By Frank Castro
Source: The Hampton Institute
Cartel: An association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.
A little over two decades ago, on December 2, 1993, the principle engineer of Colombia’s infamous cocaine empire, Pablo Escobar, was killed while fleeing police on the barrio rooftops of his hometown, Medellin. Before he died he had amassed an organization of state-like power, challenging, in fact, the government of Columbia itself over the question of its extradition policies-and winning. Dubbed the Medellin drug cartel, his international cocaine operation grew to prominence functioning similarly to the corporations which dominate today’s global economy. Escobar knew, by controlling every possible link in the drug chain from production to retail, he could corral suppliers under a single umbrella, dictate the price of his product, and severely limit any would-be competitors from challenging his power.
Escobar was not alone in learning from the strategies of corporate giants. If anything he was late. Few organizations have pervasively and durably monopolized a market as well as America’s Republican and Democratic parties. The two dominant machines steering the U.S. electorate have consistently diminished the potential for a freer America. That’s because the reality is, rather than arch rivals, liberals and conservatives are two factions of the same team. Both are capitalist. Both are imperialist. Both are white supremacist surrogates. And both are controlled by a plutocratic elite who have discovered what Escobar learned in his early twenties, that competition is best neutralized by eliminating all possible outliers. We merely perceive the two parties as markedly different because of the degree to which the spectrum of possibilities has been narrowed.
Politics, at its barest, is a market characterized by power-and the struggle for how power will be distributed. As CrimethInc illustrated some time ago, in this market ideas function similar to currency. Delineated by ideas which can build capital enough for the acquisition of more power, and those which might unbind power, political parties are tethered to the same basic operating principles of any capitalist enterprise. They must solidify market share in the realm of ideas and grow, wherever and whenever possible, or go bankrupt. Incubated within this constant power play, self-preservation becomes the party’s central priority; and it does not matter if the ideas which accomplish this outcome are beneficial to the electorate or detrimental, so long as it achieves the imperative to survive.
Political organizations which maintain growth long enough to survive often do so by normalizing their ideological framework. When they have obtained a disproportionate amount of influence over their immediate surroundings, they can metastasize into monopolies and control large swaths of the idea-economy. New ideas about how society ought to function can enter the market to contest old ideas, but usually encapsulated within reforms incapable of unseating the dominant paradigm. Characteristic of any capitalist system, once market monopolies are established “power tends to flow upward to the top of a hierarchy, from which the masters, the ones qualified to employ it, decide matters for everyone else.”
Remember the age-old question, what do all those with power want? More power. As such, two monopolies have dominated American politics for over 150 years-the Democratic Party, founded in 1828, and the Republican Party, founded in 1854. Together, they form a political cartel, or an association of political parties with the purpose of maintaining concentrated power and restricting or repressing competition. Throughout the past century its loosely managed agreements, often wholly unofficial, but embedded deep within its standard operation, have been the quasi-coordinated production, distribution, and enforcement of a set of normalized choices which reflect only the range of needs of private corporate power.
Essentially, to solidify and gain greater control, the two parties staked out a set of positions within a predetermined and standardized framework which express the basic ideas of the status quo. This way any “new” solutions about what might be possible tend toward ideas which pose no serious danger to the framework itself, which produce reforms only capable of gutting radical resistance while leaving the underlying problems intact. Any outliers are assimilated or positioned to enhance the strength of current institutions. In other words, all ideas must first be filtered through the umbrella of the Democrat-Republican cartel, which dictates the pedigree of ideas both old and new, and therefore severely limiting any competition from threatening its hegemony.
Central to the project of any cartel is control. And within most drug cartels there is an armed group responsible for carrying out violence in an effort to maintain it. In Colombia they were called sicarios. Though the violence is systematically different, American sicarios are most accurately found in state institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Such an observation should not be seen as hyperbole. Even the most marginally informed American should know their government frequently has been involved in shameful acts of violence, whether it was the assassination, framing, and political neutralization of black, brown, indigenous, and left-radical movements and their leaders, or organized coups in the Middle East, Africa, and Central or South America.
Without enforcers America’s political cartel simply could not exist. As I wrote in Gangs Of The State: Police And The Hierarchy Of Violence , our society operates on a clearly defined, yet often unarticulated, hierarchy of violence; and the function of politicians and police agencies is to normalize and enforce that violence. As an institution, these agencies act as state-sanctioned gangs, or, in this instance, the sicarios of America’s political ideology, charged with the task of upholding the violent, racist hierarchy of white supremacist capitalism. Wherever and whenever possible, they are tasked with solidifying a monopoly of power where all violence from/by those higher on the hierarchy upon those lower can be normalized into business as usual. Any deviation from the status quo, any resistance whatsoever, is met with brutal repression.
For those familiar with United States history, the record of repression against anti-capitalist groups has been a source of considerable alliance between Democrats and Republicans. In A People’s History of the United States, recounting America’s anti-leftist atmosphere after Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Howard Zinn wrote:
“In early September 1917, Department of Justice agents made simultaneous raids on forty-eight IWW [International Workers of the World] meetings across the country, seizing correspondence and literature that would become courtroom evidence. Later that month, 165 IWW leaders were arrested for conspiracy to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes. One hundred and one went on trial [en masse] in April 1918; it lasted five months, the longest criminal trial in American history up to that time… [T]he jury found them all guilty. The judge sentenced [IWW president William “Big Bill”] Haywood and fourteen others to twenty years in prison; thirty-three were given ten years, the rest shorter sentences. They were fined a total of $2,500,000. The IWW was shattered.”
