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The New American Plutocracy

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 4.


Plutocracy: (1) government by the wealthy, (2) a controlling class of the wealthy. From the Greek ploutokratia, from ploutos, wealth, and kratia, advocate of a form of government.

I am deeply troubled by the fact that in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections there is little or no debate on what I consider to be a central issue for the American future: the emergence of a new and powerful plutocracy wedded to corporate power. Regrettably, none of the major candidates will deign to even discuss this vital question. Only Ralph Nader has identified it. But he has largely been ignored or parodied by the mass media. Typically, Paul Krugman, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has ridiculed Nader precisely for his attacks on "corporate power." Senator John McCain did raise the issue of the special interests and soft money corrupting the political process. But he has been rebuffed and has climbed into the same bed with Bush. Many do not consider Nader to be a viable candidate, for the Green Party does not represent an effective political coalition. Neither Free Inquiry nor the Council for Secular Humanism can endorse political candidates, but this should not preclude me from presenting my own personal views about the deeper humanist issues at stake.

A plutocracy is defined as "government by the wealthy." The critical question that should concern us is whether the United States is already a plutocracy, and what can be done to limit its power. This question, unfortunately, will not be taken seriously by most voters-but it damned well ought to be.

Ancient Greek democracy lasted only a century; the Roman republic survived for four, though it was increasingly weakened as time went on. As America enters its third century we may well ask whether our democratic institutions will survive and if so in what form.

As readers of these pages know, I have been concerned by the virtually unchallenged growth of corporate power. Mergers and acquisitions continue at a dizzying pace, as small and mid-sized businesses and farms disappear; independent doctors, lawyers, and accountants are gobbled up by larger firms; and working men and women are at the mercy of huge global conglomerates, which downsize as they export jobs overseas.

I have also deplored the emergence of the global media-ocracy, whereby a handful of powerful media conglomerates virtually dominate the means of communication. A functioning democratic society depends upon a free exchange of ideas; today fewer dissenting views are heard in the public square, as diversity is narrowed or muffled.

Most recently the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers and radio and television companies, bought the Times-Mirror, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, etc.; the Gannett chain purchased Central Newspapers, publishers of the Indianapolis Star, the Arizona Republic, and other newspapers. News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch) has announced its intention to take over Chris- Craft's extensive television holdings. And Viacom has offered to buy out the remaining stock it doesn't own in the giant radio network, Infinity Broadcasting. Although Clinton's Justice Department has been attempting to stem the merger juggernaut by questioning a limited number of acquisitions, this may be viewed as mere window dressing, as too little and too late.

This trend toward the concentration of ownership should be of special concern to secular humanists and rationalists. The regnant corporate outlook increasingly espouses a spiritual/religious/supernatural mystique, and it seeks to marginalize iconoclastic viewpoints. Unfortunately for secular humanists, pro ecclesia et commercia (for church and commerce) has become the ideology not only of the Religious Right, but is being marketed daily to consumers in the mainstream.

Corporate Control

Corporate domination of the democratic process by means of campaign contributions blocks the emergence of independent voices willing to defend the public interest. Lobbyists subvert the integrity of the Congress and of state legislatures throughout the land by buying influences and votes. Big oil, media, pharmaceutical, tobacco, gambling, insurance, and financial companies thus dominate the legislative process. For example, the banks and credit card companies charge usurious rates and use deceptive marketing practices, fleecing millions of unwary consumers and forcing them into bankruptcy, yet effective legislation to protect consumers was blocked in Congress by the banking industry. Surreptitiously, large companies are now reducing retirement benefits with nary any political opposition. Corporations today-such as General Electric and Exxon-Mobil-are earning huge profits.

Some may say that my appraisal is too pessimistic, for stock ownership is widely distributed, and that corporate efficiency contributes to the current American prosperity. Granted, we do not wish to undermine our economic prosperity, but much of this is also due to new scientific and technological discoveries and to an educated labor force, not simply corporate oligopolies.

