Commodity Democracy: You May Choose A or … A

By Jamin Casciato

In the midst of our current election season, tensions are high and emotions are flying…and flying many away into panic and confusion. Those without agendas regarding which brand of corporatism rules society are considering whether the species of democracy we experience—representative democracy, that is—is in our best interests, both as individuals and as a nation.

There is currently great division and animosity among people who, were they not so weathered by the current political climate of our nation, would otherwise probably get on well with one other. People who are quite similar in many ways, who share a common reality and common struggles, are at odds with one another because of their support or disapproval of other people they do not even know. There is no reason for two individual people to be divided and sundered from communion with one another on account of their support of different political factions that have little understanding of either of their lives and, truly, have much more in common with each than they do with the average citizen.

In a way, institutions and groups with established prerogative and influence are able to use our current political structure to insulate themselves from competing forces by manipulating the social and economic realities of others, thus maintaining the status quo. A divided and distracted populace can get little accomplished, as citizens—who are commonly exploited—cannot become unified enough to affect notable change while they are still fighting among themselves. As a result, the overall direction and character of civic life does not change. To some degree, political participation is the luxury of the relatively comfortable demographics of society. Those who are crippled by poverty and lack of access generally do not vote, for they understand that little changes for them through the political process. The voting demographic, on the other hand, still attempts to assert itself through the representative political structure, though the ship sails to the same terminal end regardless of its efforts. 

It is sensible to regard crowds with a healthy apprehension, for man en masse abolishes the self-awareness of the individual, and with it, one’s accountability. In authentic community, the identity of the individual is maintained, allowing for genuine unity in the midst of diversity. In false communion, such as the collectivism bred by party politics, the collective category overtakes one’s identity, homogenizing the social reality, and leading people away into abstraction. History unfortunately demonstrates that there are few things that bind people together as powerfully as fear and hatred. And politics can often be identified in practice as bonding through common fear or collective hatred.

It is a strange and squalid enterprise for one to offer his support of a person or idea based upon his being against something. A bankrupted mentality builds one’s reality around what she or he is against, as opposed to what is seen as worthy of loving and propagating. In considering why one engages in such an endeavor as feudal democracy, in which we choose lords to rule over us, as opposed to choosing rulings (policy initiatives) themselves, I would like to understand why one truly votes. What drives someone to do so? The protection of personal interests? Fighting against something? Is one voting for something or in opposition to something? And what kind of society is premised upon what it is against?

Modern politics brutalizes people by encouraging them to define themselves according to what they are against—this is spiritual slavery and leads to a life of negation. As is becoming increasingly evident, engagement in the federal political process breeds chaos and fear (which leads to the justification of more stringent control by the state and an acceptance of the corresponding disintegration of personal agency by the general populace). Further, it distracts and enervates us, keeping us from being as socially and spiritually productive as we could otherwise be. One can only imagine what could be done with all the energy wasted on participating in the poorly scripted tragicomedy of American politics … energy that ends up being bent toward negativity.

And, admittedly, we have been conditioned to choose evil, have we not? The fact that the mantra, “The lesser of two evils,” has become something of a cliché is proof in itself of the fact that we have been conditioned by our social and educational environments to think this way. After all, does one even attempt to express this notion in an original manner? Those who justify this sentiment simply repeat the decree. How can we justify actively choosing evil? A “lesser evil” is still evil. In what ethical or logical reality is this valid? So long as we choose evil, we will receive evil. How could it be otherwise?

With regard to our political status as a nation, I would like to suggest that what appears to be a decision between rival factions for control of the nation’s executive and legislative branches is, in reality, more akin to a choice between two boxes that look different, but contain the same substance. What we have to choose from is, in essence, the same thing simply marketed in different ways.

Such is the natural result of the synthesis of representative democracy and a marionette market economy[1]: government for sale. After all, we do not live in a true democracy, but in a democracy of dollars. It simply is not true that every person’s vote wields the same influence when campaigns (and organizations associated with candidates) are funded through contributions from citizens. A closer look at campaign financing reveals that contributions function more as purchases of government contracts, favorable tax and trade policies, financial bailouts, and political favors once the winning candidate is in power more than as support for a particular candidate. Lobbyists are purchasing the office, not supporting a candidate for the office.

