Living in the Dollar-Amount Democracy
by Okla Elliott
Depending on how cynical we are, we will admit that the US government and American culture as a whole are either mostly or entirely controlled by the heavy influence of corporations. It is no secret that we live in a market economy, and that, as the saying goes, money talks. Considering some alternatives, this is a state of affairs I can begrudgingly support—though, as a so-called ‘market socialist’ or ‘democratic socialist’ (depending on how you define those terms), I believe our system needs massive overhauling. But, in the way of -isms, I prefer (the possibilities of) our form of capitalism to outright fascism or monarchism or any form of communism that has thus far existed, and our multicultural democracy has much praiseworthy about it. I do not, however, mean to suggest that all is well in the state of the republic—not by a far, muffled cry. We have all heard of the dozens of outrages that occur monthly or weekly, to say nothing of the daily atrocities of which we never hear. What I do mean is that there’s hope in America, where there might be none in another society with a different social structure. As America becomes ever more centered around businesses, the methods of voicing our concerns change. It is no longer sufficient just to vote politically. Today, financial votes are the votes that matter most.
Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and Gore Vidal, among others, have pointed out that there is one party in American politics, the Big Business Party. Corporate interests donate huge sums of money to aid politicians in running for office. Individuals donate money as well, but there is one major difference. Individuals tend to donate to one candidate, while corporations (via PACs, lobbyists, bundlers, etc) make it a habit to donate to both candidates. Why would they do such a thing? We’re supposed to donate money to the candidate we want to win, right? Corporations don’t care who wins so long as the winning candidate owes them a favor; therefore they make both candidates indebted to them (notice, for example, how much Goldman Sachs money went to Obama and McCain in 2008; Obama got much more than McCain, since anyone with half a brainstem and one functioning eyeball knew a Democrat was a shoe-in in ’08, but they gave McCain money too, for just in case). The moral rottenness of this and the question of whether this should even be legal are topics for another day. All we’re currently concerned with is the fact that money plays a major role in the decisions made by our government officials (no matter which party they belong to), and that our government is not entirely (at all?) on the side of small businesses or the common citizenry.
So, why did I say there was hope in such a bleak state of affairs? Because we are free to purchase—and more importantly, free not to purchase—as our hearts and consciences dictate. How many people remember when the supermarkets, which are certainly major corporations, had only one shelf dedicated to organically grown foods? Now there are entire aisles, sometimes multiple aisles, populated with soymilk, vegan cheeses, organic vegetables, and countless other such products. It is not due to kindness and a sense of moral rightness that these corporations have begun harming fewer animals and using fewer toxins in their products (though many well-known problems exist still in the production practices, but every improvement is exactly that, an improvement). These corporations were taught, due to the consistent purchase of such items, that these products would sell. I ask myself: Could we someday see collections of poetry or short stories in the checkout lane? Could we have truly organic foods there? Or clothing produced by workers in third-world countries whose rights were protected just as those of the first-world are?
My point is not that these particular products are somehow better than others (though I personally believe quite strongly that they are), but rather that an engaged demand-side economics can work. Every purchase is a total affirmation of the product purchased. By purchasing any product we are saying that we agree with the methods of production, storage, transport, handling, and sale. Though I harbor hopes that my readers share certain concerns with me, it is ultimately immaterial to my argument what interests they may have. So long as they understand that every purchase is a vote of approval. By purchasing any product ranging from pornographic magazines to McDonald’s burgers to foot powder to books of poetry, the purchaser is saying—and in a language much stronger than words—that she supports the product’s continued production and distribution in the exact ways that product is being produced and distributed. Companies, individual humans, chimpanzees, dogs, and pretty much every organism in existence will be more likely to continue a behavior that is rewarded and will be less likely to continue behavior that is reprimanded. The only reward a purchaser can give manufacturers is a purchase, and the only reprimand—a refusal to buy.
In a (largely) capitalist state like the US, our votes, like everything else, cost money. The aforementioned purchasers of organically grown foods had to pay outrageous prices for these products at first. Now the prices are coming down to a more reasonable level because more people are purchasing them, and it is therefore cost effective to sell more at a lower price. This is also true of hybrid cars, which we see more of every day. The purchase of hybrid cars is more politically charged than ever, considering the current problems in the Middle East. Is it not possible that by reducing our dependency on fossil fuels that we could avoid situations such as the current “war” on terrorism, our continued support of Middle-Eastern military groups, and the eventual need to battle these groups armed with US weapons?
If at first we have to pay extra for a product we believe in, we simply have to tell ourselves that the extra sum is the cost of our vote on this matter. If shopping at a locally owned store or at a farmer’s market is slightly more expensive, or if a small press novel is more expensive than a harlequin romance, then that difference is the cost of the vote. If we want the arts to flourish, then we must support them in the only way our society recognizes, with money. Small presses, art galleries, community theatres, and locally owned businesses of every stripe go under every day in America, and usually not for lack of verbal cheerleading. There are thousands of people who bemoan that loss, but there are too few supporters and too many opportunists who want support without giving any in return. Unless we want to see the total homogenization and commercialization of our culture, then we must, to use the cliché, put our money where our mouths are.
How many nights have I listened as friends and I racked up sizable bar tabs while discussing the sad state of literature or community theatre or what-have-you, and then thought at the end of the night that we could have each subscribed to a literary journal (or three) with the money we’d wasted? Or donated the money to Oxfam? Or to progressive candidates?
Here is an incomplete list of ways we can make our money work for progress in the US and the world:
1) Invest in green companies.
2) Buy locally grown food as often as possible, preferably from small farmers.
3) Refuse to shop at chain stores or to eat at chain restaurants.
4) Donate to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is where the small handful of actually progressive Democrats group together in the House and Senate.
5) Donate to humanitarian organizations, of which there are many reliable ones, and of which many suffer from constant need of donations.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t other ways to effect change—e.g., volunteering time for campaigns or at soup kitchens or with Habitat for Humanity, and of course voting is essential, etc—but I am saying that in the final analysis, money matters so much in every action we take in the current system we have. There is no utility in pretending we don’t live in the society we do. We live in a dollar-amount democracy. We have a freedom and a power that are awesome, but that freedom and power imply a responsibility as well. Our political votes are one way to exercise our will as citizens upon our society, but more powerful, I believe, are our financial votes.
[The above piece originally appeared in a different form in Main Street Rag.]