John Buell

Democracy’s Dark Side

When liberals, progressives, or leftists of any stripe criticize our contemporary economic order, they are accused of class war. They are rebuked with the claim that gaps in income and wealth reflect the operations of the market and are therefore fair. Both of these contentions are false. Unfortunately American democracy has failed to address these falsehoods and in fact contributes mightily to inequities it is committed to address. Our democracy’s failings and the classic and modern theoretical perspectives that might mitigate these are the subject of a provocative new book by Steven Johnston, American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

If there is a class war, it is one being waged on behalf of the wealthy. Its vehicles are law, federal and state courts, administrative agencies, state and federal legislatures, and the corporate media. The ideology governing this class war is called neoliberalism. Perhaps the most obvious instance of this neoliberal agenda is the Trans Pacific Partnership. Though purportedly a “market friendly” instrument, one of its central goals is to achieve protected status for patents and trademarks. Nations that strive to make medication more affordable by providing generic drugs would be subject to countervailing suits and huge damage judgments. Similarly, banking regulations, more strict in many of our foreign competitors, would be reduced to the lowest common denominator. As for labor unions, even though the agreement purportedly contains some language about the right to organize, there is no enforcement means parallel to those regarding patents and copyrights. So much for the argument that these agreements should not interfere with domestic politics. Such interference is acceptable, even to be encouraged, when “intellectual property” is involved.

These legal and political structures lie at the heart of income and wealth inequality. Yet even these phrases sugar coat the state’s real impact. Johnston avoids the cool euphemisms. Neoliberalism maims and kills. It takes citizens in both the developed and especially the developing world. When financial markets collapse, houses are foreclosed on and families risk homelessness, especially as rental costs escalate. Healthcare denied leaves citizens to die.

Though a variety of liberals, socialists, social democrats may with good reason blame corporate capitalists, their think tanks, and their massive and self reinforcing political contributions for neoliberalism’s casualties, democratic majorities both today and from our very founding should not be exempted from responsibility.

For starters, the market in land that bolstered a middle class society was founded in violence against Native Americans, takings that have never been adequately compensated. Even the Constitution stood as no barrier to exploitation of Native peoples. As Andrew Jackson replied to a Supreme Court decision supporting Native American land claims: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” These takings represented more than a redistribution of property. The settlers eradicated native systems of land use and tenure. These were not recognized as legitimate because they did not conform to emerging bourgeois notions of land as a commodity that could be exploited, bought and sold. Then, as Johnston puts it, “the nation to be secured its freedom thanks, at least in part, to weapons purchased by the wealth slavery generated.”

To Johnston’s analysis I would add that further economic reforms, including general laws of incorporation, and limited liability helped turn a society that used markets into a market society, one in which land, labor, and money itself were treated as speculative commodities.

Johnston suggests US citizens need not only reforms that would challenge these market consolidations but more broadly a new counter- class war. History provides some potent examples—such as the Roman Tribunate, an institution giving Rome’s poorer citizens the ability to block legislation that would harm them. Finally we need a new democratic ethos, one informed by a tragic vision that recognizes democracy’s limits.

Democracy is caught in several related paradoxes. It promises much but given its exacting standards it cannot deliver. It thus produces periodically inordinate resentments.

Given its commitments to mutual self-rule, equality, it suggests a brand new day in politics. Democracy seems content to allow patriotism free reign insofar as patriotism obscures the tragic dynamics that bedevil it. Democracies see themselves as uniquely vulnerable and resort to tactics worthy of their enemies. Abuses are considered incidental, regrettable, and correctible, thanks in part to democracy’s reigning principles, especially procedural norms. Can theorists and activists fashion an ethos and practice that will address these systematic injustices.? That will be the subject of my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2015

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