In our modern monetary democracy, wherein more money equals more influence, or “votes,” the “invisible hand” of the market is becoming more and more detectable. As the hand comes into focus more clearly, one sees that powerful financial interests pull the strings behind this supposedly disinterested guide that moves the market toward equilibrium. The market is, of course, not “free” in any way. It is more of a playground, the boundaries and rules of which have been determined by certain parties that have paid for the prerogative to do so. It is this “regulatory” legislation that has been purchased in the political arena, and thus we see legislation being used as a weapon against economic competitors and those who are seen as a source of low-cost labor, whether at home or abroad.

We now see very clearly the historical conflict of interest regarding the marriage of church and state. In our current age, the conflict of interest that is wreaking havoc on society is that dealing with the lack of separation of corporation and state. As with the conflict of interest regarding church and state, politically privileged corporations and the state support one another for their mutual benefit at the expense of the general population. Powerful corporate interests aid and abet the political victory of certain figures and factions through campaign contributions and favorable media exposure (including the convenient nondisclosure of detrimental policy decisions and conflicts of interest) among other forms of assistance.

On the other side, those with the authority to do so write legislation regulating businesses out of existence that are competing with the resource owners who get them elected, give government contracts to supportive corporate interests, and funnel taxpayer dollars to business models that support those who support them. A grand scheme is not necessary here. This is simply rational, self-interested, logical business practice for an enterprise organized with a corporate charter. Naturally, those with influence have more in common in terms of being mutually beneficial to one another than they do with those without financial power or political sway.

As for the majority of the populace, we have very little ability to exert any kind of influence. We live in a commodity democracy,[2] in which we are given an illusory choice between two brands of the same product. Like commodity goods, there is virtually no qualitative distinction among the popular parties—there only superficially appears to be—for they end up promoting essentially the same comprehensive agenda. That said, it is worth noting that there is a considerable distinction between voting for issues and voting for issuers. As citizens in a representative democracy, we do not have the right to vote directly on many of the measures and policies that have the greatest impact on our society. For instance, we do not have the ability to determine whether or not wealth is transferred from the poor to the wealthy through corporate bailouts, whether our military intervenes in the affairs of other nations, or a multitude of other material issues. Instead, we are given the “right” to choose between two political factions that will essentially make the same decisions regarding matters beyond our control (for they are incentivized to do so by the same interests).

It is disrespectful to exhort a person to make a “choice” between two brands of wheat cut from the same farm. However, it is patently absurd for said person to actually attempt to discriminate between the two, thus making an illusory choice and sustaining the ruse. There is therefore a robust argument for not voting, as voting only validates a delusory democracy and ensures that a superior state of affairs cannot ever be realized. A more direct democracy, for instance, in which we would actually have the right to vote on vital issues, as opposed to representatives, cannot come about until we realize that our current brand of democracy is merely illusory. As long as I continue to convince myself I am drinking water when I am actually consuming wine, I will never become sober. And so long as we call night, light, dawn will never break.

Another argument for not choosing among issuers of policy is that by not voting, one is, in effect, voting. The refusal to cast a vote that renders one a participant in a retrogressive political process could be seen as a vote for veracity, which respectfully invalidates the entire enterprise (thus encouraging citizens to consider and appeal for alternative models of governance). Additionally, if a greater proportion of the populace decided to withhold support for the entire framework of commodity democracy, whatever party is elected may not be so bold as to assume they have adequate support from the populace when carrying out their agenda. This would naturally curb their presumption that they can batter the masses with poor policy.

Further, refusing to vote for death by combustion or death by drowning assists the unveiling of the fact that we actually vote with our dollars anyway, in markets. If citizens are truly against “big business,” voting for one of a number of candidates that are similarly supported by large corporate interests is not a reasonable solution. It makes far more sense to withhold support from these businesses by not buying their products. As those who exist in a society with some semblance of a market economy (albeit scant), we truly vote with our wallets: we vote for the business models and enterprises we implicitly support by purchasing their products.

