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Citizens United and the Future of Democracy

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision marked a turning point in the fascist merger of corporations and the State. It also marked the death knell of old, twentieth century-style Progressivism as a political alignment and ideology. There is no turning back.

Many candidates today call themselves “progressives.” Revolutionaries are responsible for discerning the difference between those trying to corral workers to support capitalism, like the old progressives, and those whose campaigns may unleash real working class politics, based on the demands for human necessities. The fight for political democracy today can no longer be separated from the battle for the basic economic demands of the workers: food, water, housing, health care, and education. Political democracy can only be won with economic democracy: public ownership of corporations and redirection of their resources for public benefit.

America’s crisis of democracy is not an accident or mystery or caused by the will of any individual. It is the result of objective and fundamental changes in our underlying economy. Ever since the 1970s, we have been undergoing a dramatic, step by step revolution in our means of production. Technological advances – microchips, computers, smartphones, software, 3D printing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and social media – are transforming
society as we know it, eliminating the necessity for human labor in production. This is creating a new class of workers, who are politically dangerous to the ruling class because they essentially exist outside the formal productive process. They are increasingly plunged into poverty, and, to survive, they are forced to confront the system politically.

At the same time, corporations that no longer need workers can no longer tolerate interference by those responding to the demands of working class constituencies. They are forced to launch a fascist offensive, what economist James Buchanan called a “constitutional revolution.” By this, he meant that it was no longer sufficient for the ruling class to support candidates, or advise politicians, or advocate for one or another law or reform. He argued that it was necessary to rewrite the U.S. Constitution itself, essentially along the lines of the 1980 Pinochet constitution in Chile, to further protect private property and eliminate the trappings of democracy and majority rule.

Fight Against Monopolies

We cannot hope to repel or defeat this fascist revolution, unless we step back and review how we got here. One of the most widely quoted observations in the anti-Trump resistance today is the one by twentieth-century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “We must make our choice,” he said. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Brandeis was one of the most influential leaders of the early twentieth century American political movement now generally called Progressivism. Progressivism was an all-class alignment of contradictory interests made possible by the expansion of U.S. capital into the South, Latin America, and the Pacific after the Spanish-American War. It grew out of the bitter defeat of the populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s. The early populists were primarily farmers, farmworkers, and industrial workers, organized around agricultural cooperatives, currency reform, early industrial unionism, and profound democratic ideals dating back to the American Revolution. Led by small property owners, their dominant ideology was one of implacable hostility to the industrial and financial monopolies of the day.

However, by 1900 the farmers that led the populists were rapidly declining as a share of the population. The People’s Party was marginalized in 1896, and the overall populist movement was effectively divided along color lines and crushed by the bloody imposition of Jim Crow in the South.

History of Progressivism

What remained was Progressivism, an uneasy alliance of farmers, workers, and small business, along with the very monopoly corporations that they had been unable to defeat politically. Led by presidents like Woodrow Wilson and the two Roosevelts, Progressivism reached its apex in the New Deal and post-WWII period.

As a political movement, with the rhetoric of defending the common person, Progressivism was used by the ruling class to facilitate the expansion of capital, divide the workers, and bind them ideologically to the system. It succeeded because the rapidly growing economy made reforms possible. Partial working class victories from the early twentieth century through the 1940s included prohibiting railroad rebates to corporations, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Tillman Act outlawing corporate campaign contributions, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, and the host of regulations and programs passed during the 1930s New Deal. But all these limited reforms were fatally compromised by their entanglement with Jim Crow fascism in the South and imperialist expansion overseas.

Progressivism from the 1930s on – especially its Democratic Party variety – was the main political vehicle the ruling class used, to tie the decisive sectors of the working class to capitalism and its policies throughout the twentieth century. It was made acceptable by a rising standard of living, based on the super-profits of the postwar, worldwide expansion of capitalism. U.S. working class politics revolved around the so-called Roosevelt Coalition that was built on a split in the ruling class between national industrialists and international financiers. Workers depended on this coalition to deliver union benefits, pensions, education, and health care to their organized sector. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement set out to spread these benefits to the working class as a whole, regardless of color.

Deregulation and Austerity 

The deep recession and “stagflation” of the 1970s saw the dismantling of the Roosevelt coalition. The Reagan administration of the early 1980s effectively ended the split in the ruling class, inflicting sharp interest rate increases that wiped out an enormous section of U.S. industry and agriculture and brought them effectively under the control of global finance. Ever since then, Democrats and Republicans alike, have united around a program of deregulation and austerity.

