The Way America Works
By John Chuckman
April 3, 2015
If you really want to understand the world in which we live – its endless wars, coups, interventions, and brutality towards great masses of people – you need to start with a correct understanding of the political machinery at work. Talk of liberal interventions or fighting for rights, Western values, and democracy are hopelessly naïve and mostly deliberately deceptive. America’s record in such matters is one of securing everything from bananas, copper, and crude oil concessions to, at the very least, foreign governments obedient to its mandates after removing a disliked leader, whether elected or not. There is no concern for principles outside of their being featured in blowhard, insincere political speeches. The interests of America’s government do not match the interests of ordinary people, those in America or anywhere else, and, were the informed consent of the governed genuinely involved in launching bloody adventures, they likely never would happen.
The underlying reality of how people in the West are governed now compared to hundreds of years ago is surprisingly unchanged, much the way the rules governing how chemical bonds form have not changed despite a long and great parade of events and discoveries in the visible world. Despite all the revolts, revolutions, congresses, constitutions, and great movements over the centuries, we are in fact governed in the same essential way people
Of course to see this, you have to strip away the forms and rituals we have constructed over the centuries, forms and rituals which create impressive effects much like the green smoke and thunderous voice of the Wizard of Oz, a wizened old man who worked from his curtained control room, pulling levers and hitting buttons to create intimidating effects. Most Americans remain impressed with the smoke and thunder and cheap magic tricks, it requiring some dedicated effort to shake off well-done illusions, and, as I’ve written before, Americans work extremely hard in their jobs or live a kind of marginal life trying to scrape by on low wages or part-time work, either of which situations leaves little time or inclination to question what government is really doing and for whose benefit.
And so long as America remains under the rule of wealth, it is unlikely other states, as in Western Europe, will emerge from it because America’s establishment has such decisive influence – economic, financial, military, and political – over many of them.
What is considered as wealth changes over time and with economic development, and with those changes so do its interests as well as the practices of its power. Great deposits of copper ore or crude oil In the Middle Ages were virtually worthless. Wealth then was land for agriculture, forestry, and hunting, with the family names of owners determined by their estates. The revenue from that natural wealth was converted to great houses and jewels and the implements of war. War, too, was a source of wealth with most wars being little more than adventures for dominance and looting on a grand scale. Again, as in our own day, they were dressed up with slogans about principles or causes which had almost no meaning. The case of the “Christian” Crusades, which continued their pillaging and orgy of killing, on and off, for centuries, springs to mind. Soldiers and sailors, up until modern times, were not motivated by their paltry pay and poor supplies, it being understood as a condition of employment that they would enjoy a share of the bounty looted in any campaign.
Today, the forms wealth are as diverse and complex as is our society, and many of them are not apparent to ordinary people in the way great estates and hunting rights and obligations in war and peace to great lords were apparent in 800. Even as late as, say, 1850, wealth in the form of belching factories employing armies of people was often still quite apparent, but today’s complex banking and securities and financial institutions are not well understood by most people, although they represent immense wealth just as real in its demands and power as estates and obligations of the 9th century. Wealth today also comes from huge global manufacturing concerns of every description often with operations scattered out of sight, great shipping and transportation fleets, or electronic and communications empires. Land itself remains an important form of wealth where it can produce industrial-scale crops or contains deposits of valuable minerals or can generate flows of electricity or has been developed into great cities or resorts. War remains a source of wealth, only on a scale which could not have been imagined a few hundred years ago, but the spoils no longer go to soldiers in professional armies, they go to those responsible for the war, often in forms not easily recognized, as with special rights and concessions and secret arrangements.
As the nature of wealth evolved from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era, outward forms and rituals of government also changed. We have moved from the near-absolute power of kings and autocrats through aristocracies and republics with senates to a great variety of forms, parliaments and congresses, which appear designed to yield, to one degree or another, the consent of the governed.
But appearances, as in the case of the Wizard of Oz, can be deceiving.
Today, a single wealthy individual cannot make the kind of demands upon ordinary people that marked arrangements in the Middle Ages – although that must be qualified as I’m sure anyone who has become involved in a dispute with a wealthy neighbor or a great corporation will be happy to explain – but the class of wealthy people can indeed make just such demands, and they do so all the time. You will be taxed to pay for the schemes that their lobbying establishes, your water and air will contain the pollution of their manufacturing and mining, your children will be sent to kill and die in their wars, the ethics or morals you were taught as a child will be trampled upon, and virtually all important legislation will deal with the rights and interests of wealth, and not those of the broad mass of people.
In America, once in four years you will be asked to choose between two names, both of which have been closely vetted by the powers that be, to elect as head of government. Not only have they been vetted, but the immense costs of their campaigns in reaching you on television, at rallies, and with opinion polls to regularly fine tune their words will be paid almost exclusively by those whose real interests are at stake in every major election, the wealthy and their important serving institutions of government. The end effect is not really all that different than the old single-candidate Soviet elections at which the press trained Americans to sneer.
Many of America’s founding fathers had dark suspicions about the existence of wealth being secure in the presence of democratic government, and that is why they created forms – mostly adapted from Britain, a place no one regarded as a democracy then – to keep wealth safe. Over a couple of centuries, the original arrangements were modified, the country moving from a tiny one percent or so privileged voters – for perspective, that’s roughly the same as the percent of voters in China’s Communist Party deciding who rules the country – to something approaching universal suffrage, but always arrangements were made to safeguard wealth against the assumed predations of democracy.
