The Cambridge Candle


Issue 2

January/February 1999


UnderLying Assumptions

When the Power is Illegitimate

By Jay Scheide

The first incarnation of this column attempted to trace -- briefly, but I hope clearly -- key elements of "the big picture" of American society without which any understanding of Cambridge and environs can proceed only with great difficulty. Because it was so brief, and because it painted a picture so drastically at odds with the one Americans have been spoon-fed, it still needs plenty of filling in. After this I will draw direct connections to local issues, especially ones involving the media.

If there is one thing to be emphasized for anyone who wants to understand the social order, it is this: most of the significant power in this society was acquired illegitimately.

•  This is true of corporate power, so dominant today, acquired in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th through judicial activism -- judges under the sway of corporations reversing controls imposed by legislatures over the protests of most of the public (funnily enough led by conservatives); strengthened by brutal suppression of labor, generally with the help of the state; and provided with a sealant of near-invulnerability by the rise in the 1920s of the public relations industry, so that questioning -- or even mentioning -- corporate domination is simply not permitted in "respectable" conversation.

•  This is also true of large private wealth (what one would call "fortunes") acquired as it has been mostly by corporate exploitation of labor.

•  It is also true of most state power, controlled as it is by small privileged sectors who have co-opted democracy and essentially bought off the elected representation. No one who has honestly researched this can doubt that our much admired democratic forms contain far more fakery than real substance, or doubt the dizzily corrupt nature of public affairs. (1)

Among the things that follow from this central fact is that knowledge of this illegitimacy and fundamental injustice must inform all of the organizing and political activities of anybody who really wants to work for a just society. Thus, when we are on our knees begging Beacon Hill to do something about the people just thrown into poverty or worse by the clanging down of the irons of welfare reform, we are asking the illegitimate rulers to put some benevolence into their despotism, which is obviously a worthy thing to do. But we must be careful in demanding this reduction in suffering that we not miss any opportunity to throw that despotism into question, and above all not to do actual harm by granting our approval to unjust authority.

One of the points that liberals in particular generally overlook is that in our plutocratic system, it is wealthy people who decide where the resources go. So, for example, charities obviously depend on people with big bucks who therefore determine by their choice of charity where resources are allocated -- the control is theirs. In a more just society, one with even a vestige of economic democracy, significant decision-making would not be allowed merely on the basis of one’s ability and/or luck plus inclination to exploit other people materially, all this on no other rationale than capitalist dogma, raised virtually to the level of theology.

And then the liberals feel so very good about themselves giving to charities, never stopping to think that poor people would have more real dignity if decisions were made by them and not imposed, even aside from other benefits of real democracy.

I do not think it is going too far to say, when a tragedy occurs, such as a 12-year-old opening fire on classmates in Arkansas, or a post office worker going on a shooting spree in Oklahoma or wherever, that these are chickens coming home to roost; that, to a frightening degree, although it is primarily only on the subconscious, subliminal, and intuitive level, people of all ages feel in their bones -- and resent like hell -- society’s profound injustices (see the poll results below), and feel the helplessness of having no one to turn to, since no one they know will break the unwritten rule against speaking about unjust privilege, or about being ruled by "the man" under the supposedly unalterable system. Of course, people such as these may have had a genetic predisposition towards psychopathic behavior, but it is more than obvious that psychopathic aspects of the system, especially since they could probably be changed more easily -- and would help vast numbers of people -- are much more worth focusing on than individual psychoses.

Speaking of illnesses, do not doubt for a second that any society that would even consider (to take one of the most obvious travesties) having people rely on health care providers whose central driving force is profit-taking -- not your health and mine -- is deeply sick.

In conclusion, I want to bring out one more critical point. Despite the daunting nature of The System In Our Time, there is much reason for hope, and for believing that system to be not nearly as strong as it might appear. According to a 1996 Business Week poll, 95% of the public feel that corporations ought to reduce profit for the benefit of workers and of the public. Seventy percent think business should have less power.(2) Harris polls regularly show that over 80% think the economic system is inherently unfair. So, despite the great power of corporate propaganda, deep resistance is clearly there, waiting for people like you and me to share common cause with. An obvious goal would be to bring into being widespread acceptance of what even Adam Smith (patron saint of "free-market" ideologues) postulated as a minimal goal of civilization: to enable free creative work under one’s own control, i.e., not under what in the 19th century was commonly called wage slavery, but rather real democracy that includes the crucial realm of economics. Then along the way will come the end of the system of corporate domination, and every bit we can do to reduce the suffering now ought to move us toward that end.

Before I sign off, I must share my favorite quote of 1998: Former Chief of Staff (under Clinton) Leon Panetta, sometime in midyear on (I think) CNN: "There’s no one who, when they are telling the truth, is more credible than Bill Clinton." (Italics mine.)

Along the same lines, let me leave y’all with a final holiday thought, about as cheerful as I can make it. At least, after all we have been through, there is this one piece of solace: it will be very difficult for anyone, ever, to say with a straight face that Bill Clinton was a seminal figure of our age.


(1) To study this whole issue, a good start might be Taking the Risk out of Democracy by Alex Carey (U. of Illinois Press, 1995). Also, any of the recent socio-political books of Noam Chomsky.

(2) Business Week, February 19, 1996.

1999 © Cambridge Newsgroup, Inc. All rights reserved.