Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama, Race and the Future of U.S. Politics

Obama, Race and the Future of U.S. Politics

By Bob Wing

Bob Wing is a writer and organizer in South Los Angeles, and former editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times newspaper.

Barack Obama’s victory is indeed an historic breakthrough for U.S. politics. In a country that enforced a system of legalized racism until just 40 years ago, and that was founded on white supremacy, black slavery and Native genocide, the election of the first black president is cause for jubilation.

The significance of Obama’s victory is accentuated by the fact that not only is he an outstanding individual with liberal politics and a community organizer’s instincts, but he is also leading a potentially historic realignment of U.S. politics.

Such realignment could not come at a better time. Beset by a deep economic crisis, now is the time for progressive structural changes to the international and national socio-economic landscape. But such changes will be impossible without enormous political strength.

Whether President Obama can help orchestrate a turnaround of the economic crisis now facing the country, indeed the world, will be revealed in the coming years. But he has already made a major contribution to changing the pattern of U.S. politics, a pattern that was set by slavery and enabled conservative Republicans to dominate the presidency for the last forty years.

However, the development of a mass progressive movement with its own agenda will be critical to consolidating that realignment, and to winning systemic change in the year s to come.

The Color of Election 2008

The enormity of Obama’s victory has led to much hyperbole about the end of racism and the advent of a colorblind society. This notion deserves closer examination lest Obama’s victory become an obstacle, rather than an opening, to future racial progress.

Much of the press has focused on celebrating the willingness of many whites to elect a black president. But just how colorblind is the U.S. electorate?

Despite the fact that the Republicans had failed miserably, even on their own terms, and run the country virtually into the ground, whites still voted for McCain by 55 to 43. In stark contrast, blacks voted for Obama by 95 to 4, Latinos went for Obama by 66 to 32 and Asians backed Obama by 61 to 35. (1)

In 2008, the white vote was virtually identical to election 2000 and continued to exert a strong conservative pull on the electorate while the votes of peoples of color and young people of all races headed powerfully in a more progressive direction.

The color lines, in life and politics, are alive and well.

Indeed, peoples of color made the biggest shifts in their voting between 2004 and 2008. It was they who proved decisive in Obama’s victory. Left to white voters, John McCain would have won a landslide twelve-point victory.

African Americans voted for Obama by an astonishing 95 to 4, a fourteen-point swing for the Democrats compared to 2004. (2) Many a pundit has d ismissed this result as a knee-jerk racial solid arity vote for Obama. How soon they forget that the majority of black voters favored Hillary Clinton for the many months leading up to the Iowa primary.

Much of the mainstream media declared that Latinos were too racist to vote for Obama. They pointed to the large Latino primary vote for Clinton as “proof.”

Latinos resoundingly put the lie to these cynics by voting for Obama by 66 to 32, a huge sixteen-point swing to the Democrats compared to 2004. Even a 58 percent majority of Cubans in Florida, traditionally solidly Republican, went for Obama.

Latinas led the way toward Obama, casting 68 percent of their votes for him and only 30 percent for McCain. Latino voters under 30 went for Obama by 76 to 24, perhaps indicating the direction of future Latino voting patterns.

Asians swung Democratic by fourteen points over 2004, voting for Obama 61 to 35. The political trajectory of Asian voters has been striking. In 1992, Bill Clinton received only 31 percent of the Asian vote. Since then Asians have steadily moved Democratic, reaching a highpoint this year.

So much for the pundits who believed that Latinos and Asians would never unite behind black leadership. These results amount to a massive progressive motion by peoples of color.

Meanwhile the white vote swung toward Obama and the Democrats by five points compared to 2004. White voters under 30 were the only age group among whites to favor Oba ma. They voted for him by 54 to 44. All=2 0other whites voted for McCain by about 57 to 41.

The most anemic swing was made by white women, who voted for McCain by 53 to 46, moving a mere four points toward the Democrats, This was particularly disappointing in light of their ten point swing to Bush from 2000 to 2004, a change that accounted for Bush’s victory in that year.

