Democracy is one of thosedoublespeak words that is thrown around willy-nilly by just about everyone, without a thought or a care as to what it really means.Democracy is one of the five most misunderstood political terms today, and might even be the most usefully confusing from the point of view of the democracy-hating billionaires and millionaires who own the United States – useful for maintaining their power over the rest of us. [The other four are class, capitalism, socialism, and of course revolution, all of which are redefined in this author’s SpeakOut piece “Redefining Political Terms for a Revolutionary Age.”]
Origin of the term democracy
Democracy is a combination of two words from the ancient Greek: demos meaning “the people,”cracy meaning “rule of.” From this, it is clear that the word is inherently confusing, since tyrants and their minions are certainly people. If the purpose of the word is to exclude animals and plants from government, then it is also rendered meaningless, since animals and plants can’t govern humans anyway.
A more meaningful term would have been pleiopsifiocracy – rule of the majority. But the ancient Athenian ruling class (remember Athens, the “birthplace of democracy”?) hated and feared the majority just as much as our modern oligarchies do. After all, if women, slaves, and immigrants – the vast majority of Athenians – had had equal representation in government and thus all decisions had been made by the 51% majority, the wealthy Athenian landowners wouldn’t have been wealthy anymore. Their large estates would have been broken up into smaller units, the slaves would have been freed, and all toilers – the majority – would have led prosperous and free lives.
The term democracy was invented by the Athenian slavocracy to make their ugly system of government smell sweet in comparison with their arch rivals, the Spartans, who openly favored being ruled by kings and royal councils. The Athenian ruling class had open discussions and secret-ballot voting amongst themselves, and cleverly labeled their oligarchy the “rule of the people.”
The ulterior motive for the large plantation owners to include small and medium farmers in their “club” was to be able to recruit them as naval oarsmen in the unrelenting expansion of Athenian imperialism in the Aegean Sea. Slaves make terrible oarsmen and were never used by Greek and Roman navies. Instead, they had to pay citizens for this work.
The Athenian navy – as opposed to the Spartan or Persian land armies – was the heart of Athenian military power. Exceptional numbers of crewmen were required to power the ships, and they needed a reason to risk their lives that was greater than the meager state pay they received. They had to be volunteers fighting for their democracy.
Is the US a democracy?
In the same way, the current American oligarchs label their system of government a democracy. Everything they own echoes this ruse – their news media, theirentertainment media, their government politicians, their educational system, all droning in our ears from cradle to grave that we live in a democracy in which the majority rules.
Folks, we’ve been taken, had, fooled, bamboozled, lied to, and conned. We’ve been tricked, cheated, misled, duped, and deceived. We have been led astray. And that is why we still volunteer to row their ships.
Oligarchy: A small governing group of people – the opposite of democracy.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was the first to point to the American oligarchy and give them a label – the fabled “one percent,” referring of course to the billionaires and millionaires who are growing ever richer while the rest of us – the majority – continue to endure the effects of our Great Depression 2.0.
According to a worried article in the September 4, 2013 issue of Forbes Magazine titled “Could America’s wealth gap lead to a revolt?,” the top one percent reportedly own more than 40% of the nation’s approximately $54 trillion in wealth, and economists believe it’s getting worse.
The whole world is suffering from increasing wealth disparity, fostered by the global collection of oligarchs. Oxfam International, a highly respected British association of foreign aid organizations, on January 19, 2013, estimated that the 2012 income alone of the 100 richest people in the world would be enough to eliminate global poverty four times over.
Wealth means power – the power to make others do what you want. The greater the wealth, the greater the power. The US oligarchy rules through their ownership of wealth, which makes them a plutocratic oligarchy.
Elections, the supposed proof of democracy, are controlled by the oligarchs and the people they hire. The oligarchs own the major media which shapes public opinion. They fund the publicity campaigns of politicians from the two capitalist parties. They set the rules for debates and elections, which successfully exclude working class parties and candidates who just might champion the needs of the majority. They control the ballot-counting. They even have an “Electoral College” of elites, just in case the popular vote goes the “wrong” way. And their representatives cheerily “oversee” sham elections in every oligarchic police state that falls within their overseas empire.
Is it really a mystery why 40% of the American electorate does not bother to cast ballots in presidential elections?
Why does capitalism need to foster the illusion of democracy?
Capitalism is a system of economic organization in which voluntary labor is recruited to produce great wealth in the most efficient and profitable manner possible. Workers must get up in the morning and want to go to work and be bossed around all day, in order for the boss to have any hope of becoming fabulously wealthy.
Forced laborers, i.e. slaves, are notoriously inefficient workers. They will shirk responsibility, hide, sleep, goof off whenever they get the chance, kill farm animals and break equipment because they are completely divorced from the benefits of their labor and really couldn’t care less about the outcome.
But workers under capitalism have to believe that as their bosses prosper, so will they. Workers are expected to refer to the companies they work for with first-person plural pronouns. They also have to believe that they have elected politicians in their corner who can protect them from abuse.
