What if democracy is just an illusion?

In the US, the dominant political discourse consists of ideas put forth by the ruling class.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx argued that in any society, those in charge have the power to propagandise their worldview [GALLO/GETTY]

New Haven, CT – Karl Marx never visited the United States, but he nevertheless understood the country, because he understood capitalism. As you know, there’s no American ideology that’s mightier than capitalism. Equality, justice and the rule of law are nice and all, but money talks.

In their 1846 book The German Ideology, Marx and co-author Frederick Engels took a look at human history and made a plain but controversial observation. In any given historical period, the ideas that people generally think are the best and most important ideas are usually the ideas of the people in charge. If you have a lot of money and own a lot of property, then you have the power to propagandise your worldview and you have incentive to avoid appearing as if you’re propagandising your worldview. Or, as Marx and Engels would put it: The ruling ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.

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The ideas of the one per cent become the dominant ideas because the one per cent convinces the 99 per cent that its ideas are the only rational and universally valid ideas. Consider free-market capitalism. The idea says that growth provides prosperity to all, that government governs best when it governs least, so there’s no need to discuss the redistribution of wealth. That’s neoliberalism and that idea has been the only acceptable economic policy since the Clinton era. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was its greatest champion. After the collapse of the housing market, he said he was dead wrong. Even so, the idea remains dominant. Why? Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but the ruling class happens to make a lot of money from a free market.

Americans tend to look askance at Marx and I don’t blame them. He was, after all, the father of socialism, as well as the guy associated with Josef Stalin, who was, you know, a homicidal totalitarian dictator. But as philosopher John Gray has noted, Marx got a lot wrong about Marxism but he got a lot right about capitalism. He understood that ideas don’t exist in bubbles – they have a concrete material context and have a human cost.

The late Steve Jobs, for instance, was a man of ideas. He was widely considered a visionary and a prophet of technology, and Jobs took great pains to encourage that way of thinking. After his death, however, Mike Daisey, the acclaimed playwright and monologuist, revealed something about Jobs that should have been plain to see – Jobs’ prophecies came at the expense of poor Chinese sweatshop workers who make iPads and other Apple products for middle-class Americans to buy at affordable prices. The Great Man theory of history is more like intellectual cover (or what Marx called the illusions of the ruling class), for the exploitation of labour.

It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of Marx’s theory of the ruling class than Citizens United, the 2010 case brought before the US Supreme Court in which the majority decided that political action committees (or PACs) cannot be subject to campaign finance laws. PACs do not formally represent candidates and instead, express their own political views. So the money they spend is more like free speech. Therefore, political money is speech protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

In theory, this is an egalitarian ruling. Any citizen can spend any amount of money to promote or attack any issue they want. But we don’t live in an egalitarian society. As Gore Vidal has said, America is a very good place to live if you have money and property. Not so much if you don’t.

Now we have 364 so-called super PACs dominating the national political dialogue as candidates compete for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. These organisations can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t explicitly endorse or challenge a specific candidate. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they have raised more than $130m in 2012 and spent almost $75m on attack advertisements carried over broadcast, cable and radio. Of that total amount, 25 per cent comes from just five people.

What these ads say is less important than their results, one of which is the curious political phenomenon of the zombie candidate. Without a billionaire casino tycoon who keeps obligingly writing checks to a super PAC, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would have quit a long time ago. Then there are candidates like Mitt Romney who need not be especially good at being candidates. Romney is preternaturally unable to ignite the party’s base, yet he continues winning primaries because his backer, a super PAC called Restore Our Future, has spent $37m in two and a half months, more than any sum spent on any candidate in any election ever.

Some super PACs don’t even support candidates, but instead attack incumbents. The Campaign for Primary Accountability is spending millions to oust representatives who’d otherwise be safe. Political activity, moreover, isn’t restricted to super PACs. Americans for Prosperity, officially a “non-profit advocacy group”, has supported Tea Party candidates and has launched propaganda campaigns in Wisconsin that touted Governor Scott Walker’s austerity measures and newly passed anti-union laws. Americans for Prosperity is funded by libertarians Charles and David Koch, brothers whose combined worth is estimated to be about $50bn. Instead of targeting politicians vying for public office, the Kochs are taking aim at ordinary middle-class workers who might otherwise have reason to believe in the American Dream.

Columnist EJ Dionne of the Washington Post summed it up when he wrote:

Oh, yes, it works nicely for the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, especially if they want to shroud their efforts to influence politics behind shell corporations. It just doesn’t happen to work if you think we are a democracy and not a plutocracy.

And perhaps there’s the real problem. If you believe the US is a democracy, if you believe in the rule of the many and not the rule of the few, then the Citizens United ruling could not be more troubling. But what if this is not a democracy? What if this, as Dionne suggests, is an oligarchy of billionaire capitalists? More horrible to ponder, what if democracy is yet more intellectual cover, another one of those illusions, for the exploitation of American workers?

Then the theory of the ruling class fits perfectly. Citizens United and the United States were made for each other.

John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr