This is a chapter from the book:
The U.S.A. — World Power Number One

II. The inner workings of American democracy

The path America followed on its way to establishing its power over the globe is marked by murder and mayhem. It allowed the nation to enjoy the blessings of freedom both at home and abroad. This freedom consists in being able to decide on every means for accumulating wealth. And that is not just true of the president of the United States, who openly calculates with threats and annihilation of other nations and also knows how to present interim solutions in the process. American citizens are themselves walking documents of democratic freedom, which on the other side of the Atlantic exists only in fascist fantasies around the regulars’ table in the pub.

While European democracies go to great lengths to cool off their citizens’ enthusiasm for the death penalty, fascist selection, and toy guns, American citizens insist on their right to lynch law, a rather unideological racism, and a gun in the closet — and their state lets them. That has shocked many a European democratic soul — wrongly. And while, in the face of state power, the democratized citizens of European nations think of their duties and regard sacrifice as the chief virtue, the American constitution calls on citizens, without any hypocrisy, to pursue happiness. That has thrilled many a European subject — likewise wrongly. The relation between state and citizens in a modern, i.e., capitalist, society actually allows for some nuances in the way rights and duties are shaped. The duties that a state imposes on its citizens depend on whether their competition suffices or needs to be curbed or steered for them to perform their duties. Conversely, the rights that dutiful citizens expect from their state depend on which preconditions for realizing their competitive plans are made available to them. This kind of thing is settled by history — which doesn’t mean that this ominous character is itself the instigator of anything.

What a democratic state allows its citizens to do, and vice versa, has, in fact, something to do with the means available for a balanced distribution of poverty and wealth: nature and mode of production — is there an old, feudalistic one to be overcome or does a new capitalistic one merely have to be introduced? American democracy corresponds to the American people exactly as European democracy corresponds to Europeans: see The Democratic State, chapter 1. It is actually a textbook example of a democracy — only slightly different from the European ones in every respect. Which is not because of the people, at any rate.

1. A free people, a sovereign state

American citizens, like no other people in the world, are unabashedly aware that the freedom they demand from their state, and that it grants them, is the violent side of, and thus the condition for, the competition they make the path to their happiness. The subjects of George Washington and his successors, like no other people in the world, therefore take it for granted that the point of a freedom-protecting monopoly on the use of force is to support those who succeed in competition. In practice, this means — ever since the days of the frontier — that citizens create the basis of their existence for themselves in private property, i.e, against each other, with all the brutality that entails. And they can be sure that only their success kindles a general interest in supporting, of all things, their pursuit of happiness. The public power, in turn, wrings every sacrifice from its subjects for the private success of the most successful Americans, and can be sure that these and only these sacrifices will also pay off for America. The political superstructure of American society was never determined by a temporary alliance and conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat forcing an existing state power to be functional for both the beneficiaries and the victims of capitalist competition, i.e., a politically led class struggle, as in Europe. Instead, this state was created by people who had left behind not only their European homeland but also their class affiliation in order to work for a new one, and henceforth wouldn't accept any other criterion distinguishing them from each other than competitive ability.

As there was no national power to overcome, they provided for the violence of this criterion by not only arming themselves — a tradition maintained to this day — but also entrusting an elected authority with the task of using its superior weapons to prevent any distortion of competition arising from resistance on the part of the “losers,” be they ‘redskins’ or ‘blue collars.’

The sovereign power based on this will to compete exerts its sovereignty accordingly by handing this will back to its citizens as a command. Either they increase the wealth and power of the nation by being successful themselves — in which case they can count on every kind of government assistance for their plans — or they fail, and will consequently be treated by the state as failures detrimental to itself. In that case, sovereignty means a sovereign disregard for poverty. Poverty, firstly, doesn't count and, secondly, therefore definitely counts negative whenever it shows itself as a disruptive factor. The world’s freest democracy shows no mercy when it comes to state terror against rebelling “fringe groups,” and reacting to “ghetto unrest” by implementing social programs rather than sending the National Guard is only an idea a few philanthropists get.

On the other hand, this public power does not compromise its sovereignty whatsoever by becoming so intimate with wealth that it takes advice for all its policies from the managers of this wealth, officially celebrating this as a ‘hearing.’ The state’s will for the growth of private wealth never needs to be translated into an ideal of public welfare. People approve of the fact that the state’s and the private interest in business are only distinguished formally, and neither side sees any need to be hypocritical about it (except in a way that is recognizable to everyone, and can be expanded to the point of piety!) A bribable senator is not a bad senator, and a registered lobbyist is an honorable advisor.

2. Americans and law

This sovereignty leaves its mark on the state’s dealings with its subjects even in their legal form. The American state does not handle the procedural rules of competition it issues, civil law, all too dogmatically or bureaucratically and restrictively, but rather more as an offer to its citizens to make use of its power for their disputes — according to their personal influence on the election and reelection of judges and prosecutors and, above all, according to the skill of their own lawyers in using whatever works against the other side. Citizens who can afford to take up this offer with prospects of success readily do so. For them, the law is from the start more than mere protection from infringements: they use it offensively as a means of asserting their interests against others, if possible to the point of legalistically ruining their competitors. It is no accident that Americans, in their handling of Anglo-Saxon ‘case law,’ discovered that not only lost limbs but also all kinds of “mental” suffering — starting with the nasty tricks of a spouse up to otherwise not legally contestable machinations of business partners and competitors — can be quantified in dollars and, provided one finds the right judge, pay great dividends. In the U.S., the ambiguity of the sentence, ‘He who wins the case is (in the) right,’ has attained perfection. Every lawsuit is a test of how useful the law is.

What’s good for civil law is good for criminal law. A state whose sovereignty consists primarily in commanding its citizens to go at each other tooth and nail in competition is also pragmatic in its treatment of the logical transition to crime. It is extremely severe when the insolence of poverty gets in the way, and shows little legal idealism in cases where the magnitude of success has made illegality right. After all, it can’t be a coincidence that the Mafia is just as much at home in New York as in southern Italy, exactly the opposite pole in the spectrum of constitutional lifestyles. The legal profession is not familiar even with the ideal of dutifully cooperating to reach a verdict; and government prosecutors want to be elected every now and then…

As far as public law is concerned, the days of the — aptly named — “Roaring Twenties” are surely over, when entire cities changed hands as a result of gang wars and all police stations also changed their personnel at the same time. But public administration is still far from being a sphere of bureaucratic high-handedness: whatever happens anywhere in the country inevitably bears the stamp of the firm whose success supports the life of the region. The individual states handle the law in a free, pragmatic way: they even stoop to competing with their citizens over the law; a special department of administrative jurisdiction would only be detrimental to successfully applying the law.

3. Ideal collective capitalist

When even in its legal system a state handles its sovereign power as a means for competing individuals, quite purposefully in accordance with their competitive success, then its regulating, helping and healing policies for the classes logically enough also turn out to be less problematic than in states that the proletariat had to wring its democratic liberties from, and which therefore can never shake off the appearance of promising a happy ending to its class struggle.

From the beginning, the American state fulfilled the ideal of being a virtual collective capitalist insofar as it never had any concern other than forcibly guaranteeing the success of capitalism's development. Whatever was needed to establish the right kind of national unity; push expansion; open up every nook and cranny of the fully-grown and finally united country to be thoroughly seized by capital; promote the concentration of capital to the point of real economic warfare within the country; allow the proper doses of suitable laborers to enter the country, and put a stop to militant acts of labor: all that was carried out by this state without hesitation and without nit-picking. In the process, it always paid careful attention to where private business acumen could romp when it came to developing infrastructure and the public service sector. It always stood by speculative big business enterprises, like railroad construction clear across the continent, with loans and concessions for the necessary land appropriation, without reflecting on any national economic benefit other than that already being realized by the competition of speculators. And when the fairly predictable bankruptcy of, for example, this very railroad system falls back on the state and the nation’s economy does require it to be rescued, the state doesn’t establish a federal railway (as in Germany) but launches new corporations whose profits can be speculated on by the public again, at least on a small scale. The state has never regarded things like the national telephone network or holding Olympic Games as its natural domain; and it would love nothing better than to turn New York City into a private enterprise if only there were prospective buyers.

