-housed" (92-3).
Foreign aid "funds actually buttress the rule of the wealthy Third World oligarchs who are friendly to U.S. investors and U.S. policies. Most of the aid goes directly to the military leaders of the various countries to help them keep their impoverished opulations in line..." (93).
"To make the world safe for capitalism, the United States government has embarked on a global counterrevolutionary strategy, suppressing insurgent peasant and worker movements throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America" (94).
"But the interests of the corporate elites never stand naked; rather they are wrapped in the flag and coated with patriotic appearances. Knowing that the American people would never agree to sending their sons and daughters to fight wars in far-off landsd in order to protect the profits of Chase Manhattan and General Motors, the corporate elites.. play upon popular fears, telling us that our "national security" necessitates American intervention... But closer examination shows they are defending the capitalist world from social change -- even if the change be peaceful, orderly, and democratic. Iran in 1953, Guatamala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1962, Brazil in 1964... Chile and Uruguay in 1973... Greece, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor... popular governments were overthrown by military oligarchs -- largely trained and financed by the Pentagon and the CIA -- who prove themselves friendly to capitalism" (94-5).
"Suppose the workers... demand to see the books. They cannot; the law protects corporations from having to accede to that demand. If they then go on strike, they will probably lose a prolonged strike, because the law -- that is, the state -- forbids mass picketing, secondary boycotts, and all the other tactics that would give the workers a chance to overcome their lack of accumulated capital. Suppose further, having lost their strike, they then sit in, seize the plant; the state will send in armed forces to remove them"" (127).
"The history of the labor movement in the United States reveals a pattern of police harassment and violence... In recent years, in various parts of the country, police have attacked stricking construction workers, farm workers, truckers, miners, meatpackers, and factory-workers, arresting and badly injuring hundreds" (135).
"Many workers have been imprisoned for resisting court injunctions against strikes and pickets" (135). [Unlike other forms of civil disobedience, however, union members do not receive sympathy or support from the general public.]
"Only 18 percent of white-collar embezzlers go to prison for an average of fiteen months.. But 89 percent of working and poor people convicted of larceny spend an average of ten-and-a-half years behind bars. Some examples might serve: a judge imposed a smalle fine on a stockbroker who had made $20 million through illegal stock manipulations and, on the same day, sentenced an unemployed Black man to one year in jail for stealing a $100 television set from a truck shipment. Exxon Corporation was accused of taking millions of tons of fresh water from the Hudson River, which it sold to overseas refineries, while dumping millions of gallons of contaminated water into a river. The penalty: a civil settlement in which Exxon agreed to pay the state of New York $1.5 million (a fraction of the profits made on the freshwater sales). And while that case was being settled, a twenty-year-old youth in Houston was sentenced to fifty year for robbing two people of one dollar as they left a restaurant" (129-130).
Conservatives argue that we should be "tough on crime." But we already lock up more people per capita than any other industrialized nation except South Africa. We doubled the number of police between 1957 and 1977, yet crime rose 400 percent during that period (130-1).
Most prisoners are poor, African-American, and were chronically unemployed or underemployed before being sent to prison (131).
"Blacks tend to get substantially longer prison terms than Whites convicted of the same crimes, even when the Black person is a first-time offender and the White person is a second- or third-time offender" (131).
A long-time warden of San Quentin prison said, "I don't know of a wealthy person ever executed in the United States" (131).
"Capital punishment is.. arbitrarily applied. Some child-killers and cold-blooded mob murderers are paroled after ten to fifteen years while a low-income White like John Spenkelink is executed for killing a man who had robbed, beaten, and raped him" (131).
"At least 25 demonstrably innocent persons have been executed in the United States since 1900 and more than 343 have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes" (132).
"One study [New York Times, April 20, 1986] found pervasive courtroom bias against women. Femaile lawyers were routinely demeaned and patronized by male judges and attorneys; female witnesses were considered less credible than male witnesses by judges who viewed women as emotional and untrustworthy. Frequently failing to recognize a wife's contribution to a marriage, judges distributed property inequitably in divorce settlements and tended to treat lightly a woman's efforts to obtain child-support payments" (133).
"Law enforcement represents the largest budget item of many local governments, yet not much progress has been made against organized crime and corporate crime. Police work concentrates mostly on small-time drug dealing, gambling, and larceny... Investigations of police departments in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and various other places reveal that brutality is widespread and often tolerated by department commanders" (135).
Victims of police brutality are invariably minorities and the poor. Rarely are officers held accountable for such brutality (135).
"...the police serve a class-control function -- that is, they must protect those who rule from those who are ruled. And they protect the interests of capital from those who would challenge the inequities of the system. The profiteering corporate managers, plundering slumlords, swindling merchants, racist school boards, self-enriching doctors, special-interest legislators, and others who contribut so much to the scarcity, misery, and anger that lead to individual crimes or mass riots leave the dirty work of subduing these outbursts to the police. When the police charge picket lines -- beating, gassing, and occasionally shooting workers -- they usually are operating with a court injunction that allows them to exert force in order to protect the interests of the corporate owners" (136).
"The slums are not the problem, they are the solution; they are the way capitalism deals with the surplus people of a market economy. And for all they cost the taxpayer in crime, police, and welfare, the slums remain a source of profit for [the corporations]" (136).
"Repressive acts by police are not the aberrant behavior of a few psychotics in uniform but the outgrowth of the kind of class-control function that law officers perform and ruler insist upon... " (136).
"Some police are aware of the class function they serve. Former Boston Police Commissioner Robert DiGrazia summed it up:
"We are not letting the public in on our era's dirty little secret: that those who commit the crime which worries citizens the most -- violent street crime -- are, for the most part, the products of poverty, unemployment, broken homes, rotten education, drug addiction and alcoholism, and other social and economic ills about which the police can do little, if anything.
Rather than speaking up, most of us stand silent and let politicians get away with law and order rhetoric that reinforces the mistaken notion that police -- in ever greater numbers and with more gadgetry -- can alone control crime. The politicians, of course, end up perpetuating a system by which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and crime continues" (137; originally from Parade, Aug. 22, 1976).
"According to the established ideology, capitalism is an essential component of Americanism and democracy" (137). Since Americanism and democracy are worshipped by most Americans as a neo-religion, opponents of the system are attacked with a religious zeal (137).
[Notice some great topics for papers here: social religions of Americanism, democracy, capitalism, patriotism... also, the mistaken idea that Americans are "free".]
"Dissident groups have had their telephones tapped and their offices raided by law officers. Members of these groups have been threatened, maligned, beaten, murdered, or arrested on trumped-up charges, held on exorbitant bail, and subjected to costly, time-consuming trials that, whether won or lost, paralyze their leadership, exhaust their funds, and consume their energies. With these kinds of attacks, the governments message comes across loud and clear: people are not as free as they think" (137).
"...almost all of the one hundred.. murders of civil-rights activists during the 1960s were committed by police and White vigilantes... none were convicted of murder" (138).
[For attempts by Congress to deny employment to dissidents, see Nation, Jan. 3-10, 1981: 6.]
The IRS is used to intimidate and disable dissidents and "the free circulation of ideas critical of plutocracy" (140).
The government also controls what ideas come to us from abroad. "The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, permits the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to exclude anyone who might ...engage in activities "prejudicial to the public interest" or harmful to "national security." Every year... dozens of... [foreigners] who may have been critical of U.S. policies, have been denied visas... to participate in cultural events and conferences to which they have been invited by private groups... [footnote: "While American trade unionists are frequently invited to the Soviet Union, their Soviet counterparts are prevented by our government from visiting the United States"]" (140).
"Former officials of repressive right-wing regimes... ex-Nazis,... death-squad leaders... gain ready entry into the United States... In contrast, refugees fleeing political repression... have been denied entry or have even been seized and deported... to face jail and death" (140).
[See Gil Loescher and John Scanlan. Calculated Kindness, Refugees and America's Half-Open Door. NY: Free Press, 1985.]
|"...political prisoners are as American as apple pie" (142).|
"At least twenty well-financed federal agencies (of which the FBI and CIA are the best publicized) and hundreds of state and local police units engage in surveillance and suppression of dissenting groups" (142).
"...federal agencies alone maintain 858 databanks containing 1.25 billion files, mostly on individuals suspected of harboring unorthodox political views" (142; based on NY Times, Oct. 3, 1975).
"Of the one million police in the United States, only half are sworn to uphold the law; the rest are employed by private corporations to spy on and harass... workers.. and.. groups that might prove troublesome to business... [They] enjoy the collaboration of federal agents and local police" (143).
[See George O'Toole. The Private Sector: Rent-a-Cops, Private Spies and the Police-Industrial Complex. NY: Norton, 1978... and, also Jim Hougan. Spooks: The Haunting of America. NY: Morrow, 1978... and, also James Rule. Private Lives and Public Serveillance. NY: Schocken, 1974.]
The FBI spies on political opponents of the president -- newspaper people, congressmen, congressional staffers. It infiltrates labor unions and finds ways to get them branded communist or socialist or whatever other label will make them least attractive to the public (143).
Although declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the FBI keeps a large list of people with anticapitalist ideas who will be automatically arrested in case of "national emergency" (143).
The FBI supports right-wing exremist groups with people, weapons, and money. "...in 1976.. the FBI organized forty-one Ku Klux Klan chapters in North Carolina... and in some instances assisted the murderers by procuring weapons for them and directing them to the location of their victims" (144; Parenti gives extensive sources for the above statement, including the Senate Intelligence Committee).
The FBI has helped organize many kilings -- the Chicano union organizer, Rudy Lozano in Chicago; Karen Silkwood, a NY Times reporter investigating radiation safety negligence (145; Parenti lists many others).
The CIA, by law, is limited to overseas intelligence -- nothing within the U.S. is allowed. Yet, it has been caught doing the following (146-7):
Much of the secrecy in public bureaucracy is on behalf of private business and the military... health and safety problems that might prove troublesome to powerful business interests, including data on toxic waste disposal, and on the harmful features of certain medical drugs, pesticides, and nuclear reactors..." (259).
"Presidents pledge to conduct "open administrations" that have "nothing to hide." Yet, once in office, they are inclined toward secrecy. The more secrecy, the more opportunity for them to do what they want without having to answer for it. The executive branch withholds from the public about 16 million documents a year" (260).
"During his tenure in office President Reagan talked about getting government off the backs of people but he worked at getting people off the back of government. He issued a presidential directive that forced some two million government workers to take a pledge of secrecy. He required almost 300,000 past and present federal employees to agree to submit to lifetime government censorship of their writings and speeches... Hostile to the Freedom of Information Act, the Reagan Administration sought to undercut it by expanding the restrictive classification of documents, blocking out more and more information on the documents that were released, imposing long delays on releasing materials, and charging exorbitant copying fees..." (260).
"To prevent federal employees from "committing the truth," the White House has sought greater power to control and punish disclosures -- even of unclassified materials. It has argued in several cases that government information is government property... Attorney-General Bell denounced Justice Department personnel who leaked information to the press regarding FBI wrongdoings as having violated their oath to uphold the law" (261).
"Ruling elites admit to a conscious and constant need to plan in secret, resorting to sometimes drastic measures, often without being held accountable to anyone: they call it "national security." But when one suggests that their plans (whether covert or overt) benefit the interests of their class and are intended to do so, one is dismissed as a "conspiracy theorist." It is allowed that farmers, steelworkers, and even welfare mothers may plan concerted actions and try to use political means to help themselvese, but it may not be suggested that moneyed elites do as much.." (300).
"Then there is the substantive political system, involving multibillion-dollar contracts, tax write-offs, protections, rebates, grants, loss compensation, subsidies, leasses, giveaways, and the whole vast process of budgeting, legislating, advising, regulating, protecting, and servicing major producer interests, now bending or ignoring the law on behalf of the powerful, now applying it with full punitive vigor against heretics and "troublemakers."
