Earlier this year, at the height of the controversy over the primary elections in the USA I was asked to contribute an article to the Beijing Peoples Daily on the decline of democracy in the US. The question was I thought, slightly misleading since I dispute that there ever was a democracy in the USA. I send them in the article that follows, but I am unsure if they published it. However since sufficient time has elapsed, and with the US election looming, I feel that there is no harm in releasing at least the English language text.
In 2014 a study went viral accross the US press and internet. Princeton scholars reported that, by using modern quantitative political science techniques they had been able to conclusively prove that the USA was a political oligarchy not a democracy.
The authors used data from opinion polls to look at huge sample, 1779 different public policy issues from the 1980s onwards, to see what the opinions of Americans of average income and the opinions of richer Americans ( >$140,000 per year ) were on topics. To this they added data on the public positions taken by business lobbying groups on these policies. Next they looked at the legislative outcomes of these 1779 policy debates and compared the outcomes with what people on average income, rich people and business lobbyists wanted. Using a statistical technique called Multivariate Analysis they looked to see how influential the views of these three groups were in deciding the final content of the laws.
The results were striking. They found that in only 3% of the cases did the views of average citizens have any effect on the laws that were finally passed, whereas the views of the rich were influential in 76% and those of the business lobby affected the outcome in 56% of the time1. They conclude:
What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of populistic democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not ruleat least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.2
It is not surprising that this research was newsworthy. On the one hand it contradicted the self image of the USA as the world’s foremost champion of democracy. On the other it chimed with the increasingly widespread popular feeling that politics in the USA was corrupt, and that monied elites and lobbyist were manipulating things behind the backs of the ordinary voter.
But of course to Marxists this came as no surprise. This is what they had been saying since the mid 19th century “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. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels, ”. Here was scientific confirmation of what they had always said. But how does this work?
How are the rich able to so completely dominate a state whose constitution is supposed to be democratic?
The short answer is that the US constitution was never intended to be democratic. The long answer involves looking at the economic and class history of the USA to to see how its politics has operated.
It is a mistake to see the American Revolution as a bourgeois democratic one. It was way different from great democratic revolutions like those in 18th century France or 20th century China. The radical character of the latter came from the peasantry rising up, taking over the estates of the landlords and completely transforming property relations in the countryside. This expropriation removed the economic support for the old ruling classes, allowing a complete new state structure to be established.
The French, English and American revolutions all had a republican and anti-monarchial character, but republicanism was more the political ideology of a landlord class defending itself from the encroachments of the King than anything democratic. In France, the rebelling aristocracy lost control, first to the urban bourgeoisie and were then consumed in the fires of peasant revolt. In America this loss of control never happened. The leadership consisted of men of influence and standing, perhaps the most conservative leadership of any revolution in history3. To understand the constitution the Americans adopted you have to use the methods of On Contradiction4 to examine the class contradictions of the day.
During the revolution, the fundamental contradiction was between the slaveowning class of the colonies on one side and the British state and 4 Iroquois nations on the other. Against Britain, they aimed to gain exemption from taxes and tariffs, to get rid of restrictions that the King was imposing on large landed estates and to protect their holdings of slaves from being set free. Against the Iroquois, they wanted territory.
The fundamental contradiction governed the development of the secondary ones: between slave and slave owner, between landlord and tennant farmer. Because their direct oppressors were opposed to the British, slaves and tennant farmers tended to side with the British against the revolution. There was widespread loyalist ( pro British ) sentiment among the tennantry5. The British Governor Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation absolving the tennantry of their feudal quitrents owed to rebel landlords, and liberating all slaves who would take up arms against the rebels. The British raised several regiments of black former slaves during the war. There was a third order contradiction between free farmers and the local capitalists over debts owed by the farmers to the capitalists. The slaveowning and capitalist leaders of the revolution were dependent on free farmers and artisans as soldiers, but feared that a directly democratic government dominated by free farmers would either inflate the currency or pass laws cancelling debts.
