The Economist recently published an essay asking, “What’s gone wrong with democracy?”. Why has Democracy run into trouble and what can be done to “revive” it. What’s “wrong” with Democracy is not limited to economics. American Democracy, such as it is, is long overdue for scrutiny. When a state supreme court chief justice claims the 1st Amendment only protects Christians and the US Supreme Court declares corporations are entitled life forms, more is wrong than a just few aberrations. It’s a movement and not a good one for Democracy.
Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies – they are, in fact, antithetical. Democracy is about human beings, Capitalism about money. Democracy is about equality, Capitalism is about inequality. The former asks for cooperation the latter demands competition. There are consequences to this dichotomy; one economist called it the “Great Gatsby curve” where upward social mobility is thwarted by inequality. It’s telling that the criticism of Piketty’s, Capital in the 21st Century, has been feeble at best.
Democracy is a political belief system while Capitalism is an economic belief system posing as a religion. As John Foster Dulles once remarked, “For us there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who are Christians and support free enterprise, and there are the others.” Capitalism and Democracy are antagonistic. This isn’t complicated. Capitalistic success eliminates equality, establishes market hegemony, while redefining venality and greed as virtues. Democracy, on the other hand, binds a population into a sense of common good antithetical to the “whatever it takes” ethos of Capitalism.
Economist piece does not address the right-wing oligarchy’s attack on American Democracy lead by business-centric organizations such as ALEC, funded by wealthy underwriters such as the Koch boys and assisted by venal rent-seeking politicians. High on the ALEC agenda is curtailing voting rights. What better way to strangle democracy? As Nobel economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz pointed out, “in a system of one person one vote 100% of the people are supposed to count.” The right to vote can be and is being extinguished with gerrymandering and new voter ID laws at the state level. The voice of Democracy will be silenced when big money has its way.
A social contract is the essence of a society, which is to say it provides the generative syntax, the grammar of social conduct. All social contracts rest on foundations of social beliefs which, unlike religious beliefs, are tangible, provable, life as it is experienced on a daily basis. Traffic lights turn red and everyone is expected to stop. When the lights turn green we go. We believe others will respect the meaning of the lights because that is a covenant of the social contract. If drivers generally ignored this contractual requirement mayhem would result. Corporations shipping profits overseas to evade their fair share of taxes is clearly a violation of the “common good” social contract.
The goods of democratic social life lie in the commons. Greedy plundering of those commons is depredation and the core values of democracy – equality and cooperation – are destroyed. When this has happened historically people rebel, those in control become fearful, the social contract morphs into social control, and the soul of a society is stilled. Why is the US DOD funding Project Minerva, a large academic study, according to its summary documents, of “domestic situations … in the USA where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order”? Is the recent militarization of police forces across the country an anticipation of social disorder?
The social contract in any society is large and messy. In spite of being riddled with contradictions and conflicts social contracts do manage somehow work. But when contradictions accumulate, disenfranchisement and inequality erode social bonds. Elected officials now take to television to chastise people who want to see a higher minimum wage – people who work 40 hours a week but can’t feed themselves let alone a family. Candidate for Senate Karen Handel of Georgia believes minimum wage laws should not even exist. The United States is a country where a basketball player earns $30 million a year against $43,000 a year for a firefighter who risks his life to save lives and protect property. Which service does the society value most? How does anyone morally justify $26.7 billion in bonuses for financiers who oversaw the destructive financial collapse that caused incalculable losses to pensioners and small savers across the country who have no recourse and no way to recover?
There is social contract theory and there are social contracts as they are lived. Contradictions add up they accrete, they harden attitudes and perceptions of social and economic injustice. Ultimately there are no longer shared perceptions or shared interests to bind the contract. Modern Dickensian squalor consists of people being forced out of their homes because of financial circumstances they have no control over or, as in the case of Detroit, the water supply is cut off to people’s homes because they can’t pay their utility bill.
Bernie Sanders points out, “There are more Americans living in poverty today than at any time in our nation’s history, the middle class is disappearing and we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the world.” Relegating large numbers of people to the “poor door” slides society towards incivility and rebellion. When the middle class is reduced to poverty and their vested interest in an orderly society is no longer viable, they will revolt. They always have. What has gone wrong with Democracy is that it has been conflated with Capitalism. The notion of American exceptionalism has been rendered false. We are, after all these years, still struggling to meet the challenge of our Constitution - “to form a more perfect union.” The outcome is yet uncertain. As an old friend of mine used to say, “comes the Revolution!”