White men favored McCain by a bigger margin, 57 to 41, but this represented a sizable nine-point swing to the Democrats compared to 2004 when they voted for Bush overwhelmingly, 62 to 37.

Overall, Obama carried the white vote in only 18 states, mostly in the Northeast and the West Coast.

The Changing Color of the Electorate

From a long-range point of view, the change in the racial composition of the electorate as a whole is perhaps even more important than the recent shifts towards the Democrats. In 1976 whites constituted 90 percent of the vote; in 2000 they still accounted for 81 percent. This year the white share of the vote fell to 74 percent, quite a dramatic change in a short time.

Just as surprising, the main group increasing its share of the electorate is not Latinos, but African Americans. Blacks constituted thirty percent of all new voters in 2004, and an even greater mobilization this year brought them to 13 percent of the overall vote, a thirty percent increase over 2000.

The sheer numbers of Latino and Asian voters have risen significan tly over the same period, but their percen tage share of the overall vote is virtually unchanged since 2000: nine percent for Latinos and two percent for Asians. (3)

Surprisingly, the percentage of the electorate that is under thirty years of age, regardless of color, also remained stable, at 17-18 percent. However, these voters increased their Democratic vote by 12 points compared to 2004, voting for Obama by 66 to 32. Young voters were also the main corps of Obama field organizers and their energy gave the campaign much of its movement-like quality.

Historic Realignment?

The true maverick in the 2008 campaign was not McCain who pursued the same old reactionary Republican Southern Strategy, but Obama whose bold strategy of fighting for the South and the Southwest, indeed all fifty states, ran counter to all previous electoral “common sense.”

His success was both astonishing and history making. He won the southwestern states of Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, and the former Confederate slave states of Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, as well as former slave states Maryland and Delaware. The Latino vote was decisive for Obama in Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado.

In all, nine states switched from red to blue from 2004 to 2008: Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire and Iowa. Obama lost Missouri by the narrowest of margins.

The historic nature of these victories is brought into sharp relief by the ac companying maps.

The first is=2 0the map of slave versus free states and territories just prior to the Civil War. The other is the electoral map of the 2004 election. Depressingly, they are almost identical: the former slave areas are almost universally Republican and the former free areas, with a couple of exceptions, are Democratic.

Almost 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the political patterns wrought by the “peculiar institution” still shape U.S. politics. Barack Obama’s campaign may mark the beginning of the end of this historic pattern, with tremendous implications for the future of U.S. politics. The main window into this change is the Electoral College.

Electoral College: a Pillar of Racism

It is not so surprising that slavery set the pattern of U.S. politics if one knows that the Electoral College itself was a product of slavery.

The Founding Fathers, led by slaveholders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, invented the Electoral College out of thin air to serve their interests.

They codified the notorious idea that slaves were non-humans, and thus deserving of no constitutional or human rights. The one exception to this rule was the stipulation that slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person, solely for the purpose of determining how many congressional representatives each state would be allotted. The three-fifths rule vastly increased the slave power in the House of Representatives20and therefore the Congress.

Th e Electoral College, in which each state receives a number of Electors equal to their congressional delegation, was invented as the institutional means to transfer that same pro-slavery congressional allocation to determining the presidency. Slaveholders held the presidency for 50 of the 72 years before Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in 1860, became the first U.S. president to oppose the expansion of slavery. The South, used to wielding political power through the selective enumeration of slaves, promptly seceded.

Since the end of slavery the Electoral College has remained a racist and conservative instrument. It has given the Republicans a running head start to win the presidency ever since reactionary Southerners switched en masse from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in protest of the 1960s civil rights legislation.

As then-Republican strategist Kevin Phillips put it in 1970, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are.”

Based on that switch, the Republicans adopted the notorious Southern Strategy that has enabled them to dominate the presidency for the last forty years. The Republicans learned to skillfully fashion a winning combination of the solidly Republican white southern voters with conservative and moderate whites in the Midwest and Southwest, through barely coded racist appeals.

