Is Capitalism Anti-Democracy?

“Capitalism is against the things that we say we believe in – democracy, freedom of choice, fairness. It’s not about any of those things now. It’s about protecting the wealthy and legalizing greed,” (Michael Moore). While many people think this is just extremely harsh commentary on a perfectly good system, it really gets down to the root of a movement that has people all across the world working for socioeconomic equality- the anti-capitalist movement. Although the movement gained momentum in the U.S. during movements like Occupy Wall Street to help citizens at home, as the level of economic inequality in the United States is unjust. Although some levels of inequality will always exist in society, with the large disparity between the upper and working/lower classes, we see a lack of participation in society from those who have less. When it comes to things like voting and asset-building, those living in poverty get left in the dust, leaving some people in a superior position, but many more in an inferior. These social and economic hierarchies go against the very democracy on which the US was founded, and also influence the very ideals that now have the entire world fighting for equality, as well.

First, we have to understand where inequality comes from and how it has changed throughout history. Economic inequality stems from a few different factors- the main one being that income is in many ways directly related to one’s ability to vote, be educated, and have a say in the political sphere. Starting at the founding of the United States, one can point out that freedom, equality, and basic rights- like those to property- provided the foundation for our current democracy. It is plain to see, then, that those values that were once important are still quite important today. Talking specifically about natural rights, it was a firm belief that many of the things outlined in the Bill of Rights were things that were supported and were seen as natural rights, or rights given upon birth or citizenship.

The democracy that was founded in this country was meant to uphold those laws for all whom they pertained to, and protect the rights of the people so that everyone somehow had a say in government. While this seems great in theory, one can see that even the founding fathers did not actually include all citizens or US born individuals. Africans were still slaves and considered property, working long days for no pay, while women didn’t exactly have a say in the government at that time period because they weren’t equal to men. White men who didn’t own land, those who weren’t wealthy, also didn’t have a say in the government, and worked on the property of the wealthy to be able to have housing. Jews and Catholics weren’t allowed to vote, and the voting age then was 21, ruling out any men below that age. One can conclude, then, that those who were involved with, and benefitted from, government policy, were strictly white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant males who owned land- roughly only 20% of the population ( Those who did not fit into this category were unable to have a voice in policy that would benefit or free them, and while many things have changed in this country, traces of the political past bleeds into class disparity on a daily basis. Doctor of philosophy Michael J. Thompson writes in an article, “Politics…will by necessity have economic interest at its core since the development of liberal capitalism means that the notion of power in society becomes more intimately bound to the operation and structure of the economy (Thompson).” Through this quote one can truly begin to understand that those who have political power in this nation have it because of their place in the economy. In essence, those who benefit from the economy are also benefitted by government policy.

Another factor is that many people are at an extreme disadvantage with their income. Many people don’t make nearly enough money to be able to support themselves and their families, and those who are making enough money to do so are usually the ones who can actively influence economic policy because they have more freedom to participate in society. About 47% of the US population- a little over a million people- work minimum wage jobs in the food service industry ( While many states have their own minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum wage ($7.25), even those sometimes don’t measure up to the cost of living. It makes sense, then, that many people working fulltime jobs are still not making enough to be above the poverty line. The US government has measured poverty the same way since the 1960s, not factoring in that today the typical family spends more on transportation, child care and housing than fifty years ago. Using the same measure as fifty years ago makes the struggles of those not making enough money invisible. Many people are forced to make difficult decisions about what to spend their money on and become unable to make long-term investments. These long-term investments can be called assets, and they include homes and retirement funds. These are seen as incentives to keep working and break out of the poverty threshold, but the wealth gap has grown so much that is nearly impossible to do now, leaving many excluded from the things initially put in place to empower them, and making them doubtful of their elected officials.

In an interview, philosophy professor and author Elizabeth Anderson says, “Extreme wealth inequality also leads to the de facto control of government by the rich (plutocracy), and so is incompatible with democracy…More…distributions of wealth spread opportunity and hence freedom more widely and fully than systems in which wealth is concentrated in a tiny self-perpetuating class.” In essence, Anderson is saying that as the US stands, the rich have more power in society. In saying that, it means we are getting further and further away from democracy and leaning more towards a plutocracy in which opportunity and freedom is limited to the upper class. This is because there is little distribution of resources in the US.

