The old home of the U.S. machine tool industry, producing about 13 percent of national machine tool output and employing about 15,000 workers, Cincinnati today is blighted by “deindustrialization” and has evolved into a services and financial center with large disparities in wealth and growing levels of unemployment, drug abuse and crime, as jobs have shifted into retail and related “services.”
A recent socioeconomic study by Dan La Botz of Cincinnati Studies, entitled “Who Rules Cincinnati,” has given us a vivid look at the nuts and bolts of capitalist democracy in America through the prism of that city’s politics. The study found that the political and cultural life of the city is dominated by just 7 large corporations: Procter & Gamble, Kroger, Macy’s/Federated Department Stores, Fifth Third Bancorp, Western and Southern Financial, American Financial Corp, and E.W. Scripps. These corporations have a combined revenue stream of $19,781,709.2 million.
La Botz asked how these corporations use their wealth to influence social organizations and city politics. He found that, not satisfied with using the old Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the city’s elite have created new revved-up institutions such as the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC), Downtown Cincinnati Incorporated (DCI), and Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) to promote their economic development plans. In addition to this, five banks control the financial life of Cincinnati: Fifth Third Bank, Provident Bank, National City Bank, U.S. Bank, PNC Financial Service Group, and First Financial Bancorp.
The representatives from these corporations sit on the boards of directors of all the city’s important cultural institutions. From the museum to the symphony, the university, and social welfare programs, members of these corporations are there, monitoring and formulating policy while the rest of us are excluded from participation. They control the purse strings to all of these institutions, and set the parameters of what is “acceptable” policy. Also, corporate political action committees (PACs) make decisive contributions to both political parties, in the form of both money and crafting legislation. All of this prevents working people from having a meaningful say in any policy area: from the environment to poverty or education.
Another mechanism by which the large corporations exert their influence is through charitable organizations, grants and endowments. For example, the Procter & Gamble Fund awarded 96 grants totalling $9,315,669 in the Cincinnati area in the year 2000. But one can be sure that anyone receiving funding from this institution must have shown the greatest ideological loyalty to corporate social norms to receive any of this largesse.
Or take another example of corporate influence in our social life, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Its board members include Senior Vice Presidents, Legal, Human Resources, and Community Relations Directors and other assorted corporate bigwigs from Federated Department Stores (Macy’s), Fifth Third Bank, E.W. Scripps, and Procter & Gamble. These prominent business women don’t truly have the interests of working women in mind. For example, they aren’t going to push energetically for any form of socialized childcare to relieve working women of the burden of caring for both the family and having a career. Any move in the direction of a real solution to empowering women would immediately come into conflict with their other commitment: quarterly profits.
The ruling class in Cincinnati isn’t a faceless “they” that can’t be identified. Rather, they occupy a definite position in our social and economic system of production. They benefit by cuts to labor costs that boost profits. They use their wealth to wheedle themselves into the leadership positions of our cultural institutions, and use the media and education system to propagate their ideas about how we should run our lives. They have families that, in the case of Cincinnati, go by the names of the Lindners and the Peppers.
The Lindners contributed $50,000 to eleven candidates for city council in 2006 while the Peppers contributed $20,000. This kind of influence by such a small group of people cannot be considered “democratic.” But the political superstructure of our society simply reflects our capitalist economic base. If we had a socialist economy, we workers would be the “ruling class” and we would use the state that we create to develop the economy to take care of our interests.
Marxists point out that in an economy based on private property of the means of production there will never be real democracy, only formal bourgeois democracy at best, that is, democracy for the rich. Under the capitalist system the only people who have the money and free time are members of the capitalist class, and their “hired hands” – lawyers, academics, government officials and other professionals – a tiny minority in our society. The working class majority earns just enough money to take care of their families, if that, and have little free time left over after taking care of the necessities to participate in the civic life of the community.
This is why so many puzzling things happen against the interests of the majority despite our Constitution, free speech, and universal suffrage. A tremendous gap between rich and poor can exist with all the free elections one wants. The shell game of formal democracy has always hidden the untrammeled rule of the “seven corporations,” as is the case of Cincinnati.
In 2003, a Cincinnati production worker employed in manufacturing made an average of $15.94 per hour, which comes to $637.60 per week or $33,155 per year. But this is fast becoming a thing of the past as jobs have shifted into retail and related “services.” The trend is similar nationally.
The Economic Policy Institute informs us that, “Since 1983, the top 1 percent of wealth holders, without exception, owned well over 30 percent of all wealth, and the bottom 80 percent of wealth holders, without exception held under 20 percent.” The top fifth of Americans have grabbed 84.7 percent of all the wealth in the United States! While the number of workers with reliable pensions fell from 39 percent in 1980 to 19 percent in 2003, corporate executives in America earn more than 300 times the average worker!
Enough is enough! The Democrats and Republicans are the political representatives of big business. We need a mass labor party based on the unions representing our interests. Working people will never be able to have any meaningful say on the important questions facing our communities unless we have independent organizational forms through which we can express ourselves politically. But even with our own mass organizations on the political front, the capitalists will continue to rule over society and control the economy. The crisis we are faced with today, from war to unemployment, from our crumbling infrastructure to crime, are all the outward features of the general crisis of capitalism.
Ultimately, the only solution to the crisis of capitalism is to end this rotten system once and for all. For the working class to finally live in a democracy – in the fullest sense of the word – we must look past the glittering show of the current political setup, and understand that only through the socialist transformation of society will we be able to address these problems. A workers’ democracy would be one in which every decision, whether it be political, social or economic, would be decided directly and democratically by the workers and youth through their own organizations in the workplace, school, university, and communities.