Fairness Is the Basic Spirit of Democracy

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2012-07-04 14:49
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Western democracy is crony capitalism

At present, a large number of people are criticizing crony capitalism. But, in fact, according to the ideas of Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689-1755), upon which Western politics are founded, Western democracy has been crony capitalism from the very beginning. Montesquieu held that a genuine democracy must be established on the basis of relative equality in the distribution of wealth.

In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu pointed out that equality is the basic spirit of democracy. He said that: “The love of democracy is that of equality” and “Love of democracy is also love of frugality.” Unlike those who spoke of equality only in terms of rights, Montesquieu discussed equality in the practical sense. In Chapter V of The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu gave several examples of how the concentration of wealth had been restricted under so-called republican systems of government throughout the history of Europe, including the equal distribution of land (as was practiced in ancient Rome), restricting the inheritance of property, and limiting the free transfer of property. He implied that limiting the concentration of private property was a means of realizing equality, and therefore also a means of realizing democracy. He realized that it was a fantasy to believe that equality in practice could be achieved under a system of private ownership. Therefore, although he believed that genuine equality was the soul of the state under democratic politics, he noted that it was by no means easy to accomplish genuine equality. Therefore, Montesquieu maintained that absolute equality was not necessarily appropriate in all cases.


A pedestrian walks past a “99 Cent” store in Los Angeles. On December 6, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the gap between rich and poor is widening, social inequality is deepening, and the middle class is struggling. President Obama urged Congress to take action to promote the growth of the U.S. economy by approving policies that will help to raise the living standards of the middle class. / Xinhua / AFP

To a certain degree, equality in the distribution of wealth is the basis of democratic politics. According to Montesquieu’s thinking, there can be no democracy without equality, which means that realizing equality is the prerequisite for realizing democracy. Therefore, distributing wealth equally and restraining the rich and powerful are the basic prerequisites for promoting democracy. However, without exception, all of today’s Western democracies are established on the basis of highly concentrated wealth and inequality. According to Montesquieu’s theories, this kind of superstructure, which lacks equality as its foundation, is inherently undemocratic. Democratic politics must be established on the basis of “anxiety over inequality.” Coincidently, the ideas of Montesquieu are in almost perfect agreement with those of Confucius and Mencius over 2000 years ago.

Confucius said “What matters is not wanting but unfairness.” Mencius said “The people rank the highest, the gods of land and grain come next, and the ruler counts the least.” The “people” Mencius was referring to was not the rich minority, but the common people. To pauperize and marginalize the majority of the people is surely to violate the principle that “the people rank the highest.” For instance, in The Works of Mencius: King Hui of Liang (Book I), Mencius repeatedly criticized the great disparity between the rich and the poor. At its core, the idea that “the people rank the highest” is about fairness and justice. The Works of Mencius contains many democratic ideas, all of which are based on fairness in the practical sense.

In light of these factors, we may conclude that the Western political system, which is founded on the concentration of wealth, has no right to be called a sanctuary of democracy. Rather, it would be much more fitting to describe the Western system using the buzz-phrase “crony capitalism.”

In so far as the development of democratic politics is concerned, the profound notion of equality which is embodied in the state system established by China after 1949 represents the foundation for realizing Chinese-style democracy. If China is able to develop a form of participatory democracy on the basis of equality in practice, it will have made a great contribution to humankind.

Why is it impossible to establish a genuine democracy where there is a great disparity between the rich and the poor and a high concentration of wealth? In a society that is founded on the concentration of wealth, the material resources of that society tend to be controlled by a very small minority. The rich people, who are driven by an impulse to maximize their interests, seek to use the resources at their disposal to control the government and other social and economic organizations, including the press. Therefore, the implementation of so-called “democratic politics” on the foundation of polarization or private ownership provides the rich stratum with a channel through which to satisfy their impulses. In 1967, a professor from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) by the name of William Domhoff published a book entitled Who Rules America? This book has been revised and republished on several occasions, with a total of six editions having been published so far. In his book, Domhoff asks his readers: Who has the ultimate power in the United States? Who rules the United States? Domhoff does not base his argument on superficial phenomena such as the division of powers and the freedom of speech, but instead uses history and empirical fact to elaborate his views. He ultimately concludes that it is the rich stratum that rules the United States. He believes that in the Western political process, the rich stratum are able to use the wealth at their disposal to realize their rule over the country in the following ways: by making up the rules of the game; providing political contributions; utilizing lobby groups; buying out scholars that support them with academic studies and policy argumentation; selectively disseminating information or news; and controlling economic and social organizations.

The smell of money in Western democracy

Plato said “we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Some proponents of “universal values” are not children who are afraid of the dark, but men who are afraid of the light. This is because the light of empirical fact is bright enough to shine through the mysterious veil that has been placed over the crony capitalism of the West. We shall use history and empirical fact to reveal the essence of certain political games played in the West.

