Overcoming Civil Discourse and Other Illusions of Democracy for the 1%

Festishizing democracy

The U.S. racist-capitalist class and its ideological apparatus fetishize the word democracy. Using fatuous appeals to civil discourse, it sponsors the illusion that democracy is the most advanced political system in human history. In addition to voting for their representatives, people supposedly engage with civil society through which they achieve greater social goods through voting, civic involvement, and giving “voice” to their desires. Once people make a case for change and opinions are expressed in civil discourse, society theoretically modifies and incorporates new changes. In this idealized state, society no longer needs conflict or struggle. When groups or classes resort to struggle or fail to act passively, they are earmarked as dangerous and excluded from designations of civil discourse. (Note: this particular rule applies only to #BlackLivesMatter or Occupy protesters, not to heavily armed white “stay home” protesters or fascist Bolivian or Venezuelan coup plotters.)

Such is the idealized state. Reality is quite different. In truth, the most advanced form of democracy is confined to the already-powerful, the 1% minority of extremely wealthy people and members of the dominant racial group. The wealthiest groups maintain their power to use the state to enact their political, economic, and social agendas. For the 99%, however, there is an expectation that we consent to and ratify the domination of U.S. society by its racist capitalist rulers through these non-struggle forms, through minor tweaks and improvements.

Despite the ideals of democracy, most eligible Americans vote only occasionally; many who try to vote are denied access through various racist mechanisms. Most Americans are cynical about both the government and their impact through civic participation. Few people have the millions of dollars required to influence the political process. Economist Michael Zweig shows in The Working-Class Majority, the actual number of people who make up the U.S. ruling class is so small that they could fit easily into Yankee Stadium. The truth is that the U.S. political-economic system, as it is currently constituted, even at its most democratic, cannot be more than what it is. Belief in leaving the system intact and achieving a more “perfect union” is part of the illusion.

Sociologist Jennifer M. Silva shows in We’re Still Here, few working-class people any longer believe in the capacity of people in their position to make change through existing democratic processes. Anti-communism of the Cold War period, neoliberal assaults on organized labor, and the empowerment of corporations today with human rights undermined this capacity. Above all, the perpetual animation of racist whiteness allying white workers with white millionaires in their political and cultural values creates a toxic poison causing white workers to betray themselves. Many acquire a psychological reward, as W.E.B. Du Bois first showed in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, from witnessing the abusive power and corrupt enrichment of white millionaires and billionaires, value given to brutal symbols of white national identity and culture, and the racist and xenophobic equation of “American” with white.

Silva seems to demonstrate, by contrast, that Black and Brown workers tend to be more optimistic about their lives and political roles. Perhaps this optimism is shaped by the inclination of U.S. working-class people of color to frequently view struggle and life with what scholar John D. Marquez, in Black-Brown Solidarity, has called a “collective consciousness” rooted in shared conditions of oppression and exploitation. Moreover, the history of a valiant progressive struggle closely links many communities of color with a more firmly rooted refusal to accept dominant illusions about democracy condition this experience. Some polls suggest that African Americans are more likely than whites to have an unfavorable view of capitalism and are more likely to be members of unions than white workers. Latinx workers represent the fastest-growing ethnic demographic group in the labor movement. They have been consistently at the forefront to reshape citizenship rights, worker relations with capital, and dominant value systems. The humanizing effect of organized labor and collective struggle on white workers, research shows, when they gain union membership experience less racist resentment. (Notably, in the most densely unionized section of the workforce, the “protective sector” [police, prison guards, etc.], this humanizing impact fails to take root in any meaningful manner.)

In the end, most workers, even many unionized workers, struggle paycheck-to-paycheck. They suffer the financial consequences of unnecessary cycles of unemployment; they fear sickness and stalking poverty. Often, they cannot imagine how their children, in the present conditions, will achieve a better life, and they suffer the emotional torture of knowing their losing struggles mirror their powerlessness. For large numbers of white workers, Trump’s authoritarianism, as inept and shamelessly racist as it is, stands in as the antidote for powerlessness. Cynicism, fueled by mythological individualism and exclusion, is fostered and manipulated by and aids the cause of the most powerful.

Imperialism, capitalism, racism

Democracy for the wealthy few has been a murderous disaster. Over the past 70 years, each decade, with its democratic ideals in hand, the U.S. has started at least one, sometimes more than one, major military conflict. Conservative estimates of the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far reached between 1 million (directly) and 3 million (indirectly), just since 2001. U.S. war and “smart” sanctions in Iraq between 1991-2003 likely caused the deaths of at least 1 million people. Almost 8 million people died in Vietnam and neighboring Southeast Asian countries due to the U.S. invasion. Estimates of the number of deaths in the Korean War hover around 4 million. These numbers do not count the half of million Communists murdered by the U.S. propped-up South Korean regime or the 1 million Communists murdered with CIA direction and resources in Indonesia. Wars have been fought to promote democracy, for racist-capitalist domination of markets, geo-political power, corporate profits, or natural resources. Besides, dozens of other manufactured interventions in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East have established U.S.-backed or controlled dictatorships and undemocratic regimes. In all, U.S. imperialism has killed more than 16 million people since 1950 alone and has forced tens of millions to flee their homes.

Those choices have also cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in resources and vast amounts of goodwill. Very few people in the world regard the U.S. government, its racial capitalism, or its military in a friendly or uncritical fashion. Democracy for the minority means that the U.S. state machinery, in a democratic manner, will pass a 2020 military budget of $740 billion (a process that hides the real cost of war, intervention, and the violent subversion of other country’s sovereignty) with almost no criticism of the waste and irresponsibility of such spending.