Looking at the Gini coefficient- a nation’s measure of inequality between 0 and 1, in which the closer the coefficient gets to 1, the less equal it is- we can see that in 1998, the US had a coefficient of .41. Many experts estimated the coefficient to be around.44 in 2004, and .469 in 2010. What exactly does this number mean? In 2004, it meant that the richest 10% of people in the US made 17 times more money than the lowest 10%. The number goes up even further when investment values are added into the mix, being that the poor usually don’t make money off of them in the way the rich do. When investments are added in, the Gini coefficient for the US is somewhere around 57.4. In terms of the coefficient, this would mean that nearly 60% of America has almost all of its wealth and resources, and slightly fewer than 40% have nearly none. In a salary comparison between average floor workers and CEOs in the US, researchers found that a CEO makes on average above 500 times more than a floor worker. In Jeffrey Winters’ article, he points out a way to measure how wealth is intertwined with political power. He calls it the Material Power Index, and it shows exactly how and where power is concentrated between the classes. He says, “When measured by wealth, the MPI for the richest Americans is 30,000 (it jumps to 50,000 if home equity is excluded). The weakest American oligarchs have between 125 and 200 times the material power of an average citizen.” He says that the reason this is dangerous in a democracy is that the oligarchs (the wealthy class) are divided on most political issues in such a way where they can’t exactly be generalized, but are a united front against threats to their concentrated wealth (i.e. higher taxes).

In his article, journalist Daniel Weeks says that the politicians upon whom many impoverished citizens rely do not rely anymore on those citizens, as most lobbying and fundraising is done through the wealthy. He goes on to say that poverty is so persistent in society because millions of impoverished people have become silenced in the political sphere. Statistics show that many impoverished people of the voting age choose not to vote because they don’t feel as if their voices are being listened to. As a matter of fact, studies indicate that non-voters are much more liberal than voters, and would vote for fairer wealth distribution than those who do choose to vote. In a study done by professors William Franko, Nathan Kelly, and Christopher Witko, findings showed that in states where there were smaller voting gaps between the wealthy and poor, policies tended to favor the poor more, states had “higher minimum wages, stricter lending laws and more generous health benefits” than states that had a higher voting disparity.

Aside from the lack of liberal voters, there is a lack of liberal fundraising, especially by minorities. Of 1,360 super PACs (committee that donate to politicians), only 9 are dedicated to Hispanics and blacks, while just one has raised money- a black, republican super PAC that usually votes against minority interests (opensecretsorg). These minority interests can be viewed through census data from past elections; in 1996, 84% of African Americans and 73% of Hispanics voted for a democrat. In 2004, the number went up to 88% for African Americans but down to 53% for Hispanics. In 2008, 95% of black people voted for democratic nominee Barack Obama, while 67% of Hispanics voted for him. During his second election in 2012, 93% of African Americans and 71% of Hispanics voted for Obama (all percentages taken from Clearly, the interest of minorities lies mostly with democrats, but as so few minority super PACs exist, and only a conservative one is donated to, it is easy to see that if people are not lobbying for the person whose policies will most benefit them, there will be little to no class mobility for those who need it the most.

In one USA Today article, the most expensive states to live in the US are outlined. $75,000 is used as the baseline to living comfortably to explain what the equivalent is in each state (in this article, living comfortably means you have no need for outside money and can put money aside for retirement). New York is the 3rd most expensive state on the list, with the article concluding that the New York equivalent of living comfortably on $75,000 in a state like Pennsylvania would actually add up to $100,000 when NY’s cost of living is factored in. Another article by Dave Gilson shows that although productivity has surged, NY’s wages have remained stagnant. Since 1990, the cost of living has increased over 60%. The minimum wage has only increased 21% since then, and a year’s earnings at the minimum wage is only a little over $15,000. The income required for a single worker to have real economic security today is $30,000 in comparison. Had the median household income increased with the cost of living, it would be over 90,000 dollars today, instead of just 50,000. Both articles are extremely telling in how much money people would need to make to be able to afford living without having to worry about being able to pay for necessities. A wage gap that is large enough such that one class has excess and another is barely scraping by for necessities is not just, and needs to be addressed so that all can participate in the many things being financially stable has to offer. In knowing this, many people are fighting against the fact that our capitalist economy has become a part of the way our government is run, and are now pushing against capitalism and the live-to-work, work-to-live lifestyle.

