There’s a scene from John Steinbeck’s The Pearl that’s been coming back to me over and over again ever since I started writing about US politics. I find it amazing that this scene hasn’t become a political meme yet, given Steinbeck’s fame and given its perfect illustration of the fake two-party system that we see in western so-called democracies.

The Pearl is a short novel about a poor fisherman, Kino, who discovers the titular enormous gem in an oyster and goes to sell it to the pearl buyers in town. What he doesn’t know is that the buyers, while they have multiple offices and pretend to compete with each other, all actually work for the same owner.

“Kino has found the Pearl of the World,” Steinbeck writes. “In the town, in little offices, sat the men who bought pearls from the fishers. They waited in their chairs until the pearls came in, and then they cackled and fought and shouted and threatened until they reached the lowest price the fisherman would stand.”

“And when the buying was over, these buyers sat alone and their fingers played restlessly with the pearls, and they wished they owned the pearls. For there were not many buyers really – there was only one, and he kept these agents in separate offices to give a semblance of competition.”

When Kino brings the priceless pearl to the sellers, they put on a performance, working together to deceive him into thinking it has no value in order to cheat him out of it for a ridiculously low price.

The man behind the desk said: “I have put a value on this pearl. The owner here does not think it fair. I will ask you to examine this – this thing and make an offer. Notice,” he said to Kino, “I have not mentioned what I have offered.”

The first dealer, dry and stringy, seemed now to see the pearl for the first time. He took it up, rolled it quickly between thumb and forefinger, and then cast it contemptuously back into the tray.

“Do not include me in the discussion,” he said dryly. “I will make no offer at all. I do not want it. This is not a pearl – it is a monstrosity.” His thin lips curled.

Now the second dealer, a little man with a shy soft voice, took up the pearl, and he examined it carefully. He took a glass from his pocket and inspected it under magnification. Then he laughed softly.

“Better pearls are made of paste,” he said. “I know these things. This is soft and chalky, it will lose its color and die in a few months. Look-” He offered the glass to Kino, showed him how to use it, and Kino, who had never seen a pearl’s surface magnified, was shocked at the strange-looking surface.

The third dealer took the pearl from Kino’s hands. “One of my clients likes such things,” he said. “I will offer five hundred pesos, and perhaps I can sell it to my client for six hundred.”

Kino reached quickly and snatched the pearl from his hand. He wrapped it in the deerskin and thrust it inside his shirt. The man behind the desk said, “I’m a fool, I know, but my first offer stands. I still offer one thousand. What are you doing?” he asked, as Kino thrust the pearl out of sight.

“I am cheated,” Kino cried fiercely. “My pearl is not for sale here. I will go, perhaps even to the capital.”

Now the dealers glanced quickly at one another. They knew they had played too hard; they knew they would be disciplined for their failure, and the man at the desk said quickly, “I might go to fifteen hundred.”

This is exactly how the two-headed one-party system works, in America and elsewhere. One party owned by one imperialist oligarchic class is placed in two separate offices “to give some semblance of competition,” just like Steinbeck’s pearl buyers. And just like Steinbeck’s pearl buyers they work together to deceive the people into accepting the lowest possible bid, in their case meaning the acceptance of virtually no change at all from the imperialist oligarchic status quo.

You see this kleptocratic dynamic at play regardless of who is in office. When the two-headed one-party system convinced Americans to sell their pearl to Barack Obama, for example, their payment took the form of a corporatist healthcare scam deceitfully labeled the Affordable Care Act and a pathetic temporary band-aid on the sucking chest wound of environmental peril, along with a continuation and expansion of all of Bush’s most depraved foreign and domestic policies.

Then Kino, angry and determined never again to be deceived, sold his pearl to the Republican Party. This time his payment consisted of a tax break for the wealthy and some verbiage about a wall, along with a continuation and expansion of all of Obama’s most depraved foreign and domestic policies.

This pattern repeats over and over and over again, whether it’s the presidency or Congress, and the people never learn their lesson. They’re trained to think of the two parties as competing, when really they’re more like the left fist and the right fist on the same boxer. An orthodox-stance boxer uses the left jab and the right cross in conjunction with each other in one-two punch combinations to accomplish the same goal, namely to leave his opponent staring up at the arena lights and rethinking his life decisions. And in this case, the boxer’s opponent is you.

