Capitalism versus democracy

Political leaders love to talk about our freedoms and civil liberties--while they continually act in ways that undermine them. Eric Ruder explains how and why.

Police protect the 2008 Republican National Convention from protesters (Dan Patterson)

THE CRACK of the police baton, the whiff of tear gas and the spectacle of mass arrest became all too familiar in city after city this fall and winter.

This was the response of the authorities to the rise of the Occupy movement and its challenge to the wealth and political privileges of the 1 percent. Occupy's tactics of choice were peaceful encampments and mass marches, supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

But in a matter of weeks, city officials from coast to coast had sent out police in riot gear, with zip-tie handcuffs dangling from their military-issue body armor, to harass and arrest Occupy protesters, and drive them from the streets.

Under the guise of concerns about "public health and safety," mayor after mayor ordered police to tear down encampments--a curious justification after the years of cuts to public hospitals, heating subsidies and homeless shelters that have actually endangered "public health and safety" for millions of Americans.

The total number of arrests of Occupy activists now stands at 6,475 and counting.

The treatment of the Occupy movement by elected officials and law enforcement sends an unmistakable message: Sure, you have the right to free speech, but once you try to use it, we will do all we can to stop you.

Part of this assault has involved elected officials--most of them members of the Democratic Party, which claims to stand for the rights of working people--bending the laws to ensure they can crack down on demonstrators at will.

In Chicago, where the NATO military alliance and G8 club of powerful governments is due to meet in a joint summit in May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel went the furthest--under the proposals he drove through the City Council, it's a violation of the law, for example, for two people to carry a banner or sound amplification device that wasn't described in a permit application filed months ahead of time.

On New Year's Eve, Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, giving him the power to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely, without charges. This was a new milestone in the assault on civil liberties inaugurated by George W. Bush's "war on terror," but continued under the Democratic Obama administration.

During this same period, the federal government disbursed more than $34 billion in grants to help transform local police departments into small armies, equipped with military-grade hardware. Under the guise of equipping themselves for "terror scenarios," even sleepy towns like Fargo, N.D., have acquired armored personnel carriers, assault rifles and Kevlar helmets. Montgomery County, Texas, now deploys a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone, just like the ones the U.S. military uses in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

No one seriously considers Fargo a target for "terrorists," begging the question of why cities with budget crises would want to bear the enormous expense of acquiring and maintaining such arsenals.

The answer is that the emergence of a powerful social movement at a time of social crisis is precisely the "threat" for which they have been preparing.

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POLITICIANS INVARIABLY use every opportunity to thank "our men and women in uniform" for protecting "the freedoms" that we hold dear. How many times has this kind of rhetoric been used to shame critics of war?

But the irony is that U.S. military deployments abroad have always been accompanied by a restriction of civil liberties at home, as the federal government prepares to meet popular mobilizations against their war aims--and the necessary budget cuts to fund military spending--with arrest, infiltration and imprisonment of "the troublemakers."

During the First World War, the socialist Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for his impassioned antiwar speeches. During the Second World War, the federal government passed legislation, like the Smith Act, aimed at radicals. During the Vietnam War, the FBI spied on, infiltrated and sowed dissension within the ranks of the American antiwar, civil rights and Black Power movements.

In fact, throughout American history, the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" contained in the Declaration of Independence has never been offered willingly, but rather surrendered grudgingly. From the very beginning, the "Founding Fathers" feared the "rule of the mob" and sought to restrict the vote to men--and only men--of property like themselves, who could be trusted to exercise good judgment.

During the American Revolution, John Adams warned against "attempting to alter the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it...Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks, to one common level."

Another "Founding Father," Alexander Hamilton, agreed with the problem. "All communities divide themselves into the few and the many," he wrote. "The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people." Hamilton's solution: Since the "turbulent" property-less masses "seldom judge or determine right," the wealthy must be given "a distinct, permanent share in the government."

This aversion to full democracy wasn't unique to America's self-professed democrats. "Universal suffrage would be fatal for all purposes for which government exists," wrote 19th century British historian and Whig politician Lord Macaulay, and was "utterly incompatible with the existence of civilization."

But why would the leaders of the world's democratic governments have qualms about democracy? After all, if there's one thing that politicians in the industrialized world talk about all the time, it's the centrality of democracy--at least when they're lecturing governments in other parts of the world about how they should behave.

To make sense of this seeming contradiction, it's necessary to look at the historical circumstances that accompanied the growth of democratic forms of government.

The feudal order that dominated in Europe before capitalism was ruled by monarchs whose right to govern was supposedly ordained by God. But with the growth of trade, the rise of cities and the early development of industry, a growing class of merchants found that its economic clout, though substantial, was hindered by its lack of political influence. In particular, patchworks of fiefdoms and kingdoms posed a constant challenge to the free flow of goods--in the form of taxes, local currencies and other barriers to trade.

But the rising bourgeoisie that dominated these new forms of commerce was still a minority in society. In order to wrest political influence from the feudal monarchs who were acting as a brake on developments that were necessary to fully establish capitalism, the bourgeoisie therefore had to mobilize the lower classes to fight with them against the old order.

The capitalist class drew behind them workers, peasants and small shopkeepers under the banner of "liberty, equality and fraternity," to cite the rallying cry of the French Revolution of 1789. But at the same time, the wealth of the bourgeoisie derived from exploiting other groups, and so mobilizing the lower classes had to be done carefully--so as not to pose a threat to the bourgeoisie's own position of privilege.

The promise of democracy thus served to unite and motivate a cross-class alliance of capitalists, peasants, artisans and the urban poor, but the radical implications of equality and liberty had to be carefully managed.

Therefore, in addition to limiting the promise of universal rights by extending them only to wealthy men of property, the guarantee of equal rights in the abstract was accompanied by the fact of massive inequality in wealth--and the scale of this inequality has only increased over time.

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TODAY, THIS means that the bulk of decisions that govern our economic lives--how long we work, under what conditions, at what wages and to what ends--are made by capitalists outside of any democratic process.

Thus, bourgeois democracy has always really been more "bourgeois" than "democratic." That's why Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that "the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of modern industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative state, exclusive political sway"--and that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

It has required massive and heroic struggles by the downtrodden--by women, by African Americans and by the poor--to remove formal barriers to equality. Meanwhile, the American capitalist class has refined the means by which it uses its immense wealth to finance campaigns, and lobby and otherwise buy politicians--to make sure that the right to vote never threatens in any fundamental sense their own power and privileges.

That's why there's never enough money to rebuild crumbling schools or end hunger and homelessness, but there's always hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the bankers or fund the Pentagon.

And it's why the same politicians who wax lyrical about freedom, democracy and equal rights feel no shame about changing laws and using repression to shred civil liberties. At the very moment that people might put their rights to use in order to demand real change, the political guardians of the system are trying to deny them.

But the fact also remains that no matter how monstrous a form repression takes, eventually people fight back--from Egypt to Wisconsin to Wall Street to Anytown, USA.