The best democracy money can buy

The state is far from neutral--it acts in the interests of the dominant class in society.

THE MOST common view of the U.S. state is that it balances the competing interests of different groups--business, labor, women, Blacks, immigrants, farmers, consumers and so on.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

In this view--sometimes called "pluralism" by academics--the government reconciles these different interests in order to help society run more smoothly. The result, to quote one mainstream sociologist, is that "all the active and legitimate groups in the population can make themselves heard at some crucial stage in the process of decision."

But does this view really correspond to reality?

For things to really work this way, the different groups would have to have more or less equal clout. But this view of power obscures the fact that, in a capitalist society, some interest groups are more "legitimate" than others.

The idea of pluralism obscures the fact that society is fundamentally divided by class--and that the basis of political power is economic power.

In the U.S., economic power is concentrated at the top. According to United for a Fair Economy, the top 1 percent of U.S. households in 2001 had more wealth than the bottom 94 percent combined. And while there were more than 265 billionaires in the U.S., 34.5 million people lived below the poverty line.

In a society based on a massive concentration of wealth at the one end and poverty at the other, a single billionaire has far more political clout than even millions of poor people. The economic pecking order determines the political pecking order.

One has only to look at George W. Bush's cabinet to see this. The business weekly Barron's noted that Bush "already has presented the business community with the keys to the city. He has packed CEOs and industry lobbyists on transition teams that are advising his new cabinet secretaries and agency heads on pressing policy issues and new hires."

The new Bush administration was more brazenly pro-business than Clinton and Gore. But money spoke loudly under the Democrats as well. "No administration in modem history has been as good for American business as the Clinton-Gore team," wrote Clinton's former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "None has been as solicitous of the concerns of business leaders, none has generated as much profits for business."

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KARL MARX and Frederick Engels came up with a far more accurate theory of the state than the pluralists. "The executive of the modern state," they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, "is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

The state arose in order to manage society once it became divided by class. But in managing society, it does so in the interests of the dominant class. In slave society, the state protected the general interests of the slave owners. Under capitalism, it looks after the interests of the transnational corporations.

That doesn't mean that the state directly represents the interests of every individual capitalist. Sometimes, it sacrifices the interests of some businesses over others. But overall, the state manages the "common affairs" of the richest class. Of all the various groups that seek "access?" to government, therefore, the ones that get the biggest hearing are the wealthiest.

As President Woodrow Wilson put it at the beginning of the 20th century, "The men really consulted are the men who have the big stake--the big bankers, the big manufacturers and the big masters of commerce."

Michael Parenti, in his book Democracy for the Few, made the same point:

Because business controls the very economy of the nation, government perforce enters into a unique and intimate relationship with it.

The health of the capitalist economy is treated by policymakers as a necessary condition for the health for the nation, and since it happens that the economy is in the hands of large investors, then presumably government's service to the public is best accomplished by service to the investors.

The goals of business (rapid growth, high profits and secure markets) become the goals of government, and the "national interest" becomes identified with the dominant capitalist interests.

First published in the January 19, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.