Money is not speech, it is an elected person

In reading Dollarocracy by John Nichols and Robert McChesney I was struck by a point that they made that I think should be elaborated on.

Before I get to that I want to note that the book is a must-read. It is a stinging indictment of the American political system focusing on the money spent on political advertising, and the lack of accountability for the purveyors of such advertising due to the decline of hard journalism. As a response to this crisis of democracy, the authors call for (in addition to the common pushes for campaign-finance reform and a constitutional amendment undoing Citizens United, as well as a call for organizing and mobilizing Americans to represent their interests against moneyed interests in Washington) a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all persons the right to vote — with the aim of preventing voter suppression through the force of the federal provision eliminating state laws that disenfranchise citizens — and funding and creating subsidies for real political journalism, so that citizens may make informed decisions at the polls.

The point that I wish to comment on comes early in the book when Nichols and McChesney write, “Something that rarely comes through in the horse-race reporting of campaigns, and the slack-jaw coverage of governing by media outlets that would rather collect checks for commercials than reveal the corruptions of empire [is that] even when the Money Power loses it wins” (page 39).

To Nichols and McChesney, when a billionaire spends a fortune promoting a candidate that ultimately loses their race, the billionaire has not lost, because politics is process, and they have controlled the process through their spending as making that process about spending vast amounts of money. In essence, it is a self-reaffirming move, as by spending so much damn money in politics they make politics about spending so much damn money and assuring their control of the political system as a possessor of money.

But another point follows from the statement “even when Money Power loses it wins”, which is that because politics is money, the element that holds office is not a person, but money, such that billionaires do not lose when they spend their money, and that is because in American politics today money is quite literally in power. “Money, it’s what’s in office”. To the contrary of what the Supreme Court has found in Citizens United, money is not speech, money is a person, and they may be elected to office. And while speech should be protected, we certainly don’t think the powers of politicians should be unlimited or unregulated, and so we shouldn’t think that money, as a politician, should be unregulated in its endeavors.

Now, you might be thinking that this is preposterous argument, and the idea that money is a person is insanity. It is. But the idea that corporations are people is no less insane. And yet that notion is in effect today, with damning consequences for our democracy.

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  1. #1 by bloggingisaresponsibility on June 22, 2015 - 10:09 am

    Why not skip the middle man (the government) and just vote with our dollars? If money controls the government, and money is in the hands of the corporations, and corporations are beholden to their customers, vote with our dollars to control the corporations and hence eventually get the policies we want enacted?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on June 23, 2015 - 9:20 pm

      Do you mean something like share-holder activism, where persons buy stock in a company so as to have a say in their deliberative processes? Perhaps. But much evidence suggests that CEOs run away with stock values, such that this move wouldn’t do anything to counteract the growing wealth inequality of the United States, and on that score, preventing those CEOs from donating massive sums of money to “independent” groups that wage shadow political campaigns.

      • #3 by bloggingisaresponsibility on June 25, 2015 - 11:44 am

        Actually, I was thinking something as simple as boycotts. Buy from companies that endorse policies you support, and let them know why you’re buying. Likewise, don’t support them when they go awry, and let them know why.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on June 25, 2015 - 11:11 pm

        I see!

        I actually think corporatization has made such boycotts (near) impossible. How would one boycott the financial sector, namely Wall Street? One’s mortgage might be sold by your local bank to a larger outfit at no control of yours, and the same goes for deposit accounts. Wall Street is where some of the largest political contributions come from and so it seems we cannot take a stand against a principal culprit of corrupting influence here.

        On the other hand, most material products are brands that are owned by a handful of multinational corporations, and it is often difficult to follow the chain of ownership, but when we can make sense of such lines we fine that some multinational corporations have virtual monopolies on products, think johnson and johnsons stranglehold on over the counter “health” products. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine successfully boycotting johnson and johnson.

