In They Rule, Paul Street offers a thorough deconstruction of the status quo of U.S. capitalism. The book’s subtitle gives a nod to the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose main victory was to popularize the concept of U.S. class conflict, as embodied in the “1 percent.” The title also recalls John Carpenter’s 1987 film They Live, a sci-fi spoof of the Reagan era that prefigured the Occupy revolt. Carpenter’s characters don “magic sunglasses” for intellectual defense against media misinformation.
One current form of that misinformation is the view that the Democratic Party exercises “left” politics. Street smashes this notion. Along the way, he contrasts the popular democracy or self-rule of Occupy with the increasingly oligarchic role of the 1 percent in national politics. Street’s book aims to answer questions about Occupy from foreign media. For instance, why does the U.S. majority consent to minority rule? This is no academic query. Street repeatedly cites Noam Chomsky to analyze the social relations between, to use a popular post-Occupy binary, Main Street and Wall Street. Ruling propaganda alone is a necessary but not sufficient answer to the question of majority consent. Accordingly, They Rule is in part a primer on media literacy, on what is and is not news, and why it matters. Street also marshals the insights of scholars such as Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale political scientist, to help readers grasp the contours of ruling-class hegemony.
Street rightly argues that cutting through the illusions and distortions of elite propaganda was central to the Occupy equation and grassroots movements generally. However, it is worth noting that Occupy gained momentum from the Great Recession. Many Occupy participants had lived the experience of downward mobility, from precarious employment to student debt. That background, combined with the contemporaneous upheavals of the Arab Spring and the Wisconsin uprising, radicalized many to join the movement. The public emergence of Occupy-style self-rule was a result of more than a simple decoding of the propaganda system. Rather, the devaluation of young people’s labor-power, and their consequent marginal attachment to capitalism, was a vital factor. Dependence on the wage-labor system, as Marx observed in Capital, induces workers to see it as “common sense.” “The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws,” Marx wrote. “The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.”
The nature of the U.S. polity comes into sharper view in the opening of Street’s book. He writes:
The contemporary United States, I find in this volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. It is something in between or perhaps different altogether: a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profits. It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing and demobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression, brutality and coercive control.
Marx’s summary of the short-term interests of the capitalist class in the late nineteenth century remain relevant in the contemporary United States: Après moi, le deluge. With the same forces of accumulation and competition at work, the maxim holds true, then as now, for the ownership class. Only now, Street notes, the consequences of “business as usual” include a warmer planet with more biodiversity and species loss and environmental pollutants, droughts, and rising sea levels. He connects these effects with the economic system, whose “grow or die” dynamics are propelling the planet and humanity toward destruction.
The first of Street’s six chapters, “They Own the Place,” lays out the influence of monopoly-finance capital over the White House and Congress. Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin’s radio remarks that the ownership of Congress resides with the big banks that crashed the economy in 2007–08, only to receive a taxpayer bailout of trillions of dollars, is revealing. This is a bipartisan accord. The same bailed-out banks are now bigger than ever. Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s reactionary conservatism, shrouds the Democrats’ own rightward trajectory. Street convincingly shows the absence of any genuinely progressive plank within the “blue” party—an agent by, of, and for neoliberal deregulation, privatization, and incarceration.
Chapter 2, “Richistan and the Rest of Us,” introduces readers to Marx’s insights on the system’s built-in drive to accumulate capital and suppress wages. It is not the corruption of individual capitalists that spawns income and wealth inequality, Street writes. The various means by which concentrated capital controls U.S. political power are the themes in the following two chapters. The third, “Political Economy,” partly details the fate of U.S. labor unions. Street paints a grim picture. Popular organizing, often driven by communists and socialists, paved the way for the social legislation that strengthened labor unions and raised living standards (albeit mainly for white Americans), and thrived until the global economy entered the stagflation of the 1970s. The U.S. corporate class that had reluctantly accepted New Deal and postwar compromises with the working class abruptly pivoted, as its declining profits faced competition from both domestic labor interests and European and Japanese rivals. A covert class war against the U.S. majority, beginning with the Carter administration, became the new normal. The role of financial services as a fraction of the U.S. economy grew dramatically. Street’s summary of how this process coincided with the flight of industrial capital outside U.S. borders for cheaper sites abroad uses Marx’s formulas of the circuits of industrial and financial capital (M-C-M′ and M-M′), in a concise and accessible way for readers new to such analyses.
In the fourth chapter, Street examines the effects of financialized capitalism on domestic development. He cites Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, on the fiduciary responsibilities of corporate managers to shareholders and to business generally, against the interests of the broader public. The class interests of this 1 percent have nothing in common with those of the 99 percent, and are the driving force of what Street and others call a “Second Gilded Age” in the United States. The form of democratic planning that Occupy prefigured, Street contends, is a sane alternative. Street disscuses the possibility of true self-rule in his final and sixth chapter, “No Crystal Ball.”
Chapter 5, “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power,” is the book’s longest. Street writes about the system of control to which the leadership of organized labor have consented. This “deadly mix for democracy within and beyond the workplace” makes one wonder why Street overlooked labor unions’ fatal attraction to the Democratic Party, and what their subservience means for the progressive political change he supports. For the AFL-CIO to back neoliberal Democrats such as Obama and the Clintons without making demands to improve Americans’ lives—for instance, by taxing the super-rich or cutting the military budget—does more than send the wrong message. Dedicating union members’ dollars and time to such Democrats’ electoral campaigns is a dead end. The union-enabling of the neoliberal status quo is part and parcel of this trend, and deserves closer analysis in radical critiques of political economy such as Street’s. His mention of mass black and brown incarceration, however, is spot-on. Funding for incarceration has defunded higher education, planting the seeds for the student debt load that spurred Occupy.
In his conclusion, Street notes both the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy. The renewed popularity of the term “socialism,” he writes, is a sign of strength. Call this an Occupy triumph. People struggling, making demands on the powerful, with a vision of a more humane way of living and working, remain the essence of real democracy. They Rule advances that project, which will continue to be a slow grind. They Rule offers readers both in and out of the left an engaging take on the problems and alternatives of our hollow U.S. democracy—strong in form but weak in substance.