October 19, 1999
by Townsend L. Walker, Sr.
“When men have gone so far as to talk as though their idols have come to life, it is time that some one broke them.”
-- Richard Henry Tawney, The Acquisitive Society, 1920
In his 1987 book, Secrets of the Temple, William Greider posed a question stemming from the contradiction between democracy and capitalism: has the United States entered into an era when “bitter social divisions and a vengeful politics aimed at wealth itself” were already eating away at the nation’s vitals? From the question’s context, Greider probably assumed a tentative affirmative answer twelve years ago. In today’s political environment, however, a slight qualification seems in order: the vengeful politics, instead of being directed against enormous wealth, is leveled squarely and without compassion against working class people up to and including the so-called middle class. Also, where I live, awareness of “bitter social divisions” is a subject not easily broached. The divisions are there, of course, but we are afraid to speak, even among ourselves, of the ultimate consequence of those divisions -- class warfare. Large corporate enterprises control politics and public policy at the national and state levels. At the local level entrenched wealth and privilege dictate ideology and control potentially troublesome institutions (from “the church” to reformist groups capable of kicking over the traces). The net effect, as the saying goes: the more things change the more they remain the same. Why is this so?
The answer is surprisingly simple, and devilishly slippery for hundreds of millions of Americans. For in the answer is embedded the awful truth of why we are on the verge of becoming a people psychologically incapable of accepting the truth when it is laid out before us in the starkest uncompromising terms: The twentieth century was the century in which the powers that be, made so by the power of money, befogged the working class mind and made it their very own.
But allow me to quote a few words from Ignacio Ramonet, director of the superb French journal Le Monde diplomatique: “Newspapers today are going through a bad patch...(M)ore and more people are skeptical and mistrustful of the media. There is a confused feeling that something is wrong in the general function of our news and information system. Lies and mystification have been the standard fare for too many years, and people are increasingly appalled at what they are fed. This lack of trust is based on a belief that our systems of news are not trustworthy, that they are somehow malfunctioning, that they are shot through with incompetence, and that sometimes they present blatant lies as if they were truth. News is still a fundamental part of the healthy functioning of society. Democracy is an impossibility without a good communications network. It is information that helps human race to live as free beings. Few people would take issue with that.”
And there is the nub of the matter. William Greider is absolutely right: “Nothing is likely to change until people decide to change it.” And people are not going to dispose of the ruling oligarchic elite, as only they can, until they understand how that elite -- a teeny fraction of the total population -- maintains its privileged position at the expense of democracy and political freedom.
You may find the selections from G. Williams Domhoff’s book, Who Rules American? too compact to comprehend easily. But don’t despair. Understand what he’s saying and you’ll have the key to understanding a lot of things. Like, for example, why health care is not recognized as a basic human right in the United States.
It should not be, but for many is, a mystery why the American working class has remained so docile at the feet of the ruling class, digging its own grave. The foundation of this phenomenon of working class subverience is a mixture, in varying of proportions, of ignorance, fear and the instinct for self-preservation. And few who have taken it upon themselves, in the mode of a Moses or a Debs or a King, to free the working class from the shenanigans and hypocrisy of the ruling elite have escaped unscathed from the wrath of those who rule their lives. It is time that we understand why working class Americans must put aside the role of dogs eating crumbs falling from the rich man’s table and take their rightful place at democracy’s feast.
Easier said then done, for the instinct for physical survival is strong, and the nature of unfettered capitalism is to exploit our weakness with the aim of piling wealth on top of wealth. We need only observe the lure of gambling and the false hope of instant riches, especially through the casino called Wall Street, to understand the power of ideology over mind. The genius of Domhoff is that he has managed to crystallize in this third generation of his book Who Rules America? all we need to know to comprehend how completely we are at the mercy of the titans of wealth. With skill honed to near perfection he demonstrates how illusory the concept of democracy in America really is and how surreptitiously an empty husk has been substituted for the real thing. We say categorically that anyone unaware of the process by which the super-rich control national policy and the destines of the nation’s people will likely remain hopeless dupes -- and that reading Domhoff’s book is the most direct and easily accessible route to liberating our minds from the delusion of cheap preachments of “democracy” we know of.
Within the cover of this one book, written by a man who has devoted his life to the subject and who has taught it at the University of California (Santa Cruz) for many years, you will discover the identity of the institutions through which the super-rich influence the formation of the laws and public policies of the nation. You will understand, perhaps for the first time, how daunting the task of restoring power to the people and how absolutely essential are the organizational infrastructures of the American working class to that end. You will understand with Chile’s great poet and Allende admirer, Pablo Neruda, that yesterday’s self-styled reformers “very often drift off toward a very comfortable position, anarcho-capitalism, the refuge of political snipers, would-be leftist, and false liberals.”
But we are not alone in our misgiving about the nature of democracy in the United States today. The sheer number of those who no longer vote informs us that democracy as popularized by the media culture and through the nation’s schools has nothing to do with the will of the people. It has everything to do with its prostitution by the wealthy in furtherance of their own money-motivated end-game. Abraham Lincoln’s worst fears for his country, articulated November 21, 1864, in a letter to Colonel William F. Elkins, have become reality:
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country...corporations have been enthroned and an era of high corruption will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
There is only one remedy for the national sickness that President Lincoln foresaw 165 years ago: education. Not education in a formal classroom setting controlled by the very ones who fabricated the mythological version of American democracy we know today. (Woe betide that teacher or professor who refuses to live by the rule of false consciousness inherent in the prescribed formula!) Rather, education as a corrective -- as an antidote -- to the myths glorifying crass individualism and ignoring the essentiality of communitarian values to a civilized society. Education that helps us see, in Neruda’s words, that fundamental “change in a society is not in individual revolts but in the organization of the masses in a widespread class consciousness.”
Townsend Walker, Sr. of Huntsville, Alabama has been active for universal health care since his retirement twenty-three years ago, and now edits New Vision/New Voices in that connection.