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Democracy is dead. It was killed in plain sight

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Democratic states have only ever existed as an ideal – an abstraction more malleable than is often acknowledged and a form of government utterly incompatible with capitalism. ‘We must make our choice,’ warned the American jurist Louis Brandeis, ‘[w]e may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’ There can be no compromise because between the two because the concentration of economic power is inherently undemocratic.

This is seemingly not the view of the Washington Post, which has recently added the slogan ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ to its masthead. The Trump administration, we’re to believe, poses an existential threat to American democracy. It must be resisted, it seems, in “light” (it’s not yet entirely clear what WaPo’s position is on teaming up with the ‘deep state’ to bring down the Trump presidency).


Nowhere is the democratic delusion more embedded in the culture than America, which is odd considering how anti-democratic some of the instincts of those who authored the constitution were. At the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, for example, James Madison argued:

Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

It was always meant to be democracy for the rich, pseudo-democracy for the poor and dictatorship for slaves.

This best-worst form of government, as Winston Churchill famously characterised it, has also long been a cover for committing some of the gravest crimes abroad. The Anglo Saxon’s propensity to take to democracy was, according to the social Darwinists, a mark of the race’s superiority and this rationale provided the moral justification for their imperial ambitions – an enterprise disingenuously characterised as a ‘civilising’ mission.

Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment exposed the seething contempt so many of ‘the establishment’ have for the people they claim to represent.

With such race theories now taboo in polite society, democracy’s stakes rose under American imperium. President Bush Jr. promised that democracy, spread at the barrel of a gun, would succeed in Iraq. Even liberal ‘democratic organs’ like the New York Times backed this paradoxical plan to send in the marines to give a people who hadn’t been consulted what they wanted. This delusion – that US imperialism is democratic and virtuous – was easier to sell because most Americans were blind to the fact that their country had long been a polyarchic basket-case.

The idea that representative democracy is democratic and that voting is a case of exercising one’s democratic right is part of this grand illusion. We’re told that elections provide the people with a chance to participate in democracy, but it’s worth reflecting on what real participatory democracy would look like. It would mean playing a creative role in how positions are formulated, but in our liberal democracies we don’t even have a say on whether policies should be ratified or not.

There has always been a pervading sense within capitalist democracies that too much popular participation is undesirable. Candidates have to mask such sentiments so this charade can continue, but occasionally they let their guard down and reveal what they really think of the masses. Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment was a faux pas not because people were genuinely insulted or offended, but because it exposed the seething contempt so many of ‘the establishment’ have for the people they claim to represent.

In the recent US elections, Clinton was cast as the embodiment of ‘the swamp’ that Trump promised to drain. It wasn’t just her name, nor was it a simple case of misogyny, despite what many on the Left would like to believe; Clinton became the vector through which many channeled their anger, frustration and sense of helplessness after decades of neoliberalism. Many Trump voters may not have understood the formal economic arguments that underpinned the free market orthodoxy, but they knew instinctively that what they’d been feed by politicians for decades didn’t marry up with their own experiences. They worked hard, tried to save, refused to take ‘handouts’ from the state, but still could never get ahead. They were brought up to believe that a focused individualism was what it took to succeed in America – that people would be rewarded for their hard work.

Trump’s win is by no means a win for genuine democracy; rather, it exposes just how emaciated and nominal it’s always been.

There’s no room for structural inequalities or systemic discrimination in this ideal, yet this is what many are experiencing. They yearn for an America that never really existed; what they really want is an America in which inequality and discrimination is something others experience. Donald Trump offered a path back to this Eden – he promised to Make America Great Again. But his fight for the White House wouldn’t be easy because, as he repeatedly said, he was fighting against a multitude of individuals and institutions with vested interests in him losing. Upon reflection, it’s perhaps unsurprising that those who felt they were being conspired against by these same vested interests were drawn to his bluster. It was only fittingly that his final obstacle was the personification of ‘the establishment’ he’d spent the whole campaign trashing. And Clinton, for her part, played the role of power-hungry, valueless statesman perfectly.

Trump called his supporters the ‘forgotten men and women’ and it was a moniker that rang with more than a hint of truth. For decades, American democracy has relied on these people’s obedience and apathy. They were disenfranchised: why vote when no one speaks to your concerns or when you think every politician is corrupt as the next? These ‘forgotten men and women’ participated in society only as consumers; that’s to say, they didn’t participate in any meaningful way at all.

Trump’s win is by no means a win for genuine democracy; rather, it exposes just how emaciated and nominal it’s always been. The illusion that a capitalist economy can exist alongside democracy may still endure, but people are becoming aware of the injustice at the heart of American society: that, while the gap between the richest and themselves continues to grow, they’re also becoming increasingly marginalised.

The great irony of the Washington Post’s renewed vigour in its quest to save American democracy is that it’s long been one of neoliberalism chief ‘propaganda organs’. It’s too late for them to lament the death of democracy, it’s already dead – they killed it long ago.