The fact that it, on the other hand, occasionally confronts its national capital, especially the most gigantic conglomerates of it, with more rigid laws than are usual in European democracies by no means conflicts with its concern for the success of private business. Even when they are not meant that way, its restraints concerning products have the sole economic function of giving big capital the opportunity to use its size effectively against the competition — above all foreign competition. Significantly, antitrust legislation, alongside loan guarantees, is traditionally the most important state intervention in free business life, supporting as it does the ideal of lively competition without setting limits on the concentration of wealth in a few hands, which is the result of and most important condition for further competitive success and accelerated growth. In practice, this legislation pointed large companies toward the more promising growth path of diversification, compared to monopoly in a single line of business, thereby helping to produce today’s capital giants. It is also no coincidence that the Sherman Antitrust Act, enacted to combat the overwhelming superiority of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, was first actually applied against the “abuse of monopoly power” — by a trade union.

Enforcing legal restraints is generally up to a sort of government agency that takes its supervisory task, no doubt correctly, to be the mission of establishing a good partnership with its “customers.” An example was the really excellent cooperation between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For the sake of simplicity, it is not unusual to make use of a personal union of the two “parties”; the American central bank, the Federal Reserve System, is a case in point. Moreover, federalism, by arranging that the individual states are responsible for shaping their own economic laws, ensures that government restrictions are carefully coordinated with the particular regional needs of capital — and that, conversely, investment-ready U.S. capital meets with a lively competition between the individual states of its own country over the terms most favorable for investment, and accordingly fine opportunities for comparison.

As for Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was in its time judged to be a revolutionary idea for overcoming the consequences of a global economic crisis, and is still today interpreted rather freely as a departure from economic liberalism although it already betrays its ideal in its name. The cards were to be dealt out again for the game, guess which one, to go on. The New Deal did not by any means set a state-managed economic sector against, or alongside, the sphere of competition. Instead, a very temporary, project-specific work relief was organized as a welfare program for the unemployed and used — until the war started and made welfare superfluous — to create all sorts of infrastructure in areas where there was really nothing left to speculate on.

The rightly famous Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was founded at that time, which very cheaply restored a river valley devastated by over-exploitation of forest lands, so that today the Aluminum Company of America located there has a nice shipping route and the necessary power plants. In return, the TVA found itself exposed to the fiercest attacks by big business against such a communist assault on entrepreneurial liberties. And President Nixon’s idea to deal with the “stagflation” resulting from the Vietnam War by means of wage and price controls — an administrative intervention in the results of competition that expressly refrained from influencing its course in any way — left virtually no trace on American economic life because nobody complied. The supervisory authority was of the kind described above. Regulation is a mortal sin for this state anyway, and — once it has had to commit it — it confesses and atones with deregulation bills.

4. The working class: welfare state, unions, …

The U.S. pursues social policy the way an ideal virtual collective capitalist should: not very much. The state doesn't do business with compulsory levies from its citizens, but rather private firms make profits from entirely voluntary contributions with which the policy holders themselves determine their subsistence level in case of need. The compulsory social insurance that has existed since Roosevelt consists for one thing of individual state funds to support the unemployed, whose administrators feel more obliged to make concessions to the firms nominally liable for payment than to provide for those potentially laid-off, never mind for the masses who have never found a job. For another thing, since then there has been a universal, forced saving for old age, which gives the state an overview of its subjects — now they all have insurance numbers — but doesn’t give them much of a livelihood when they’re old, which is why employer's pension schemes and insurance companies still do business on a quite different scale than in the motherland of Bismarck’s social legislation. The inevitable victims of working life are a burden on local social assistance, which isn’t overly generous, either, as well as on private charity, which is a wonderful moral adornment to match the rat race.

These ways of falling back on ancient forms of pauperism and its management are not the least bit backward, as European welfare-state fans like to claim. After all, we are not talking about a developing country that is neither able nor willing to indulge in such “luxurious” incidental expenses of its rule, but rather the most developed democracy on earth, which regards its citizens as mature enough to finance the vicissitudes of capitalist competition on their own, even when they can’t.

