Democracy vs Plutocracy
To understand our world, it's essential to have a clear understanding of the concept of democracy in practice, in the day-to-day lives of 7.5 billion human beings, not simply as a set of vague laudable textbook ideals. Democracy in its multifaceted de facto reality is the most evolved, robust, and responsive political system on Earth. Not because it perfectly serves the needs of a free population but because it balances serving the needs of governing feudal heritage with the security of a stable non-totalitarian society (under the rule of law) while offering enough (as little as necessary) free expression to the potentially contradictory aggregated demands of the governed population.
"Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the freest and most popular." - David Hume (1771-1776)
The scholarly comprehension of authoritarianism has failed to keep pace with the evolution of authoritarian regimes. The voluminous scholarship on authoritarianism has focused primarily on explicating traditional, and fairly transparent, mechanisms of authoritarian control. These traditional, transparent strategies still persist, to be sure, but the narrow focus on them has left undertheorized an emerging trend in authoritarian governance. Is this myopia by design or convention?
Read this article for a comprehensive, cross-regional account of the stealth authoritarianism trend. In response to the post-Cold War crackdown on transparently authoritarian practices, the new generation of authoritarians or would-be authoritarians learned to resort to more subtle forms of control. Specifically, they learned to perpetuate their power through the same legal, primarily sub-constitutional, mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials. Drawing on rational-choice theory, the Article argued that stealth authoritarian mechanisms generate significant benefits for many regimes, while raising the actual or apparent costs of detecting and eliminating authoritarian practices for relevant domestic and global actors.
The rise of stealth authoritarianism is significant for three primary reasons.
- First, it challenges the conventional wisdom in the literature, which has largely eschewed the role that formal legal mechanisms play in authoritarian control.
- Second, the study of stealth authoritarianism informs important questions in legal and democratic theory by demonstrating the limits of democratic processes and their vulnerability to authoritarian abuse. As the Article explained, stealth authoritarianism is a regime-neutral phenomenon and, with the appropriate level of discretion embedded in the relevant rules, these mechanisms are subject to use and abuse by both nondemocracies and democracies.
- Third, existing democracy-promotion mechanisms, though effective in detecting traditional strategies of authoritarian governance, are much less effective in detecting stealth authoritarianism, which relies on more subtle reconfigurations of the political order. Paradoxically, these democracy-promotion mechanisms, which narrowly search for obvious democratic deficiencies, have provided legal and political cover to stealth authoritarian practices and created the very conditions in which these practices thrive.
Stealth authoritarianism is likely to foment a more durable authoritarian order, shorn of the egregious excesses of past totalitarian governments by dint of its gradual mostly organic occupation of a nation's entrenched power dynamics. Fundamentally, an Adolf Hitler at the centre of fascist Nazi government with 60% popular support for their ideologies would have remained legitimate in the eyes of the world; no matter what atrocities were committed behind closed doors. It wasn't a foregone conclusion Germany decided to invade the rest of the world. Expect that lesson to have been learned by authoritarians in today's major democracies.
PLUTOCRACY DESTROYING DEMOCRATIC CAPITALISM
A short-sighted plutocracy of enormously wealthy, all-powerful elite global corporate oligarchy is destroying the American capitalist democracy. It began after the Second World War, accelerating under Reagan in the 1980s, handing off to neoliberal Clinton in the 1990s to lock power into a permanent cross-party subordination of government and its institutions to the corrupted needs of what's become a deeply embedded confederacy of organised kleptocrats.
There is little hope of breaking the stranglehold of big capital interest given it is deeply embedded in the root and branch of the American federal, state and local governments. It will need a national citizen awakening to push back against the ruling elites, but the rich and powerful are aware of this threat and have taken steps to consolidate.
Any chance of a democratic revolution grows less likely with each passing year. The ruling elites control the media and the messaging. Education and expectation are closely controlled, conditioning the population to submit passively to living out a degraded present and a bleak, unknowable future.
Entrenched power defends itself aggressively against attempts to limit or regulate its reach. Meanwhile, the nation's ruling elite exploits every opportunity to consolidate influence and increase its wealth, ring-fenced by a complex monopoly on institutional force, brutal policing one of its many means to control America's diverse, sprawling population. Uti possidetis.
Americans are serfs ruled by a globalist corporate oligarchy who loot the U.S. Treasury and pay little or no taxes. The ruling elite has perverted the police and the judiciary, neutered the media and used the legislative branches of government to strip civil liberties from the individual while giving big business the freedom to commit financial fraud and theft.