Ralph Nader, who to this day is still falsely smeared as responsible for George W Bush’s pseudo-victory over Al Gore in 2000, occasionally shares an anecdote about the time he told his father that what America needs is a good third party.

“I’ll settle for a second,” his father replied.

This is the kind of clear seeing we all need to have. We need to not fall into the drama of the two-handed puppet show and mistake what we are seeing for two separate and competing entities. We need to see and be aware of the puppeteer at all times.

Look past the “semblance of competition” and watch what the pearl buyers are actually doing.

Ignore their words.

Ignore their fake pro-wrestling kayfabe combat over impeachment agendas they know will never bear fruit and their Russia conspiracies they know are pure nonsense.

Watch their actual behaviors instead.

Don’t fall for the illusion.

Don’t get sucked into the drama of the two-handed puppet show.

Don’t be deceived, Kino.

Don’t sell your pearl.


Thanks for reading! The best way to get around the internet censors and make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for my website, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, liking me on Facebook, following my antics on Twitter, checking out my podcast on either YoutubesoundcloudApple podcasts or Spotify, following me on Steemitthrowing some money into my hat on Patreon or Paypalpurchasing some of my sweet merchandisebuying my new book Rogue Nation: Psychonautical Adventures With Caitlin Johnstone, or my previous book Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish or use any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge.

Bitcoin donations:1Ac7PCQXoQoLA9Sh8fhAgiU3PHA2EX5Zm2

Liked it? Take a second to support Caitlin Johnstone on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

56 responses to “America’s Two-Headed One Party System”

  1. Oh so true, Caitlin. As an American, I am revolted by the criminality of the U.S. government, as well as the deception and manipulation they call the political process here. It is so contrived, so fake, and so evil that I can’t stand it. I tell everyone that will listen how they are being played, but the brainwashing runs very deep in the land of the free (free of independent thought). But like you, I keep trying. Your contribution, by way of your articles, is beautiful to behold. Thank you.

  2. A decent enough essay. But completely inappropriate at this time, when it can do nothing but serve the imperialist oligarchic class it purportedly opposes.

    Sanders may be the nominee. If you think that Trump vs Sanders is anything like “The Pearl” that their policies and governing would be at all similar – you need to have your head examined. This sophomoric cynicism and despair is what the imperialist oligarchic class counts on as a last resort. Really, really obviously so.

    Rather than essays from self-styled Lefties – who frequently outsmart themselves with own goals in their 11th dimensional chess games, there are two simple indicators, quite reliable individually and even more in concert.

    First – does the imperialist oligarchic class hate you? With respect to Sanders – yes, he has dozens of anti-endorsements from the worlds leading vampires.
    Second – do “the masses” support you? His campaign is run on and has far more support than any other on the donations of working people.

  3. Read. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty. Washington

  4. Unfortunately, when one portion of this party is too weak, then the winner is the faction that can offer the least and still seem to be promising the best life. Morrison is doing that, hence no action. The Public Service may react to his proposed cuts (especially since they remove many well-paid senior troughs), but the financial sector is making huge profits at the expense of the consumers.

  5. The official “Useful Idiots” list. Vote or lose!
    The 10 Most Stoned Moments of the 2020 Presidential By Matt Taibbi. Please peruse this entire article here:

  6. I appreciate the literary quote – an appropriate analogy. I first realized that we realized we had this problem a number of years ago when a friend pointed out the Presidential elections were about voting for Yale Team A or Yale Team B. (Trump is an anomaly that proves the rule.)

    1. I said in 2016 that Trump would be hurt by the fact that he was not really in either faction of the single party, but did have good support from the GOP (who could areciate a bad businessman who could make money).

      Unfortunately,Trump still doesn’t realize he is facing an establishment that is really a deep, dark, murky and decaying swamp.

  7. Re. your two headed beast, the most delightful quote on that subject is from Dmitry Orlov, 2006:

    “It is certainly more fun to watch two Capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one Communist party to vote for.

    The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing.

    The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two Capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos.

    The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party buys 50% of the vote, and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat.”

  8. Lovely piece, Caitlin. Thank you.

  9. The US is the single advanced capitalist country in the world without a mass workers party, despite most of these parties elsewhere being thoroughly reformist and the willing servants of capital. The semblance of choice that these social democratic parties offer is similar to the pearl buyers and Democrats, but at least they represent the political expression of workers, originating often from more militant and heroic times of struggle, often from times of lost class battles.

