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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: Democracy in Chains

 It is rare that a book takes me a full 3 weeks to read when checked out from the library. Democracy In Chains took me this long not because it was difficult material, but because it's so incredibly depressing. The book traces the rise of the right-winged anti-democratic forces in recent history. The intellectual history winds through from F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and of course, Charles Koch, who funds the radical revolution. If I thought Kochland was an indictment of Koch's activies, this book makes it quite clear that Koch's anti-climate change agenda is just the tip of the iceberg. His goal was (and continues to be --- even beyond the grave) the destruction of Democracy in America, returning it to the state it was in the 1900s, after which it took 3 entire decades before a FDR was elected to fix it. And this time, by stacking the judiciary (the end-game of which played out recently), even another FDR might not be able to fix it.

Here in this book, you'll find out why the radical right (for instance Peter Thiel) frequently thought that giving non-whites and women the right to vote was bad for democracy. Well, he used the word Democracy, but he meant bad for the overlords of capitalism, of whom he is one.

A prime example was Buchanan's protege's work on Chile:

 it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan’s ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate.5 Whereas the U.S. Constitution famously enshrined “checks and balances” to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with “locks and bolts.”.. Under the new labor code Piñera promulgated in 1979, for example, industry-wide labor unions were banned. Instead, plant-level unions could compete, making one another weaker while their attention was thus diverted from the federal government (“depoliticizing” economic matters, in Buchanan terms). Individual wage earners were granted “freedom of choice” to make their own deals with employers. It would be more accurate to say that they were forced to act solely as individuals. “One simply cannot finish the job,” Piñera later explained to would-be emulators, if workers maintain the capacity to exercise real collective power ...Piñera designed another core prop of the new order: privatization of the social security system. This freed companies of the obligation to make any contributions to their employees’ retirement and also greatly limited the government’s role in safeguarding citizens’ well-being. Ending the principle of social insurance, much as Barry Goldwater had advocated in 1964, the market-based system instead steered workers toward individual accounts with private investment firms. As one scholar notes, it “was essentially self-insurance.” Fortunately for the plan, the regime had full control of television. At a time when three of every four households had televisions, Piñera made weekly appearances over six months to sell the new system, playing to fear of old-age insecurity owing to “this sinkhole of a bureaucracy,” the nation’s social security system. “Wouldn’t you rather,” he queried viewers, holding up “a handsome, simulated leather passbook,” see your individual savings recorded every month in such a book “that you can open at night and say, ‘As of today I have invested $50,000 toward my golden years?’”...In short order, two private corporations—BHC Group and Cruzat-Larrain, both with strong ties to the regime—acquired two-thirds of the invested retirement funds, the equivalent, within ten years, of one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. (José Piñera, for his part, went on to work for Cruzat and then promoted U.S. Social Security privatization for Charles Koch’s Cato Institute.)9 Other “modernizations” included the privatization of health care, the opening of agriculture to world market forces, the transformation of the judiciary, new limits on the regulatory ability of the central government, and the signature of both the Chicago and Virginia schools of thought: K–12 school vouchers. (kindle loc 3299, 3311, 3316, 3325)

 If you've been paying attention over the last 30 years, this of course, has been the Republican/Libertarian goal for the US all along --- to turn us into Chile, which despite ousting Pinochet still has a constitution that's anti-democratic in nature. This book, more than any other I've read, explains why the USA has had a uniquely weak social security net:

two of the country’s most distinguished comparative political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process. Calling these inbuilt “majority constraining” obstacles “veto players,” the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players. All four were specified in the slavery-defending founders’ Constitution: absolute veto power for the Senate, for the House, and for the president (if not outvoted by a two-thirds majority), and a Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of three-quarters of the states. Other features of the U.S. system further obstruct majority rule, including a winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two-party system; the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of “one person, one vote” to a degree not seen anywhere else. Owing to such mechanisms, Stepan and Linz note, even in the late 1960s, “the heyday of income equality in the United States, no other country in the set [of long-standing democracies] was as unequal as America, and most were substantially more equal.” As arresting, even the most equal U.S. state is less equal than any comparable country. What makes the U.S. system “exceptional,” sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority. (Kindle loc 4606)

 MacLean points out that even the white supremacists who think they're "owning the libs" will turn out to have been played for suckers (which is accurate, but still might not change the election):

The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy. (Kindle loc 4760)

This is probably the most important book I've read all year. It's depressing, but if it galvanizes you into action this November, it's essential reading. Highly recommended. 

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