The Southern Strategy has been20the glue with which the Republican Party20has united powerful corporate capitalists to conservative white workers, farmers, gun aficionados, small business owners and suburban homeowners.

Negating the Southern Black Vote

The racial bias embedded in the Electoral College system is the structural basis of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. The winner-take-all Electoral College system ensures, even requires, that about half of all voters of color be marginalized or totally ignored. (4)

About 53 percent of all blacks live in the southern states, and in 2000 and 2004 they voted about 90 percent Democratic. However, in those elections white Republicans out-voted them in every Southern state and every border state except Maryland.

As a result, every single southern Electoral College vote was awarded to Bush. While whites voted 54-42 for Bush nationally in 2000, southern whites gave him over 70 percent of their votes in both 2000 and 2004. They thus completely erased the massive Southern black vote for the Democrats in that region.

The Electoral College result was the same as if blacks, and other Democrats, in the South had not voted at all.

Similarly negated were the votes of millions of Native American and Latino voters who live in overwhelmingly white Republican states like Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah, the Dakotas, Montana and Texas. Further, the peoples of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam, territories ruled by the U.S., get no Elector al College votes at all. The tyranny o f the white, conservative majority prevailed.

Compounding the reactionary and pro-Republican bias of the Electoral College, the system gives as much as three times as much weight to the mainly conservative and white Republicans in the rural states compared to states with large, racially diverse and majority Democratic populations.

For example, Wyoming has a little more than 240,000 voters and has three Electoral College votes: one for every 80,000 or so voters. By comparison large population states like California have about one Electoral College vote for every 220,000 voters.

Thus, the Electoral College system violates the principle of one person, one vote, drastically undermines the impact of the black vote and gives the Republicans a major advantage in presidential contests. Its abolition should be a key part of the progressive agenda.

Final Thoughts

Although the political dynamics of each of the nine states that turned from red to blue in 2008 need to be examined closely in their own right, it is likely that a minimum of three or four will move decisively into the Democratic column. A number of others that swung Democratic in 2008 have moved from being solidly red states to battleground states.

The solid Republican South and Southwest may be a thing of the past. In the wake of Obama’s hard-won victories, the Democrats have no excuse for essentially conceding these regions, as they have done for decades.

This will qualitatively shift the E lectoral College math. Since 1968 the Electoral College has clearly favored the Republicans and the Democrats had to pull off an upset to win. Indeed, Bill Clinton won only because of the third party candidacy of Ross Perot. In the future, it may be that the Electoral College math will favor the Democrats, and that the Republicans can only win by staging an upset.

Just as important, for the first time in U.S. history the two political parties clearly represent the two broad wings of U.S. politics. At the national level, the southern reactionaries no longer hold the Democratic Party hostage.

This augurs well for the possibility that an Obama presidency may be able to gather the political strength to undertake a major restructuring of the economy in favor of working people and peoples of color in general, and to reorganize our foreign policy in a positive direction.

However, there is still a major political element missing from the political equation: a powerful independent peoples’ movement. In the 1930s the union movement, and especially the newly formed, radical CIO, was key to the New Deal. In the 1960s the civil rights movement was the driving force of the War on Poverty.

Herein lies the principal task of progressives in the coming period: to forge powerful independent, mass movements and organizations that can help shape the Obama coalition in a positive way. Our relative success or failure at this task may determine the future o f the U.S. and the world every bit20as much as President Obama himself.


1. Unless otherwise noted all voting figures are drawn from the National Exit Polls for 2000, 2004 and 2008, as reported by CNN.

2. I calculate the “swing” or “change” in the vote in the traditional but rather confusing manner as the change in the vote differential. For example, in 2004 blacks voted Democratic by 88 to 11, a 77 point differential. In 2008, they voted Democratic by 95 to 4, a 91 point differential. The vote differential thus changed from 77 points to 91 points, so I report a 14-point “swing” or “change.”

