Politics as Rich Man’s Sport

Even with the 2012 general election more than a year down the road, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, “campaign finance reform advocates [are] in agreement in offering a forecast of big money in the 2012 election cycle.”

CRP’s Open Secrets blog quotes the Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee as saying, “People … realize that he who pays the piper calls the tune.” During last year’s midterm elections, spending by outside groups on “electioneering communications, independent expenditures and communication costs” totaled $304 million.

All of that may seem imply that money itself, imbued with some supernatural quality of evil, poisons the entire political/public policy well. But “money,” at least within the campaign finance reform debate, is in fact short for influence, a fact that gives away the true, underlying problem with the political system today.

Judging from the terms of the debate, we’re all supposed to implicitly recognize that politicians are corrupt to the bone, susceptible to purchase and sale like the judges and politicians Don Corleone carried in his pocket. Nevertheless, despite both this acknowledged fact and all of the eager cries for reform, for preventing corporate greed from shaping public policy, no one ever questions the hallowed assumption that we need people in positions of power and influence at all.

The idea is that it’s quite reasonable to allow a few people the positions and authority to make the rules for everyone else — but that the only way it can “work” is if they are angelically objective, insulated from the leverage of the rich. It’s accepted as an article of faith that if we could only find the right formula, an acceptable number of dollars and the right channels to run them through, we could allow our Beltway philosopher-kings to do their jobs free from the debauching sway of the root of all evil.

So the contributions of the rich — by ultimately granting them too much power over people’s lives — become a problem, but power over people’s lives? Well, that’s no problem. It is frankly quixotic to believe (as both wings of the establishment do) that we could found an institution, controlled by a small minority, with the power to use force against society at large, and then prevent that institution it from using its power to benefit the powerful.

Newsflash: There’s not. The state itself is bought and paid for, and our corporate bosses are its owners. I’m immediately reminded of an especially insightful cartoon by gifted free culture champion Nina Paley, depicting a characteristically humorous exchange between Mimi and Eunice.

Mimi wails that “corporations own the government,” with Eunice matter-of-factly replying that “they need to be regulated.” Mimi’s follow up, “By whom?” prompts Eunice to exclaim, in a purely reflex reaction, “The government!” In just a few words and three panels, Paley’s cartoon encapsulates the utter ridiculousness of the notion that state power would protect us from corporate power.

And the cartoon is especially apt with regard to the campaign finance reform debate. As Anthony Gregory wrote back in 2004, “How anyone could believe that corrupt politicians could or would legislate away their own corruption is completely beyond me.”

At the risk of spoiling the ending, the full range of anodyne, bipartisan attempts to counter plutocratic influence are unlikely to succeed at much more than providing politicians with good photo ops. The connection between money and politics is inherent, something that can’t be exorcised by any amount of halfhearted legislation.

The solution is to remove the state from societal decision-making altogether, allowing peaceful, consensual alternatives to hierarchy and authority to make up the “governing” of society. If we think that money and privilege shouldn’t rate special rights, then we shouldn’t think that we need the state at all.

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