How do elites retain control in a ‘democracy’?

The USA was once a model of moderation and flexibility

Richard Crossman called the elaborate system of control that Western elites developed to preserve the status quo as ” the thick masses of foliage which we call the myth of democracy.” Spin has always been part of the armory, but Blair’s New Labour government in Britain turned the practice into an art form. Britain has now got a highly distrusted administration that has managed to bring the whole system of ‘Western democracy’ into disrepute. The battle now raging around Blair’s handling of the war on Iraq demonstrates the lengths to which elites go to preserve their position of power and the methods used to pursue this aim. The Hutton enquiry (unlikely to come to any startling conclusions: see below) has already lifted the lid off several issues that show beyond doubt the existence of a consistent effort by the community at large to get at the truth and means used by their leaders to frustrate this quest.

This was always the case to some degree, but the tussle is becoming more evident and more strident. As a result, the gap between governed and governments is widening. This is a pity. In the long course of the growth of democratic institutions in the West there were many people who worked hard and sacrificed much to secure the advances won over the centuries.

The 55 delegates of the American Constitutional Convention which opened on 25 May 1787 and concluded on 12 September 1787 brought together remarkable people such as James Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. Their design for the American constitution (written in draft after 16 weeks of continuous session and which was then gradually ratified by two-thirds of the states between December 1787 and June 1788 to be adopted as the US constitution in 1789) became a model for flexibility and compromise in the search for consensus. Two problems were high on the agenda: first, the balance between the powers of the national government and the states, and second, power sharing between large and small states.

An elaborate system of checks and balances was agreed to safeguard diverse local powers (at state level) from total control by the federal government. A significant step was taken to limit the power of the federal government when it was divided into three independent branches: executive, judicial, and legislative. The size problem was addresses by the creation of a Senate on which the states are equally represented and a House of Representatives on which the states were represented in proportion to their populations.

The model goes off the rails: the ‘revolving door’

The American model, therefore, relied on diversity and diffusion of powers to reduce the scope for domination of government by a small group of people, and that ‘chaotic’ system worked exceedingly well up to the 1960s. The elite then began to exert pressure to reassert control over the American people and over domestic and foreign policies. This trend is gathering momentum and is causing major problems for democracy in the USA (from domestic terrorism caused by distrust of the federal government and disaffection with politicians and political parties, to costly foreign adventures and international hostility to American power).

In particular, the elite adopted two dependent courses of action. Access to vast sums of money was made a necessary requirement for anyone wishing to enter the political arena at all levels. As Theodore H White (1915-1986), American journalist, commented, ‘The flood of money that gushes into politics today is a pollution of democracy.’

In an even more sinister development, business has now grown in dominance to an extent that is gradually overshadowing political power. To be more specific, there is now a revolving door between business and politics. This feature appeared first in the USA, but it is spreading fast to other regions. It is not the same as the well established tradition for some business people to move into politics which has been in evidence for centuries. The corporate and political spheres have now merged together into one continuum. It is now difficult to know when governments are acting on behalf of the people and when they are merely responding to businesses dictates. No overt direction is necessary; politicians are also businessmen and women in their own right.

The revolving door is not unknown in Britain. John Major after leaving office as Prime Minster went on to find lucrative employment as European Chairman of the Carlyle Group. Ken Clarke, Major’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, became deputy chairman of British American Tobacco.

Control over the media

Noreena Hertz, University of Cambridge, presented a detailed account of the above regressive trends in The Silent Takeover. However, further clarification is required here as well. Reference to business should be seen for what it really is; a few individuals who wield vast influence over business, politics, and the mass media.

Vijay Prashad traced, in Fat Cats, the names and ‘credentials’ of some of the leading actors. At the same time he described the revolving door that allows certain individuals to move freely between government and business and back again. He wrote, “The real corporate control over the government, however, is not the campaign finance scandal. The real scandal is that the culture of corporations is the culture of politics, and the corporate fat cats have now become the running dogs.” It is especially significant that many of these persons occupy senior positions in regulatory bodies when they work for the government. This explains the insistence of both business and governments on ‘self-regulation’ instead of legislation when faced with demands for reform following scandals and misdemeanours.

