Democracy and Imperialism Through The Lens Of Party Donations

George Buskell discusses the politics of party donations, which undermine democracy at home and push a nefarious imperialist agenda abroad.

By George Buskell

Elon Musk, the American business tycoon, has found himself in a spot of bother as of late after it was revealed that he had been making large donations to Republican Political Action Committees (PACs). It was found that he had in fact donated around $38,900 to the ‘Protect the House’ PAC, becoming one of its top 50 donors. This particular PAC is run by Vice-President Mike Pence and the House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. This certainly generated some backlash on Twitter, especially after he – in many of his strange twitter tirades –  recently claimed to be a Socialist. In the past, he has shown a certain interest in Anarchist ideas and has historically been outspoken about Environmental issues in his public life, which contributed to the confusion surrounding his apparent support of the GOP. He responded to the allegations first by claiming that he has a history of donating to both the Democratic and the Republican parties and is therefore ‘non-Partisan’, and second that his reasons for donating are “so that they are willing to listen when I call to object about issues that negatively affect humanity”. Many have since defended his position and agreed with his justifications. They do seem reasonable at first glance. If you read between the lines however, it perfectly illustrates one of the key problems with modern Liberal Democracies – they aren’t very democratic.

To avoid sounding like someone who merely has a petty grudge against Elon Musk, I must emphasise that Musk himself is in no way the problem here, firstly because he is by no means the only businessman to use his money in this way, and secondly because it obfuscates the real structural problem in our Democracies that facilitate and encourage this kind of anti-Democratic behaviour. When Musk states that he donates to the Republicans so that they will ‘listen to him’, what does this really mean? Why would the Republicans listen to him if he donates, and why is this a problem for Democracy? Well, first of all, we need to understand why political parties want donations, and why donors wish to part with their money. To put it simply, political parties need money. They need money for campaigns, advertising, staffing, rents and other expenses. Statistically speaking, when election season comes around, the political party that spent the most on campaigning typically wins. It’s not that Politicians are simply seeking money for the sake of money, they need that money to achieve the real goal: Power. So what’s the catch? The problem with this method of funding is that, as Elon Musk readily admits, Money buys Influence. This is because of the issue of dependency. Politicians need funding for their campaigns and expenses, and as the business and financial elite possess extraordinary amounts of it, politicians become dependent on their financiers. This dependency seeps into all aspects of ‘official’ Politics, from policy formation to voting, as a politician that is serious about maintaining power and influence in government will rarely ever bite the hand that feeds him or her. Politicians have to act according to the interests of their donors. But what are the interests of their donors? Billionaires and business tycoons may support a variety of causes that differ from individual to individual, but they all share a common position of power and wealth that will inform their actual interest. This is their class interest. In Marxist terms, these people are Bourgeois, they own private property and they use it to employ workers to produce products or services that they can extract profit from. This will very likely inform what kind of economic policies and regulations they decide to support, and in turn, political parties dependent on donations will have to adjust their policy platforms to attract or maintain financial support, which can mean anything from tax cuts to privatisations. This can very often lead to a conflict between public interest and government policy, and at its most nefarious it can result in the total domination of the political process by the wealthy. Donors don’t give money when they feel charitable, they are making an investment, and good Capitalists do not make investments without expecting returns.

 If we take the situation here in the UK for example, the pretty mild social democratic policy platform of the Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is very much disfavoured among the elite. Labour wants to raise taxes, build more social housing and stop NHS contracts, which goes against the interests of the wealthy. If we compare political donations to both the Labour Party and the Conservatives, we can see a massive gap in support from the affluent elite, and given how expenditure often results in victory, this is an obvious attempt to protect class interest at the expense of democracy. A quick look at Conservative party donations from the 2017 election shows that over one third of the ‘Sunday Times Rich List’ donated money to the Tory Party, totalling an estimated £25,000,000, meaning that the difference between Conservative and Labour donations could be as much as £15,500,000, with Labour donations only reaching around £9,500,000.

The part these donations play in imperialism is perhaps even more troubling than the domination of purely national affairs. Donations by companies and wealthy individuals to foreign political parties, especially in Third World nations, is not uncommon by any means. Those countries’ dependency on investment and foreign capital allows multinational corporations to easily dominate and monopolise foreign markets, exploit cheap labour and buy up government contracts. If the people of these countries dare to elect a government who might regulate industries more thoroughly or increase taxation on capital gains, then the companies can simply relocate their capital and investment elsewhere, or in extreme cases, lobby for military intervention. Let’s take the example of the United Fruit Company and Guatemala. The United Fruit Company had a massive presence in Central America in the 20th century, ever since the Guatemalan government hired the company to manage its postal service in 1901. The company grew its influence, gradually absorbing rival firms, monopolising the industry and buying up infrastructure projects. By 1930 it had absorbed more than 20 rival firms, became the largest employer in the whole of Central America, owned 3.5 million acres of Central American and Caribbean land, and was the single largest landowner in Guatemala. Its massive capital, labour force and land holdings meant it had great power over the governments of the small countries in the region, leading to the coining of the phrase ‘Banana Republic’. It became a symbol of the export economy in Central American nations, and the company was greatly criticised for its exploitative business practices. In 1951, Guatemala elected its second democratic president; Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. Guzmán enacted a large land reform bill in 1952, that transferred uncultivated land from large landowners to their poverty-stricken peasant labourers, who would start their own independent farms. This policy in turn would also generate income and food for large infrastructure projects that were desperately needed in his country. The reform directly affected the United Fruit Company. Of the 550,000 acres they possessed, only 15% was actually being cultivated, meaning the rest came under the scope of Guzmáns land reform bill. By 1953, over 200,000 acres of uncultivated land was expropriated, and the company was offered compensation at $2.99 US to the acre, twice what it had paid when buying the property. The United Fruit Company responded with an intensive lobbying campaign in the USA against the democratically elected president, particularly through Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had very close ties to United Fruit. This resulted in the government of the United States launching a coup in 1954 that toppled Árbenz (I’ll reiterate, the democratically elected president).They then instituted a right-wing dictatorship under the leadership of Carlos Castillo Armas, who, following his successful coup, immediately arrested over 3,000 people and killed over 1,000 agricultural workers and farmers. Armas frequently detained or executed political opponents without trial, removed the right to vote for all illiterate people, which amounted to almost two thirds of the population, and annulled the 1945 Constitution. Armas also reversed Árbenz’s land reform bill, and used lethal force against the peasants who had received land under it. All as a consequence of a business-dominated and imperialist political system.

So, whenever a billionaire business mogul like Elon Musk claims that their party donations are “so that they are willing to listen when they call to object about issues that negatively affect humanity”, always treat such statement with immense skepticism. Donations to political entities are rarely about promoting the wellbeing of humankind. The protection of capital and class interests will almost always take priority at the expense of Democracy, Freedom and Justice. The rich didn’t want Democracy in the first place, and as Niccolò Machiavelli once said, ‘If a ruler wants to survive, he must learn to stop being good’.

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