The class structure after independence was unlike anything in early capitalist Europe. You had to go back more than 2000 years to find something similar : the slave republic Rome on which the Americans consciously and deliberately modelled themselves. At the top was the slave owning aristorcracy who did no direct productive work, but lived off the labour of the slaves. Below the aristocracy was a class of free citizens who worked for a living. These would be small family farmers or artisans. At the bottom were slaves with no political or civil rights, the private property of aristocrats. The main class conflicts were between the slaveowners and the slaves on the one hand, and between the slave owners and the free citizens on the other. Since the slaves had no political rights either in Rome or the USA the conflict between them and the slave owners was brutally physical, with the owners dominance enforced by whips and chains. Free citizens on the other hand had civil rights, and the fact that they outnumbered the richer slaveowners meant that the political power of the slave owners was potentially threatened by the free peasants and artisans. The main c onflict between the slave owners and free peasants was typically over land ownership. The progress of slavery meant that more and more land tended to be fall under the control of the big slave estates, theatening to proletarianise the free citizens. In both Roman and the US, the free citizen farmers and artisans were allies of the slaveowners. As with expansionist Rome, the external contradiction was beween the propertied classes of the Republic and the surrounding free peoples. The expansionary imperialism of both states was driven by both the desire of the senatorial classes to acquire further estates, and more significantly, to promote colonies in which a potentially threatening proletariat could be settled as independent farmers. As Weber  argued, the parallels between Roman and American peasantry were exact right down to the geometry of landholding. In both cases the land was divided up on a square grid of farm plots with long straight roads – something that only a conquering empire could achieve.
The American constitution is almost a direct copy of that of Rome. The Roman constitution was cleverly designed to give the semblance of power to these free citizens whilst actually concentrating real power in a senatorial class. The state structure in Rome was made up of :
- The two Consuls who were elected for a year and who alternated in office on a monthly basis. They were equivalent to the President of the USA today. They had supreme command of the army and civil administration.
- The Senate, which could pass decrees and provide the class from which the consuls were generally chosen. The US Senate was explicitly modelled on this.
- The comitia centuriata or assembly of the centuries which elected the consuls by indirect election: almost exactly copied by the US electoral college.
- The Plebian Council. This was a mass democratic assembly that could pass laws. It could not however set its own agenda, having to vote on motions put to it by magistrates who were invariably from the upper classes.
The effect of this structure was that executive power in Rome was always held by a member of the slave owning patrician class. The Roman Senate likewise was always made up of slaveowners rather than common people. Similar effects were achieved in the USA. Of the first ten presidents of the USA only two, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, were not slave owners.
But a republic also relied on the free citizens as soldiers. These people had to be given the semblance but not the reality of power. In Rome the two mechanisms used to achieve this were elections, specifically indirect elections, and control over the agenda at the popular assembly by upper class magistrates. Elections, ancient political theorists argued, always favour the wealthy. Aristotle said it is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected is oligarchic Aristotle . The alternative technique, forming a council from a random sample of citizens as used in ancient Athens was rejected for the Roman oligarchic approach.
The rich can spend to influence elections and have an education that prepares them as orators. Indirect election will increase the effects of any bias : for example Bush won the 2000 election on the electoral college system even though he had fewer popular votes than Gore. Having executive power concentrated in the hands of one elected official is great for the wealthy. It takes a huge sume of money to win the election so the candidates inevitably become dependent on oligarchs.
Whilst ancient Rome at least allowed some element of direct democracy, in the US this element, the popular assembly was removed and replaced by the elected house of representatives, where again, money speaks. Election to this body is often funded by wealthy oligarchsWinters .
There have been 3 periods in US history when there was a danger that democracy might triumph: the Civil War, the Populist movement of the late 19th Century and from the New Deal to the 1960s. But in each case the oligarchy re-established power.
