The Election-Industrial Complex

By Walter Smolarek |

As the seemingly endless period of political campaigning in the United States will soon draw to a close, we on the left must access the damage; but more importantly, we must understand the means by which the damage was dealt; the “representative democratic” system. In this execution of bourgeois democracy there were two lines of direct benefit: one to the ruling class as a whole by (falsely) reaffirming its political legitimacy and another to the corporate media, into which the tremendous fiscal reserves gathered by the Obama and McCain campaigns are deposited. Hopped up on the new opiate of the masses (a Harvard millionaire’s take on “change”), voter turnout is bound to be high while ratings skyrocket and ad revenues explode. All the while this political-media reciprocation makes it clear that by way of an election-industrial complex the ruling class finally found a way to make this pesky habit of voting carry its financial weight.

Political Entrenchment

Before we delve into the (relatively new) economic benefits to certain sectors (obviously not the economy as a whole), we need to review what makes bourgeois parliamentarianism so necessary to the maintenance of capitalism. Going back in history to the transition from feudal to bourgeois rule, it would be a tough sell for the budding capitalist class to mirror the absolutism of the landed gentry. On the one hand, some concessions had to be made, but on the other the dictatorship of a minority class still had to be enforced. A system dependent on corporate cash, electoral ostracism, and (as will be focused on later) media hegemony had to be forged, dressed in sparkling rhetoric to entrap progressive forces and dupe the vast majority. The established media, as an institution dependent on the capitalist system, will naturally play a leading role in presenting this illusion of choice.

Before we can understand just how warped the version of the election the corporate media gives, we have to get the real picture. We have John McCain, a millionaire from a military family who famously owns seven houses, and opposing him is Barrack Obama, a Harvard-educated millionaire lawyer. As for the current financial crisis, we know where both of their interests lie. As of late September Obama’s number one contributor is Goldman Sachs, closely followed by Citigroup at number three while 35% of Obama’s top 20 donors are connected to big banks. At the same time, the five largest donors to the McCain campaign are major banks, with Merrill Lynch taking the top spot, kept company by the 60% of his top 20 contributors who are major players in the banking industry.

Both candidates are ardent imperialists; they just differ on their preferred target. McCain, as architect of the surge, has made it clear that he’d like to continue the occupation of Iraq indefinitely. Obama is widely seen as the peace candidate, although he has used phrases like “residual forces” in order to mask the fact that he plans on leaving behind tens of thousands of soldiers to deny the Iraqi people sovereignty. However, he has, quite openly, called for an escalation in Afghanistan. Apparently moving mass-slaughter east a few hundred miles is change we can believe in. On Iran, McCain and Obama keep referring to the government as a sponsor of terrorism (read: not subservient to the West), and both back sanctions that, as the tragedy in Iraq during the later half of the 1990s has shown, are just as devastating as weapons of mass destruction. Obama might carry a bigger carrot and McCain a bigger stick, but every action they’ll take towards the Third World will advance the same arrogant imperialist system.

A race between almost identical candidates presents a twofold problem to the media and the bourgeoisie. First, something this inconsequential doesn’t sell advertising time. Second, not only will people be bored, but, infinitely worse, they’ll be angry. God help the capitalists if people vote for a progressive like Cynthia McKinney or a revolutionary like Gloria LaRiva. Collectively and in a decentralized fashion driven by a common goal, a script rivaling the latest Hollywood blockbuster was put together.

The country is in crisis, an unpopular president has led an unpopular war and the economy is on the verge of collapse. Who appears to rescue the ignorant masses? Barrack Obama! He looks different than those who proceeded him, his name sounds different (his bank account looks the same); he has to represent change, right? But this untested man might not be up for the task; who could challenge this newcomer in the tradition of the hard-line heroes of yesteryear we once trusted with our safety (and the rest of the world burned in effigy)? A maverick, a war hero (don’t let the burnt flesh of innocent Vietnamese men, women, and children lead you to call him something else), John McCain. And the best part is that you get to “decide”! * Not applicable to undocumented workers or felons

Economic Perks

Beyond the theoretical consequences that overt tyranny (or, more accurately, what would very soon replace it) would have on the financial situation of the corporate media, there is a direct business opportunity that presents itself to motivate not only the executives at the top but the rank-and-file reporters for almost impeccable collusion with the greater capitalist superstructure. Tremendous yields are derived from the spectacle of the bourgeois elections, demonstrably so with the television news networks.

CNN, one of the giants of cable news, attracted roughly 2 million viewers in February of 2008, when the primary elections were heating up. Between 2004 and 2008 (when coverage of the 04 presidential election, mid-term election, and 08 presidential election flowed together almost without a pause), CNN doubled its profits, making an extra $200,000,000. Media behemoth News Corp. (owner of Fox News) reported (also in February 2008) a 9.5% increase in revenue and a $10,000,000 increase in net income, greasing the wheels of Murdoch’s acquisition of Dow Jones. NBC (owner of MSNBC) saw a huge increase in revenue as the primaries began, 8% ($33,000,000) and a 10% increase in profits.

Beyond increases in ad revenue for the television stations, print, radio, even non-media sectors (signs have to be made, venues rented, etc.) benefited. To understand the magnitude of this, we have to look at the enormous sums of cash raised by the campaigns. Cumulatively, the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have gathered $511,040,553. Their Republican counterparts have together raised $415,950,247; meaning that the twin parties of war and capitalism have, together, nearly one billion dollars to funnel to their close friends, the bourgeois captains of industry. Coupled with increases in profit for local news outlets as well as international ones, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that American “Democracy” is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Our Democracy

When speaking of building a society based on the participation of the masses of society, they have failed (as I hope I’ve just made obvious), we will succeed. What will our democracy look like? Sparing the details of how this new apparatus of government will be established or what exactly the institutions by which the will of the people is executed will look like, there are several principles we must adhere to. First of all, for the people to truly be masters of their collective destiny, civic institutions must be participatory. At all levels, the representatives must be constantly in touch with constituents. Of course, different institutions of state power will carry this out as appropriate; municipal officials may rely on community meetings while national delegates may hear the voice of the people via mass organizations (trade unions, cooperative federations, etc.). All elected officials must be subject to swift recall at any time and, most importantly, they must be of the same stock as the vast majority of society; they must be working class people themselves.

The above, however, is secondary. Civic institutions are set up to meet the needs of those who hold material power, the ruling class. So what institutions of economic participation can assure that the people rule? First, democracy must begin at the workplace level. The day to day administration of the means of production, whether it’s a fast food restaurant or a major auto plant, must be left to the workers and their democratically elected workplace leaders. In facilitating this democratic process, trade unions or other independent, revolutionary mass organizations could play a very helpful role. In order to eliminate the anarchy in production, and inequality and stratification amongst the working class itself as well as defend this new society, a planned economy is an absolute must. This, by necessity, will be done at a broad, national level. However, the process by which these plans are made must be based primarily on consultations with all sectors of society so that it truly represents the needs and wants of the vast majority and prevents bureaucratic corruption.

The radical left must organize the fight for a new society, but do so tactically. Does this mean voting for the lesser of two evils? Certainly not; in fact, Obama’s “Hope” will do nothing but pump life into the dieing capitalist system. Does this mean running tactically in the elections? Certainly; if possible, we should use bourgeois institutions as a platform to spread the message that there is an alternative to this wretched system. We must expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois show elections, in large part by pointing out the profiteers and their role in shaping public opinion. As neo-liberalism begins to collapse, let’s use the 2008 elections as both a starting point for a mass movement and an example of the fact that capitalism and democracy are antithetical.