Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Democracy has ALWAYS been the enemy and EVER will be to the tiny oligarchies which have held sway in every civilization so far.
Democracy is even radically toxic to itself. Thus the treacherous, long, and uncertain STRUGGLE of democracy to control ITSELF through arduous processes of building internal checks & balances while ever scrambling to belatedly forge counterweights against emerging new forms of concentrated wealth.
In the Post WWII attack against social democracy and liberal institutions, the “neoliberal” enemies of democracy pretended market forces would inevitably make democracy superfluous by some combination of meeting all our needs AND by making all organized resistance totally futile. But the oligarchic enemies of democracies do not put their trust in contrived or abstract historical forces. They use their vast resources to employ “the best & the brightest” to rig every game for their own narrow idiotic benefit. This goes back to well before Plato, but for recent examples, serious democrats would do well to peruse two well written and well researched popular articles in The Atlantic and The Institute for New Economic Thinking.
“Meet the Economist Behind the One Percent’s Stealth Takeover of America” is by Lynn Parramore. Her article in Inteconomics.org is a review of historian Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”. It describes the work and influence of James McGill Buchanan, a lynchpin and major architect of the right-wing libertarian “brain trust” most associated today with the “gravy rich” Koch brothers but also thickly supported by “Shell Oil, Exxon, Ford, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, and General Motors”. According to Parramore, Buchanan:
“was incensed at what he saw as a move toward socialism and deeply suspicious of any form of state action that channels resources to the public. Why should the increasingly powerful federal government be able to force the wealthy to pay for goods and programs that served ordinary citizens and the poor?”
Buchanan was instrumental in developing the theory of “public choice” as another weapon against democratic efforts to use the power of government as a check against wealthy corporations and individuals. His books, including “The Limits of Liberty” and “Property as a Guarantor of Liberty” elaborated on his view of a society where a tiny band of Galtish “makers” are besieged by insatiable legions of “takers”, “parasites” and “predators”.
“Suppressing voting, changing legislative processes so that a normal majority could no longer prevail, sowing public distrust of government institutions— all these were tactics toward the goal. But the Holy Grail was the Constitution: alter it and you could increase and secure the power of the wealthy in a way that no politician could ever challenge.”?
Make no mistake this is the revolutionary agenda that Shell Oil, Exxon, Ford, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, General Motors and other corporations CAN be forced to disavow, but which they will pursue to its deadly limit if permitted. Make no mistake, the attack on democracy is serious, concerted, dangerous, and extremely effective. Popular faith in democracy and its liberal forms is declining all across the western world.
Corporations were a medieval European institutional development designed to conduct monumental projects (like cathedrals) which required immense resources and multiple generations to complete. They were also employed to codify and protect the rights of free citizens to govern themselves in towns and cities with some insulation from the power of feudal lords and monarchs. Later they were used by sovereigns to bestow monopolistic privileges and other protections for risky capital intensive commercial endeavors. These included building local toll bridges, canals, and highways but also massive imperialistic enterprises involving varying combinations of commerce and conquest. Think of the British and Dutch East India Tea Companies, but also remember how many of the original 13 American English colonies were organized under corporate charters. If you live on the East Coast, it’s quite likely you’re sitting in territory once claimed by the Virginia or Massachusetts Bay Companies.
Adam Winkler in 'Corporations Are People' Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie details how, in the years following the Civil War, a small number of sharpies were able to subvert the 14th amendment, written to protect the rights of newly emancipated blacks, and transform it into a legal tool still being used to attack democracy and the Constitution itself.
Advocates for democracy need to focus their attention on how the corporate form has been subverted to become a potent weapon for idiocy and oligarchy. Corporations need to be held accountable via multiple legal and institutional mechanisms to workers, consumers, and levels of community (from local to international). Concentrations of wealth and power need to be justified by their service to the public good as defined in multiple contending forums. And WE need to raise ourselves to arduous challenges which extend far beyond harnessing and domesticating these power centers. WE need to cultivate in ourselves the abilities to keep all manner of institutions functioning in ways that do not ever again give unlicensed power to an irresponsible few. That means education for the knowledge and habits of mind required for democracy to govern itself as well as for multitudes of other more specialized skills.
The price of liberty, as one slaveholding founding father was right to point out, is “eternal vigilance”. But the rich and powerful have the time and money to not only wait for us to become cloudy and drowsy, but they also have the resources to lull us into self-deceptive versions of “moderation” or to incite us into self-defeating spasms of “extremism”. They can always hire more interchangeable “brains”. They can afford to wait and make mistakes.