Democracy for the 1% means that lobbyists for health insurance and medical corporations use democratic measures to block a streamlined public universal healthcare system consistently. Tens of millions of Americans are still excluded from health coverage, or pay massive costs for prescription drugs and medical procedures, even during a pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 people. The CEO of Gilead Sciences, which developed an antiviral treatment for COVID-19 using public resources, recently announced that his company’s drug will cost $3120 per vial. Gilead’s stock prices and profit margins promise better returns, while about 130,000 people in the U.S. alone, disproportionately people of color, are dead.

Democracy for the minority has seen explosive growth since the 1970s of racist police and criminal justice systems. Seventy years ago, the U.S. used a progressive tax on wealth to build a low-cost, world-class university system, sent people to the moon, and built highways, bridges, and tunnels. Today, militarized police forces and an expensive military machine dominate our lives. These systems brutalize and disproportionately imprison millions of African Americans and Latinx people. In early July, numerous media reports showed a widespread police culture of mocking the victims of police repression and racist violence. In the country with less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment, far surpassing countries the U.S. government regularly demonize as undemocratic. About 7 million Americans are in prison or are under court-ordered surveillance through parole or probation. Further, as scholar and activist Angela Davis has shown in Are Prisons Obsolete?, the democratic process has created a criminal justice system dictated by privately-owned corporations that have a profit motive for expanding the number of arrested, convicted, and imprisoned people. As scholar Alex S. Vitale shows in The End of Policing, state and local governments, rather than fund high-quality public education, use up their limited resources to pay private security companies to train police to adopt a racist “warrior mentality” to confront and control non-white populations.

Democracy for the wealthy few means that one corrupt man was able to use his wealth to gain control of the machinery of the U.S. state, to manipulate his power to enrich his family and businesses, promote an agenda of “white power” and authoritarianism, and consistently lie to the American people and the world. When he was caught and tried for his crimes, he democratically squirmed away from conviction and punishment.

That is what democracy looks like.

Uprising and overcoming democracy

The May-June Uprising against racist police brutality, which began in Minneapolis as the protest of the murder of George Floyd, has also become a struggle against cynicism. It is becoming a struggle to “overcome democracy,” as Lenin, in State and Revolution, described the working-class movement’s ultimate goal. Under capitalism, he reasoned, democracy will always mean domination by the 1%. The socialist-oriented, working-class majority must overcome it. Today’s uprisings have become both a struggle against Trump’s abuse of power and a fight to overcome the democracy that operates by and for the white supremacist, wealthy few. Thus, the uprising has become a mass demand to reshape power relations more broadly, wrest control of all resources from the dominant racist-capitalist minority, and redirect the state’s machinery to serve the needs of the majority of the people.

It is tempting to follow the arguments of some Marxists who argue that a distinction between bourgeois democracy and socialist democracy must be made. For example, the late historian Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism poses, without citing or discussing Lenin, what she sees as the political concept of democracy against the fundamentally economic concept of capitalism. She offers a socialist critique of democracy. Wood argues that democracy refers to all “extra-economic goods” or “political goods.” Political struggles around “extra-economic goods,” she avers, “remain vitally important, but they have to be organized and conducted in the full recognition that capitalism has a remarkable capacity to distance democratic politics from the decisive centres of social power and to insulate the power of appropriation and exploitation from democratic accountability.”

Wood’s idea shares some important affinities with Lenin’s metaphor of democracy as “the shell of capitalism.” Lenin writes, “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism.” Capitalism uses this shell to protect itself, to conceal its relations, to hide its core truths behind a covering of dynamic political activity, speech, campaigns, and discourse. It is the appearance of freedom and dynamic discourse that “insulates” the true power of capitalist domination of the state. In the end, Wood distinguishes a fuller democracy associated with socialism and a limited version associated with capitalism––as if the political forms of the latter are simply extended for a greater portion of the population but essentially remain the same.

Creating a distinction between two types of democracy isn’t, however, Lenin’s purpose in State and Revolution. His doesn’t claim that democracy functions improperly under capitalism; it is, at its best, the limit of political maturity under capitalist social relations of production. Instead of distinguishing bourgeois democracy from socialist democracy, Lenin’s shows that Marxism envisions a revolutionary process that originates in capitalism (and its political forms) but which are seized, subordinated, and then supplanted by new working-class created and controlled political forms that better empower and fortify the public ownership, administration, and planning for development the enterprises, institutions, resources, and communities of the future.

We are witnessing in this Uprising an attempt to create in embryonic form the tools that may turn the struggle from one of extending democracy to one of overcoming democracy. Lenin called for workers to claim existing democratic machinery but to refuse to settle for merely holding onto that machinery. Without a process of overcoming democracy, a mass uprising that aims to secure power for the majority will fail, and the dominant minority will return to power. History shows us that the neoliberal class strategy implemented in the 1970s and 1980s restored the full racist-capitalist domination despite the communist and social democratic insurgencies in the 1930s through the 1960s. Through this uprising, in its resistance to racist police brutality––the truncheon of the racist capitalist class that dominates the U.S. state––the people seek to extend citizenship rights. But also, they seek to convert that mechanism of power into a tool to reconstruct themselves as rulers not as the ruled, or as subjects who consent to the democracy of racist capital.

Joel Wendland-Liu is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth (Lexington Books). He writes occasionally for CGTN.com and other news and opinion websites. He teaches courses in diversity, intercultural competence, immigration, dialogue, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University. Read other articles by Joel.