3. No national exit poll numbers are available about Arab or Native American voters for any year.

4. Only Nebraska and Maine allocate their electoral votes more or less proportionate to the vote rather than on a statewide winner-take-all basis.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

That knew black magic . . .

Here is a recent playlist from KDVS. Particulary effective was the sequence begining with Thenlonious Monk's Locomotive and moving through Sterling Brown's Long Gone to Meade Lux Lewis and finally Sidney de Paris.

Count Basie featuring Joe Williams Everyday I Have The Blues Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings Verve

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Thelonious Monk Locomotive Monk Prestige

Sterling Brown Long Gone An Anthology of Negro Poetry Folkways

Meade Lux Lewis Honky Tonk Train Blues Blue Note 1939-1949 Blue Note

Sidney de Paris The Call of the Blues Blue Note 1939-1949 Blue Note

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Eddie Jefferson Sister Sadie The Jazz Singer Inner City

King Pleasure Jazz Jump Mr. Jazz United Artists

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Avenue C Sings a Song of Basie ABC

Count Basie featuring Joe Williams Roll 'em Pete Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings Verve

Charles Brown Driftin' Blues Driftin' Blues Alladdin

Charles Brown Seven Kisses Mambo Driftin' Blues Alladdin

Sonny Clark News for Lulu Sonny's Crib Blue Note

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Carmen McRae Miss Otis Regrets At The Great American Music Hall Blue Note

Carmen McRae Too Close For Comfort At The Great American Music Hall Blue Note

Carmen McRae Get It Straight Carmen Sings Monk Novus

Thelonious Monk In Walked Bud Misterioso Riverside

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Bud Powell Tea For Two Bud Powell Verve

Bud Powell Hallelujah Bud Powell Verve

Eddie Jefferson It's Only A Paper Moon The Jazz Singer Inner City

Eddie Jefferson Pinetop's Boogie Woogie The Jazz Singer Inner City

King Pleasure featuring Jon Hendricks Don't Get Scared Mr. Jazz United Artists

Albert Ammons Boogie Woogie Blues Blue Note 1939-1949 Blue Note

Edmund Hall All-Stars Seein' Red Blue Note 1939-1949 Blue Note

Claude McKay St. Issac's Church An Anthology of Negro Poetry Folkways

Claude McKay Tropics in New York An ANthology of Negor Poetry Folkways

Claude McKay Introduction to If We Must Die An ANthology of Negro Poetry Folkways

Claude McKay If We Must Die An Anthology of Negro Poetry Folkways

Robert Hayden Runnagate, Runnagate A Hand Is On The Gate Verve-Folkways

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Abbey Lincoln Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise Abbey Is Blue Riverside

Abbey Lincoln Lost In The Stars Abbey Is Blue Riverside

Abbey Lincoln Long As You're Living Abbey Is Blue Riverside

Thelonious Monk Lets Call This Monk Prestige

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King Pleasure Diaper Pin (That Old Black Magic) Mr. Jazz United Artists

Friday, February 6, 2009

Derrida on Improvisation

'It's not easy to improvise, it's the most difficult thing to do. Even when one improvises in front of a camera or microphone, one ventriloquizes or leaves another to speak in one's place the schemas and languages that are already there. There are already a great number of prescriptions that are prescribed in our memory and in our culture. All the names are already preprogrammed. It's already the names that inhibit our ability to ever really improvise. One can't say what ever one wants, one is obliged more or less to reproduce the stereotypical discourse. And so I believe in improvisation and I fight for improvisation. But always with the belief that it's impossible. And there where there is improvisation I am not able to see myself. I am blind to myself. And it's what I will see, no, I won't see it. It's for others to see. The one who is improvised here, no I won't ever see him.'