We need to ask the questions: should corporations be the primary arbiters of the public will, and should "market forces" alone determine the conditions of social justice? Unfortunately, a relatively small number of corporate managers and stockholders of the new plutocracy control the corporate state, and it is the incestuous relationship between corporate economic power and politics that is most disturbing. For example, Dick Cheney departed from Haliburton, the large oil exploratory company, according to the New York Times, with a $20 million package of stock options and other benefits. Today a corporate-military plutocracy rules virtually unchallenged, manipulating and manufacturing the news and safeguarding its position of power.

The War on Estate Taxes

The attempt by the outgoing Congress to get rid of estate taxes is only the latest brazen effort to advance the interests of the plutocracy. Unfortunately, there is now a strong majority of the Congress for repeal, and this includes many Democrats-although President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure. Those who rail against estate taxes mislabel them "death taxes." But one can make a persuasive ethical case for estate taxes as fair-and I am arguing only the ethical, not political issue-for they would provide a more level playing field for the disadvantaged and equalize, however modestly, the widening gap between rich and poor. One can argue that it is in the public interest to reduce estate taxes on small businesses and farms in order to protect them from extinction at the hands of larger corporations, but to exempt the huge fortunes of multimillionaires and billionaires is morally unconscionable. Repealing the estate tax would expand the financial wealth of the plutocracy that now rules this country. It would ensure the perpetuation of the existing financial elite with very few limits on its economic and political power. In 1998, the top 1 percent of the population, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, owns 38.1 percent of the wealth of the country; the top 20 percent-87.4 percent; the rest of the population-80 percent-own only 12.6 percent of the wealth! These disparities are growing. In the past twenty years, the after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of the population increased by 119.7 percent, whereas the bottom 60 percent by only 12 percent.

Hypocritically, the Religious Right supports the elimination of estate taxes. Incredibly, it has sought to enshrine Greed by Divine Sanction: "God rewards the thrifty and virtuous," ideologues assert; "those with wealth deserve to keep it"-even if they made their money in speculation or by inheritance. The Religious Right opposes gun control, is for capital punishment, and is against legislation to extend medical care to the millions who cannot afford it, or prescriptions for the elderly, yet it supports aid to the affluent.

A century ago Teddy Roosevelt helped enact and enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, and later Woodrow Wilson introduced the progressive income tax. Where are the political leaders today, willing to restrain corporate trusts and the new plutocracy? Who will speak out for the ordinary citizen? Who will defend the humanistic principles of equity and fairness?

Piety in the Public Square

Secular humanists are independent-minded persons who will most likely support a variety of candidates in the upcoming elections. They will in their evaluations of platforms no doubt appeal to humanist values. A vital test will be how well candidates support the separation of church and state and the First Amendment.

The recent political conventions-heavily supported by corporate money-at times looked like religious-revival meetings; for most of the major candidates praised the Lord and religious faith repeatedly.

There is a fine line that ought to be drawn between private conscience and public professions of religious belief. Candidates have every right to hold their religious convictions or practice the rituals of their traditions; but is it too much to ask that they restrain proclamations of their personal piety in the public square? Our president and vice president should represent all the people, not simply the Judaic-Christian tradition; and this includes Unitarians, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Scientologists, minifidians, nullifidians, and just plain backsliders. Rationalists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists are American citizens too!

There is widespread moral diversity in America. To simply assume that faith in the Old or New Testament is the only basis of "morality" is ill-informed. Had the candidates taken an introductory philosophy course at their universities, they would have seen that there is within Western civilization an historic nonreligious and rational humanist basis for morality. Moreover, humanist values are central to American civic virtues-a commitment to human rights, including freedom of conscience, autonomy of choice, the right to dissent-none of which is easily found in the ancient religious documents. Indeed, these documents have been used in the past to justify the divine right of kings, aristocracy, and oligarchy.

Our political leaders should be cautious before they seek to judge public policies by their own religious biases. A cherished aspect of American democracy is respect for diversity. We need to resist any attempts by the reigning plutocrats to impose religious conformity as the test of American patriotism. 


Paul Kurtz is the Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry Magazine.


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