Western democracy, whose foundation is the inequality of wealth, has always been a game of the wealthy and a dream of the rich. Before arriving at where it is today, democracy has accompanied the rich in an endless number of games and an endless number of dreams. If Western politics were an automobile, then money would be its fuel. This tradition can be traced back to ancient Greece. Ancient Greece generally refers to a group of city-states that were never actually united. The strongest of these city-states, Athens and Sparta, were the superpowers of ancient Greek civilization. Of the two, Athens is particularly regarded as the cradle of Western democratic politics. The democracy of ancient Greece was in fact the democracy of a small privileged minority, otherwise known as slave owners. Only those with the status of “citizens” could enjoy democratic rights. In Athens, only male land owners over the age of 20 were eligible to vote. Though they were small in number, they presided over all other social classes. These people made up the rules, formulated the laws, monopolized political power and all other public power, and exclusively enjoyed the right to vote and the right to be elected. Slaves, women, and people from other city-states were completely barred out of the political process. There was no freedom of speech under the democracy of ancient Greece. In fact, inappropriate speech was the reason that Socrates was sentenced to death.

During the period of the Roman Republic, democracy was also a right enjoyed by slave-owners, much as it had been in Ancient Greece. Aristocrats and elders held a monopoly over all rights to be elected. Differing from the practice in Ancient Greece, even so-called citizens in Rome were divided into distinctly different classes, and the right to vote and be elected was subject to a number of restrictions in regard to class, property, and family status.

The Magna Carta (Great Charter), which was written on June 15, 1215, is widely considered to be the origin of modern democratic politics. The writing of the Magna Carta can be traced to a dispute over taxation between aristocrats and the King of England. The earliest version of the document, entitled Magna Carta, was written in Latin. It restricted the powers of the King and ensured the rights of the “freemen.” At that time, the term “freemen” referred to aristocrats, and did not include serfs. Therefore, in spite of its enormous progressive significance, the Magna Carta was still in essence a game of the aristocrats.

During the American War of Independence, in order to unite all the people in the colonies of North America, including those of the lower classes, in rebellion against the British Empire, the Declaration of Independence did not impose requirements for private property on the rights of the people that it proclaimed. However, after gaining independence, the elite began to follow a different agenda by protecting private property ownership in the constitution. Moreover, the election law went further by establishing the ownership of property as a precondition for enjoying the right to vote and the right to be elected. It was not until recent decades that African Americans, women, and people from the lower classes were granted the right to vote.

Even today, the essence of this historical tradition of Western politics, the politics of the rich, is still found.

1. Political contributions: power-for-money deals. To win an election one must have votes; to get votes one must advertise; and to advertise one must have money. Any politician wishing to run for election needs to have cash up front and the ability to raise money. In fact, the ability to raise money is the primary consideration for the nomination of presidential candidates in both parties of the United States. An empty-handed politician who is unwilling or unable to raise money has no political future in the United States. Although the law does not impose requirements in regard to property, in practice, the ability to raise funds is a requirement for election. Therefore, this is like a “one ballot veto”: no money, no hope. What is the purpose of political contributions? Political contributions are not for charity—they must be repaid. The elected must reward their benefactors in the form of policies or positions. Therefore, said in Chinese terms, the American system operates through the open exchange of money and power. Political contributions are a basic mechanism allowing for politics to be controlled by capital, and particularly by big capital. Large numbers of officials run for election at various levels of government in the U.S., from the local level to the federal level, and they all work according to the same mode: raising money (contributions), seeking power, and then using their power to repay their benefactors. There is no such thing as an official who does not accept contributions. Likewise, it is equally difficult to find an official who does not repay his supporters. Power-for-money deals also exist in China, although they are undeniably a typical form of corruption. However, in the United States, power-for-money deals are actually legal.

How important is money in actual elections? In the political games of the West, in order to win an election, candidates must make themselves and their political views known to voters. With the exception of an extremely small number of cases, this is a money-burning affair. Without money, a candidate cannot place TV advertisements, appear on TV, or take out other advertisements. Without money, a candidate cannot launch large-scale campaign events or distribute flyers. In order to launch an election campaign, candidates need to employ a large number of logistical personnel. They need a team of people to plan their campaign, study policies, track opponents, put forward countermeasures, build up their image, and get them in touch with voters. Without money, candidates wouldn’t even be able to pay the rent for their campaign offices. Moreover, elections are often reduced to an advertising contest. Everyone is aware that advertisements boil down to a contest over who has the most money. The best-selling products are not necessarily the best products in terms of quality, but they are almost certainly the most advertised. Competition between two very similar products often boils down to advertising and money. The same applies for “political advertisements.” In this money-burning game, the concept of equal rights is meaningless. The chances of the rich and their agents being elected are vastly different from those of the poor and their agents being elected. The rich and their agents will always have a much greater chance of being elected than the poor. It does not take a profound understanding of probability to appreciate that the rule of the rich is an inevitable outcome and reality in this society. Where elections are decided by money, there is very little possibility that the opinions of the government and the rich and powerful will come into conflict with each other.

