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On Elections and the Sources of Real Political Power

by Dennis Loo

Contrary to most people’s understanding, real political power does not principally exist either by the vehicle of voting or through the publicly displayed actions of the existing political institutions such as Congress and the White House. 

Real political power actually rests upon two bases: coercion and legitimacy. The nature and features of the official political institutions are fundamentally irrelevant to this. As the sociologist Max Weber put it, political power is a monopoly over the legitimate means of violence. The hard core of political power, in other words, as I put it in Globalization and the Demolition of Society, is coercion, not the consent of the governed.

Why is violence so critical to political power?

In order to have political power you must have the ability to get people to do what they don’t want to do. If you don’t have the ability to get people to do what you want them to do, even against their resistance, then you do not have political power. The difference between the mafia and others such as rapists and robbers who use violence to get their way and the government that also uses coercion is that the government is widely perceived as having the legitimate right to use force whereas the mafia and other criminals do not.

What Weber did not analyze or discuss are the circumstances under which a government’s monopoly over the legitimate means of violence is called into question by a sufficiently large number of people in the country. As is apparent from popular struggles that are currently underway in the world (e.g., in Syria, Egypt, and the U.S. in the Occupy Movement v. the government), when the right of the government to use force is widely questioned, then government’s right to rule is actually what is being questioned in the ultimate analysis.

By contrast to this perspective, official bodies of political rule such as the judicial, legislative, and executive branches are merely the outer shell of political power. The people who exercise political power are in part those who are public officials, but the manner in which decisions are made is not the equivalent of the show votes and the public statements of those in office about why they are doing what they are doing.

When a vote is taken in a legislative body, for example, the vote’s outcome is almost always already known before the vote is taken. The legislative leadership would not put the matter up to a vote of the whole body unless and until it knows what the outcome will be. If the legislative leadership doesn’t want a measure to come to a vote and even if the issue would pass if allowed to come to a vote, then they simply pigeonhole the measure in committee and block it from coming to a vote by the whole chamber or even a vote within the subcommittee itself. Popularity, in other words, isn’t what decides whether something is passed or not, even among the legislators themselves. The Speaker of the House has the power, for instance, to single-handedly block something from being considered. This is how Nancy Pelosi prevented impeachment articles against Bush and Cheney from being considered in Congress even though a plurality of Americans favored just that.

As I discuss in Globalization and the Demolition of Society, another way that this exercise of authority is evident is through decisions about who gets to be considered a “legitimate” candidate for public office. If they had no other authority but this, the ability to decide who will get the backing of the party and who will get a chance to be in the major debates during the campaign are enough to determine the outcome of the elections. If you can decide who the finalists will be, then all you have to do is make sure that the finalists (e.g., the Democratic and Republican nominees) are both within the parameters of what you as a member of the 1% will accept and you thereby get your way. Dennis Kucinich’s presidential platform for the 2008 election more closely matched what the majority of public wanted so if the leading candidates were decided by popularity among the public, he would have been the leading contender instead of treated as a “marginal” candidate. Wall Street, by contrast, favored candidate Obama, giving him even more money then they gave McCain. The 1%, in other words, knew who to put their money on and who to rely upon to protect their interests.

This underscores the fact that appearances – what one looks like, how one sounds, and how a candidate tailors their message to be most appealing to the social base they’re seeking the votes from among the electorate – are not what you should use to judge candidates or how you should judge anything at all. As I argue in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

Obama’s campaign pledge [was] that he would restore habeas corpus because holding innocents is “not what we do.” In his [May 21, 2009] National Archives speech, Obama hastened to add that the decision to hold someone who has not been found guilty of any crimes should not be the action of the executive branch alone and that detention should not be open ended. “That’s why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we do not make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.” How does one square abridging habeas corpus with ensuring you are “in line with the rule of law?” How do you have “lawful standards” when you are breaking the law itself to establish said standards?

This outcome was actually predictable.

First, as I have been arguing in this book, neoliberal policies have been ascendant and dominant, and both major political parties in the US operate within the overall parameters and logic of that ideology.

Second, public policy and especially public policy shifts are not ever carried out successfully by individual leaders, no matter how powerfully placed. They require movements and they require institutional support. This is true from the top of the political system and it is also true from the grassroots or from any other social or economic stratum. The widespread notion that electing a particular individual to high office will produce anything more than superficial changes reveals a lack of understanding of how politics actually operate.

