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Democracy or Corporations? Meditations from Chomsky
Posted: Monday, January 13, 2003


There's not much place for democracy in modern America. What elements of democracy exist are trammeled up by corporate control. It's even more true now than it was when American philosopher John Dewey observed eighty years ago that "politics is the shadow cast on society by big business" -- and therefore "attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance."

Dewey meant that political reforms don't make much difference if business domination remains in place. "Power today," he wrote, "resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country, even if democratic forms remain. Business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda, that is the system of actual power, the source of coercion and control, and until it's unravelled we can't talk seriously about democracy and freedom."

Democracy and capitalism are of course contradictory, because democracy is egalitarian and capitalism depends upon inequality. Democracy means one person/one vote, as even the Supreme Court recognizes in theory, while capitalism requires a majority who must rent their talents of head or hands to another (much smaller) group who are said to have a peculiar relationship ("ownership") to the fields and factories necessary to produce food, shelter, and whatever other commodities they wish. The history of democracy is that it is always opposed by political and economic structures designed "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority" -- the goal of the US Constitution, according to its principal author.

We have the forms of political democracy in this country, if rarely the substance. But we don't have even the forms of economic democracy. Crucial economic decisions, such as what society should make or build, and consequently what jobs are available, are in the "private" hands of the boards of directors of major corporations. We take this undemocratic control for granted, with the thought that there is no other way.

"The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance," wrote Alex Carey, "the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

In the US each year more than a *trillion* dollars (almost 20% of the total worth of goods and services produced in the country) is spent in a quite conscious campaign (called "marketing") to teach you that you should be a docile employee (or student, sort of a trainee employee) and an isolated consumer, sitting by yourself in front of the TV or computer screen, except when you're at work (when you might do the same thing); that it's probably a little dangerous to have much to do with those around you (except when you're out establishing your own rather exploitative "relationships"); and that in fact no other way to live is possible.

A now-forgotten German social scientist remarked at the dawn of the capitalist age, "According to Adam Smith, society is a commercial enterprise. Every one of its members is a salesman. It is evident how political economy establishes an alienated form of social intercourse as the true and original form and that which corresponds to human nature."

The subtle but quite effective limitations on democracy were brought home to me in the recent election campaign, in which I was the Green party candidate for Congress in Illinois' 15th district. What was perhaps most surprising was the unstated but common assumption that I was somehow trespassing -- invading territory that by rights belonged to political professionals, Republicans and Democrats -- no others need apply. It was as though I had set out to practice medicine without a license. People working hard to overcome Illinois' prohibitive requirements for signed petitions for a third party to get on the ballot, were told to leave property public and private. ("You can't do that here!") Media outlets that formerly employed me suddenly seemed to think that it was wrong ("unfair") to do so. I could apparently talk and write about politics all I wanted -- on the condition that I not try to do anything about it, such as run for office.

Democracy means that you have a chance to get together with others on an equal basis (not just as an audience), get the information you need, and take decisions that actually change things. To pull a lever every two or four years (or even less frequently) for one or the other of two carefully pre-selected candidates is not democracy. Suppose one wanted to vote against the Bush administration's murderous intentions towards Iraq in this election just past -- whom did one vote for? Both self-described major parties supported the war. "America has a one party system," asserted the late African leader Julius Nyerere. "With your usual exuberance, you have two of them," he said, perhaps over-generously.

Carl Estabrook teaches at the University of Illinois. He ran for congress last year on the Green Party ticket. He can be reached at:

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