        In the era of the decline of small business and the corporate dominance of commerce, one area I can sort of imagine as being opened to influence through “the power of the purse” is Silicon Valley. In theory, if I don’t like google I can switch to Mozilla. Of course, with the integration of service platforms being such that some services sync better with one product than another, my choices may be limited by these webs of dialogue.

      • #5 by bloggingisaresponsibility on June 26, 2015 - 8:22 am

        Good points. The boycotting can only work if people can do without product or when they have an alternative.

  2. #6 by SelfAwarePatterns on June 24, 2015 - 4:12 pm

    Personally, I wish we could have an amendment that simply said that any political candidate with a large enough petition of signers receives public campaign financing, and where soliciting private donations, from any source, is strictly prohibited. It certainly wouldn’t remove all corruption or money influence issues, but it would make it where elected officials didn’t have to spend 90% of their time raising money.

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on June 24, 2015 - 10:32 pm

      I completely agree on all counts!

      Astronomically expensive elections are disturbing for reasons other than the fact that contributions create an atmosphere of corruption. One benefit of enacting spending limits would be cutting down on political advertising and spending on online profiling and tracking of potential voters — vast sums of money were spent in the 2012 elections to collect data to uncover the political leanings of persons (something some people consider as private as medical information, so these endeavors should be deeply troubling), and then placing ads to either get the person to the polls if they are likely to vote for their candidate, or disillusioning that person in regards to the other candidate if that is how they are leaning in the hopes that they will drop out of the process and not vote. Better they not participate in the democratic process than vote for the wrong person! The right person of course being the one with more money to spend, as surely the candidate with more money has more public support, right?

      These tactics are appalling, and as it requires incredible sums of money to perform these operations we must enact drastic cuts to the amount of money that may be spent in campaigns, as you say.

      • #8 by SelfAwarePatterns on June 25, 2015 - 8:29 am

        The problem is that all of this money gives incumbents a huge advantage, one they’re not going to willingly give up. I sometimes think the best thing might be for someone to propose an amendment that only takes effect 20-30 years from now. At least future generations would benefit from it.

      • #9 by ausomeawestin on June 25, 2015 - 11:13 pm

        Good point! Of course, forward thinking is not something this current Congress seems capable of (ahem, global climate change).

  3. #10 by jmeqvist on June 28, 2015 - 4:43 pm

    You make some excellent points, and I agree with your perspective, but one thing I think bears mentioning is the relation between the economy and politics. In “the Real World of Democracy” CB MacPherson quite rightly shows that in the so called western world democratic politics is derivative of an overarching economic structure of a market economy, and this relation impacts the way we think of and practise democracy. If we just examine purely democratic principles in isolation from the economic principles they relate to in society, it seems that fairness would require abolishing many of the practises you speak to above, but if we examine the history of democratic principles in Western nations we typically see that we were firstly free to make contracts and buy and sell, and from this basis political rights have been derived This tends to mean that our equality as citizens is not detached from our equality as participants in the market, and furthermore our equality in the marketplace is dominant. And from the perspective of market equality just as a rich person is free buy something if he has the funds funds, why wouldn’t a group of rich people, independently or qua corporation, be able to spend as much as they want to influence politics? In both instances we are dealing with a form of free activity by participants in the market.

    The case needs to be more strongly made for the autonomy of the political, and until that happens I think that we will continue to see politics modeled on economics, and with it the risk of seeing money as speech, corporations as persons and the like . But yet even the terms of our discourse tend to be related to the market and economy. We “invest” in education, and “economic growth” tends to be taken as the fundamental value that politics can serve. In this context while I am horrified by what I see happening I can hardly say that I am surprised as there seems to be a push by market fundamentalists to render politics subordinate to the economy.

    None of this is meant to disagree with your arguments, but rather to add some additional context and considerations.

    • #11 by ausomeawestin on June 28, 2015 - 6:38 pm

      Thanks for the kind words and for contributing the important points you make.

