Radical proposal(s) of the day

Christopher Lasch, for all his antediluvian tendencies, was right when he wrote, “The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited. When money talks, everybody is condemned to listen.”

This was hardly a novel suggestion on Lasch’s part—Louis Brandeis remarked a century ago that for democracies, the choice was between maintaining its existence and allowing great concentrations of wealth to fester—but it’s nearly absent from center-left discourse. Liberals justifiably assail the 1 percent for enriching itself through the political process, then typically point to Citizens United and a broken campaign finance system as the culprits. Overturn Citizens United, legislatively limit the “power of big money,” and, if they’re feeling really ambitious, constitutionally “establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”

This is all well-intentioned, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic. But I think this kind of approach gets it backwards. Just as reconstructed liberals have come to favor after-tax, at-the-margins redistribution, so too are their money-in-politics proposals informed by ex post facto logic. In both cases, it’s too late. Money adapts, it seeps through the cracks. And when you try to limit its political influence, you bump into legitimate First Amendment concerns. Above all, liberals’ preferred palliatives would leave the root problem—prodigious disparities in wealth and power—virtually untouched.

Democracies which are also class societies are in a perpetual balancing act: Class inequalities replicate themselves in the political system, imperiling fundamental democratic principles. Wealthy donors have an outsized influence on political campaigns, of course, but they also underwrite policy organizations, advocacy groups, and think tanks that shape public policy. Outside the conventional political process, wealthy individuals and large corporations make enormous decisions that impact thousands, if not millions of lives—plant closings, investment decisions, etc.—that make a mockery of self-determination. The “lesser” is subject to the caprice and the preferences of the “better.” When most American workers enter the workplace, they’re denied not only negative liberty, but positive liberty, stripped of free speech and due process protections. Nevermind the proletarian revolution—the bourgeois revolution hasn’t even been consummated!

Class power can be reduced through equality-enhancing policies and the existence of strong popular organizations such as unions, but it’s always lurking around the corner, ready to vitiate the democratic promise of collective self-governance between equals. In the United States, equality-augmenting policies are few and far between. Labor unions, on the whole, have become a conjoined arm of the Democratic Party, docile, easily placated, inert. They’re still arguably the largest progressive force in American politics, but they lack the rank-and-file membership and chutzpah to really counterbalance the 1 percent. So we’re stuck in a class society with little to weaken the tie between political and economic inequality.

One antidote to this is simple: Redistribute wealth, thus constraining its influence. No, not some tepid, Buffet Rule-style corrective. The status quo calls for massive shifts from the fabulously wealthy to everyone else (especially the poor). By itself, this would inaugurate a society less riven by class, dispersing power from the few to the many. The solution must go beyond that, however. Repeal Taft-Hartley and overhaul labor law to make it more amenable to unionization and the establishment of workplace democracy. À la the War on Poverty’s Community Action Programs, fund community organizations that foster participation and nurture grassroots democracy. Tom Wolfe satirized these programs to great effect in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” but they were actually quite successful. They were axed because they effectively challenged existing power structures, not because of their inadequacies. In sum, diffuse power, or counterbalance it.

If this radical agenda were to be seriously debated, the ululations of the elite would be positively ear-splitting, a capital strike a distinct possibility. But if we wish to even approximate the political equality on which our system is avowedly based, that stuff’s pretty unavoidable, isn’t it?

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. It’s a commonly stated proposal, but I still don’t understand how a resurrection in union power would automatically pass through that power to ‘The People’. That is, why wouldn’t the shift in power merely be retained by the leadership of the unions? We’re talking about human beings and human institutions here, after all. On a lesser scale of comment, there’s still going to be conflicts in union interests between sectors – e.g. steel workers and auto workers. Also conflicts in the interests between manufacturing & mining unions and left wing environmentalists. Last, the military industrial complex is also quite well unionized, too.

    “fund community organizations that foster participation and nurture grassroots democracy. ”

    How would this have changed the results of the most recent Washington, DC mayoral election? I ask this to propose that ‘grass roots’ and ‘union’ interests at the big city local politics level are already in heavy conflict, and when not, more than adequately represented by the political systems already existing in that system. And ‘grass roots’ democracy does not scale well nationally, at least not smoothly.

    • Good points, Kolohe. I argue for trying to increase the power of unions because they’re one of the only working-class institutions we have. They’re certainly in need of reform– an entire restructuring that would make them less prone to corruption and more democratic would be be a welcome change. But I think you definitely need them in some form.
      When it comes to the DC mayoral election and how it relates to grassroots democracy, I plead ignorance.

    • I’m not ignorant of DC politics but I don’t see what you’re getting at here. The very unpopular candidate who pushed corporate ed reform lost. I’m not saying unions didn’t matter but there was no tension between their position and most voters.

      • The targets of Mr. Gude’s grass-roots politics initiative are the same exact Ward 8 (and Ward 7 & 5) voters that put Mayor Gray over the top. And more generally make up the same exact reliable base of (now always Democratic) machine politics in most major urban areas in the United States.

        Increasing participation is a good in and of itself, but the existing political dynamics and power structures make it unlikely that it will actual change the results of the system toward the overall goals that Mr. Gude and his allies desire.

  2. Or we could simply acknowledge openly how destructive extreme concentrations of wealth are, and embrace outcome-oriented policies that have as their goal redistributing wealth.

  3. “Redistribute wealth, thus constraining its influence.”

    If you took all the money that Warren Buffet had in the bank and spread it evenly among all Americans, everybody would get about a hundred-fifty bucks. Once.

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