The anti-capitalist movement is said to have started in 2001 at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Officials from North America, South America, and Canada were discussing many issues affecting the western hemisphere. 20,000 people had gathered outside and were marching in support of fair trade, when suddenly, police attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets, and a water cannon (Graeber). Protests continued on into the night, with police continuing to fire rubber and plastic bullets at protesters, intentionally aiming for heads and groins, and tossing tear gas canisters. Although this sparked many questions about militarism in the police force, it also showed people exactly how far elected officials would go to keep people in line and maximize profits by using old-world, imperialistic methods of paying as little as possible to those living in developing nations. The truth is, many government officials would rather go to war to stimulate the economy for short-term success than wait to see the long-term effects of paying livable wages to workers. Michael Miller, in his article “Reforming capitalism for freedom”, says that part of the criticism of capitalism isn’t against the system itself, but the version of capitalism we currently have, which he calls “managerial-crony capitalism”. He says that this means businesses and governments plot to create “regulations that only serve their interests” and turn profits, and their policies are “all mixed in with age-old vices like greed and imprudence”. In other words, capitalism went wrong when businesses and governments became more worried about the money they were making than the consumers from whom they were making it. This is probably the reason many people rely on Terrorism Capitalism.

Terrorism Capitalism, or Disaster Capitalism, is a new term referring to the usage of war and other man-made disasters to regulate the economy. “In 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in arms and military services. Just 10 of those companies sold over $208 billion,” said Sam Weigley in his USA Today article. These numbers highlight the fact that when we fight wars, whether in Iraq, Germany, or anywhere else around the world, we seem to just make money. As a matter of fact, in 1940, just around the time World War II started, the DPC (Defense Plant Corporation) was founded by the US government to create a market for airplanes, which would be the ultimate weapon during WWII.  Before the DCP was founded, the government only spent 5% of its gross income investing in industrial capital, but only three years later, “the government accounted for 67% of U.S. capital investment. (Hyman)” The founding of the DCP totally transformed production in the U.S., but it also gave way for the government to use war as a means to stimulate the economy and create growth. It is really no wonder why the period after World War II is called The Golden Age of Capitalism, especially as almost two-hundred billion dollars matured in war bonds at this time.

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein outlines what once was America’s post-Iraq plan. Former President Bush’s director of the Iraqi occupation authority, Paul Bremer, wanted to open up the borders of Iraq and have unrestricted imports without inspections or taxes. Almost overnight, Iraq became one of the widest open markets in the world. New Bridge Strategies, a business started by the former head of FEMA, Joe Allbaugh, was at the forefront of this “experiment in frontier capitalism (Klein 339).”  The business, through the use of its political connections, planned to get rights for distribution of Proctor and Gamble products, and possibly even open up a 7-Eleven and a Wal-Mart. In her book, Klein says these stores would’ve had the ability to take over the country (340).

Not coincidentally, every time an instance of disaster capitalism happens, the anti-capitalist movement gains momentum. In the spring of 2002, in the biggest meeting of anti-capitalists since 9/11, people gathered to protest the U.S. aid to Israel. 10,000 people marched in solidarity with Palestine in New York City, and many people marched in Washington D.C. to protest the Iraq war. Activists began to feel more secure in their positions as polls showed around 40% of U.S. citizens opposed a war with UN support, but some of the biggest anti-capitalist groups decided not to take a stance on the war. This caused a 50% decrease in activist participation, and ended the movement just before it was about to blow up (Ashman).