While Democrats held onto the rhetoric of Progressivism, their actual programs effectively undid it step by step, as the record of the Clinton and Obama administrations clearly demonstrated.

In the meantime, the ruling class began to launch a sustained fascist assault against the whole litany of reforms associated with Progressivism, claiming that they distorted the operation of free market capitalism. All ruling class discussion of actual monopoly restraint on the market ended, and media exposure of corporate abuses faded. Economist Milton Friedman, one of the key post-war critics of the Keynesian economics of the New Deal, popularized the fable that, contrary to all empirical evidence, monopolies are “generally unstable and of brief duration” and their scope has not increased and “may well have decreased.”

The Koch brothers’ network that promoted this fascist offensive is not just a right-wing conspiracy called out by Hillary Clinton. As Jane Meyer points out in her book Dark Money, despite its early connection to the fossil fuel industry, the vast majority of the Koch donor network is now made up of financiers and represents a broad cross-section of the ruling class as a whole.

Working Class Politics

The automation of production today not only creates a rebellious new class, but it also creates an increasing worldwide glut of commodities, as workers without money are no longer able to buy them in quantities sufficient to ensure their circulation. This forces the government to intervene in the economy to protect their markets, and consequently limit democratic influence and participation in government decision-making. When nationalization of the banks was called for by the 2008 economic crash, Obama complained that he could not do it for the political reason that people would be able to demand that he give them back their houses.

Citizens United was an important part of this process of eliminating democracy. The case originated in the James Madison Center for Free Speech, which was established in 1997, with the aim of ending all Progressive era restrictions on money in politics. The Center received unlimited dark money financial contributions, to pursue countless long-shot lawsuits against campaign finance laws. One donor, Betsy DeVos, openly claimed that her goal was to be able to use money to win elections. After the issue was finally settled by the Supreme Court, funds raised by the annual Koch donor summits exploded from $13 million in 2009 to over $900 million a year after that.

Historically and ideologically, American democracy has always been based on widespread ownership of small property. Nineteenth-century populism was its purest expression, but populism as a real social movement died over a hundred years ago, even though its all-class rhetoric remains. Progressivism continued to exist because it relied on twentieth-century economic expansion. It maintained its rhetoric even as the base of small proprietors continued to decrease. Today there are virtually no small independent owners left in the traditional sense. A movement based on an ideology of small business does not have the ability to win under these conditions, where the system is broken, and reform is no longer possible. What is needed today is a practical movement based on the demands of the new class that has been separated from the formal economy.

Progressives in the past threatened to abolish the trusts and monopolies, but none actually did so, other than blocking an occasional outrageous merger or acquisition. Political slogans could not repeal the economic law of concentration and centralization of capital. Even more so today, the massive modern, interconnected, global means of production that exist cannot meaningfully be broken up. The only way to actually control them, and redirect them to meeting the needs of human beings, is for workers to take democratic control of government and use the government to take over the corporations to reorganize the economy, so it meets the democratically determined needs of the people. This is what economic democracy looks like.

The role of revolutionaries is to unite and educate the leaders as they struggle shoulder to shoulder with the workers for their basic necessities, both outside and inside the electoral arena. Bernie Sanders has shown that it is possible to counter Citizens United, by raising hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors online. The battle is on. The time has come to move beyond twentieth-century Progressivism. Revolutionaries today are called to rewrite the Brandeis dictum about concentrated economic power. We may have democracy, or we may have the private property of the means of production, but we can’t have both.

May/June 2019. vol.29. Ed3
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.

Photo of Protest

30,000 March in Support of
Chicago Teachers Union Strike
Photo by Ryan L Williams
used with permission

The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.

'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011

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Rally, Comrades! is the political paper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. If you are one of the thousands of revolutionaries around the country looking for a perspective on the problems we face today, and for a political strategy to achieve the goal of a world free from exploitation and poverty, then Rally, Comrades! is for you.

Rally, Comrades! examines and analyzes the real problems of the revolutionary movement, and draws political conclusions for the tasks of revolutionaries at each stage of the revolutionary process. We reach out to revolutionaries wherever they may be to engage in debate and discussion, and to provide a forum for these discussions. Rally, Comrades! provides a strategic outlook for revolutionaries by indicating and illuminating the line of march of the revolutionary process.

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