The multiparty ploy

The revolving door is only one example of the way elites circumvent the checks and balances that have been created over a long time to safeguard against abuse in Western ‘democracies’. The most notable example is a ‘multiparty democracy’ in which there is hardly any difference between the policies offered by the different parties. This became unmistakeable at the election campaign that brought New Labour to government in 1997. Essentially, Tony Blair advanced policies that were identical to those at the heart of the Conservative manifesto. Margaret Thatcher started the process by proclaiming years before that there are no alternatives! The same picture is evident across the Atlantic. There is now little difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Again, at the base of that trend lies the claim that there are no alternatives to the neo-liberal model. (See Capitalism at the Cross Roads on this website.)

The ‘independent’ enquiry

Possibly the most popular tool in safeguarding the position of the elite is the so-called independent enquiry. The process kicks off with demands for an enquiry into a matter of serious public concern. There is then a period of pure theatre when the government resists all attempts to hold such an enquiry (on the understanding that doing so would be highly embarrassing to the government). Following that the government occasionally climbs down and sets up an enquiry with a respected person in charge, very often a retired judge or civil servant known for being a ‘safe pair of hands’.

Richard Scott’s report into British arms trading with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in the 1980s (and up to the first Gulf war) is a good example. It took three years to complete. This is an essential part of the process: enquiries report only when public interest in the topic under discussion has all but disappeared.

The Scott report contained 1800 pages, but no executive summary or a checklist of findings. This experienced judge explained that he had reached “a point of writing fatigue”. Not content with that, the report was written and constructed in a “convoluted, often contradictory, manner” (Andrew Neil in the Sunday Times 18 February 1996). At times the report was truly extraordinary. Scott said that William Waldgrave “designedly” and “deliberately” misled Parliament but then absolved him of any “duplicitous intention”! At the end no one was any wiser about the affair. The elite survived, in that there was no radical analysis or consequent reform resulting from that episode. Basically, business and political interests came to the conclusion that it was useful to provide Saddam with arms (of all descriptions) at that point.

‘Public representatives’

The same process is deployed at lower levels of public life. Governments insist that involvement of ‘ordinary people’ in the way services are designed and managed locally is of paramount importance. To that end thousands of individuals are recruited as non-executive directors or whatever to serve on national and local boards. They are hand picked. They are paid a reasonable sum of money. They are told to act fearlessly in representing the views of their communities. In most cases, these laudable aims are not translated into action. Inexperience, intimidation, fear of loss of face or office, or simply a wish to be liked prevents most of these public representatives from fulfilling their role properly. And this is quite acceptable to the elites. The main aim is to confer legitimacy on the status quo.

The conspiracy gambit

The elite rely on this gambit to discredit anyone foolish enough to claim malpractice by the powers that be. The process is well-rehearsed. It is only necessary for a spokesman to suggest that the accusation is based on the existence of a conspiracy to ensure that it is dismissed as nonsense. The media (substantially controlled by the elite) play a major part in this task. The ploy is founded on a mythical assertion that members of an elite (at whatever level) simply do not operate in this way. The fact that many claims based on a possible conspiracy are found to have been justified after the passage of several decades is routinely ignored. Few are left with any interest in the particular incident by the time the facts are revealed. When the facts emerge in a shorter time the elite adopt another tack: a spokesman informs the public that “steps have been taken to make certain this sort of thing could not happen again.” These words have been put in quotations as they are repeated almost verbatim on all occasions.

Fear: the ultimate weapon

This is by far the most traditional ploy adopted by the elite to stay at the top. It is an ancient tradition; priests used fear (from the gods and a myriad of threatening forces) to convince the rest of the community to accept a hierarchical structure that gave the priests countless privileges.

The situation has not changed much in thousands of years. Nowadays, the elites (politicians. experts, etc.) threaten the rest with loss of income, disease, foreign enemies and so on. The latest threat that has allowed the geopolitical elite (led by the small group of individuals at the top of the American pyramid) to gain massive ascendancy is the frightening threat posed by terrorists that seem to come in all shapes and sizes. In this context, the tragic events of 11 September 2001 were exploited to the full.

Foreign threats in the form of ‘rogue states’ and terrorists have allowed the elites to roll back many of the welfare reforms and human rights gains that had been achieved over many decades with little more than a murmur by the general public. Dubious wars were fought at massive human and financial costs at a time when the public were being told that funds are not available to improve ailing public services and dwindling pensions. This sleight-of-hand by the elites represents the epitome in the efficiency by which elites maintain their dubious position at the top of the hierarchy.