Democracy is a stage show, played out every few years by a cast of hired snake-oil politicians. Failure to stay docile is met by violence by police. Security agencies (e.g. FBI) have devolved to protect the exclusive interests of a tiny, ruling criminal class. Rule of law is a fiction. The innocent poor get handed harsh sentences, especially black and brown Americans whose role in the oligarchy is cheap labor ideally incarcerated. The criminal rich get to buy their way out of accountability.
Three options exist: reform, revolution, or tyranny. The path of least resistance is tyranny. The direction of America since the Eisenhower administration has been entirely authoritarian. The more things deteriorate, the more the elites feel threatened, the more brutal the police, the National Guard and the organs of state security will become.
Tyranny is our destination, if nothing is done to prevent it. If the mafia state is not overthrown, then America will become a naked police state where any opposition, however tepid, will be met with censorship, exclusion or force. Journalists will be swept up in the oppressive measures and protest will be met by physical force, arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and divide-and-rule smears like "terrorists" or "anti-American anarchists".
The huge social divides, largely built around race, will be used by authoritarian power to divert any legitimate rage from the betrayed working class to set neighbor against neighbor. Neo-fascist “patriots” will be unleashed like attack dogs against "enemies" of the state. America's founding ideals of inclusion and diverse liberty will be turned on their head, to make Untermensch targets out of people of color, Muslims, feminists, intellectuals, artists, the media and liberals. Dissent, even nonviolent protest, will become treason.
The uprisings triggered by the sadistic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis aren't only a protest about the murder but a frantic reaction by millions to the daily reality of life in America as a person of color or a person without wealth. It goes beyond police brutality, though a thousand citizens are murdered by police annually, almost all unarmed.
Half the country lives in or near poverty. The working class and the working poor are mostly without healthcare. Their schools are infit for purpose, their food substandard mass-produced sugary carbopoison. Eviction is prevalent, decent jobs scarce, debts accumulating just to keep a head above water punished by collections that never let go. Mortality rates are 15 times higher, life expectancy five to ten years less, coronavirus fatalities disproportionately higher among poor and black Americans. Is it any wonder young black males are drawn to the gang and the life of profitable petty crime?
Incarcerated, a single prisoner can generate as much as $60,000 a year for the multitude of corporations, including the for-profit medical services, food services, money transfer services, commissary services, phone services, private prisons and prison contractors, not to mention corporations and state governments exploit the cheap slave labor of 1 million of America's 2.5 million prisoners.
Make no mistake, the prison system is a multi-trillion dollar industry with lobbyists in state capitals and Washington to make sure human capital remains caged or recidivist. The neo-slavery of the American justice system - police, court, judges, bail, prisons, parole, disenfranchisement - is the corporate model envisioned for the entire nation.
RED VERSUS BLUE
We are told the solution to the ills of society is the ballot box. If you want change, vote for the change candidate. This may once have been useful advice but in 2020 it has lost its meaning. The Republican and Democratic Parties are two sides of the same snake-oil coin.
Joe Biden, for the blue team, was one of the principal architects of de-industrialization and responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs. Biden and Bill Clinton also destroyed welfare program, where 70% of recipients were children, more than doubled the prison population, legislated three or fourfold increased sentences.
Biden was a driving force behind the notoriously harsh penalties in the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, and the three-strikes legislation in the Violent Crime Control. Biden sponsored the Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which funded 100,000 new police officers, aggressive prosecution of 60 new capital crimes and began the transformation of America's police departments into paramilitary divisions. Biden sponsored legislation to cut the ability of prisoners to appeal, passed the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 and The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
Biden and the Democratic Party moved in lockstep with the Republicans to re-segregate public schools and repeatedly call for cuts to Social Security. He was instrumental in the disastrous trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Biden and Barrack Obama forced needless austerity programs on the poorest and most disadvantaged Americans while establishing the most intrusive, complete system of mass government surveillance in the world.
It should have been no surprise that Obama's administration increased rather than rolled back America's foreign wars. Biden was one of the key architects of the Middle East wars, squandering over $7 trillion and destroying the lives of millions of people. It's worth noting that Biden (and Obama) have far more blood on their hands than Trump, for all the latter's insane bluster and religious right-wing toadying.
The ruling elites believe they have the American people between a rock and a hard place. In November, the choice presented will be Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Biden is the preference of the rich and powerful. Trump's excess threatens stability, his vanity makes him unpredictable, especially when bullying explodes in backlash against government authority. Biden is the oligarch ideal: avuncular, pliable, wholly subordinated yet good on camera as a President figurehead should be.
The media and the slowly shrinking white middle and professional classes remain in thrall to the fiction of election cycles. By and large they cling to a hope for better times based on the better times of the 20th-century.