Tim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

25 responses to “Democracy is dead. It was killed in plain sight

  1. Democracy could not exist without capitalism. In Ancient Athens where it began it was the development of private property, and the control of private property by private citizens. Private property and private exchange of property, nascent capitalism, facilitated democracy.

  2. Argued for years that ‘democracy as representative govt’ is weird & dangerous delusion. But other issue her concerns focus on USA. Why treat tough times in US as having universal significance?

  3. Interesting article that says a lot of things the neoliberals don’t want us to hear. However, I don’t think we should underestimate just what a threat Trump is to women, organised labour, blacks, American Indians, Hispanics, the environment, world peace etc. The man is a fascist and he pulled out all the racist and sexist stops to get elected — and he has demonstrated that he will continue on his rampage. Watched a re-run of a “Foyle’s War” episode on TV last night and it featured an unsavoury fascist demagogue who, while British and in another era, said all the things Trump says: “Britain for the British”, Jews, Pole, Czechs, Irish, blacks out and “Make Britain Great” at the expense of the peoples of the Third World. While the so-called dove Obama ramped up “defence spending” (with Clinton’s enthusiastic support and at her urging), Trump promises to make colossal increases in the “defence” budget. We are facing the very real possibility of a catastrophic war with China. Sadly, what Trump’s victory underlines is the extreme weakness of the Left, by which I don’t mean the Democrat establishment, but genuine progressives, socialists etc. The Democrat power brokers were absolutely determined that Clinton would be the candidate. Sanders probably would have won and the neoliberals could not allow any break from the politics of the so-called “sensible centre”. Still, Tim’s article is a welcome antidote to Clintonite bullshit. Let’s hope, though, that out of sustained mass actions against Trump, a new democratic left can be built to challenge both the neoliberal consensus and the fascism of Trump.

  4. Excellent essay. Of course we would be rolling back negative gearing and making the rich and super rich pay tax if we had a democracy. Stop allowing big corporations to donate to the parties and we might get closer to a democracy instead of government run by corporations which Mussolini defined as fascism. Meanwhile we get deeper and deeper in debt because we have been fooled into adopting the mantra that tax is bad. You will never read in the press that when the US was booming in the sixties its top marginal tax rate was 70%. How else could they fight a major war build a super highway system and fly to the moon and balance their budget.

    1. re: making the rich and super rich pay tax if we had a democracy
      – so people who make money by producing products that people want, should be punished for giving so much value to the world??

      re: allowing big corporations to donate to the parties (for political favours?
      – then perhaps give them voting rights instead – after all ‘no taxation without representation’??

      re: booming in the sixties its top marginal tax rate was 70%
      – then what happened as a consequence in the 1970’s??

      The US budget was not balanced and unable/unwilling to pay debts in gold as demanded by foreign governments Nixon suspended’ the gold standard. They have printed dollar like crazy ever since, off loading/delaying the effects of hyper-inflation through the petro-dollar agreement and their position of default reserve currency (backed by military might).

      re: tax is bad
      – If somebody takes your stuff without your consent – that is called theft. Does calling an involuntary payment taxation make it moral? Because voting/democracy (aka mob rule)? Can you delegate a right that you yourself do not have?

      1. Point 1: They are not ‘punished’ for giving value to the world. They are normalised so that rather than 1% of the population owning 80+% of the wealth, despite doing probably <10% of the work and being only CEOs rather than the men and women on the ground actually creating the value the CEOs and such exploit, we end up with that 1% having maybe only 10% of the wealth distribution – FAR more than an equal amount, but not an exorbitant and unsustainable amount. Were the rich able to regulate themselves to create a stable economy where the 'poor' get fair income for their work, it wouldn't be necessary. Instead, CEOs try to maximise value not for the world, but for the company, and instead try to pay as little in wages as they can get away with – oh, except for the CEO who needs to earn several orders of magnitude more than the very people he relies on, because that doesn't seem like an abuse of power at all.

        Point 2: They are not citizens of the state, they don't get to vote. Hell, give them a right to vote; who decides who a corporation votes for? The CEO? Do shareholders do a pre-vote? Board of executives? It just doesn't make sense. Plus, all it does is end up allowing some people to vote twice because they have more money. Companies should not be able to have a greater influence over politicians than the people. Politicians should be working in the interests of the country and its citizenship – which means appealing to businesses as well, because people need jobs – not working exclusively for those with money because the politician wants a nice bonus to their campaign budget.

        Skipping argument three as the idea that printing more money prevents inflation gives the impression you have no idea what you're talking about.

        Point 4 on tax:
        You are welcome to pay no tax; just don't buy anything, and don't work anywhere. Your free choice.
        Or, I guess, as an alternative, we could abolish all tax, and have no roads, no public schools, no healthcare, no police, no fire departments, no courts, no laws or politicians – ect. – as they're all state/federal funded by taxes. What, you thought they were for free?
        If you don't want taxes, buy your own island and live on it. No taxes. You'll miss a lot of services provided by modern society, but guess what; those services are paid by taxes. You are welcome to stop paying taxes any time you like, just like if you lived at home and your parents charged board you would be welcome to stop paying that any time you like. It doesn't mean that not paying it is a better option though. The world isn't obligated to give you everything for nothing.

