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Rebutting Capitalism’s Apologists

Managing Democracy Managing Dissent, (subtitled ‘Capitalism, Democracy and the Organisation of Consent’, published by Corporate Watch), consists of a collection of essays mostly authored by academics from sociology and related departments working in a variety of British and American Universities.  From the nature and scholarly style of the writing, the target audience is expected to come from a similar background and it seems unlikely that the book will become a left-wing popular classic.

As with any work, consisting of 20 separate pieces from more than ten different authors, the result is quite mixed. However, the four page foreword by Gerald Sussman is succinct and excellent and in many respects the reader will get the gist of the book from this alone. He neatly summarises developments in capitalism over the past 20 years and discusses the resulting ever increasing alienation of the working class from the system. Unfortunately from a socialist viewpoint, this alienation manifests itself in a widespread apathy rather than any active oppositional politics.

Regarding the main body of the book, there are some interesting observations amongst a voluminous mass of left-wing sociological jargon and analysis. A major part of it  is an examination of the evolution of capitalism over the last hundred years though really the focus is a critique, specifically on American and to a lesser extent British capitalism. This gives the whole book a decidedly ‘anti-imperialist’ flavour in terms of politics and culture. The book is laden with clichéd terminology and the time-honoured denunciation of neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism, globalisation, ruling-class hegemony, etc. The usual villains in works of this sort are well represented and receive the customary castigation: the Pentagon and CIA, the World Bank, Wall Street, The City, Rupert Murdoch, the Freedom Association, Messrs’ F. Hayek & M. Friedman, etc. Some of the well-known incidents of American foreign interference since World War Two  are retold; the CIA’s role in the overthrow of Mossaddegh (Iran, 1953) and Allende (Chile, 1973), the attempted suppression of the Viet Cong in the 1960s and later the Sandinistas in the 1980s.

The problem with this analysis is that global capitalism is conflated and confused with American imperialism and the implication is that if America could be changed or reined in by some means, a better global society and socialism would naturally evolve. This ignores the fact that the workings of capitalism are independent of whatever country happens to be pre-eminent at any time in world history. As an aside, that man of the moment, Ralph Miliband, puts in an appearance too and there is a good quote from him where he states that as capitalism produces great inequality in the distribution of wealth then inevitably great inequality in political power results, irrespective of any egalitarian claims of the governments that administer the system.

The book is better where it explores the mechanisms by which the elite (the capitalist class or in contemporary parlance the 1 percent) control society. There is detailed analysis of the role of the media, the advertising and entertainment industries, in promoting acceptance of the status quo. Most of this is true but is old news. More interesting is the exploration of celebrity philanthropy (Bob Geldof, Bono, and so on), the role of western NGO’s in the developing world and their connection with the activities of the large charitable foundations (Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller and more recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). The book claims that by choosing which reformist movements to fund at home and abroad, these foundations act to marginalize what they deem to be movements dangerous to world order while sustaining safe and non-threatening movements for social change. The history of the various protest movements that have arisen over the past 50 years or so around the world is discussed and how these have either fizzled out or been co-opted into the mainstream.  So in this context the book examines the recent Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring and more locally in England, the Student Demonstrations of Winter 2010 and inner city riots of Summer 2011.

Concentration of power

The book does have useful information on how power in capitalism is much more concentrated than people might generally think and the enormous influence that very wealthy individuals such as the Koch Brothers and alternatively George Soros can yield in the political system. It examines how the same people can hold senior positions in western governments and when their political careers are over move seamlessly into heading up large multi-national businesses or significant NGOs and think-tanks to continue their defence of capitalism. There is also discussion of the criminalisation of direct action movements against certain unpopular manifestations of capitalism; nuclear energy, field sports, animal testing, the arms trade, environmental pollution and the legal response by governments and resulting police tactics (surveillance, infiltration, etc. of the groups involved).The activities of bodies including the American National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the British government supported Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) are explored. These non-profit organisations have stated aims such as the promotion of democracy and western values around the world but who the critics claim impose a soft, western oriented neo-colonialism in the countries that they operate in.

Whatever its drawbacks, the book is motivated by a fundamental question that real socialists have faced and debated amongst themselves for many years. According to our view, society is based on capitalism which is inimical to the interests of the vast majority of the people of the world (who are the working class). However, in large parts of the world, workers have access to political power through the democratic structures (parliamentary elections based on an almost universal adult franchise) that exist in many countries. Of course this ‘democracy’ is limited and partial, to greater or lesser degree depending on the country. But nonetheless in principle workers in many countries have the option of replacing capitalism with socialism.

This clearly hasn’t happened so the question is why not? Apologists for capitalism will claim that workers are in fact broadly happy with their lot, identify themselves more by gender, race and nationality than class and do not ‘buy into’ the socialist analysis. Supporters of socialism (in the many ways that is defined, meaningfully or not) have a harder task rebutting this thesis and this book is one attempt, if not a very good one. We in the Socialist Party do not claim to have a definitive answer to this conundrum either. All that can be said is that when a majority of the world’s workers understand the nature of current society and realize that a much better society is possible, that dissent will produce real and fundamental change rather than more tinkering with the existing system.