Lower classes lurch from emergency to emergency with little time to think about politics. The pandemic has intensified their struggle, bankruptcy looming large for millions and potential for up to 11 million evictions (once the moratorium expires) and 25% unemployment. Successive administrations have stripped relief to bare bones. 48% of front-line workers are ineligible for sick pay, 43 million Americans had employee-sponsored health insurance in January but have it no more. Tens of thousands of families feed themselves only with the help of food banks and charity handouts.
The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the activity of the ruling elites too. The kleptocrats had learned much from the 2008 bailout under Barack Obama (and Joe Biden) and what had taken a couple of years in 2008/2009 took only a week in 2020. In Washington D.C. the representatives of corporate oligarchy swept $4 trillion taxpayer revenue away from helping lower and middle-class Americans, where it could have kickstarted the economy, into the greedy embrace of a small but incredibly wealthy, influential globalist cabal.
The CARES Act handed out trillions in funds or tax breaks direct to the biggest corporations. Beneficiaries included the oil companies, $50 billion to the airline industry, cruise ships, $170 billion for the real estate industry, private equity firms, lobbying groups, the meat industry, big food, big pharma, and a hundred multinational companies with offshore accounts to avoid U.S. taxes.
Most Americans got little or no stimulus funds as big business contrived to steal money intended for small businesses, while millionaires enjoyed 80% tax breaks and an average of $1.7 million stimulus checks. received little or no stimulus funds, emerge from coronavirus lockdown in much-depreciated state; ripe to be swallowed up by capital-rich mega-corporations.
The CARES Act also authorized $454 billion for the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a massive slush fund doled out by Trump cronies to corporations that, when leveraged 10 to 1, can be used to create a staggering $4.5 trillion in assets. The act authorized the Fed to give $1.5 trillion in loans to Wall Street with no plan for repayment. The persistent rise of the stock market indicators despite the lockdown and pandemic panic should no longer be a surprise.
It has not only been corporations benefiting from the pandemic redistribution of wealth. In total, American billionaires have added $434 billion to their net worth since the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon corporation paid exactly zero federal taxes in 2019, accumulated $34.6 billion onto his personal wealth; not to mention the growth Amazon itself will have enjoyed by dint of the lockdown closing so many of its competitors.
VIOLENCE - END GAME
Violence. This understanding was something Malcolm X, who came out of poverty, always understood and Martin Luther King, a product of the black bourgeoisie, learned later.
It is ultimately the ruling elites who will determine the mechanics of resistance. When they close every escape route, when they speak exclusively in the language of force, then the language of force becomes the only form of communication. Trump’s demand that states use the National Guard to crush the protests and threat to deploy the U.S. military in the streets of American cities only heightens the anger and frustration that led to the uprisings.
The ruling elites are never idle and scapegoats will be offered to the American public through entirely constructed media-driven narratives. are, at the same time, desperately seeking scapegoats. Antifa, elevated from fringe agitators to a global terrorist network, and vaguely threatening but ill-defined anarchists, have been circulated. Russia, the wily enemy for all seasons and China, the menacing economic powerhouse and source of the coronavirus, are given turns in the spotlight. It's par for the course when totalitarian rulers need to discredit dissidents and justify violent enforcement to a population. Fear, foreigners and traitors are tried and tested methods.
Time is running out, if there is to be a rescuing of the great American democracy. The corporate oligarchy is happy to let protests continue battling local law enforcement, keeping everyone busy with demands and big gestures and fine promises about changing systems followed by snail's pace legislation. The longer entrenched power stays unregulated and appropriated by a small crony-capitalist cabal, the longer the ruling elites will loot the nation's treasury, mortgage its future assets and strip away every ounce of value from the American ship of state.
While enriching themselves and the oligarch class, they'll peddle futile blame games, activating resistance top fight against change anywhere it can be brought into play. If all else fails, the ruling elites will try to ignite the powder-keg of racialized violence - especially among disenfranchised working whites and ghettoized blacks. The prospect of a destructive war based on weaponized race-hate must be taken seriously; and avoided at all costs. The poor and the disadvantaged should not be enemies. It benefits only the kleptocracy if they become lost in internecine.
According to a study published in 2014 by Princeton Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern Professor Benjamin Page, although Americans enjoy many features of democratic governance, such as regular elections, and freedom of speech and association, American policy making has become dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans. The typical American has no influence at all.
This is largely due to the increasing concentration of wealth. In a 2019 research paper, Berkeley economics professor Gabriel Zucman determined that the richest 1 percent of Americans now own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. That’s up from 25 to 30 percent of the nation’s wealth in the 1980s. The only country Zucman found with similarly high levels of wealth concentration is Russia.
