Monday, February 14, 2011

198. Concentration of Power in the United States

By Kamran Nayeri, February 14, 2011

There is little dispute that economic power has increasingly become concentrated in the fewer hands in the United States in the past three decades.  What is less acknowledged is that the political power too has become increasingly the privilege of a few.  although, I know of no study of such correlation, it is a fair hypothesis that the same rising economic class also wields greater power.   

There are bits and pieces of this trend in the mass media.  For instance, Obama's campaign for presidency raised and spent the highest contribution in presidential elections ever.  And, there is news that his re-election campaign hopes to raise an astonishing $1 billion!  Given the ordinary Americans cannot afford to contribute such amazing sums of money to a presidential candidate, thee is little doubt that the presidential hopefuls need to increasingly relay on contributions from big business.  

Robert (Bob) Herbert, the liberal New York Times columnist has summarized this situation well in a recent piece (When Democracy Weakens).  It is well worth quoting him at length:

"While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.
"So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.
"The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.
"In an Op-Ed article in The Times at the end of January, Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.
"The corporate and financial elites threw astounding sums of money into campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists and think tanks and media buys and anything else they could think of. They wined and dined powerful leaders of both parties. They flew them on private jets and wooed them with golf outings and lavish vacations and gave them high-paying jobs as lobbyists the moment they left the government. All that money was well spent. The investments paid off big time.
"As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their book, “Winner-Take-All Politics”: “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.”
"As if the corporate stranglehold on American democracy were not tight enough, the Supreme Court strengthened it immeasurably with its Citizens United decision, which greatly enhanced the already overwhelming power of corporate money in politics. Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.
"When the game is rigged in your favor, you win. So despite the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the big corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, the stock markets are up and all is well among the plutocrats. The endlessly egregious Koch brothers, David and Charles, are worth an estimated $35 billion. Yet they seem to feel as though society has treated them unfairly."
"As Jane Mayer pointed out in her celebrated New Yorker article, “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation.” (A good hard look at their air-pollution record would make you sick.)
"It’s a perversion of democracy, indeed, when individuals like the Kochs have so much clout while the many millions of ordinary Americans have so little. What the Kochs want is coming to pass. Extend the tax cuts for the rich? No problem. Cut services to the poor, the sick, the young and the disabled? Check. Can we get you anything else, gentlemen?"
Of course, working people know from their daily experience that this has been the trend in the past three decades and that it has accelerated recently. Charles M. Blow, another New York Times columnist, write in his Repeal, Restrict, and Repress  that the state Republican lawmakers are targeting minorities, women, gays and the poor.  We know that Democrats have joined at least some of these attacks; witness bipartisan state budget cuts targeting the working people. In some cases, like in California, the Democratic governors are now doing what their Republican predecessors did not dare to do because they are often put in the office by the very same people who  will suffer as the result of the austerity policies. 
To my knowledge none of such commentators points to the origin and causes of this rise in concentration of economic and political power. Therefore, it is unclear how to respond to it. The liberal pundits typically argue for electing more "pro-environment", "pro-labor", "pro-women", "pro-gay", and "pro-immigrant" capitalist politicians often from the Democratic party. But this has been the recipe for disaster as it feeds the very same mechanism that has brought us to this point in American history: to perpetuate the Two-Party System through which the American capitalist class rules.  None of these commentators consider the possibility and desirability of a real alternative: for the working people to mobilize their own power through their independent, mass action type organization to takeover the government and levers of the economy and run them in their own interest and not the handful of super rich.  This alternative is realistic because there is no other way out of this perpetuating crisis. And given the ecological crisis causes by the world capitalist order there is every reason to believe that time is running out not only for the American working people but for humanity at large before climate change and other ecological crisis in the making undermine the natural basis of society. 
The world recession of 1973-75 announced the end of the long cycle of capitalist prosperity, what is called the Golden Age of capitalism that began after the end of World War II.  It also signaled the beginning of the decline of the U.S. capitalist hegemony.  While many factors were responsible for this structural shift, the most immediate was the crisis of profitability, hence accumulation of capital, that has been at the center of this new economic phase. To overcome it, the capitalist classes have mobilized an offensive against the working people that aims to reduce social wages and increase profits, to create a new robust regime of accumulation.

As wealth is appropriation of nature ("natural resources") and unpaid labor power of working people, the intensifying assault on the working people has dovetailed the intensifying assault on nature.  This offensive was launched on at enterprise level (via inter-capitalist competition), national level (capitalist state assault on the citizens and working people) and international level (via inter-national rivalry).

In the United States it began under President Carter but took its full force with Reagan presidency. It has been pushed by every President and Congress ever since in a true bipartisan spirit.  A number of important battles were waged by large corporations against their unions and unions generally lost due to lack of class struggle experience and treachery of union bureaucracy. U.S. foreign policy, including constant wars abroad have been part and parcel of the same derive for profitability and a new regime of accumulation.

The ongoing policy conflicts between the two capitalist parties in the United States has always been of tactical nature.  However, their intensification, including the present grid-lock, is due to the limited options available to the U.S. ruling class at what it has achieved in its victory over labor is not sufficient to maintain it hegemony: the U.S. empire is fading fast.  That is why U.S. capitalism has become a bubble economy and the mighty U.S. military still is fighting Taliban for a decade without any prospect of a solid.

The resulting panic keep pushing U.S. capitalist politicians of both parties to the right; and in case of a faction of the Republican Party to the extreme right with the Tea Party that rubs shoulder with openly fascistic groups. 
If the above argument is valid then it is patently clear that all reform minded efforts by "single issue" groups (women's groups, environmentalists, trade unions, immigrant groups, gay rights groups, etc.) are bound to fail as they have largely failed in recent decades. Surely, they are cases were they have won important battles. But we are losing the war!  To be politically effective, we need to organize from the grassroots, take the streets and aim for direct power.
Mr. Herbert writes of a conversation with Howard Zinn; the radical historian who recently died. 
"I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. 'If there is going to be change,' he said, 'real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.'
"I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo."
But the Egyptian working people have just begun to challenge their own capitalist state and its sponsor in Washington. Mubarak is gone but his regime remains.  It will take a social revolution for them to achieve true democracy not only in the political arena but also in its economic base. And that is true of the United States even more. Nothing short of a government of the working people can provide a lasting solution to the problems that concentration economic and political power in the hands of the U.S. capitalist class has been causing us here at home and abroad. I believe Howard Zinn would have agreed.  We deserve and need a society that lives in harmony with itself and with nature, an ecosocialist society. 

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