Capitalist “democracies” always pride themselves on how democratic their systems are, being that despite any blatant differences in economic power or existing societal prejudices based around race, gender, sexuality or nationality, the system is fair and just because of its elections. “One man, one vote” is the democratic principle that ensures that “the will of the people” is what decides electoral outcomes. Yet, when we peel back capitalism’s star-spangled “fair and equal” wrapper, what we see is anything but fair and equal.
The Fabrication of Consent
Have you ever heard someone say, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain?” The idea behind this statement is that if you don’t participate in the electoral process, don’t cast your ballot for one politician or another, your opinion is rendered invalid because your failure to cast a vote implies that you are okay with whoever “the country” picks. However, even if you vote for the loser of an election, you still demonstrate consent for the process by legitimizing it enough to cast a ballot. Upon closer inspection, this would seem oddly anti-democratic, being that “consent of the governed” is interpreted whether the governed consent or not. The capitalists would argue that everyone who does or doesn’t vote in elections, even though there are millions who cannot vote due to incarceration, immigration status, age and even those who, for one bureaucratic reason or another, cannot prove their residency to vote. This “no means yes” mentality of the bourgeoisie concludes that the proletariat, voter or non-voter, consents to domination by the bourgeoisie and their lieutenants in government and at the heads of the leading capitalist parties. Is there even the slightest hint of “democracy” in a system where merely existing means that the powers which dominate your political and economic destiny need only be considered legitimate by their own absurd standard?
Hegemony: Might Means Legitimacy
Just how is it that this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” interpretation of consent is allowed in a political system that prides itself on being “democratic?” The answer is that the legitimacy of the powers-that-be in capitalism, the capitalists and their confederates, is manufactured by these social actors themselves. For this phenomenon of the powerful asserting themselves as just and legitimate, the Italian communist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci coined the term “hegemony.” Hegemonic actors in society wield their power in a way that makes those subjected to that power “see things their way.” To advance and enforce this hegemony, hegemonic actors wield power in three ways: violent action, controlling debate, and suppressing dissent.
The first and most obvious dimension of capitalist domination is violent repression. If a person takes action against the capitalist state, they risk being beaten down, locked in prison, tortured or murdered by the agents of state repression (the police and military forces) and otherwise risk being physically constrained or damaged. This overt exercise of power, while the most acute in defending the interests of the dominator over the dominated, has certain limitations. Michel Foucault, one-time communist turned postmodern critic, pointed out in his book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” how a modern system of incarceration had to emerge because constant violent reinforcement of state power, in the form of grisly tortures and public executions, would often backfire and lead to rebellion as sympathetic bystanders responded to state violence with violence of their own. The capitalist class, like the feudal lords and monarchic powers before them, had to learn the hard way that brute force alone wasn’t enough to keep them in power. In the era of Enlightenment ideas, those capitalists who professed their system to be the most democratic form of governance possible needed a means of not only enforcing their “legitimacy,” but by creating it in the minds of the proletariat.
It has become a favorite past-time of politicians on both sides of the isle to attack the media during their campaigns. Republicans in particular are adamant about the so-called “liberal media” that takes racist gaffes and blatant corporatism “out of context.” Liberals use the same line against overtly reactionary news sources such as Fox News and The Drudge Report. Yet, when we step out of the realm of Democrat versus Republican, it is clear that all of these media entities are subjected to the whims of capital. News outlets, think-tanks, and other representatives of capitalist punditry all owe their resources to private hands. The same corporations are behind most of the various news channels, newspapers and radio stations, wherein we hear out “the political debate” preceding every election. The obvious consequence of the news and platforms for political discourse being in private hands is that private owners interests decide what is newsworthy and what is not, what opinions are credible and what opinions are not.
So, when a panelist on a political debate show is chosen, the Harvard professor or the corporate spokesperson championing a “mainstream perspective” will be preferred to a worker, a “radical,” or someone else who isn’t perceived as being credible by those with power. The major news outlets have even been reduced to covering the Twitter updates of prominent figures rather than engaging in journalistic street work or, heaven forbid, talking to someone who isn’t in the tank for capitalist domination. Furthermore, the pursuit of “juicy stories” leads these private news agencies to spending more of their time covering celebrity scandal than actual news, being that garden variety tabloid-fluff is more profitable than informing the public. When the intellectual means of production are in private hands, both political discourse and insight into contemporary social reality are under the lock and key of capitalist hegemony.
Conclusion: Democracy for Who?
The next time someone tells you that the United States of America constitutes a “democratic” society, ask them “for whom?” When consent is implied no matter what action is taken, and when political debate and availability of information is under the ideological enforcement of bourgeois business owners, what is it that makes this system legitimate? What force serves to maintain the hegemony of the capitalists and their political cohorts? The answer is ultimately capital. Just as the bourgeoisie are in control of one’s economic destiny when they own the means of material production, the bourgeoisie are also able to sculpt one’s political and ideological constraints by domination over the intellectual means of production. Using this, they manufacture the legitimacy of their empire where there is none.
Capitalism is a democracy for the owners of capital, who are able to use their funds and influence to buy politicians and media outlets, to compete in a political “free market” for hegemony. For the rest of us, capitalism is the anti-democratic dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and must be replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, in order for democracy to be realized by the laboring masses.