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Blues Women on KDVS

Here is a recent play list from the broadcasts I host at KDVS. Most effective, I believe, was the sequence starting out with Duke Ellington, It Don't Mean A Thing, and concluding with Jayne Cortez, 3 Day New York Blues. The image presented here is of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Fats Waller
I'm Crazy About My Baby
Fat's Plays, Sings, Alone & With Various Groups
CBS France

Fats Waller Draggin' My Heart Around Fats Plays, Sings, Alone & With Various Groups CBS France

Fats Waller Us On A Bus Complete Recordings Volume 10 RCA France

Alberta Hunter Sugar Women Of The Blues RCA

Alberta Hunter Beale Street Blues Women Of The Blues RCA

Duke Ellington featuring Baby Cox The Mooche The Music Of Duke Ellington Columbia

Duke Ellington featuring Ivy Anderson Mood Indigo The Music Of Duke Ellington Columbia

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Duke Ellington featuring Marie Ellington, Joya Sherrill & Kay Davis It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) Johnny Come Lately RCA

Nellie Lutcher My New Papa's Got To Have Everything My New Papa's Got To Have Everything Jukebox Lil' (Sweden)

Lil' Green Now What Do You Think? Chicago 1940-1947 Rosetta Records

Margaret Walker Kissie Lee Anthology Of Negro Poetry Folkways

'Sippi Wallace You Gonna Need My Help Women Of The Blues RCA

'Sippi Wallace I'm A Mighty Tight Woman Women Of The Blues RCA

Jayne Cortez featuring Richard Davis 3 Day New York Blues Celebrations & Solitudes Strata-East

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Carmen McRae When Sunny Gets Blue Bittersweet Focus

Carmen McRae How Did He Look? Bittersweet Focus

Carmen McRae Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry Bittersweet Focus

Carmen McRae The Meaning Of The Blues Bittersweet Focus

Gwendolyn Brooks The Preacher Ruminates Antholgy Of Negro Poetry Folkways

Gwendolyn Brooks The Children Of The Poor, Sonnet #2 Anthology Of Negro Poetry Folkways

Gwendolyn Brooks Old Laughter Anthology Of Negro Poetry Folkways

Duke Ellington The New East St. Louis Toodle-Lo The Music Of Duke Ellington Columbia

Lil' Green Romance In The Dark Chicago 1940-1947 Rosetta Records

Billie Holiday Rocky Mountain Blues Shades Of Blue Sunset

Billie Holiday Detour Ahead Shades Of Blue Sunset

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Carmen McRae Sometimes I'm Happy Woman Talk Mainstream

Carmen McRae Woman Talk Woman Talk Mainstream

Ntozake Shange (read by Laurie Carlos) Sorry For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf Buddha

Monette Moore Somebody's Been Loving My Baby Women Of The Blues RCA

Monette Moore Hard Hearted Papa Women Of The Blues RCA

Duke Ellington The New Black & Tan Fantasy The Music Of Duke Ellington Columbia

Duke Ellington Johnny Come Lately Johnny Come Lately RCA

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Lil' Green What's The Matter With Love? Chicago 1940-1947 Rosetta Records

Lil' Green Why Don't You Do Right? Chicago 1940-1947 Rosetta Records

Bud Powell Trio Tempus Fugit The Genius Of Bud Powell Verve

Bud Powell Trio Celia The Genius Of Bud Powell Verve

Bud Powell Trio Cherokee The Genius Of Bud Powell Verve

Bud Powell Solo Parisian Thouroughfare The Genius Of Bud Powell Verve

Bud Powell Solo Oblivion The Genius Of Bud Powell Verve

Bud Powell Solo Dusk In Sandi The Genius Of Bud Powell Verve

Jayne Cortez featuring Richard Davis Making It Celebrations & Solitudes Strata-East

Jayne Cortez featuring Richard Davis So Long Celebrations & Solitudes Strata-East

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Your Mama Reads Joyce

Your Mama Reads Joyce

Your Mama reads James Joyce
Makes up words on her own
Talks shop with washerwomen
Sopping shorts in Finnegans Wake

Your Mama reads Garcia Lorca
Spits olive pits at the moon
Plants seeds away from the sun
Replaces the small hand with a scar

Your Mama reads Andre Breton
Loads the grey haired revolver
Pulls ice from the teeth of Okapi clouds
Lifts periods from menopausal bulldaggers