One of the biggest reasons the anti-capitalist movement died down at this time was because many citizens began to see war-spending as a way to live out our democracy. After 9/11, the American people didn’t know where to turn or who to blame, and so government spending on a war that made people feel strengthened and empowered was more supported than not. Anti-capitalist groups felt as if they would be betraying this country if they didn’t support the efforts being made to retaliate. Similar things happened during the cold war. Although many people thought that what the U.S. was doing could end in war with Russia and millions dead, they also didn’t want to protest and be seen as unpatriotic or as if they weren’t supporting our democracy. Although there is nothing wrong with patriotic sentiment, it becomes a problem to believe that capitalism and democracy are the same in this country. Author and U.S. army veteran Timothy Gatto says that socialism supports American ideals and is an anti-capitalist himself. He says that socialism can fix what is broken in America, and help the working class, whereas modern capitalism only benefits the rich. Gatto also highlights when many anti-capitalists like himself are afraid to speak out about socialism as a solution to America’s financial crises, “In this nation we have a tendency to disregard socialists and socialism because of the cold war propaganda that equated socialism with communism and repressive regimes that operated under the ‘socialist’ banner.” He continues to say that even though cold war communism never embraced true socialism, all of the propaganda from the war has created permanent negative feelings toward the economic system.

Another reason the anti-capitalist movement is so rooted in foreign policy is because many anti-capitalists view America’s involvement abroad as modern imperialism. Abbie Bakan wrote an essay on the subject outlining why our involvement in Afghanistan was purely capitalistic, saying that the country is strategically located by the Caspian Sea, which was a political and corporate interest to the U.S. as it had the largest source of oil outside of the Middle East. Bakan also says that the U.S. wants to “develop a major pipeline route through Afghani territory”, rather than campaign for alternative energy sources, which she said would be connected to a “call for peace” abroad. While a peace initiative abroad would be the first step towards equality for many, Western nations would need to work for equality at home first, especially because they still face racism and sexism, in part due to the very capitalism they encourage. This is why many anti-capitalist leaders are trying to change the way they relate to minority groups and women.

The movement has been mostly comprised of middle-class, white men, but UK anti-capitalist organization leaders Simon Hardy and Ed Lewis say that they are working to get women and people of color more involved. They said there is no simple, or short-term, way to involve women and people of color, but rather people need to encourage increased involvement of both groups in politics. Hardy and Lewis said that during their first national meeting, they made sure both a male and female chair were appointed for each session, and that everyone involved was being proactive in promoting women taking important roles. They also said that moreso than women, black people are extremely underrepresented, and even though people offer suggestions telling them to go into predominantly black neighborhoods or write more articles about race, they understand that it doesn’t guarantee involvement in the organization. What they need, Lewis and Hardy say, is a group that proves they can earn victories for the black community and support them when they fight inequality, which is what the anti-capitalist movement is all about. And while it may sound ridiculous to many people, it has been proven that racism and sexism correlate to capitalism. According to a study done at the Frankfurt School, there is a correlation between those who believe strongly in a free-market, capitalistic economy, and those who are ethnocentric, anti-Semetic, and racist (Sidanius and Pratto 382). Although many believe the free-market is made to level the playing field for the working class and for companies, and eventually create “free societies (Benjamin Barber)”, it is clear that for many, “the bottom line trumps the common good and government takes a back seat to business (Barber).” This is means that the anti-capitalist movement isn’t just about the economy, but also social justice. A promotion of equality between people will eventually create an ideal economy because there won’t be any discrimination in the workforce.

Barber and many anti-capitalists believe that a capitalist government must transform its economic system, even though one of the costs would be prolonging a recession, but creating “new markets rather than exploit and abuse old ones” will create jobs, increase investments, and garner new consumers looking to buy “useful and necessary products”. The anti-capitalist ideology here is that Western nations would rather spend money on bottling tap water and selling it for more than it’s actually worth instead of purifying water in third world countries. Bringing about a change in modern capitalism in Western nations could help people all over the world, especially in the age of globalization. If businesses reform things at home pay fair wages to their workers, it would give people more money to put back into the economy, and it would get rid of the jobs overseas that pay mere cents per hour to vulnerable workers. The growing relevance of this movement is part of an attempt to recreate capitalism and reform it so that it works the way it was meant to- businesses compete to create affordable products that consumers want and need, ethically and honestly.

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