It is remarkably unproductive for a person to complain about something he is actively supporting. It makes far more sense simply to refuse to buy the products of an enterprise whose business practices or social philosophy one does not support. Instead, unfortunately, we have figured out as a people that it is easier to support poor conduct economically and then rail against it politically. This, however, does not work for our benefit when money is so involved in the political process itself. We would do better to live out our personal philosophies, as opposed to supposedly voting for them and simultaneously doing the opposite in practice. If a person supports local enterprise, she proves this by buying locally, not by voting for a candidate who says the same, while continuing to purchase imported goods.

It is time for us to move beyond party politics to embrace one another in community. Our unfavorable inequalities begin to dissipate as we share life together, not because we vote. Let us participate in community, not simply in the political process. In fact, participation in the political procedure is, if anything, an impediment to participation in community, for the political apparatus inherently breeds division. Voting is participation in politics, but is it truly a satisfactory form of participation with people? Does voting for representatives truly yield substantial change with regard to what is materially misdirected in our society? With voting, effort ends with engagement. Involvement in such an endeavor convinces us that we have actually done something already, simply by stating an opinion or agreeing with something someone else is claiming will happen. One of the reasons we lack genuine communion in our society is because we subscribe to the institutions that keep people insulated, from each other and from accountability.

Let us move away from the –ists and the –isms. These institutions are static and life-negating. We should use ideas, not enthrone them. Our institutions and ideologies are idols, set in stone, vindictive, punitive, unbending, unloving. We have relinquished control of our reality to a deleterious order that is not sufficiently human to serve the needs of...humans.

Voluntary inclusiveness is a condemnation of all elitism, all hierarchy, all power-lording, for acceptance is itself a judgment on judgment. Genuine inclusiveness declines to join or form a party, a union, or a faction, for these are intrinsically agents of exclusion. Genuine inclusiveness is not political, for politics is the art of exclusion. The person who seeks genuine communion with all people does not allow herself to be categorized as a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal. She has not her hand raised against anyone. She does not choose a candidate or a group of people, for she chooses to consider all people based upon the decisions she makes (when she is allowed to make them, that is). One way this can be accomplished is by rejecting such sundering institutions as representative democracy and, in so doing, embracing all people.

We need a new declaration of independence—one that garners us independence from a social existence defined by modern politics and from the entire system of commodity democracy. Let us represent ourselves, in community, through the outpouring of our common life’s expression. And if we feel called to represent ourselves by voting, let us call to be allowed to vote for policy initiatives, directly, not for other people who will ultimately vote for us. Are we willing to extract ourselves from involvement in an order that is rooted in division and antagonism? Are we willing to choose communion over control and people over politics?

Jamin Casciato has spent years studying sustainable development throughout the non-industrialized world. He has taught economics in Mexico and Iraq, where he traveled extensively among the indigenous communities of the regions, studying local social traditions, music, and traditional medicine. He has also spent time among the nomadic communities of northern India and Egypt, and has done development research in Central America, Africa, and East Asia. He studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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[1] The so-called “free market” is a myth, so far as we have seen. In reality, we operate in a system of exchange that has been manipulated by legislation and tax policies that benefit resource owners who have paid for the privilege of directing policy (military intervention, agricultural policy, etc.) toward the purchase of products and services they provide. Corporations with political influence have also found it expedient to use the state’s monopoly on force to “regulate” their competition out of existence.

[2] I would like to submit the term commodity democracy to illustrate a situation in which political choice mirrors the economic reality of goods that are categorized as commodities. Commodities, economically speaking, are goods, such as wheat and copper, between “brands” of which there is no qualitative distinction, regardless of their source. Assuming it is grown the same way (i.e. organically), there is generally no differentiation in quality between wheat grown in different areas by various farmers. (The same applies to copper mined in various regions of the world).