John Dewey Was Right: American Politics Is Merely the Shadow Cast by Big Business

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John Dewey Was Right: American Politics Is Merely the Shadow Cast by Big Business

The line comes from comedian George Carlin, who once said the "owners" who control the economic and political system are members of "a big club, but you ain't in it."  (Image: via burningplatform/screenshot)

Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, the American philosopher John Dewey understood deeply the need for a new political order.

The destitution brought about by the crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic meltdown were, Dewey thought, the predictable consequences of an economy — and a political system — controlled by, and dedicated to the needs of, large corporations.

Dewey is seldom remembered as a radical, but, in an essay published in 1931, he argued that social change can only be brought about by changing the fundamental structure of the political order — refurbishing the exterior would always, Dewey argued, be insufficient.

"The industrial crisis is so severe," he wrote, "that even dull eyes can see the foolishness of adopting any measure which leaves the underlying structure just as it was."

Building on this point, Dewey ridiculed the magical thinking underpinning "the belief that those who have privilege and power will remedy the breakdown they have created."

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 — the largest since the Great Depression — Dewey's insights have been confirmed.

Far from putting forward an agenda of "hope and change" as promised throughout his campaign for the presidency — like, for instance, the one implemented in the aftermath of the Great Depression by Franklin Roosevelt, who faced tremendous democratic pressure from below — Barack Obama settled in the camp of those Dewey so often lambasted: Those who believe that the managers of the economy, those whose policies sparked the Great Recession and the subsequent lopsided recovery, can (or even want to) fix the problems they created.

On the surface, many years later, the economy appears to have recovered; it is no longer in the midst of an existential crisis. With some of them almost as big and others bigger than they were prior to the crash, the banks have been restored and job growth has been steady, giving an impression of stability.

But this is cold comfort to the millions still struggling to recover from the meltdown they did nothing to create.

And, economic tremors and market fluctuations aside, systemic crises, often ignored by those who opt to base their outlook on vague unemployment statistics and income growth (most of which, it should be said, goes to the top 1 percent), continue to fester.

In the wealthiest nation on the planet, 16 million children live in poverty; thousands die each year due to lack of health care; infrastructure is crumbling; schools, particularly those in poor neighborhoods, are being stripped of funding; the infant mortality rate is horrific; some neighborhoods have a life expectancy comparable to that of North Korea; and income inequality is perhaps the worst it has ever been.

And as Ned Resnikoff has recently documented in The Atlantic, "when it comes to the number of Americans who go hungry, it's almost like the recovery never happened."

According to data from the most recent year on record, 2014, "14 percent of all American households are not food secure. That's approximately 17.4 million homes across the United States, populated with more than 48 million hungry people."

To confront these crises, we have, as a result of a system that effectively locks out alternatives, two major political parties that often fail to mention them at all, let alone criticize the economic order from which they emerged.

But there providing the illusion of political vibrancy, as always, is spectacle.

As Republicans stumble through their vapid convention and as Democrats prepare for their own, the issues left unaddressed are, for once, thrown into sharp relief, as is the fecklessness of the "two-party tyranny."

"Amid a widening gap between rich and poor," writes Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "nothing screams income inequality louder than cities, including Cleveland and Philadelphia, case studies in renewal and gentrification, but also in crushing decline."

Contrasted with the lavish, walled-off, corporate-funded conventions, the tragedies experienced by American cities crumbling under decades of neglect and direct assaults by business leaders and their political partners become all the more stark.

"Once symbols of American industrial might and prosperity, Cleveland and Philadelphia are among the poorest cities in the nation," Stolberg notes. "In 2014, Philadelphia had the highest poverty rate (26 percent) among cities with more than a million people, while Cleveland has the third-highest poverty rate (39.2 percent) among cities with more than 100,000 residents, according to census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution."

"You talk about third world countries?" said a former lawyer interviewed by Stolberg. "We're not that far behind here, with the circumstances that people have to live in. And unfortunately, I don't see much coming out of any of the campaigns on what we can do for poverty."

While the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders was a rarity in its focus on soaring inequality, he is operating within a political establishment that has shown deep hostility toward the progressive change he has proposed.

The much-hailed Democratic platform is indeed an improvement over what it would have been had Sanders never entered the process, but it still lacks the urgency necessary to confront the ills produced by an economic order that handsomely rewards the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else.

And such ills are not just present in the United States: As the Guardian's Larry Elliott noted last week, "between 65% and 70% of people in 25 advanced countries saw no increase in their earnings between 2005 and 2014."

Meanwhile, income at the top continue to soar. The Economic Policy Institute has found that, between 1979 and 2014, the wages of the top 0.1 percent in the United States grew by 324.4 percent.

John Dewey would have been appalled by such a picture, but he would not have been surprised.

In perhaps his most famous observation, Dewey wrote, "As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance."

While Republicans are rather explicit in their dedication to the needs of business, Democrats pay fealty to progressive movements, but rarely present more than "tepid reforms," amounting to a mere "attenuation of the shadow."

Having welcomed both the riches of corporate sponsorship and the subsequent rightward shift away from the New Deal tradition and the working class, the Democratic Party has all too often contributed to the crises they blame Republicans for creating.

To justify their actions, Democrats have appealed to realism, arguing that principled commitments are little more than fantastical thinking. But as Dewey understood, reasonableness, in the context of American politics, often serves as "a practical synonym for subservient."

In contrast with Bernie Sanders's grassroots fundraising, the campaign of Hillary Clinton has embodied such subservience to the corporate class. Throughout the primary process, the Clinton campaign has shamelessly abandoned any pretense of principled fundraising and has actively courted Republican donors disaffected by the rise of Donald Trump.

But such active courtship was often unnecessary as many reactionary Wall Street donors flocked to Clinton on their own.

"They know Hillary," Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers said of business executives. "And they know that she is not antibusiness."

Indeed, even as Clinton's Wall Street rhetoric appeared to move in a more progressive direction in the face of pressure from Sanders, donors understood that this is "just politics."

The results of a system that combines soaring income inequality with the ability to legally purchase influence in Washington have been thoroughly documented, most notably by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, whose conclusions in their remarkable 2014 study are right in line with Dewey's.

"In the United States," Gilens and Page wrote, "the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose."

Dewey understood, shortly after the Depression began, that the two-party system that dominated American politics — much like it does now — lacked the language and the platform necessary to transform a system directed by the interests of the powerful few.

While Roosevelt's New Deal programs represented a break from the status quo — a break that still benefits millions in the present — they were not sufficient to resist the relentless business assault against organized labor that was to follow in the decades after the Second World War, an assault that continues to this day.

For Dewey, the "old parties" could serve only as "useful brakes," working, perhaps, to prevent the worst of predatory capitalism, but doing little to enact fundamental change.

The Republican Party, Dewey argued, "has declared that when big capitalists were made prosperous, a general state of welfare would seep down and be enjoyed by the masses." And Democrats, for their part, "accepted the gospel truth of the doctrine that prosperity descends from above."

The only solution, the only way to successfully disrupt and transform the nature of American politics, Dewey concluded, was to work outside of the rigid framework set by the two parties.

"Whatever may be the convictions of individuals within the parties, the parties themselves are property-minded," Dewey wrote. "In the clash between property interests and human interests, all their habits of thought and action fatally impel them to side with the former. They make concessions, but do not change the direction of their belief or behavior."

Dewey noted that as long as the political and economic "machinery" of the United States consists of "business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda," democracy cannot possibly be restored.

For democracy is often what is taking place outside of the well-guarded doors of convention stadiums; far from the television cameras; beneath the superficial, personality-driven nature of the American political scene; and beyond the reach of business's shadow.

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

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