Slavery and feudalism didn’t need the illusion of democracy like capitalism does, and this is why we are consistently badgered by the media into voting every 2-4 years. There are currently 24 capitalist countries in which voting is mandatory. “You vill cheerfully volunteer or else!”
The US was founded as an oligarchy
The “Founding Fathers” were all rich white men. George Washington, who became the first commander-in-chief and president, was reputed to be the richest American at the time of the first revolution. According to Atlantic Magazine, this plantation owner was worth half a billion in today’s dollars, which is probably why he got the top job in the first place.
They set up a government that would keep their tiny number of Southern slave owners and Northern merchants at the top of the pyramid, while slaves, women, Native Americans, indentured servants, small farmers and craftsmen would be put to work producing the wealth upon which the new ruling class would base its power.
In order to find enough volunteers for their military, shops, and fields, they instituted controlled elections that elected mainly rich white men – their pals – to high office for the next two hundred and thirty years, and called it democracy. Like their ancient Athenian predecessors, they needed enthusiastic volunteers to make the system work.
At first, they believed that elections would be enough to keep the toilers in line. But the election of rich white men soon proved inadequate to keep everyone’s nose to the grindstone. People felt cheated of their revolution. Rebellions and protests broke out after the conclusion of the war against British imperialism, mainly due to the economic depression of 1786-87 and the harsh austerity measures implemented against a revolutionary-minded population.
Popular agitation led two years later to the drafting of the first ten amendments to the constitution – the Bill of Rights. These amendments and subsequent ones were concessions that the rulers reasoned would be necessary measures for calming class antagonisms while restoring the spirit of voluntarism and voluntary labor.
These basic political rights – the freedoms of speech, assembly, press, religion, privacy, bearing arms, and the rest – are hailed by the rulers as the essence of “democratic rights,” and, alongside elections, form the second pillar of what the oligarchs mis-label democracy.
Conspicuously excluded all along from their “democratic rights” – i.e. majority rights – are economic rights, the rights to comfortable shelter, food, clothing, work, health care, leisure, and education. These rights must be excluded from any ruling class discussion of democracy, since economic rights for the majority would severely weaken the ruling hierarchy’s monopoly on wealth and power.
The US oligarchy has morphed several times since 1776, from the original slavocracy teamed with their junior partners, the Northern mercantile capitalists, to mighty nineteenth-century industrial capitalism which was ruthlessly established in the bloody revolution of 1861-65, to today’s parasitic clique of high-stakes gamblers known collectively as finance capital.
Restoring democracy or creating democracy?
While individual political freedoms are a necessary part of the atmosphere in which capitalism breathes, they also represent a potential threat to oligarchic rule. Our political freedoms have largely endured many oligarchic attacks over the two centuries. But the fact is that nothing is written in stone and that all freedoms are vulnerable.
For example, the first serious threat to freedom of speech came just seven years after the official acceptance of the ten amendments. In 1798, the federal government passed the first Alien and Sedition Acts, which forbade Americans from openly criticizing the government. It expired in 1801, but was resuscitated again during World War I.
The attacks on our individual liberties become more obvious day by day. While the Obama regime and whatever succeeds it lead the rightward drive toward a future secret police state, the political freedoms we enjoy in the Bill of Rights will inevitably come under increasing attack.
But in defending these political rights, let no one suffer the fiction that they are “restoring democracy.” Anyone truly interested in promoting majority rights cannot return to the good old days of democracy, because they never existed. There never was a time in America when the majority of working people determined the nature of elections, ran their own candidates in them, controlled the press and publicity, or enjoyed significant economic rights.
No. All of us who favor majority rule can only move forward, not backward. Forward progress will inevitably address the economic disaster that the majority currently finds itself in, and will advance and defend the novel notion that true democracy includes economic rights along with political rights.
The creation of democracy requires a political revolution – the replacement of one ruling class with another. Gross income inequality and this profit-driven system would not survive a new paradigm in which the wealth of the world’s economy would be used primarily to make life comfortable, safe, and fulfilling for the majority – the demos who create the wealth in the first place.
So, should activists try to reform the system, or just wait for the revolution?
There’s an important difference between fighting for reforms and reformism. In today’s political climate, reformists believe that capitalism and democracy are broken and just need to be fixed. A little regulation here, a little taxing of the rich there, more government programs, appealing to the “better nature” of the oligarchs. . .This is what the Democrats and most liberals are preoccupied with, and to no avail because the economic system isn’t broken. You can’t fix something that isn’t broken.
To the contrary, modern capitalism seems to many in the world a rotting and dangerous zombie – a walking invitation for the headsman’s axe. [For more on this, see the author’s SpeakOut article Human Evolution is Right on Schedule.]
Reforms are worth fighting for, for the reason explained by recently-elected socialist candidate for Seattle city council Kshama Sawant: “Even though we don’t believe in capitalism, we fight for reforms within the system because the experience of fighting for them raises the political consciousness of the working class and builds solidarity.”
In other words, reforms are not the endgame, only the midgame. Any democratic victories will eventually be eroded by the oligarchy – unless the fight is carried out to the end.