Dateline: January 30, 2006
E pluribus unum—are we one nation or two?
Inequality in America is now as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich from the poor, or those who have some property against those who have none at all.
--Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations
It is universally assumed by the great majority of citizens that we are living in a free and Democratic society. The idea has been ingrained in us from cradle to grave. In spite of this, I have come to believe that the term ‘Democracy’ is bandied about to our detriment with great recklessness. Its legitimacy is assumed, not proven, because we do not often think deeply about the enormous responsibility that Democracy requires of its practioneers. Democracy is a paradigm that is deeply ingrained in the public conscience, but it is not a fact—a reality—that is verified by the evidence. Our situation reflects a lack of critical thought about things that matter.
In fact, I would argue that Democracy is frequently used against us as a method of self deception and control. Therefore, it behooves us as world citizens to stop applying the term to the form of government we have. We have never lived in a true Democratic society, no matter what pretense we may have about it. Let us aspire to achieve this most worthy of goals.
The Random House Collegiate Dictionary makes the following distinction between Democracy and Plutocracy:
Democracy: Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
Democratic: Pertaining to or characterized by social equity.
Plutocracy: The rule or power of wealth or the wealthy. A class or group ruling or exercising power by virtue of its wealth.
Applying these definitions to ourselves, it is not difficult to see the kind of government we have. In his book: Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips brings forth some important facts that further help to define the issue:
“In 1995 American corporate CEO salaries increased by ninety-two percent; corporate profits rose seventy-five percent, worker layoffs increased thirty-nine percent, consumer prices went up one percent. The highest paid CEO received more than $65 million in 1995. The top one percent in America now own approximately sixty percent of all wealth. Approximately thirty-five percent of American families are living below the poverty line in 1998.”
Clearly, those endowed with wealth and property, especially those born into privilege, have power that those without do not. The question must be asked: How is inequity equivalent to Democracy? In truth, the two cannot be reconciled. So, when we hear George Bush talking about Democracy in the Middle East, we must expose his galling ignorance by exposing the premise of his case, which is based upon fallacy.
I contend that what ails America also ails much of the world. Whatever it is named, it is so deeply ingrained, so profoundly wrong, that it cannot be reformed. If we want to have a free and Democratic society, more powerful forces must be marshaled against the existing infection of Plutocratic rule. Our journey must begin with an understanding of the kind of government we have, as well as who we are as a people.
Whenever populist insurrection occurred in America, the authorities have always protected the agents of injustice—the corporations, the mine owners, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. Even as the leaders of the civil rights movement were attacked and beaten by angry mobs, the National Guard was called out not to defend them, but to arrest them. It has always been those who upheld the principles of Democracy who were imprisoned—a trend that continues to this day. These are actions that clearly define the form of government we have, as well as who we are as a people. Most assuredly, it is not a democracy. Actions speak louder and more emphatically than words.
A Democratic nation could not have begun with the extermination of the original inhabitants of a continent. It could not have excluded women from participating; it could not have allowed chattel slavery; or the Viet Nam War. It could not allow imperial ambitions or the immense concentration of wealth and power that is in vogue today. The few command the labor and loyalty of the many, even as it exploits them and sends them off to war. These are not the just actions of a Democratic government—they are those of oppressive Plutocracy. We should never confuse the two.
We are living during an amazing time. The events that alternately divide and galvanize us have a verifiable history littered with the bones of those who sought to set things right. We have a history of undermining and destroying legitimate Democracies whenever and wherever we find them. Democracy is the avowed enemy of Plutocracy. The current difficulty is the result of a long pattern of abuse and injustice, so obvious that only the blind or those unwilling to look cannot see them. Nations, like individuals, are judged by their actions more than by the words they espouse.
There is no chance that we can evolve into the people we dream of becoming until we realize who we are now. To move forward will require conscience and spirit, as it always does. It will not occur through conformity and capitulation to power. It is a Herculean task that will test our mettle, try our souls and define our faith. The kind of government we will have is embodied by the actions and the inactions of the people. One wonders how history will judge us. Let us awaken and rise to the occasion, as the times demand.
Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: This feature also appeared on OPED.COM, a fraternal site.