Commonality between the United States’ two major political parties has been most visible when viewed through its historically imperialist and anti-communist foreign policy. Beginning with the expansion of Soviet influence, the relationship is best described by a popularized euphemism of the Cold War Era: Partisanship ends at the water’s edge, meaning, if the two factions of the cartel could ever totally agree, it must be on the dismembering of communism everywhere. As the growth of nationalist and anti-colonialist movements abroad strengthened in concert with labor movements in America, a fierce need for bipartisan crackdown to preserve the dominant regime emerged. Zinn once again lends clarity:
“The United States was trying, in the postwar decade [of World War II], to create a national consensus-excluding the radicals, who could not support a foreign policy aimed at suppressing revolution-of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, around the policies of the Cold War and anti-Communism. Such a coalition could best be created by a liberal Democratic President, whose aggressive policy abroad would be supported by conservatives… [I]f the anti-Communist mood became strong enough, liberals could support repressive moves at home which in ordinary times would be seen as violating the tradition of liberal tolerance.”
Repressive moves were exactly what happened. Imperialist consensus not only generated cohesion on issues of foreign policy, it refined a coordinated relationship of narrowed domestic power between Democrats and Republicans, providing the groundwork to enact an increasingly clandestine police-state. Repression of previous magnitude would continue against not only anti-capitalists, but against movements for self-determination throughout the ’60s and ’70s among black people, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and indigenous populations, most notably through the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations. The tactics for gutting competing political currents pioneered by police agencies then became standard operating procedure, evolved into pervasive surveillance apparatuses, and have been deployed in both recent uprisings against Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protesters.
American Crime Lords
If there is a position within the cartel’s classic hierarchy embodied by most liberal and conservative politicians, it would not be the rank of crime lord, but rather that of lieutenant, the second highest position. Lieutenants are responsible for supervising the sicarios within their own territories-in our case, their respective states. They are allowed discretion to carry-out the day-to-day operations of the cartel, to ensure its smooth operation. Crucial duties include voting on legislation filtered through existing idea-monopolies, which remain firmly rooted within the sanctioned political spectrum, and policing the spectrum’s established borders by criminalizing outliers, especially ones that cannot be assimilated and must be repositioned to reinforce the existing framework. If they perform well enough, they become the focus of investigative inquiry and obscure the higher authority they serve.
The rank of real crime boss goes to richest of the rich. The multi-billionaires of America who-in recent years-have given up to 42 percent of all election contributions, and captured the state in the process. Brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the United States, are known for funding the Republican political machine, giving over one hundred million dollars to far-right causes. But the Kochs are no more alone in their policy purchasing than Republicans are in begging the super wealthy for campaign funds. Democrats have increasingly relied on it too. Money awarded to Democrats from corporate PACs now far outstrips what used to come from labor unions and trial lawyers. For instance, corporate PACs donated $164.3 million to Republicans during the 2010 election season and $164.3 million to Democrats also. Unions gave $59-$79 million.
Owning a cartel may not seem cheap, but it pays dividends. It accomplishes this not only through generating enormously disproportionate wealth, or even through buying elections, but by imposing upon the impoverished a set of values which ensure their continued exploitation. Karl Marx himself pointed this out, explaining that “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” For the poor American voter this means individuals are made to develop in such a fashion that their development fosters the strength of the capitalist state. At their core, working class people are constantly being sold and resold their own disempowerment, until finally we sell it to ourselves-over and over again. It is a sinister, but brilliant, stroke of genius-what better way to destroy the possibility of expropriation than to make disparity gold.
Michel Foucault described this process of perpetually re-inscribing within ourselves, and each other, the relation we have to power as the effect of unspoken warfare, a war where we build within our social institutions, and our very bodies, an ultimate disequilibrium. We self-police so thoroughly that when power’s effects upon us begin self-reproducing “there is no need for arms, physical violence, [or] material constraints,” just an inspecting gaze, “which each individual under its weight will end by interiorisation to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself.” In short, we become our own worst enemies. The rules and values of the rich become the self-inflicted rules and values of the poor. But they never benefit us. And we quit asking why.
Democracy describes today’s America by only the most facile standards. It has never really described America anyway. Plutocracy is the accurate word. And our plutocratic overlords keep us in a hamster-wheel choosing which lieutenant we will take orders from next for practical reasons. It gives them, and the political parties they own, a sort of object permanence. We understand the prescriptions of those in power even when we cannot observe them directly; because we have been inundated by their surrogates and transformed into a passive body meant only to ratify our subjugation. Imagine waking up in a prison cell with the choice to continue sleeping on an unpadded iron bench or a concrete floor. No matter what “decision” you make, neither can destroy the cage. This is the reality of our political climate, a series of non-decisions masquerading as choice.
Ultimately, the emergence of plutocracy has not been the fault of the working class. Even though we have internalized many of the mechanisms used to exploit us, we constantly have been outpaced, outgunned, and outright demoralized. And in our attempts at democracy we have fundamentally failed to understand that political freedom cannot exist in the absence of economic freedom. They are inextricably linked, like a tree to its roots. Now that many Americans are beginning to see how capitalism has been the physical incarnation of inequality, we must move forward in this moment and reconcile with another unassailable truth: That capitalism’s relation to democracy will always be characterized by adversary, not coexistence. In such an environment, America’s major political parties remain henchmen to a perverse and morally bankrupt distribution of power.