      The root of these views seem to be erroneous conceptions of money and capital. I suppose that if government was established purely to enforce contracts between individuals then any efforts beyond that are perversions of government and violations of its authority — the standard libertarian line. But that view requires that contracts between men are fundamental and that there can be no more basic purpose to these contracts that should guide us. Surely the reason why men enter into contracts is for mutual benefit, for flourishing and in the end some sort of well-being. We must reject such legal positivism on the grounds that there are more fundamental pluralist values easily apparent when we consider that the government ought to intervene when a contract is not fairly negotiated, even when the person unfairly bound is not aware of this unfairness, to at least offer some benefits for the fortunes of the unfairly contracted if not to nullify the contract then to spare them all the discomforts that the contract would allow — think of indentured servantry. Well-being is paramount and government exists in order to protect the well-being of all in ways that are fair. Money and capital are used to acquire the means to well-being, and while they may said to be the most basic value from an economic perspective, they are not the most basic value of political governance or humanity. Contracts are a method of protecting capital — financial, power or human, and the sort of economic market as dominant view you note seems to make the mistake of failing to see that while explicitly established to enforce contracts made in a free market for that market to function, government must enforce the implicit values that cause men to even enter the marketplace. (This is not to argue against you, I know that you’re just putting forward the dominant view of our time, but I’m offering my contention with it to contextualize my, for lack of a better word, idealism).

      You say, “But yet even the terms of our discourse tend to be related to the market and economy.” This is exactly right, we must disentangle our political vocabulary and our economic vocabulary or we will not be able to control our political fortunes. The critic Chris Hedges writes that, “our inability, as citizens, to influence power in a system of corporate or inverted totalitarianism, along with the loss of our civil liberties, weakens the traditional political vocabulary of a capitalist democracy. The descent of nearly have the country into poverty or near-poverty diminishes the effectiveness of the rhetoric about limitless growth and ceaseless material progress. It undermines the myth of American prosperity. The truths are dimly apparent. But we have yet to sever ourselves from the old way of speaking and formulate a new language to explain us to ourselves. Until this happens, the corporate state can harness the old language like a weapon and employ the institutions of power and organs of state security to perpetuate itself” (Hedges, Wages of Rebellion, page 68). Hedges is not the first person to make this point but I think it is well articulated and I agree with the sentiment.

      • #12 by jmeqvist on July 5, 2015 - 3:37 pm

        This is insightful and I agree with everything you have said, but would like to say a couple of things about political vocabularies.

        Firstly, it is interesting how traditionally critical vocabularies like that of Romanticism have now become common parlance of elites. In the case of Romanticism we have a language that was initially launched in criticism of conformism, industrial, and material progress at the expense of spiritual decline. But now most corporations use the language of romanticism to support their own ends. Employees are encouraged to find their authentic career path, so they can grow as human beings and be fulfilled. To some degree this has rendered innocuous. We are made to think that human growth and authenticity are not something that stands in opposition to industrial civilization, but something that is in complete harmony with it.

        Also, I think the so-called “communitarian” and “republican” trends in contemporary anglophone political thought are less critiques of liberalism per se, and more attempts at coming up with a language that can be critical of an inegalitarian economocentric view of society. I find the republican version more appealing, although it should be Sandel is the worst spokesperson for both of these view, as I think it has stronger conceptual resources of critique. Pettit’s notion of freedom as nondomination, while deeply imperfect, speaks to the fact that it is not simply negative liberty that we are after but to not be at risk of being dominated by another, whether a corporation, state or powerful individual.

        So, in essence, we fundamentally agree, but your thoughts spurred on some other thoughts of my own.

      • #13 by ausomeawestin on July 6, 2015 - 9:53 pm

        Excellent points! These are incisive observations of facts of which I was unaware so I greatly appreciate you sharing your insights here. Your point that elites have hijacked language of the Romantic tradition really makes the case that our language must be constantly evolving, as the intellectual elites will commandeer critical vocabularies to rob them of their force, folding them into what is already the norm and reactively serving as a force to describe our political and economic realities. Fascinating; thanks for making this invaluable point.

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