Third, the elevation of an individual to the status of a viable, “legitimate,” and “electable” candidate cannot occur absent the backing of powerful organizational and institutional forces that are by their nature key players in the status quo.

Fourth, promises that public officials make are not immune from evaluation to determine what they actually intend; one does not have to wait and see until after they take office. We can, with proper analytical tools, decipher what these public officials’ promises and pronouncements really mean before they take office.

As I wrote in June 2008, after Obama was nominated: “How can the same system, and the same specific individuals, who have cooperated in, permitted and/or legalized the outrageous and profound crimes of the Bush regime – including torture and war crimes – now tell us that the candidate that they endorse is the solution to the monstrous things that this system and these individuals have themselves allowed and colluded in?”[i]

Some folks still think, nonetheless, that they would rather have a Democrat in office than a Republican. There are also those who put their faith in a third party. I am going to talk about both of these ideas now.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote very recently in commenting on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012’s passage by Congress, these measures that annihilate due process and the rule of law have passed with the active assistance of the Democratic Party and the votes of some of Congress’ stalwart “progressives.” Without their assistance, these measures would have been defeated:

Every GOP Senator (except Rand Paul and Mark Kirk) voted against the Udall amendment, while just enough Democrats – 16 in total — joined the GOP to ensure passage of Levin/McCain. That includes such progressive stalwarts as Debbie Stabenow, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeanne Shaheen and its lead sponsor, Carl Levin.

I’ve described this little scam before as “Villain Rotation”: “They always have a handful of Democratic Senators announce that they will be the ones to deviate this time from the ostensible party position and impede success, but the designated Villain constantly shifts, so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it.” This has happened with countless votes that are supposed manifestations of right-wing radicalism but that pass because an always-changing roster of Democrats ensure they have the support needed. So here is the Democratic Party — led by its senior progressive National Security expert, Carl Levin, and joined by just enough of its members — joining the GOP to ensure that this bill passes, and that the U.S. Government remains vested with War on Terror powers and even expands that war in some critical respects.

 With regards to what Greenwald calls “Villain Rotation” I wrote an article on September 8, 2008 [reposted at World Can’t Wait on September 12] entitled “To Those Who Put Their Faith in Progressive Democrats and Obama” that exposes the same kind of behavior as these Congressional “progressives” in their actions prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention and Obama’s actions suggesting that Bush should launch drones upon Pakistan. The article is well worth reading and is hard to excerpt from without leaving out the full flavor of what was going on and what it reveals. The upshot of it is, however, that reliance upon the more liberal elements of the existing political apparatus is a losing strategy. It’s a losing strategy because the liberal or even radical versus conservative/reactionary spectrum isn’t how public policy is shaped because it is based on an incorrect understanding of how political power is actually exercised.

That is why even if a third party were able to win the White House and a majority in Congress the situation would not really change.  

Consider a scenario in which socialist politicians, constituting a majority, are elected to office in the US but with no mass movement present other than the one that funneled people into an electoral solution. In such a scenario, the president would also be one of the lefties, given the preponderance of public opinion that produced a legislative socialist majority. What impact would this have on the economic and political landscape of the US? What might we expect to happen? For one thing, the political system would now be dominated by politics at odds with the current economic organization and institutions. What would happen if this political system, now dominated by socialists, moved to curb the extant huge disparities of economic power?

During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration (his White House was not even remotely socialist but it did carry out reforms), prominent economic elites actually plotted a military coup modeled after Germany and Italy’s fascist regimes. As Alan Nasser relates, based on the recent release of data from the National Archives,

The owners of Bird’s Eye, Maxwell House and Heinz, among others, totaling about twenty four major businessmen and Wall Street financiers [“including Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush’s father. Bush, along with many other big businessmen, had maintained friendly relations in 1933 and 1934 with the new German government of Chancellor Adolph Hitler, and was designated to form for his class conspirators a working relationship with that government”] planned to assemble a private army of half a million men, composed largely of unemployed veterans. These troops would both constitute the armed force behind the coup and defeat any resistance this in-house revolution might generate. The economic elite would provide the material resources required to sustain the new government.

The plotters hoped that widespread working-class discouragement at the stubborn persistence of the Great Depression would have sufficiently disenchanted the masses with FDR’s policies to make the coup an easy ride. And they were appalled at Roosevelt’s willingness after 1933 to initiate economic policies that economists and businessmen considered dangerously Leftist departures from economic orthodoxy. Only a fascist-style government, they thought, could enforce the kind of economic “discipline” that would reverse the Great Depression and restore profits.