Your Mama reads Gunter Grass
Cuts feet on nights broken glass
Stuffs handbills into statues of Marx
Blesses Black Forest trees with ice wine

Your Mama reads Richard Wright
Stokes fires of black reds in heat
Spills being on Hegel & C.L.R. James
Knocks back vin rouge with Bud Powell in Paris
Traces bitter geography with a blunt sword

Your Mama reads Ishmael Reed
Inventor of papyrus, a printers devil
Truculent pugilist of unsung infamy
Long song of blackness at the end of the tunnel

Your Mama reads I. Reed
reads Wright
reads Grass
reads Breton
reads the duende of a new moon
She even reads Joyce,
and whats more she finishes the book!

Now, whats wrong with yuh?

Justin Desmangles

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Capitalism's Self -inflicted Apocalypse by Michael Parenti

Capitalism’s Self-inflicted Apocalypse

by Michael Parenti

After the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe, capitalism was paraded as the indomitable system that brings prosperity and democracy, the system that would prevail unto the end of history.

The present economic crisis, however, has convinced even some prominent free-marketeers that something is gravely amiss. Truth be told, capitalism has yet to come to terms with several historical forces that cause it endless trouble: democracy, prosperity, and capitalism itself, the very entities that capitalist rulers claim to be fostering.

Plutocracy vs. Democracy
Let us consider democracy first. In the United States we hear that capitalism is wedded to democracy, hence the phrase, “capitalist democracies.” In fact, throughout our history there has been a largely antagonistic relationship between democracy and capital concentration. Some eighty years ago Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis commented, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Moneyed interests have been opponents not proponents of democracy.

The Constitution itself was fashioned by affluent gentlemen who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to repeatedly warn of the baneful and dangerous leveling effects of democracy. The document they cobbled together was far from democratic, being shackled with checks, vetoes, and requirements for artificial super majorities, a system designed to blunt the impact of popular demands.

In the early days of the Republic the rich and well-born imposed property qualifications for voting and officeholding. They opposed the direct election of candidates (note, their Electoral College is still with us). And for decades they resisted extending the franchise to less favored groups such as propertyless working men, immigrants, racial minorities, and women.

Today conservative forces continue to reject more equitable electoral features such as proportional representation, instant runoff, and publicly funded campaigns. They continue to create barriers to voting, be it through overly severe registration requirements, voter roll purges, inadequate polling accommodations, and electronic voting machines that consistently “malfunction” to the benefit of the more conservative candidates.

At times ruling interests have suppressed radical publications and public protests, resorting to police raids, arrests, and jailings—applied most recently with full force against demonstrators in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The conservative plutocracy also seeks to rollback democracy’s social gains, such as public education, affordable housing, health care, collective bargaining, a living wage, safe work conditions, a non-toxic sustainable environment; the right to privacy, the separation of church and state, freedom from compulsory pregnancy, and the right to marry any consenting adult of one’s own choosing.

About a century ago, US labor leader Eugene Victor Debs was thrown into jail during a strike. Sitting in his cell he could not escape the conclusion that in disputes between two private interests, capital and labor, the state was not a neutral arbiter. The force of the state--with its police, militia, courts, and laws—was unequivocally on the side of the company bosses. From this, Debs concluded that capitalism was not just an economic system but an entire social order, one that rigged the rules of democracy to favor the moneybags.

Capitalist rulers continue to pose as the progenitors of democracy even as they subvert it, not only at home but throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Any nation that is not “investor friendly,” that attempts to use its land, labor, capital, natural resources, and markets in a self-developing manner, outside the dominion of transnational corporate hegemony, runs the risk of being demonized and targeted as “a threat to U.S. national security.”

Democracy becomes a problem for corporate America not when it fails to work but when it works too well, helping the populace move toward a more equitable and livable social order, narrowing the gap, however modestly, between the superrich and the rest of us. So democracy must be diluted and subverted, smothered with disinformation, media puffery, and mountains of campaign costs; with rigged electoral contests and partially disfranchised publics, bringing faux victories to more or less politically safe major-party candidates.