The 1860s Civil War marked the transition between the slave and feudal modes of production in the US. Although the war abolished slavery, int freed slaves soon lost civil rights. Klu Klux Klan terror and lynchings reduced them to the semi-feudal status of voteless sharecroppers. Not until the 1960s was their right to vote re-established. The same happened in Russia in the 1860s where freed serfs also became sharecroppers. Neither Alexander nor Lincoln broke the power of their landlord classes.
The next crisis came with the populist movement grounded in the contradiction between the free peasants and the financial oligarchy. Lincoln had moved America to a fiat currency which helped the peasantry since the inflation that accompanied it depreciated their debts. The bankers pressed for ‘sound money’ and the gold standard, which would have threatened the mortgaged farms of the peasantry. The peasant populist movement fought for cheap money and democratic reforms : popular voting on legislation, the right of recall of officials; demands similar to those of Social Democracy in Germany and Russia. Despite victories at state level, they never gained power at the federal level.
The 20th century the US underwent a transition from a predominantly rural economy of semi feudal black peasants and independent white ones to a predominantly urban waged population. The agricultural depression from the 1930s allowed banks to foreclose on farms driving farmers into cities. In the South, the landlords made use of mechanisation to dispense with and evict their black sharecroppers who also moved into the cities. The creation of a bigger working class population led to a strong labor union movement and black civil rights movement. It appeared by the 1960s, that the battle for democracy in America was at last being won.
The period from the New Deal of Roosevelt to the Great Society of Johnston saw a decline in the share of income and wealth held by the oligarchy and a rise in the share going to the rest of the population but from the 1970s this reversed. Wealth in the US became concentrated in a ever smaller fraction of the population(Piketty and Goldhammer, ) and as the study by Gilens and Page shows, this fraction exercised an almost total political control. The country has a police force that have reverted to their old slave patrol roles exercising internationally unprecedented levels of violence against blacks and poor white people, shooting over 450 dead in the first 5 months of 2015. When people protest this brutality they face police armed like commandos fresh from the war in Iraq.
Will democracy eventually come to the US?
We can not just echo Zhou enlai on the outcome of the French Revolution and say it is too early to tell yet.
After 240 years it is not too early.
It is now certain that as long as the US retains its current constitution, the oligarchy there need have no fear of democracy. In the USA radical popular leaders from Lincoln to King had the delusion that the republic was democratic. I would tend to side with Lenin who wrote that a US type republic was the most perfect form of rule by the propertied classes. Once they gain control of it, no change of leaders or parties can shift them. The solid edifice of the republic will survive until some real cataclysm shakes it; something of the scale of those Japanese victories of 1905 and 1941 which unsteadied Russian and British empires.
If we believe Mao, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, without a peoples army the population has nothing. The American people have the right to carry and bear arms, one of the key liberties they retain, but they have at no point suceeded, even at a local level, in raising popular militias able to resist the armed forces of the state. The state was able to supress strikes, Black and Indian rebellions and even mass protests by ex soldiers. Until such a day as a defeated, mutinous army allies with a renascent populist movement, makes ‘despotic inroads’ on the rights of private property and expropriates the oligarchy, the American oligarchs’ power will rest secure.
- [Aristotle 1988]
- Aristotle. The Politics. Hutchinson, 1988.
- [Gilens and Page 2014]
- Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page. Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12 (03): 564-581, 2014.
- [Marx and Engels 1848]
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848.
- [Morris 1962]
- Richard B Morris. Class Struggle and the American Revolution. The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History, pages 4-29, 1962.
- [Piketty and Goldhammer 2014]
- Thomas Piketty and Arthur Goldhammer. Capital in the twenty-first century. Belknap Press, 2014.
- [Weber 2013]
- Max Weber. The agrarian sociology of ancient civilizations. Verso Books, 2013.
- [Winters 2011]
- Jeffrey A Winters. Oligarchy. Wiley Online Library, 2011.
- [Zedong 1987]
- Mao Zedong. On contradiction. Chinese Studies in Philosophy, 19 (2): 20-82, 1987.