"The symbolic system is highly visible, taught in the schools, dissected by academicians, gossiped about by news commentators. The substantive system is seldom heard of or accounted for" (301).
"..the costs of collusion [at this level] are passed on to the public in the form of higher prices, higher taxes, environmental devastation, and inflation" (300-301).
"In contrast, consumer groups, labor unions, and public-interest advocates move in a more limited space, registering their complaints against some of the worst, or more visible, symptoms of the corporate system and occasionally winning a new law or regulation. Finally, the weakest interests, like welfare mothers and slum dwellers, are shunted to the margins of political life.." (301).
"It is worth repeating that this diversity of [interest] groups does not represent a democratization of power... Decision-making power is "divided" in that it is parceled out [by moneyed interests] to special public-private interest groups -- quasiautonomous, entrenched coteries that use public authority for private purposes of low visibility.
"The fragmentation of power is the pocketing of power, a way of insulating portions of the political process from the tides of popular sentiment. This purpose was embodied in the constitutional structure by the framers in 1787 and has previaled ever since in more elaborate forms" (301-2).
"Along with the special interests of business firms, there is the overall influence exerted by business as a system. More than just an abstraction, business as a system of power, a way of organizing property, capital, and labor, is a pervasive social force. Corporate business is not just another of many interests in the influence system. It occupies a strategic position within the economic system; in a sense, it IS the economic system. On the major issues of the political economy, business gets its way with government because there exists no alternative way of organizing the economy within the existing capitalist structure. Because business controls the very economy of the nation, government perforce enters into a unique and intimate relationship with it. The heaelth of the capitalist economy is treated by policymakers as a necessary condition for the health of the nation, and since it happens that the economy is in the hands of large investors, then presumably government's service to the public is best accomplished by service to these investors. The goals of business (rapid growth, high profits, and secure markets) become the goals of government, and the "national interest" becomes identified with the dominant capitalist interest" (302).
There are two reasons why change -- social justice -- is so hard to achieve: "First, because the realities of power militate against fundamental reform, and second, because the present politico-economic system could not sustain itself if such reforms were initiated" (305).
"Second, as consumers, people are victimized by monopoly practices that force them to spend more on less. They are also confronted with increasingly exploitative forms of involuntary consumption, as when relatively inexpensive mass-transit systems are neglected or eliminated, creating a greater dependency on automobiles; or when low-rental apartments are converted into high-priced condominiums; or when local farm products are replaced by expensive processed foods transported long distances by agribusiness.
"Third, over the last thirty years or so, with each successive "tax reform" bill, working people as taxpayers have had to shoulder an even larger portion of the tax burden, while business pays less and less. Indeed, the dramatic decline in business taxes has been a major cause of the growth in the federal deficit" (307).
"Fourth, as citizens, the people get less than they pay for in government services. The lion's share of federal spending goes to large firms, defense contractors, banks, and other creditors. As citizens, the people also endure the hidden "diseconomies" shifted onto them by private business, as when a chemical company contaminatese a community's groundwater with its toxic wastes" (308).
These various means serve the process of capital accumulation, which is the essence of capitalism..." (308).
"The publicly owned railroads in France and Italy work much better than the privately owned ones in the United States (which work as well as they do only because of public subsidies). State and municipal universities in the United States are public and therefore "socialist" ... and some of them are among the very best institutions of higher learning in the country. A 1981 Department of Energy study found that publicly owned utilities are better managed than investor-owned ones. And because they do not have to produce a profit for stockholders, their rates are lower... " (319-320).
Although we would not want to copy existing socialist societies (China, Cuba), it must be pointed out that "they have achieved what capitalism cannot and has no intention of accomplishing: adequate food, housing, and clothing for all; economic security in old age; free medical care; free education at all levels; and the right to a job.." (320).
Capitalism makes less sense as its ramifications become clear. "Yet people will not discard the system that oppresses them until they see the feasibility of an alternative..." (321).
Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS