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“Free” Markets and the Attack on Democracy

The signs of neoliberalism are all around us

Our citizens are facing a broad, multifaceted attack on democracy itself. (Photo: jerry dohnal/flickr/cc)

Our citizens are facing a broad, multifaceted attack on democracy itself. (Photo: jerry dohnal/flickr/cc)

Many US citizens take comfort in the conviction that progress toward democracy has been steady even if stalled or even periodically reversed. History is on our side. Early in the post Revolutionary period the right to vote was extended to all white men, even those who held no property. Women achieved the same privilege early in the twentieth century, and the Civil Rights movement of the sixties completed the work Reconstruction had left undone. The arc of the universe is long, but “it bends toward justice.” I would argue, however, that SCOTUS decisions like Citizens United challenge that easy faith. Nor are they aberrations within the fabric of a generally supportive culture and polity. Our citizens are facing a broad, multifaceted attack on democracy itself. Support for this attack on democracy is also bi- partisan in the sense that some members of both parties, albeit often quietly, support and benefit from this attack.

Confidence that there is no going back is hard to maintain in the face of political controversies today that in many ways replay issues of Reconstruction. To take just one example, the Fifteenth Amendment declares that the right to vote will not be abridged on the grounds of previous condition of servitude.

Radical as the Fifteenth Amendment may seem in the post Civil War context, it represented a compromise. Some representatives of northern states, where in many cases black males were not allowed to vote, did not want to force a change in their own political practices. They rejected a proposed amendment that would have granted the right to vote without regard to race, nativity, property, education, or religious belief. The version of the amendment as enacted says nothing about voter discrimination based on other criteria, such as literacy, or a poll tax.

In the years following Radical Reconstruction most Southern states had in effect availed themselves of the exclusionary practices not constitutionally sanctioned. Some northerners were unwilling to endorse or allow the level of federal intervention that would have been necessary to enforce truly egalitarian outcomes. Many northerners, for their part, turned their attention toward economic expansion in the west and toward industrial development. That development had encouraged and been facilitated by readings of the 14th amendment as granting corporations the status of personhood. Late 19th century decisions protecting the intangible and physical assets of corporate bodies helped encourage a process of corporate consolidation that many saw as a threat to democracy. (I am drawing on Eric Foner’s superb work on Reconstruction)

How did we get to this second Gilded Age and what lessons can we infer regarding our democratic prospects?

Fast forward from one Gilded Age to another. Citizens United, granting unions and corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates, is often regarded as a singularly dangerous challenge to our democratic norms, especially with its infamous assertion that money is speech. Less attention, however, is pad to the context in which this decision occurred, including corporate consolidation in most sectors of the economy, obscene levels of economic inequality, and near religious reverence for deregulated markets. Media consolidation itself has played an enormous role in driving up the cost of political campaigns. How did we get to this second Gilded Age and what lessons can we infer regarding our democratic prospects?

The post World War II decades saw white working class gains in income made possible by unionization, the GI bill, and a federal commitment to full employment. Positive as these gains were, they carried with them unintended consequences. Workers and employers, having less fear of depression, periodically drove wages and prices up. Bursts of inflation and an unprecedented profit squeeze led to unemployment even in the midst of inflation, an unprecedented and unexpected circumstance. Blacks had been left out of the full benefits of the New Deal welfare state and raised demands not only for political equality but also for economic opportunity, one of Reconstruction’s forgotten promises.

These events provided an opening for a group of academics who had long despised the New Deal welfare state. Notre Dame University ‘s Philip Mirowski Never Let a Serious Crisis G to Waste has provided a careful and detailed analysis of this neoliberal movement in American politics.

These neoliberals shared with their nineteenth- century predecessors a faith in markets, but with an important difference. Adam Smith and JS Mill saw markets as non- coercive means to allocate resources and produce goods and services. Neoliberals regarded markets as perfect information processing machines that could provide optimal solutions to all social problems. Hence a commitment not only to lift rent control on housing but also to privatize prisons, water and sewer systems, and to deregulate all aspects of personal finance and treat education and health care as commodities to be pursued on unregulated markets. An essential part of this faith in markets is the post Reagan view of corporate consolidation. Combinations are to be judged only on the basis of cheap products to the consumer. Older antitrust concerns about worker welfare or threat to democracy itself are put aside. Corporate mergers and the emergence of monopoly are seen as reflections of the omniscient market. In practice, however as we shall see, such a tolerant attitude is not applied to worker associations.

Neoliberals differ from their classical predecessors in a second important way. Market is miraculous and a boon to many, but paradoxically only a strong state can assure its arrival and maintenance. Sometimes it may appear that the market is yielding iniquitous or unsustainable outcomes, which my lead to premature or disastrous rejection of its wisdom. The answer to this anger is more markets, but that requires a strong state staffed by neoliberals. They would have the capacity and authority to enact and impose these markets and distract the electorate and divert them into more harmless pursuits. Recognition of the need for a powerful state stands in partial contradiction to the neoliberal’s professed deification of pure markets and was seldom presented to public gatherings. As Mirowski put it, neoliberals operated on the basis of a dual truth, an esoteric truth for its top scholars and theorists and an exoteric version for then public. Celebration of the spontaneous market was good enough for Fox News, whereas top neoliberal scholars discussed how to reengineer government in order to recast society.

The signs of neoliberalism are all around us. Worried about student debt? There is a widely advertised financial institution that will refinance your loan. Trapped in prison with no money for bail. There are corporations and products that will take care of that. Cancer cures, money for funerals and burial expenses can all be obtained via the market. Any problem the market creates the market can solve. The implications of this view have been ominous for democracy and social justice.

