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Empires, Presidents, and Lemon Juice

February 3, 2013
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Last year I wrote about the rampant incidence and dangers of faked ingredients in food and drugs in China: “Food and Drug Scandals in China: the Wonders of the ‘Free Market.’” ABC’s Good Morning America show is reporting today about the spread of this practice in U.S. food products such as “100% pomegranate juice” that has no actual pomegranate juice in it, “100% virgin olive oil” that is no longer virginal as it’s mixed with adulterating agents, and pure lemon juice that just isn’t :

National Consumers League did its own testing on lemon juice just this past year and found four different products labeled 100 percent lemon juice were far from pure.

“One had 10 percent lemon juice, it said it had 100 percent, another had 15 percent lemon juice, another…had 25 percent, and the last one had 35 percent lemon juice,” Sally Greenberg, Executive Director for the National Consumers League said. “And they were all labeled 100 percent lemon juice.”

The motives here are obvious – more profit if you can pass off your faked ingredients for the real thing – and these motives are not confined, as everyone knows, to the food and drug industries but embrace all industries, ranging from phony bank charges and phony LIBOR rates to safe cars that aren’t so safe after all. Moreover, why should we think that this problem is exclusive to the production of commodities and the provision of services in a market-driven system? The wonders of the “free market” are manifest.

Why would we not expect it to be true in the political arena as well? In fact, given the importance of the political arena for regulation or lack thereof, and the role that government plays in relation to tax policies, rules and laws regarding business in general, why wouldn’t we expect fakery to be positively rampant in the political arena?

It’s well known, of course, that a good deal of cynicism exists across the political spectrum within the public towards politicians: “Crooks, they’re all crooks!” is a common refrain. But what is not so widespread is the recognition that it’s much deeper than that. Crooks aren’t the half of it. When a president is inaugurated, beneath all of the pomp and circumstance and the high sounding rhetoric are deadly and deadly serious actions designed to fool people, even among the most literate and educated, into thinking that these public officials mean well and mean what they say.

How many people, for example, believe that Obama’s inaugural speech and absolutely everything he spoke about, is carefully calculated to mislead the people into political passivity and cheering on the pursuit of policies that are not in the people’s interest? Lemons or non-lemons isn’t the half of it. Seeing beneath the surface of what is really going on is both possible to do and critical; more voices speaking the truth and spreading this truth-telling, to penetrate the fog of misleading commentary, both deliberately misleading commentary and commentary by those who don’t know what’s up and ought to know better. As Obama does what he does so surpassingly well – misleading people about what he and this system that he leads are really all about — and people are demobilized in far greater numbers than they should be, the following from my latest book might be helpful to think about:

The central question in politics is who wields power and in what/whose interests? Both parts of this are significant—who is doing it and in what/whose interests. The who does not necessarily tell you the what. And vice versa.[i] The fact that someone in office is from a working class background, for example, does not tell you whose class interests he or she is pursuing. The fact that someone is an ethnic minority or a female is worthy of note (and if the faces of the rulers are all homogenous in a heterogeneous society then this by itself tells you that there is a problem of inequality in the society), but one’s demographics do not by any means tell the whole story.[ii] The relationship between the who and the what merits close attention. First: the question of who?

Democracy in its broadest potential expression differs from other political systems—on the most basic level—because it involves a substantial degree of participation by the people in political decisions. So-called liberal democracy involves many other dimensions such as subordination to the law, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and so on, but what I will discuss here revolves around the conceptual essence of the question: public participation.

Karl Popper provides an apt summary of democratic theory this way: “democracy, the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power; it is the control of the rulers by the ruled.”[iii]

Popper here lays out explicitly the commonplace meaning of democracy—first of all that it is representative not directly participatory, and second, that in a democracy the very most that the people can do politically is determine which public officials will exercise political rule over them. The very idea that the people might eventually exercise all-around political rule themselves Popper excludes from consideration.

This is rather remarkable if you think about it. If democracy means rule by the many, then dismissing out of hand the notion that authentic rule by the many can ever happen, except in a highly truncated and indirect form, means that the version of democracy that is possible can only be something strangled of its fullest expression. If we rule out the possibility now or ever of the people politically ruling themselves, then we are, of course, left with no alternative but to assert that the essence of democracy is representative government supervised via elections.

The franchise, then, must shoulder the entire weight of popular rule. It is, according to this view, the sole way for the people to exercise any influence politically. Representative democracy, which is what the vast majority of commentators mean when they say “democracy,” is in fact, therefore, but one version, rather like an expurgated Reader’s Digest version, of popular political rule.

Popper further claims that the ruled exercise “control of the rulers” (italics added) by their votes. “Control” seems highly overstated in this context. How do you exercise control over the rulers if you are one of the ruled? Is something not obviously wrong with the terms themselves: “ruler” and “ruled”? How do the people manage to exercise control if they can only decide which individuals will be their political representatives every two to six years? What happens during the intervals between elections? At best do the people have to wait two, four, or six years to oust their elected officials from office if they are unhappy with what those officials have done? That certainly does not sound like very much control. Imagine you are in charge of steering and therefore controlling a car, but you are only able to actually take the wheel every several years. If in the in-between times you have no control over the steering wheel, are you really in control of the car? If a car salesman tried to sell you a car on that basis you might look elsewhere for a car, or perhaps you would decide to adopt a different mode of transportation altogether.

Representative democracy overwhelmingly confines public participation in political affairs to voting for or against one’s representatives. Even in the best of all possible scenarios, if voting comprises the best and highest political role that the people can play, then the people will never have any real power over politics. Karl Popper’s view of democracy, in which the most significant role that the people can play is as a check upon the unrestrained power of the state, reflects a dismal view of what the people are capable of doing. What kind of foundation for society’s political affairs does this constitute? Popper’s perspective forever consigns the people to subordinate status, leaving intact long-standing inequalities among the people without even considering any way to bridge these inequalities. Saviors from on high—benevolent dictators—are sorry and, at the very best, temporary salves.[iv] Charity is not the same thing as genuine equality. As long as the people remain in a politically passive position vis-à-vis the rulers, democracy will remain an unrealized rhetorical device, fit for masking the true sources of political power in the hands of the few.

If one is inclined to assume that voting itself confers real power upon the people and that choosing from among the candidates allows the voters to select the candidates whose promises they like best, one must know not only that campaign promises often do not predict what candidates will end up doing once in office, but also that candidates not infrequently end up doing the exact opposite of what they promised. Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide against Barry Goldwater in 1964 to a large degree because he ran as the “peace” candidate. He then proceeded to escalate the Vietnam War, resulting in the deaths of two million Indochinese and 58,000 Americans. George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 against “nation building.” After he invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, nation building was precisely what he set out to try to do—spectacularly unsuccessfully. Obama campaigned on a promise of “change,” specifically promising to restore habeas corpus, end torture, end the Bush White House’s self-serving and dangerous invocations of state secrets, close Gitmo and pull out of Iraq. Since taking office not only has Obama not kept these promises,[v] but he has also followed Bush and Cheney even further down the road they were so despised for taking. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 239-241).

 

Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo

 

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