Capitalism vs. Prosperity
The corporate capitalists no more encourage prosperity than do they propagate democracy. Most of the world is capitalist, and most of the world is neither prosperous nor particularly democratic. One need only think of capitalist Nigeria, capitalist Indonesia, capitalist Thailand, capitalist Haiti, capitalist Colombia, capitalist Pakistan, capitalist South Africa, capitalist Latvia, and various other members of the Free World--more accurately, the Free Market World.

A prosperous, politically literate populace with high expectations about its standard of living and a keen sense of entitlement, pushing for continually better social conditions, is not the plutocracy’s notion of an ideal workforce and a properly pliant polity. Corporate investors prefer poor populations. The poorer you are, the harder you will work—for less. The poorer you are, the less equipped you are to defend yourself against the abuses of wealth.

In the corporate world of “free-trade,” the number of billionaires is increasing faster than ever while the number of people living in poverty is growing at a faster rate than the world’s population. Poverty spreads as wealth accumulates.

Consider the United States. In the last eight years alone, while vast fortunes accrued at record rates, an additional six million Americans sank below the poverty level; median family income declined by over $2,000; consumer debt more than doubled; over seven million Americans lost their health insurance, and more than four million lost their pensions; meanwhile homelessness increased and housing foreclosures reached pandemic levels.

It is only in countries where capitalism has been reined in to some degree by social democracy that the populace has been able to secure a measure of prosperity; northern European nations such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark come to mind. But even in these social democracies popular gains are always at risk of being rolled back.

It is ironic to credit capitalism with the genius of economic prosperity when most attempts at material betterment have been vehemently and sometimes violently resisted by the capitalist class. The history of labor struggle provides endless illustration of this.

To the extent that life is bearable under the present U.S. economic order, it is because millions of people have waged bitter class struggles to advance their living standards and their rights as citizens, bringing some measure of humanity to an otherwise heartless politico-economic order.

A Self-devouring Beast
The capitalist state has two roles long recognized by political thinkers. First, like any state it must provide services that cannot be reliably developed through private means, such as public safety and orderly traffic. Second, the capitalist state protects the haves from the have-nots, securing the process of capital accumulation to benefit the moneyed interests, while heavily circumscribing the demands of the working populace, as Debs observed from his jail cell.

There is a third function of the capitalist state seldom mentioned. It consists of preventing the capitalist system from devouring itself. Consider the core contradiction Karl Marx pointed to: the tendency toward overproduction and market crisis. An economy dedicated to speedups and wage cuts, to making workers produce more and more for less and less, is always in danger of a crash. To maximize profits, wages must be kept down. But someone has to buy the goods and services being produced. For that, wages must be kept up. There is a chronic tendency—as we are seeing today—toward overproduction of private sector goods and services and underconsumption of necessities by the working populace.

In addition, there is the frequently overlooked self-destruction created by the moneyed players themselves. If left completely unsupervised, the more active command component of the financial system begins to devour less organized sources of wealth.

Instead of trying to make money by the arduous task of producing and marketing goods and services, the marauders tap directly into the money streams of the economy itself. During the 1990s we witnessed the collapse of an entire economy in Argentina when unchecked free marketeers stripped enterprises, pocketed vast sums, and left the country’s productive capacity in shambles. The Argentine state, gorged on a heavy diet of free-market ideology, faltered in its function of saving capitalism from the capitalists.

Some years later, in the United States, came the multi-billion-dollar plunder perpetrated by corporate conspirators at Enron, WorldCom, Harkin, Adelphia, and a dozen other major companies. Inside players like Ken Lay turned successful corporate enterprises into sheer wreckage, wiping out the jobs and life savings of thousands of employees in order to pocket billions.