The neoliberal deification of markets has many parents. This mindset encouraged and was encouraged by a revolt against democracy. The wealthy had always been concerned that a propertyless working class might vote to expropriate them, but neoliberalism gave them further reason to bypass democracy. Markets were seen as better indicators of truth than democratic elections, though that point was seldom expressed as directly. Here is FA Hayek’s oblique expression of this concern: “if we proceed on the assumption that only the exercises of freedom that the majority will practice are important, we would be certain to create a stagnant society with all the characteristics of unfreedom.”

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The revolt against democracy has occurred on several different levels of the political process. The question of who can vote is just as contested as during Reconstruction, and not just in the South. As during Reconstruction, it does not take the form of explicit racial appeals. The strategy includes further limiting the time polls are open, reduction in the number of polling places, voter identification cards that take time and money to obtain. Who can vote is also a function of the racist legacy of our history, with prohibitions on voting by felons serving to exclude large numbers of potential voters, disproportionately minorities. It should be mentioned more than it is that these techniques also work to the disadvantage of poor whites. Political scientists Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson point out: “In Georgia in 1942, for example, turnout topped out at 3.4 percent (that’s right, 3.4 percent; no misprint). Why is no mystery: the Jim Crow system pushed virtually all African-Americans out of the system, while the network of poll taxes, registration requirements, literacy tests and other obstacles that was part of that locked out most poor whites from voting, too. Since the civil rights revolution, turnouts in the South have risen fitfully to national levels, amid much pushback, such as the raft of new voter ID requirements (though these are not limited to the South).”

Minorities, poor, and even substantial segments of the working class are further disadvantaged by efforts to defund the labor opposition. Unions have been the one big money source that Democrats had available, but as the party from Bill Clinton on increasingly became a kind of neoliberalism light, embracing corporate trade agreements with a little bit of job training assistance thrown in, unions lost members, many corporations forced decertification elections. Democrats lost not only financial resources but also the ground troops that had mobilized their voters.

One result of and partial driving force behind these changes is that both parties become big money parties. Burnham and Ferguson-( December 2014)- The President and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money – defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1000) from the 1 percent as the Republicans. To expect top down money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle. Instead the Golden Rule dominates: Money-driven parties emphasize appeals to particular interest groups instead of the broad interests of working Americans that would lead their donors to shut their wallets.

As David Stockman, President Reagan’s Budget Director once all but confessed, “in the modern era the party has never really pretended to have much of a mass constituency. It wins elections by rolling up huge percentages of votes in the most affluent classes while seeking to divide middle and working class voters with various special appeals and striving to hold down voting by minorities and the poor.”

Challenging this bipartisan money driven establishment becomes even more difficult as state level ballot access laws are notoriously hostile to third parties. Add to this the private, deceptively named Presidential Debate Commission, which specializes in depriving even candidates about whom large segment s of the population are curious access to the widely watched debates. Unfortunately the celebrated voting reform proposal, HR1, though containing some democratic initiatives such as early voting and automatic voter registration, makes it own contribution to economic and political consolidation. Bruce Dixon, editor of Black Agenda Report, maintains that only two provisions of this bill are likely to become law and both are destructive: “by raising the qualifying amount from its current level of $5,000 in each of 20 states to $25,000 in 20 states. HR 1 would cut funding for a Green presidential candidate in half, and by making ballot access for a Green presidential candidate impossible in several states it would also guarantee loss of the party’s ability to run for local offices.” Dixon also predicts that some Democrats “will cheerfully cross the aisle to institutionalize the Pentagon, spies and cops to produce an annual report on the threat to electoral security.

Dixon maintains:”Democrats are a capitalist party, they are a government party, and this is how they govern. HR 1 reaches back a hundred years into the Democrat playbook politicians created a foreign menace to herd the population into World War 1, which ended in the Red Scare and a couple of red summers, waves of official and unofficial violence and deportations against US leftists and against black people. The Red Scare led to the founding of the FBI, the core of the nation’s permanent political police…. Fifty years ago these were the same civil servants who gave us the assassinations, the disinformation and illegality of COINTELPRO, and much, much more before that and since then. HR 1 says let’s go to the Pentagon and the cops, let’s order them to discover threats to the electoral system posed by Americans working to save themselves and the planet.”

Dixon is surely right that both parties are capitalist parties, but capitalism itself has taken different forms. New Deal and neoliberal capitalism had far different implications for working class Americans. The New Deal itself was heavily influenced by Norman Thomas and the socialist tradition. In this regard, if what Paul Wellstone used to call the democratic wing of the Democratic Party wishes to see its ideals translated into practice, it must resist efforts to exclude third parties or to deny primary opponents an even playing field.

I am not claiming that there has been a carefully coordinated conspiracy among the individuals and groups that supported these policies, but leaders did act out of a general animus toward popular movements that further reinforced their reverence for corporate markets, and the faith in markets drove the worries about popular movements.

One positive conclusion to be drawn is that if this attack on democracy exists on several levels, activism might be fruitful in many domains and may have a spillover effect. Unions are still not dead, and there is a fight now for the soul of the Democratic Party and that fight might stimulate voter access and eligibility reforms. These in turn could reshape the party’s orientation and ideology. Even at the Federal level Dark money is worrisome to many voters and could be an incentive to mobilize for better disclosure laws. There are ample fronts on which to fight and good reason to keep up the struggle.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at jbuell@acadia.net

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