Interestingly, it was a military man, a prominent retired general assigned the task of raising the 500,000-man army, who blew the whistle after pondering the grotesque implications of the undemocratic installation of a fascist dictatorship in Washington. FDR was thus able to nip the plot in the bud.[ii]

Nasser notes that FDR declined to reveal the plot publicly and punish the fascist coup conspirators, despite their treasonous plans, out of class solidarity and concerns that if the plotters were broadly exposed it would produce a victory—at a particularly sensitive time—for anti-capitalist sentiment. The coup’s failure, it should be noted, turned on the decision of just one man—the general who was picked to lead the coup.[iii] The conspirators themselves, key figures of this country’s economic elite, cheerleaders at every opportunity for “freedom,” “democracy,” and “the American way of life,” were not at all reluctant, when their fortunes appeared to be even mildly attenuated, to override the putatively sacred principles of what America claims to be all about.

In Chile in 1970, a socialist president, Dr. Salvador Allende, was elected—the first Marxist to assume power through the electoral process. Allende proceeded to nationalize industries that had previously been dominated by foreign businesses. The US government in conjunction with multinationals such as Anaconda Copper conspired to overthrow the Allende government. The coup’s approach in the weeks and months before it happened on September 11, 1973, was apparent to everyone in Chile. The masses demanded of Allende that they be armed in order to defend the government and to have a chance to fight off the coup. Allende wavered and ended up staking his hopes on the military upholding the Constitution, declaring repeatedly in public pronouncements that the army was “patriotic” and would not participate in a coup. Why would he do this when it was clear that this was foolish in the extreme? To a significant extent, Allende did so because he adhered to the USSR’s political line—securing a compromise with the US imperialists for a piece of the action, but not a genuine revolution. Allende and thousands of Chileans paid for this halfway version of socialism with their lives.

This highlights a critical point. In Mao’s pithy phrase: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Or, as one American Congressional member in 2007 said candidly when asked by some of his constituents why he was not moving to impeach Bush and Cheney: “They have the guns.”[iv]

Any serious attempt at structural and dramatic political change must confront this reality. You can elect all of the sympathetic politicians you want, but if you do not command the coercive apparatus, you will lose the (political and economic) war sooner or later. A gun placed against one’s temple, after all, makes a very persuasive argument. An amply equipped and trained military force facing a larger, unarmed, untrained, and relatively unorganized mass assemblage nearly always carries the day. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 245-247)

Having said all of this, let me conclude that this reality of the real nature of political power does not mean that there is nothing that can be done. Quite the contrary. If you realize that the monopoly over the use of legitimate violence is what makes up the essence of political power then you realize that the word “legitimate” in the phrase is key, more important than violence itself. Movements that expose the illegitimacy of both political parties, democratic theory’s central premises (which I elaborate upon at length in my book, especially in Chapter Five), the values in charge now and the organization of society and the economy under capitalist rule, and their warped priorities (a product of the logic of that very system) such as Occupy are very powerful. As the Republican pollster Frank Luntz very recently admitted, “[I’m] scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death.” He warned that the movement is “having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism." 

Frightening the 1% to death is what Occupy is doing. And it has done so within the space of two months or so.

How much farther is it possible for movements like Occupy to go? That is why authorities resorted to violence to evict them from the encampments – because the authorities cannot tolerate the ongoing exposure of their bankrupt measures.

The story is still to be told and is being written as we speak… 


[i]Dennis Loo, “Of Whales and Worms,” Counterpunch.org, June 16, 2008, http://www.counterpunch.org/loo06162008.html, accessed June 16, 2008.

[ii] Nasser, Alan, “The Threat of U.S. Fascism: An Historical Precedent,” Commondreams.org, August 2, 2007, http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/08/02/2933/, accessed July 10, 2009.

[iii] This was U.S. Marine Major General Smedley Butler, who stated in a 1933 speech: “I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. . . .  And during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. . . . I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. . . . Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents. . . .” From “War Is A Racket,” twf.org, September 11, 2001, http://www.twf.org/News/Y2001/0911-Racket.html, accessed February 14, 2011. 

[iv] Two individuals who spoke to the quoted representative in his office related this to me in person.

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