In elections for the American Senate, the legislative body with real power, authority, and privilege, you again will be asked to choose between two well-vetted and well-connected candidates. Others may run, but they will be rendered helpless by the vetted candidates’ flood of money and resources, you will never hear their voices, and America’s press – itself an empire of wealth serving wealth – will waste no time on their views. In the case of the Senate, you will be asked once in six years to vote, with the elections staggered so that only one-third of that body faces election at any time – a perfectly-conceived formula for keeping the old bunch in charge despite issues which might have generated election discontent. In fact, you can never “throw the bums out” in America. Anyway, there really isn’t much risk for Senators running for re-election, with incumbents winning about 95% of the time. Senate seats are so secure they sometimes become family sinecures, handed down from father to son. After the election, unless you live in a small-population, insignificant state, you will never see or meet your Senator, and you will certainly have no opportunity to lobby. Virtually all seeing, meeting, and lobbying will be done by the wealthy sponsors of the successful candidates or by their hired help.
The average American Senator is said to spend two-thirds of his or her time securing funds for the next election, and such elections have now been bid-up to unbelievable amounts of money. The huge costs serve as what economists call “a barrier to entry,” a kind of high financial wall which keeps others from entering the political market, or, if somehow they do manage to enter, keeps them from effectively competing. Only the other wealth-vetted and connected candidate will have any hope of collecting a big enough pot of money to threaten an incumbent. The belief that people giving millions of dollars to candidates expect nothing in return is not even worth discussing. What they get – apart from goodies like important and prestigious appointments or valuable government contracts – is access, and access is exactly what most people never enjoy. Intimate access to politicians in high office, people always mindful of the necessity for another overflowing campaign war chest, is genuine power.
It is not impossible to have compatibility between democracy and wealth, but it requires a set of laws and regulations concerned with campaign financing, lobbying, and dis-establishing a political duopoly of two privileged parties, laws which simply cannot happen in America over our lifetimes. In America, law makes corporations persons, and the highest court, packed by judges appointed to serve wealth’s interests, has ruled that campaign money is free speech. These are not things easily turned around.
The American system of campaign financing not only assures the secure power of domestic wealth, it assures also the influence of wealthy lobbies serving the interests of foreign states, Israel being the most outstanding example. Other foreign states also exploit this system to varying degrees, but no other state has more than five million American citizens in great part keen to serve its interests. And many of them are successful, affluent, and well-placed people enjoying a connected set of organizations and well-funded lobbies. Other foreign states also do not enjoy having many of their lobbyists in America being dual-citizens, free to move back and forth between the country being lobbied and the country being lobbied for, surely an ethical issue for politics and foreign affairs of the first magnitude. It is a unique situation in many respects, and it has helped create a unique set of problems in the world.
The wealthy interests of America happen to share some important interests with lobbyists for Israel, including securing the Western world’s supply of energy and not permitting the rise of states of any power in the Middle East who disagree with America’s essential views. It is important to keep in mind that “America’s essential views” are not necessarily the views of most of the American people and that many of those “essential views” have never received genuine informed consent. Elections conducted the way America’s high-level elections are conducted are incapable of bestowing meaningful consent, especially in vitally important matters.
The Israeli-American alliance is something of an unholy one because in binding America so closely to Israel, some huge and unresolvable conflicts have been created. Israel is associated with a long series of wars and abuses in the region, and, ipso facto, so is America. Israel, given the nature of its founding, expansion, and practices, is not liked by any neighboring states, although many now cooperate secretly, and sometimes even openly, in areas of mutual interest and have learned to tolerate its existence, the way generally eased by large American bribes or equally large American threats.
Traditionally, states in the Middle East are not democracies. Their often short histories have given limited opportunity for wide-spread development and prosperity creating a strong middle-class, the sine qua non for democracy. With the United States always (insincerely) praising democracy – including Israel’s grotesque contradiction of “democracy for some but not others” – it has been caught in a bind between supporting what it says it opposes and opposing what it says it supports.
Its proposed solution was a huge CIA project, nick-named “the Arab Spring” by America’s wealth-serving and often dishonest press, a set of manufactured uprisings intended to bring a semblance of democracy to the region. It has been largely a failure, ending with some countries trapped in chaos or civil war and others, notably Egypt, briefly gaining a government Israel hated intensely, the truth being that genuine democracy in virtually any of these countries will not be friendly to Israel’s geopolitical ambitions in the region nor to those of its American promoter and protector. While the “Arab Spring” was allowed to proceed in some states, in others, where it was neither intended nor desired, such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, spill-over effects were deliberately and violently suppressed with American assistance. So the American-Israeli relationship now still locks the United States effectively in fighting against democracy in some countries and in supporting absolute monarchs and oligarchs in others, while in still others, such as Syria and Iraq, it is involved literally in smashing them as states, in violation of all international law and long-term good sense.
The entire situation is an ongoing disaster and is almost certainly not sustainable over the long term. How do you insist a huge country like Egypt remain a backwater without democratic rights indefinitely? How can you justify the destruction of an ancient and beautiful country like Syria? How can you justify supporting absolute monarchs and keeping their people in total political darkness? How do you continue supporting Israel in its abuse of millions, depriving them of every human right, or in its constant aggression to secure its hegemony? The drive for regional hegemony is all that is behind Israel’s constant hectoring of Iran, and how is that behavior different to the aggressive wars condemned by the Nuremburg Tribunal? It’s not, of course. Further, destructive, deliberately-induced conflicts like that in Syria, by degrading its economic advance, only slow the day for democracy’s having a real chance to emerge.
So here is America, self-proclaimed land of the free, mired in a vast situation where it works to suppress democracy, supports tyrants, and supports aggressive war because its leaders, with no genuine consent of the governed, have put it there, and this is just one of many unhealthy and destructive consequences of wealth’s rule in the United States. Wealth has no inherent interest in democracy, and it is entirely up to a people anywhere to demand respect for democracy through laws.
John Chuckman lives in Canada.