The fall of the Berlin wall signified triumphs for democracy and capitalism as the dominant socio-political systems of the world. In the years between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideological battle of socialism and collectivism versus democracy and capitalism had been slowly swinging in favor of the USA and its allies. The Communist parties’ stranglehold on power and their famed proclivity for the stick could not reverse the decay that would eventually corrode support for the communist ideology and bring about the fall of the Union. Many East Germans cast envious glances over the wall at the superior standard of living enjoyed by the West Germans and this only served to further undermine confidence in the communist system. Indeed, it is hard to be passionate about anything on an empty stomach. And while many citizens of nations belonging to the USSR could not claim to be willing participants in Soviet socialism, they were nevertheless part of the system. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was viewed as a victory for life, liberty and property as championed by the United States over the oppressive pseudo-socialism practiced by the Soviets, and in many ways it demonstrated quite thoroughly the incompatibility between absolute public ownership and the human propensity for self-interest. It was not so much irrefutable evidence that American democracy and capitalism were much, much better political and economic systems however.
‘People power’ was democracy’s clarion call, just as ‘free enterprise’, ‘choice’ and ‘profit’ were capitalism’s. Citizens of democratic countries had a say in the way the country was run as well as freedom of speech and as consumers in the invariably capitalist economies of those nations, they had wonderful things like choice and the right to actually own property. As it goes, most people have but a superficial understanding of both these systems that does not extend much further beyond ‘one man, one vote’ and ‘the free market’. As such it is not difficult to construct and maintain a veneer of democratic government and consumer power, which is exactly what is happening nowadays.
Since the destruction of the Wall and with it the communist ideological influence, the practice of democracy and capitalism has been left to grow virtually unchecked. These two principles are almost universally regarded as the most effective and efficient forms of economy and government, and despite their many flaws they are arguably preferable to other alternatives such as socialism. Yet, many go overboard when they espouse the virtues of capitalism and democracy to the extent that any and all doubts raised – legitimate or otherwise – are branded ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘socialist’.
Control, free enterprise, choice, profit. We could have all these things in the absence of government, in the eminent social contract theorist John Locke’s ‘state of nature’, in which ‘all men are free “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.”’ The problem with this state lies in actually enforcing the natural rights of human beings. In the state of nature, how would an individual prevent another from infringing upon his or her life, liberty and property? It is here that the claim to legitimate government arises. This is important for all societies, especially for democratic and capitalistic ones that claim as much. It is the responsibility of the state to defend the rights of its citizens impartially and this is probably the most important function of government.
Mega-corporations and capitalists advocate the laissez-faire system, with greed being the underlying motivation. In the 1980s, these corporation fat-cats invested heavily in Ronald Reagan’s ultimately successful presidential campaign. In return, he would be a corporate spokesperson in the White House. And he was a damn good one too. With pro-capitalism rhetoric like ‘we’re going to turn the bull loose’, he managed to put up a façade that oozed confidence in the free market system. In fact, he was so successful that he managed to preside over the ‘wholesale dismantling of [the American] industrial infrastructure’ for the ‘sake of short term profits’ without significant opposition from the masses or anyone really. Deregulation of the financial industry and the destruction of labour unions also came under his administration, the effects of which culminated in the 2008 financial crisis roughly 20 years after his tenure, and may very well continue to hinder financial recovery for years to come. He enacted tax cuts which helped corporations that were already posting record profits earn even more money and the average citizen suffered from the proliferation of corporate greed.
German sociologist Robert Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ purports that every system eventually degenerates into oligarchy or rule by a small elite. The theory suggests that bureaucracy is required to maintain efficiency in large organizations. When that happens, centralization of power in the hands of a small group of people occurs. This is true of most modern day organizations, from nations to firms to even families. He further states that ‘democracy is a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite, and that elite rule… is inevitable’. This is a far cry from Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, which is the essence of democracy. The much-vaunted ‘power of the people’ is therefore at best limited to balloting once every few years, and at worst, just a big blown-up charade. Vladimir Putin’s large win in the first ever Russian presidential election as a relative unknown and the veritable landslide in his second campaign led to some sections of the Russian public voicing doubts over the credibility and transparency of the elections, with some even claiming that the whole democratic gesture was a farce. Virtually every democratic government worldwide practices some form of electoral fraud, ranging from subtler measures like gerrymandering to blatant vote-buying. This is democracy in practice and thus the myth that people are truly empowered by democracy is well and truly busted.
What happened to choice and consumer power? Deregulation of financial industries and economies worldwide led to rampant corporate greed, a decline in accountability, firms that become ‘too big to fail’ and many unsavoury business practices such as ‘dead peasant’ insurance plans, where corporations take out insurance policies on their employees and get paid in the event of their employees’ deaths. All of this done in the name of ‘free enterprise’ and ‘capitalism’, when in fact they go completely against the spirit of democracy. What’s more appalling is that the zealots who defended capitalism and democracy and citizens everywhere stood idly by as the last vestiges of their sovereignty was siphoned off and replaced with some semblance of it. CEOs and the heads of multi-nationals make up a new sort of plutarchy – where the rich and powerful command vast influence in matters even outside their line of work.
As consumers and voters, our influence on political and economic matters is much smaller than we believe or have been led to believe. As far as the world is concerned, the average citizen is a small fish in a universe ruled by a handful of very wealthy, very influential sharks. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, real democracy and social justice, we might as well be prostituting ourselves and our rights because no one else is going to stop the rest of the world trampling all over us in the race to get ahead in life.
Written while the writer was listening to Dizzy Up the Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls. Ahh the ’90s…
Image taken from here