  5. Democracy NEVER existed without a disparity in wealth. What we call democracy has always had a body of cheap labour. We like to think in ideals and forget that democracy ( and capitalism for that matter ) are not ideals but tools and Bourne out of necessity not virtue. We don’t need the masses any more. We will use machines. Did you ever wonder how egalitarian you would be if your clothes had to be washed by hand?

  6. A good summary of the problems shared by western Democracies, not just the USA. They are the largest and most obvious example.
    What can we do about changing the system and making our society better and fairer? That should be our most immediate concern.
    Those who are doing well believe the system is not broken and does not need fixing. Increasingly, more and more people are not doing well. They are becoming angry at the unfairness and sense of impotency to do anything about it. A benevolent dictatorship is thought to be the most efficient form of government. Scary as it sounds, Trump may be the catalyst that initiates change. He is acting like a potential Dictator.
    Unlikely to be benevolent and probably dangerous. Communism did not work. Capitalism is unfair and now Democracy is failing.
    We need to invent something new that works for all.

  7. You speak as if America is a capitalist society. Capitalism is also dead. Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market relied on the incompetents being punished to weed them out. These days, the banks are “too big to fail” so the taxpayers bail them out and they keep their huge bonuses. Capitalism relies on a fair market where success is rewarded and failure is punished. Those days are long gone.

    1. re: Capitalism is also dead.

      Capitalism requires capital – (savings) for sustainable investment. When loans are made under a Fraction Reserve banking system loans are not derived from savings but produced as debt – credit created out of nothing. Our current system should be more accurately called ‘Debtism’.

      Capitalism also require free competitive markets. When currency is created my institutions that have a forced monopoly over geographical regions you have neither competition nor a free market in the very life blood of democracy.
      Furthermore, Central banking is one of the tenements of Communism – the anti-thesis of Capitalism.

      Lastly, through government exclusive licencing, regulatory capture and government/corporation cronyism backed by a government monopoly on law, there are very few free markets and little restitution against it.

      1. Truly ridiculous remarks: you can’t lend without your own or others capital, so it’s not credit created out of nothing. And having a single currency for a region enables much quicker trades and purchases of goods and services, no concerns about the conversion of a currency or of its worth – hence central banks. Capitalism requires stability not a laissez faire approach, that only leads to chaos and uncertainty.

  8. Perhaps it’s time to extend the separation of church and state to include capitalism. Some starter thoughts along this line include – banning corporate donations to political parties; no more expensive fund-raising dinners where you can dine with elected officials; record all lobbying of ministers and put records in the public domain; no more commercial-in-confidence contracts (there’s very little a government does that needs to be classified at all) …

  9. Democracy could not exist without some aspects of capitalism . Also Keynes realised that rampant unrestrained capitalism would not be tolerated. That is why his General Theory is very much about politics as well as economics.

    1. Democracy could not exist without some aspects of capitalism – yes, because only Capitalism creates wealth and without wealth, Government, democratic or otherwise, cannot exist without plundering (taxation).
      Rampant unrestrained capitalism would not be tolerated – by entrenched corporations who feel threatened by unrestrained competition, and therefore need to have government subsidies, exclusive licences, regulatory capture etc.
      Keynes stupidly focuses on consumption and erroneously believes manipulating markets does not have dire consequences.

  10. Stimulating, illuminating article, particularly as it inspires replies with reference to a possible war with China. Surely the latter with not only centuries of defacto dictatorship leaders (in the guise of Emperors), but also a current one party regime, existing alongside what was and continues to be a defacto capitalist market economy, proves the point of the illusion that a capitalist economy can exist alongside a democracy.

  11. Many years ago my made the pronouncement, based on my observations and analysis (and a bit of thinking) that democracy was an illusion. Doubtless, I was not very popular.

  12. Just trying to articulate exactly this over coffee this morning. Thank you Tim for putting something so complicated so Elegantly.

  13. I have been politically active for some 71years having been ejected from my first political rally at 16yo but I have never been more depressed about the political landscape as I am now. those of us who lived through the rise of fascism that lead us into the second WW though that our survival meant that we would never see fascism rise again but with the election of Trumpism the ugly manipulation of the media is in full swing in the US in a manner that would have made the Nazi leaders proud.
    These forces are working at many levels as we are being told to regard our neighbours as enemies and that we only owe it to ourselves to take what we can and that those who get the most are our heroes like Trump without any regard to those who were robbed on the way. Last week we saw the WFC legally rob the most disadvantaged workers like Dominos, Caltec and Seven eleven have been doing for years and I am sure most of us think that this will not effect us but it is coming when the next EA is made so start objection now as the grass roots are doing in the US. Never has it been more important for ordinary people to take a active interest in politics or we will wake up one morning, not too far away, and find that Democracy has indeed gone when the lights were out.

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