Accordingly, a job-blessed American citizen, up to the second world war, was handed a comparatively fatter pay envelope — the cost-saving withholding of taxes on wages ‘at the source’ was also unknown in the land of free and equal citizens — but he didn't have much of an opportunity to enjoy it. Without payroll accountants transferring money directly to the tax office, it was still necessary to pay income tax, and not just that. A real American understands exactly what is intended by the state arranging his private finances this way: it is the command that he cope with the risks, burdens, and setbacks of living by exerting himself all the harder. And this command is sure to be obeyed by the masses — even when competition will not secure an American prole's livelihood any more than any other nation’s.

At any rate, U.S. trade unions do not, as their European counterparts used to, supplement the competition of wage workers with a union that insists on compensation, alongside their competition, for the damage workers incur by competing, and thereby pursue the ideal of a secure proletarian existence. Instead, they supplement the competition of individuals with a collective competition of variously defined groups of employees, thereby insisting that wage labor be carried out properly as competition — as if this were not already ensured by the wage forms! — and that their own members can expect a success that is at least comparatively a success: in comparison with other unions, other workforces, other occupational groups, above all unskilled workers, and colored people for sure. And as befits America, for a minority of people this comparison is actually more than just a hope. The ideology of rising within the class has some basis in fact there.

Those who are on the wrong side of this comparison end up with no union and no rosy prospects. As workers, they can always be replaced by others from the army of unemployed. Transitions to violence, made in the early days by radical minority unions, more recently by militant nonwhite organizations, are crushed by the state with the same sort of brutality once employed against the resistance of the Indians. Somehow they are both the same sort of obstacle to enforcing the American equation of law, success, and violence. Apart from that, organized crime as a side-path to individual success in this society of merciless competition has a history just as honorable as alcoholism's — in fact pretty much the same one since Prohibition. And after students made light drugs popular as a sphere of chimerical pleasure, regarding their consciousness — quite in the American way — as something that can be done without, a real intoxication by means of hard narcotics became established among paupers as an aid to dying for people who will never see any success anyway.

— Of course, “problem groups” can also go to the polls (blacks in the southern states can even vote nowadays without immediate danger to life and limb). That is, if they find it worth the trouble of allowing themselves to be convinced of the couple of meager welfare-state ideals that one or another of the candidates for office (all industry- and union-sponsored) will definitely keep presenting.

5. Elections

It has always been taken for granted in the free world’s leading democracy that election campaigns, right up to the presidential election, can be nothing but advertising campaigns for certain figures whose electoral victory will advantage one or another financially strong interest group. A public power whose sovereignty is at work removing all obstacles facing those who succeed in competition doesn’t tolerate any competition of ideologies or ideologically defined agendas over how its power should best be handled. It also has no need for the specifically European hypocrisy according to which all the highest values of the nation depend on its leading character masks. The American state is, quite pragmatically, out to profit the strongest coalitions at any given time and thus be run by people who personally offer certain guarantees for the corresponding success. So what could be more obvious than to make elections sheer tests of the candidates’ ability to assert themselves in the “political arena”? And it has to be considered a stroke of genius to double the electoral process: whoever wants to be president first has to prove himself as a virtuoso in the art of democracy in the ‘primaries.’ He has to win trust in his suitability to be the top boss of the public power and — somehow or other — get the support of financiers and voters, i.e., lure them away from his competitors. And luring them away is by no means the path to power that one is ashamed to admit, but rather the best publicity to prove one is really suitable for the highest office. Only someone who prevails here will be credible enough to be offered to the nation for the crucial election as the successful achiever who promises to most completely satisfy the criterion of political life, that of success, in the highest office in the future. Other arguments are made in election campaigns only to emphasize this argument. And parties exist solely as electioneering machines — therefore, as political organizations acting nationwide, only once every four years. They don’t campaign for themselves as organs of power, much less cite ideologically paraphrased class interests, as parties in classical, i.e., less developed, democracies insist on doing with their “debates on fundamental values.” Instead, they seek to talk any competing interest group they can find into risking a certain stake on the success of their particular candidate.