2. Lobbying: power-for-money dealings. Washington D.C. is home to at least 17,000 lobby groups and lobbyists, a large number of which are employed by states and local governments, large companies, trade associations, law firms, and lobbying organizations. Similar lobbying groups are also widely distributed throughout the localities of various levels of government, such as state and local governments. Each lobbyist or lobby group is employed by a specific interest group to represent its interests. The backbone members of such lobbying groups are often ex-government officials, some of whom are even formerly elected officials, as well as large numbers of well-connected people. Many officials who lose in elections are employed by famous lobbying companies, collecting salaries many times larger than they received when they were in office. These lobbying companies in turn charge high fees for their services. At the same time, a large number of people from the private sector are employed by the government as officials. This two-way flow between government and industry is what is famously referred to as the “revolving door” phenomenon in American politics.

Many large companies have offices in Washington D.C. and spend large amounts of money on establishing friendly ties with politicians from both parties, which they use as a means of promoting laws and policies that conform to their interests and blocking those that run counter to their interests. Certain large companies are so powerful that they can almost meet with whomever they want, whenever they want.

Lobbyists bet on both parties. Lobbied politicians live off both the opponents and supporters of a policy, which is like taking a bribe from both the defendant and the plaintiff. Political lobbying is in fact a form of behind-the-scenes politics that is controlled by money. People belonging to the middle and lower classes naturally do not have the money, the personal connections, the energy, or the professional expertise needed to be involved in this process, and are thus excluded. The scope of lobbying covers everything from legislation and government expenditure to policy-making. In so far as legislation is concerned, the order of priority of legislation, the spirit of actual laws, and the content of actual laws may all be decided behind the scenes.

According to data regarding the lobbying expenses of 13 industries between the years 1998 and 2010 as published by the website OpenSecrets.org, the combined lobbying expenses of 12 industries accounted for over 97% of the total amount spent on lobbying during the target period, whereas lobbying expenses on labor-related issues accounted for less than 2%.

Some political scientists in the United States believe that the purpose of government organizations is to serve public interests through the provision of public goods. However, political lobbying has changed this to a certain degree. As a result, public organizations have become the representatives of certain special interest groups, and thus the policies and laws they make are often partial to those special interest groups. In traditional Chinese culture this phenomenon is referred to as the “private use of public instruments.” In Western politics, it is called “political capture,” namely, a situation in which public organizations are controlled by a small minority of interest groups. In the politics of lobbying, the majority of ordinary voters, who lack money, connections, and organization, are in fact excluded from the policy-making game.

3. The divide between the rich and the poor and policy research. In the West, the wealthy class has also established a large number of foundations that support academic studies and policy research in favor of their own interests. The most effective way to control a society is to control that society’s ideology.

Public ownership and democracy are compatible

The argument that state-owned enterprises are bound to be inefficient is no longer valid. There is no longer an empirical basis to support the abolition of public ownership in the name of raising efficiency. Despite this, however, many people still subscribe to the ideas of John Locke, believing that private ownership is the foundation of democracy. This leads us to the question: What is the relationship between public ownership and democracy?

There is a belief that public ownership is incompatible with democracy. This view holds that public ownership will inevitably hold back democracy and the legal system, and seemingly assumes that there is an inherent link between private ownership, democracy, and the legal system. In fact, even in the view of the enlightenment thinkers, the period of private ownership that preceded the emergence of the modern representative system was undemocratic. Looking from a wider historical perspective, we can see that the history of private ownership is a predominantly undemocratic one.

In theory, public ownership can form the basis of democracy for the majority of the people. For instance, state-owned enterprises are the product of the work of all laborers in society. It is therefore an inalienable human right of every member of society to protect these products from being encroached upon. Public property is deemed not to have been infringed upon once all public property is used to contribute to the freedom, welfare, and happiness of every member of the society. This can be realized only when all members of a society are able to participate in the management thereof on an equal footing. Therefore, participating in the management and supervision of public property is the natural right of every member of society. When public property is managed by the government, that is, when state ownership is implemented, all members of society have the right to directly or indirectly participate in and supervise the government’s management of public property. All members of society have an equal stake in public property, regardless of whether or not they own private property. All members of society have the right to manage state-owned assets or the government on an equal footing, as well as the right to freely express their own wishes.

The spirit of public ownership is equal, free, and democratic. The political process established on the basis of public ownership must be a democracy of the majority and democracy with direct participation. Even where multiple economic sectors coexist, the presence of state-owned enterprises dictates that each member of society still enjoys the democratic right to supervise the government and manage state-owned assets on an equal footing. In this regard, China has not done enough in the past, and in some cases has done very poorly. Doing poorly means that there is a need for reform. The purpose of reforming public sector is not to privatize publicly owned assets, but to ensure that all members of society are able to participate in the management of state affairs and the management of public property on the basis of equality and freedom, so that state-owned property may serve society and all its members.

(Originally appeared in Red Flag Manuscript, No.2, 2012)

Author: A scholar living in the United States

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