These thieves were caught and convicted. Does that not show capitalism’s self-correcting capacity? Not really. The prosecution of such malfeasance— in any case coming too late—was a product of democracy’s accountability and transparency, not capitalism’s. Of itself the free market is an amoral system, with no strictures save “caveat emptor.”

In the meltdown of 2008-09 the mounting financial surplus created a problem for the moneyed class: there were not enough opportunities to invest. With more money than they knew what to do with, big investors poured immense sums into nonexistent housing markets and other dodgy ventures, a legerdemain of hedge funds, derivatives, high leveraging, credit default swaps, predatory lending, and whatever else.

Among the victims were other capitalists, small investors, and the many workers who lost billions of dollars in savings and pensions. Perhaps the premiere brigand was Bernard Madoff. Described as “a longstanding leader in the financial services industry,” Madoff ran a fraudulent fund that raked in $50 billion from wealthy investors, paying them back “with money that wasn’t there,” as he himself put it. The plutocracy devours its own children.

In the midst of the meltdown, at an October 2008 congressional hearing, former chair of the Federal Reserve and orthodox free-market devotee Alan Greenspan confessed that he had been mistaken to expect moneyed interests--groaning under an immense accumulation of capital that needs to be invested somewhere--to suddenly exercise self-restraint.

The classic laissez-faire theory is even more preposterous than Greenspan made it. In fact, the theory claims that everyone should pursue their own selfish interests without restraint. This unbridled competition supposedly will produce maximum benefits for all because the free market is governed by a miraculously benign “invisible hand” that optimizes collective outputs. (“Greed is good.”)

Is the crisis of 2008-09 caused by a chronic tendency toward overproduction and hyper-financial accumulation, as Marx would have it? Or is it the outcome of the personal avarice of people like Bernard Madoff? In other words, is the problem systemic or individual? In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive. Capitalism breeds the venal perpetrators, and rewards the most unscrupulous among them. The crimes and crises are not irrational departures from a rational system, but the converse: they are the rational outcomes of a basically irrational and amoral system.

Worse still, the ensuing multi-billion dollar government bailouts are themselves being turned into an opportunity for pillage. Not only does the state fail to regulate, it becomes itself a source of plunder, pulling vast sums from the federal money machine, leaving the taxpayers to bleed.

Those who scold us for “running to the government for a handout” are themselves running to the government for a handout. Corporate America has always enjoyed grants-in-aid, loan guarantees, and other state and federal subventions. But the 2008-09 “rescue operation” offered a record feed at the public trough. More than $350 billion was dished out by a right-wing lame-duck Secretary of the Treasury to the biggest banks and financial houses without oversight--not to mention the more than $4 trillion that has come from the Federal Reserve. Most of the banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon, stated that they had no intention of letting anyone know where the money was going.

The big bankers used some of the bailout, we do know, to buy up smaller banks and prop up banks overseas. CEOs and other top banking executives are spending bailout funds on fabulous bonuses and lavish corporate spa retreats. Meanwhile, big bailout beneficiaries like Citigroup and Bank of America laid off tens of thousands of employees, inviting the question: why were they given all that money in the first place?

While hundreds of billions were being doled out to the very people who had caused the catastrophe, the housing market continued to wilt, credit remained paralyzed, unemployment worsened, and consumer spending sank to record lows.

In sum, free-market corporate capitalism is by its nature a disaster waiting to happen. Its essence is the transformation of living nature into mountains of commodities and commodities into heaps of dead capital. When left entirely to its own devices, capitalism foists its diseconomies and toxicity upon the general public and upon the natural environment--and eventually begins to devour itself.

The immense inequality in economic power that exists in our capitalist society translates into a formidable inequality of political power, which makes it all the more difficult to impose democratic regulations.

If the paladins of Corporate America want to know what really threatens “our way of life,” it is their way of life, their boundless way of pilfering their own system, destroying the very foundation on which they stand, the very community on which they so lavishly feed.

Michael Parenti’s recent books include: Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (City Lights); Democracy for the Few, 8th ed. (Wadsworth); and God and His Demons (forthcoming). For further information, visit his website: