Time to Return

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by Neil Godfrey

Street Art — Pixabay

I took some leave from blogging, quite unplanned, but it was a compulsive digression. I have been reading, almost non-stop, book after book and article after article, trying to get a firmer handle on what has been happening to make the world (specifically, our “democracies” in the USA, Europe, Australia) what they are today. I knew something big was changing back in the 1980s and then through the 1990s but you know what it’s like, one is busy getting on with life and carries on like all the other frogs (cooking, washing, driving, working, watching tv) who are in the pot that is slowly coming to a boil.

It all started when someone here posted a video of an interview with Noam Chomsky. I had seen the video before but this time for some reason I took notice when Chomsky directed his interviewer to a study on the influence of corporate dollars on the political system. So I looked it up. It was a book published way back in 1995 by Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

The central argument of the book is that political parties are not primarily out there trying to win most votes. That’s a secondary exercise and one that falls into place after achieving their first priority: winning the financial backing of whoever can financially back them the most. In its simplest form the idea can be illustrated this way. (I use the issue of unionized labour because that was Ferguson’s illustration; I thought of changing it to the question of carbon emissions and global warming.)

Imagine 97% of the electorate want strong labour unions to ensure job security and fair compensation. These are the ordinary people with only the basic incomes to get by reasonably happy.

Now imagine 3% of the electorate oppose unionization of labour entirely. These are the rich factory owners who employ everyone else.

Election time comes. None of the 97% has the private means, the money, to stand for election. It costs money just to get around from venue to venue and more money to take care of basic income to support one’s family while doing that, etc etc. But one person hits on an idea of how to get money to do everything necessary to campaign for votes. The only people with the money are the 3%. So our would-be candidate asks them to fund the campaign. Some of that 3 % are willing to do so but only on the condition that the candidate promises not to support unionization, but even oppose the idea.

Another would-be candidate finds a few among the 3% who are willing to allow just a small amount of unionization, say for only 5% of the workforce.

Come election day, assuming the two candidates had equal advertizing and equal coverage of the electorate, that is, they each had the same amount of funding, the best that the 97% of the electorate would get out of the election is a representative who will support no more than the unionization of 5% of the workforce. They would not even be likely to get that candidate if he or she only got a fraction of the campaign contributions as their rival.

Obviously real life is more complex than that simplest of models but Ferguson and his colleagues who study the complexities of funding find the rule works essentially every time: to understand who rules look for who has the gold. That’s the golden rule.

Earlier I posted on what I believed to be an insightful article by Nancy Fraser, From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump — and Beyond. Thomas Ferguson’s work is coming from the same direction. But Golden Rule is old. Published 1995. So I looked for more recent work. And that’s where I’ve been the past several days, reading and following up more recent studies by Ferguson and by others he cites and others who appear to be working from the same datasets of evidence.

The most dramatic shifts have happened with the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, of course, and that’s where I have been trying to catch up with. What the hell is going on? It’s not completely alien to human experience, though. One recent study even sent me back to reading the 1973 edition of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published 1948). (That was to revisit other historical alliances of what Arendt calls “the alliance between mob and capital”.)

It’s been a fascinating, though troubling, journey, covering shifts and divisions in the corporate class, propaganda manipulations, and, I think, a deeper understanding of how this complex and confusing world works. Once again one finds scholarly research tackling questions that have traditionally been forbidden in their field and the need for those pioneers to branch out into interdisciplinary studies before eventually making significant inroads into the conventional wisdom.

I expect to be posting more along the lines of these sorts of studies.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Time to Return”

  1. I have a theory but I don’t know how well it stands.

    To me it appears in the past people had values that represented their political orientation.
    Then later it became more or less a feudal type affiliation and classist expression, or masked promises in political rhetoric.
    But now with the onset of social media and big data and loss of principles – certain leaders have found their way to the top by appeasing the widest possible audience. Populism.

    It’s not that these people are necessarily popular because of any greatness about them, but with new data processing capabilities it is quite easy for the people who have no other incentive than to get power (i.e. no value or principle they uphold) to pander to what the majority wants to hear and wants to see get delivered.

    1. Looks like my “time to return” to blogging was premature. I’ve had other events waylay me in recent weeks but hopefully I can resume seriously again from today.

      As for your theory, Amer, I have a suspicion that what has happened in more recent years is the sorts of developments in technology that allow channelling of information from sources who are now able to identify and target precisely who their most likely supporters will be.

      Back in the 1930s we had radio and movies making a big splash as media for propaganda — from Germany (Hitler) to the USA (FDR) — but today sectors of society who are most likely to succumb to propaganda A can be narrowly and precisely targeted and isolated from other information sources. In fact those same people can be led to reject a priori alternative information sources (“fake news”). There is no “mainstream media” in the sense of common information being conveyed to “the masses”. Rather, there are multiple and discrete media streams being funnelled to target audiences so that there is no “common information or news source” base that is “there” for public discussion. Instead, there are multiple realities, world views, that no longer have common information to discuss and debate. What one person says should be discussed is rejected as “fake news” by another person so there is nothing there in common to debate.

      And without debate, there can be no democratic argument or discourse.

      In the early days of the internet I was jaw-droppingly amazed at the new powers available to us all and had half hopes that we would see a real burgeoning of genuine democracy. Now I fear that the internet may well be a key tool in ending democracy.

  2. Science fiction of the 80s, especially cyberpunk, latched on to the idea of corporations running everything. It would be interesting to see what sources inspired, say, William Gibson.

  3. What’s interesting is the degree to which all of this had been figured out by ancient cultures. Indeed, when we look at modern “democracy” what we see it that it was intentionally designed not to actually be representative, because there was great fear of actual democracy.

    Of course the Athenians implemented something quite close to real democracy, but as we know this suffered many problems and was widely criticized. Plato and Aristotle of course ailed against Athenian democracy, Aristotle in particular.

    The Athenians had figured out the problem that money and properly would play in democracy as well as general power, and so what the Athenians did was they implemented representation by lot. This removed the whole process of elections entirely and resulted in a legislative body that was much more representative of the populace. The way it worked was eligible men were allowed to enter their name in the lottery to be selected as a legislator and when it was time to select new legislators they would chose from the lots via a public process.

    Athenian democracy was of course criticized and blamed for several ills that befell Athens, loss of wars, etc., but it was nevertheless popular and had its public defenders. There are other examples of much more truly democratic ancient.old systems as well, among Vikings, the Dutch, etc.and even some Native American systems, though they did typically involve some power struggles.

    But the issue is, it’s not hard to figure out how to make a system that will truly be representative, its a matter of actually being able to do it. I think certainly American “democracy” is a scam and a lie. Our system is not even remotely representative and never has been. Doesn’t mean its the worst or necessarily even bad, but it never was rule “of the people and for the people”. That’s always been a lie. American politics has been corrupt from day one, and the system was designed to purposely concentrate power into the hands of the wealthy.

    Jefferson was arguably the only one of the early leaders who ever wanted something like real democracy and took steps to actually broaden representation and try to ensure a broad base of power. The motivation behind the Louisiana Purchase was essentially to lengthen what Jefferson saw as the duration of public power. This is because Jefferson saw that land ownership was key to democracy, because land was the primary wealth and the only way to support democracy in Jefferson’s view, given how the system was setup, was to ensure that there was ample land that could be freely or cheaply distributed to citizens. Jefferson saw the broad distribution of small amounts of properly as the best defense of democracy, such that if properly ownership was widely distributed then political power would be widely distributed. Jefferson saw that once property ownership became consolidated, so too would political power, and thus many of Jefferson’s actions in office were designed around keeping property ownership and political power as broadly distributed as possible – within of course his still aristocratic limits. But of all the founders Jefferson was the only one (other than Thomas Paine who had no real power) who wanted to actually try and ensure that economic power would remain distributed and was on guard against the concentration of property and economic power, as he saw that the concentration of wealth lead directly to tyranny.

    The story of America is mostly a story of how broadly distributed wealth among white families has consolidated rapidly since the earliest days of the nation and how non-white families were excluded outright from access to wealth, and how all of this had lead to concentration of political power. Virtually everything we are taught in civics, social studies and economics here is total bullshit. The idea that we have representative politics in America is laughable. America is an oligarchy and has been for most of its existence.

    1. A very progressive income tax, inheritance taxes, corporate taxes, for a while slowed the growth of an hereditary super-rich plutocratic aristocracy/autocracy. But those laws have been eroded in recent decades.

    2. I think if your President could be selected by lot (from the pool of all American citizens) the chances of having someone better than Trump would be very good.

      1. I’m not sure that selecting a president by lot would be a good idea, but I’m also not sure that having a president is even needed.

        Still, I think a good way to do things would be to have something like the House of Representatives like it is, being elected officials. Then replace the Senate with another body that has the same number of people as the House, but all of them are selected by lot. Legislation would be drafted by the House and ratified by the lot congress. That way ostensibly professional law makers would be the one drafting legislation but the more representative pool would have final say over what became law.

        If a leader actually is needed, then have it be selected from among the members of congress. I’d actually prefer something like a two leader system anyway, one leader for domestic policy and a separate leader for foreign policy. Or perhaps, separate civilian and military leaders.

        I’d get rid of political parties. They have their function, but I think they are more bad then good. They lead to too much of a team – us vs them – mentality.

        But, at this point, I’d actually prefer just a lot more direct democracy with on-line voting.

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