CALLING OUT NATIONALIST OLIGARCHY
Across the political spectrum, commentators and scholars have identified—and warned of—the global rise of autocracies and authoritarian governments. They cite Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey, among others. Distinguished commentators are increasingly worried. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently published a book called Fascism: A Warning. Cass Sunstein gathered a variety of scholars for a collection titled, Can it Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America.
The authoritarian lens is familiar from the heroic narrative of democracy defeating autocracies in the twentieth century. But as a framework for understanding today’s central geopolitical challenges, it is far too narrow. This is mainly because those who are worried about the rise of authoritarianism and the crisis of democracy are insufficiently focused on economics. Their emphasis is almost exclusively political and constitutional—free speech, voting rights, equal treatment for minorities, independent courts, and the like. But politics and economics cannot be dissociated from each other, and neither are autonomous from social and cultural factors. Statesmen and philosophers used to call this “political economy.” Political economy looks at economic and political relationships in concert, and it is attentive to how power is exercised. If authoritarianism is the future, there must be a story of its political economy—how it uses politics and economics to gain and hold power. Yet the rise-of-authoritarianism theorists have less to say about these dynamics.
To be sure, many commentators have discussed populist movements throughout Europe and America, and there has been no shortage of debate on the extent to which a generation of widening economic inequality has been a contributing factor in their rise. But whatever the causes of popular discontent, the policy preferences of the people, and the bloviating rhetoric of leaders, the governments that have emerged from the new populist moment are, to date, not actually pursuing policies that are economically populist.
The better and more useful way to view these regimes—and the threat to democracy emerging at home and abroad because of them—is as nationalist oligarchies. Oligarchy means rule by a small number of rich people. In an oligarchy, wealthy elites seek to preserve and extend their wealth and power. In his definitive book titled Oligarchy, Jeffrey Winters calls it “wealth defense.” Elites engage in “property defense,” protecting what they already have, and “income defense,” preserving and extending their ability to hoard more. Importantly, oligarchy as a governing strategy accounts for both politics and economics. Oligarchs use economic power to gain and hold political power and, in turn, use politics to expand their economic power.
Those who worry about the rise of authoritarianism and fear the crisis of democracy are insufficiently focused on economics. The trouble for oligarchs is that their regime involves rule by a small number of wealthy elites. In even a nominally democratic society, and most countries around the world today are at least that, it should be possible for the much larger majority to overthrow the oligarchy with either the ballot or the bullet. So how can oligarchy persist? This is where both nationalism and authoritarianism come into play. Oligarchies remain in power through two strategies: first, using divide-and-conquer tactics to ensure that a majority doesn’t coalesce, and second, by rigging the political system to make it harder for any emerging majority to overthrow them.
The divide-and-conquer strategy is an old one, and it works through a combination of coercion and co-optation. Nationalism—whether statist, ethnic, religious, or racial—serves both functions. It aligns a portion of ordinary people with the ruling oligarchy, mobilizing them to support the regime and sacrifice for it. At the same time, it divides society, ensuring that the nationalism-inspired will not join forces with everyone else to overthrow the oligarchs. We thus see fearmongering about minorities and immigrants, and claims that the country belongs only to its “true” people, whom the leaders represent. Activating these emotional, cultural, and political identities makes it harder for citizens in the country to unite across these divides and challenge the regime.
Rigging the system is, in some ways, a more obvious tactic. It means changing the legal rules of the game or shaping the political marketplace to preserve power. Voting restrictions and suppression, gerrymandering, and manipulation of the media are examples. The common theme is that they insulate the minority in power from democracy; they prevent the population from kicking the rulers out through ordinary political means. Tactics like these are not new. They have existed, as Matthew Simonton shows in his book Classical Greek Oligarchy, since at least the time of Pericles and Plato. The consequence, then as now, is that nationalist oligarchies can continue to deliver economic policies to benefit the wealthy and well-connected.
It is worth noting that even the generation that waged war against fascism in Europe understood that the challenge to democracy in their time was not just political, but economic and social as well. They believed that the rise of Nazism was tied to the concentration of economic power in Germany, and that cartels and monopolies not only cooperated with and served the Nazi state, but helped its rise and later sustained it. As New York Congressman Emanuel Celler, one of the authors of the Anti-Merger Act of 1950, said, quoting a report filed by Secretary of War Kenneth Royall, “Germany under the Nazi set-up built up a great series of industrial monopolies in steel, rubber, coal and other materials. The monopolies soon got control of Germany, brought Hitler to power, and forced virtually the whole world into war.” After World War II, Marshall Plan experts not only rebuilt Europe but also exported aggressive American antitrust and competition laws to the continent because they believed political democracy was impossible without economic democracy.
Framing today’s threat as nationalist oligarchy not only clarifies the challenge but also makes clear how democracy is different—and what democracy requires. Democracy means more than elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, and various constitutional norms. For democracy to persist, there must also be relative economic equality. If society is deeply unequal economically, the wealthy will dominate politics and transform democracy into an oligarchy. And there must be some degree of social solidarity because, as Lincoln put it, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
We see a number of disturbing signs the United States is breaking down along these dimensions. Electoral losers in places like North Carolina seek to entrench their power rather than accept defeat. The view that money is speech under the First Amendment has unleashed wealthy individuals and corporations to spend as much as they want to influence politics. The “doom loop of oligarchy,” as Ezra Klein has called it, is an obvious consequence: The wealthy use their money to influence politics and rig policy to increase their wealth, which in turn increases their capacity to influence politics. Meanwhile, we’re increasingly divided into like-minded enclaves, and the result is an ever-more toxic degree of partisanship.
Addressing our domestic economic and social crises is critical to defending democracy, and a grand strategy for America’s future must incorporate both domestic and foreign policy. But while many have recognized that reviving America’s middle class and re-stitching our social fabric are essential to saving democracy, less attention has been paid to how American foreign policy should be reformed in order to defend democracy from the threat of nationalist oligarchy.
AUTHORITARIANISM MEETS NEOLIBERALISM
For decades, American foreign policymakers believed that including and engaging foreign countries—even autocracies—in international institutions would inevitably lead them to liberalize their political systems and economies. The Washington Consensus, shock therapy, and democratization efforts during the 1990s and 2000s were thus partly predicated on the view that reforms would lead to stable liberal democracy. International institutions like the IMF pushed neoliberal economic policies based on this theory, and this approach partly motivated expanding access to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In perhaps no area was this approach truer than in our policy toward China.
This strategy, however, suffered from three problems. First, it turned out to be wrong. All good things—economic openness, political democracy, and human rights—do not always go together, and international engagement does not necessarily change the character of a national government. “Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness,” Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner write in their important reckoning with Asia policy. “[T]he liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected.”
The second problem with this theory is that all international institutions are not necessarily good for democracy. If international institutions are designed badly or pursue policies that undermine economic equality, social solidarity, and political responsiveness, they can contribute to the collapse of democracy at home. Indeed, there is a good case that some international economic institutions—especially the IMF—have had precisely this effect. By pushing neoliberal policies that required countries to liberalize, privatize, deregulate, and impose austerity, the IMF led some of these countries into a future of economic crises, rising inequality, and the ensuing backlash against democracy we are witnessing today. The WTO’s expansion to include China is somewhat similar; economists have now shown that its inclusion led to a “China Shock,” one that disproportionately affected some American communities economically. Even a decade later, these communities had not bounced back or adapted.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the “entanglement theory” might have gotten it backward. The entanglement theory held that if nationalist oligarchies came into the liberal international order, they would liberalize over time. Instead, it seems that while the costs of joining the liberal international order were minor for these countries, the benefits were significant. China, for example, did not need to liberalize its politics or economics. But by joining the international economic order, China was able to expand into new countries and markets at considerable scale. In the process, China’s economy has become so intertwined with America’s that some commentators have referred to the two, in economic terms, as “Chimerica,” as if it were a creature resurrected from Greek mythology.
While economists herald integration on such a scale because of the gains in efficiency, integration also brings with it a serious danger. Nationalist oligarchies are not interested in efficiency or economic theory. Their central, defining feature is the fusion of economic and political power. What that means is that integration opens economic channels through which the state can wield political power and exercise leverage.
For example, to punish Norway for giving the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government banned imports of salmon in 2010. China also prevented the importation of Filipino bananas in 2012 to pressure that government during an unrelated dispute. Beyond purely economic worries, close integration can bring security concerns. According to a Bloomberg News report, which companies have denied, Chinese manufacturers secretly placed microchips on motherboards destined for the American market, in the process creating a backdoor entrance into networks that use those chips. A more common complaint is that American companies operating in China are forced to turn over trade secrets and technology and partner with Chinese companies in order to gain access to their market. This benefits not only the Chinese companies, but also the Chinese government, as these partner companies may be state-owned or state-supported enterprises. Call this reverse entanglement: While liberal democracies were trying to entangle the Chinese through economic integration, they themselves became ensnared.