Whoever achieves electoral success then possesses it completely. The bureaucratic machinery is largely at his disposal for rewarding his campaign activists, and of course public finances too, to make his sponsors’ business calculation work out. The powers of a U.S. president altogether extend far beyond those of other democratic leaders. The real sovereignty of the head of state, i.e., the personified emancipation of the public power from its citizens’ interests, has progressed here even further than in other democracies due to the very fact that he is bound to nothing but his own success. This naturally has another side to it: he is prevented from the beginning from misunderstanding presidential sovereignty as entitling him to go against the interests of capital and its bourgeoisie by rivals for his power — above all potential presidential candidates from his own party! — never resting, only lying in wait for the president to even only seem to violate the basic equation, ‘success of the president = success of the nation = success of the nation’s business,’ when they will immediately get their own election propaganda machinery rolling.

6. Civic duty and nationalism

Traditionally, about half of the citizens of the U.S. go to the polls when a president or anything else special is up for grabs; the other half don’t bother. By doing so, both halves show what the politicization of the American citizen looks like.

No one in the U.S. makes an issue about a voter turnout that any other democratic state would be ashamed of. No one makes out a “political vacuum” that a new political party could successfully penetrate, and above all no one fears American democracy might be weak or actually threatened. The low voter turnout is in fact democratically quite right, because the public power in this real model democracy acts so purely as a helper of competition, and the common good coincides so directly and unabashedly with the success of the “capable.” So the highest democratic maturity is not demonstrated by the kind of citizen who constantly reflects on the state while he is competing, who might even critically consider whether the public power is giving him too little (and everyone else much too much) protection from the damage and hazards of competition; who might end up devising alternative political parties, and in any case somehow feels his vote is deciding what the state will actually do. Instead, being properly politicized means being wrapped up in competing, regarding one’s efforts to achieve some success for oneself as the best way of fulfilling one’s civic duty, and finding parties utterly unimportant and voting not terribly important either, since one’s highest good, freedom, will definitely always be in the best hands with any government. A good American doesn’t need to celebrate an act of voting seeming to make the public power dependent on his interests, because he only bears up to the general “pursuit of happiness” by translating every last bit of his materialism into the fanaticism of competition, thereby already following the command of his highest powers of his own free will. The good U.S. citizen answers as a private individual for the brutal equation: his material interests are unconditionally recognized = but only in the form of the unconditional will to exploit the laws of private property for himself, i.e., to prove his right to a little prosperity by making himself useful in competition. And he doesn't embarrass easily: even the intimacies of family life are turned over to neighborly examination from this point of view — in freedom, without any need for Nazi block warden spies.

The nationalism of the good American is thus characterized by its specifically private character. Since the “pursuit of happiness” is a national command, and obeying it, i.e., wanting success in competition, has become second, if not first, nature to the citizen, there is no barrier between an individual's participating in national egoism and a citizen's. One might not bother with voting, but one definitely celebrates Thanksgiving Day, even if, as an individual, one has nothing to give thanks for and nobody to thank. If one does go to the polls, the only question one amuses oneself with is: which candidate best embodies as a private person that supreme egoism that all competing citizens agree about, the unconditional egoism of the nation, which is unclouded by any higher point of view and therefore always pious? And when any harm is done to American greatness somewhere in the world, a good Yank doesn’t just rely on his government to straighten things out, even though he has certainly made it strong enough to do that. No, he also takes to the streets himself — not like the “fanatical Islamic mob” in Tehran, of course, who detain a few dozen U.S. citizens in their embassy in order to extort extradition of the Shah to face justice at home. Instead, he takes to task the first demonstrating Iranian he sees and beats him into realizing that a Yank loves his nation.

The love of a good U.S. citizen for his nation is necessarily a happy one insofar as it is not carried (and plagued) by defiance and weakness, but filled with the arrogance of imperialist success. With this love, such a person really makes the global power of his state his very own private concern — fulfilling the boldest dreams of fascism, which for that reason is never needed as a form of rule in that country.