    In the US such heroic times, concentrated in the 1930s, didn’t result in the formation of a mass workers party when they should have, principally because the rulers effectively were able to use a combination of repression, racism and anti-communism to divide the US workers movement. When it’s in their interests, the rulers always learn the lessons of history. And it’s no coincidence that the lack of a workers party in the US is accompanied not only by a general political backwardness but also by levels of religiosity not seen in any other advanced capitalist country.

    Instead of a reformist workers party faithfully serving the rulers, the Democrats have performed this essential ‘smoke and mirrors’ trick by co-opting most of the trade union bureaucracy in the US — there simply are too many workers to have bevies of cops, who produce no surplus value, in every workplace — because workers’ consent and compliance to their ‘station’ and situation is still needed for the system to keep functioning. The ideological apparatus overwhelmingly toes the Democrat line because they’re a vitally important part of that maintenance of consent. Not necessarily its ‘manufacture’, but its maintenance.

    Outside the US, the mass reformist workers parties historically became ever more entrenched into the system of bourgeois rule, both as the bourgeoisie learnt to co-opt and deal with them, and as their leaders became more compliant with the help of some breadcrumbs and a few bones scattered from the gluttons’ table. The moment they fail in their allotted task, when their mass base refuses its ‘consent’, then the bourgeoisie will quickly dispense with the services of the “labor lieutenants of capital” and ultimately resort to naked repression and fascism. And the mass social democratic parties are beginning to show signs of failure.

    The situation in the US isn’t so much that ‘the people never learn their lesson’. Nearly half the eligible voters don’t vote. They’ve learnt in their own fashion. At some level they know their vote won’t change anything, and they’re right, and their contempt for the electoral charade most likely will continue to deepen. Maybe some poor white Trump voters won’t vote in the next round either, especially if they see still no change to their situation despite all the ‘promises’ and racist demagoguery and scapegoating from Trump and the GOP. But most probably they’ll simply vote the same because they still see Trump as a thumb in the eye of the thoroughly rigged system and there being no positive alternative. Still.

    That ‘people never learn their lesson’ is nothing new. Partly it’s because nothing new and viable is presented as a solution to better their situation. And partly because working people, who comprise the majority of the population, don’t have the time or any residual energy to educate themselves to break from the brainwashing. And it’s not just some crude belief in the ‘system’ or its ‘values’ that needs to be broken from, but the more dangerous and seductive variants peddled by mainstream liberals, ‘left’ Democrats (eg Sanders, AOC, et al.) and social democrats. The Democrats in the US, and mass social democratic parties elsewhere, need to be broken from before anything fundamentally changes.

    That’s what political leadership is for, and today a revolutionary leadership is lacking but sorely needed that can address the felt material needs of the vast majority of the population. The political education of the masses will come about in struggle where lessons really are learnt, not in the comfort of the reading library. But what’s absolutely crucial is that if these lessons aren’t learnt and acted upon by the erstwhile leaders of the working class and the masses, then things won’t change at all and will only worsen. The issue is not simply a ‘second’ (or ‘third’) party. The question is: what kind of party?

    1. Well said. I’d like to add that more than half of Americans, myself included, didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump.

      1. Thank you. I should have mentioned that the one-sided class war waged by the rulers over the last ~40 years has been aided and abetted by the Democrats and their trade union bureaucrat buddies who sold out so many workers struggles and actions that have not only left workers far worse off but have decimated the trade unions and organised workers movement itself. The bureaucrats have blamed China, Japan or Mexico but it’s always been US corporations who off-shored the jobs, which ain’t coming back anytime soon.

        As a result, working people now are doing shitty jobs at long hours and half or a third of their former wages and salaries. And they’re far more subject to the ‘free’ market choice of ‘do as I say or you’re out’. They have far less power than they would have if protected by a trade union with a leadership not afraid to use industrial muscle to look after the interests of the members. The ‘free market discipline’ is what keeps workers in line, day to day, maintaining ‘consent’, along with all the rest, and forms the material basis for the low ebb of class struggle over the last 3-4 decades.

        Democrats with ‘left’ verbiage are still part of the bourgeois party-political apparatus of property and profits, and If there’s no-one worth voting for who at least draws a rough class line and who’s not part of that apparatus, then choosing ‘the lesser of two evils’ means still choosing an evil. If there’s no-one worth voting for, and it looks like there’s no-one, then don’t vote.

  10. I am glad Bernie shocked them by his non endorsement. He played his complicity hand too early and too hard. Watch him toughen up now, to reassure us how ‘determined’ he is to stand up for ‘all’ of us. He had me arrested at a rally. I know better about him!

  11. Here’s the next Elite “solution” to all “our” problems (how the Elite can remain the Elite). How do you think the masses will respond to this “it’s this or the total collapse of our present whatever-you-want-to-call-it arrangement”?

  12. I think the Saul Alinsky version of the story is about the mice having an election to decide which cat should be in charge.

    1. Step O'Rafferty Avatar
      Step O’Rafferty

      Even if a substantial percentage of the mice jump out of the consensus reality paradigm and vote for mice, the system is rigged so that the cats will win.

  13. I wrote a piece that is so similar to what you are saying here:
    I have been following you lately and really like your writing. You are a natural, keep it up. We need more people like you!!!

  14. America’s Founders were great figures of history, but today’s America is inimical to everything they fought for. Today’s America is what they had fought against.
    Please peruse this entire article here:

  15. The reason that hasn’t become a meme is because American left-wingers don’t read anything literary.

  16. The story speaks very well to the charade that is US politics and many other political systems .
    3rd party for sure and maybe a different political system that ensures honesty and integrity if these virtues
    are still possibility in our times.

  17. Would Richard Jewell have been turned into a bug splat?
    If the Atlanta bombing had taken place today, in the current environment, would Richard Jewell have had a bag thrown over his head and been whisked off to Gitmo? Once there he would wait for years, if not forever, for a trial. Exculpating evidence would wind up on the scales of justice opposite political agendas as well as bureaucratic reputations and careers.
    Legal opinion is that moving a US citizen from US soil to Gitmo would be hotly contested. Would the DOJ risk it? Would Richard Jewell have been set up? If he fled from fear of being bagged-up in the middle of the night or if someone(?) made it look like he had fled would the last thing Richard Jewell have heard have been the sound of a drone?
    Imagine hearing it announced on the nightly news that you are guilty and they are close to arresting you.
    From the Boston Globe:

    On NBC, Tom Brokaw said, “The speculation is that the FBI is close to ‘making the case,’ in their language. They probably have enough on him to arrest him right now . . . but you always want to have enough to convict him as well.”

    In October 1996, the FBI cleared Mr. Jewell. In a news conference, he called his 88 days under suspicion a nightmare:
    “In its rush to show the world how quickly it could get its man, the FBI trampled on my rights as a citizen,” he said. “In its rush for the headline that the hero was the bomber, the media cared nothing for my feelings as a human being. In their mad rush to fulfill their own personal agendas, the FBI and the media almost destroyed me and my mother.”

  18. read whitney webb’s name-naming report on the background of Trump’s “we will keep syrian oil” declaration, at mintpress. AIPAC, WINEP, Satterfield, Kahana, Hayden, …. lots of ghouls and criminals of the Deep State star in this drama, as fully expected.

  19. Perhaps this situation was never more glaringly apparent than back when the electorate was asked, “Which of these two “Skull and Bones” uber-elitist secret society members do you cast your vote for as President?”.

  20. I agree with Ralph Nader’s father that America needs a second political party.
    The two-headed one party aka the duopoly is the political party of capital.
    America needs a pro-labor worker’s political party. Perhaps this could be accomplished without the chaos, increased barbarism, social breakdown inherent in destroying the Dem-GOP party of capital.
    “It is the effect to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government… Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights” (Abraham Lincoln).

  21. Very excellent article Caitlin. Next time I have a pearl I will not waste it on either party.

  22. Two sides of the same coin. Heads they win and tails we loose. We need change.

    1. We will not get it. The flaw lies in the belief that there can be a solution involving some form of government, which is sociopathic in its very nature. The assumption of a monopoly of force (government) is the resort of a criminally insane enterprise. To assume that “if only” we had a better choice is naive on its face, since any alternative would quickly become Sociopaths In Charge in different clothes. For example, I admire the intentions of Ralph Nader, but his mandatory air bags are in the process of killing as many as they save. At this very moment, there are a multitude of cars with extremely dangerous air bag systems which have been in service for years. The Sociopaths In Charge have known this for slightly fewer years, yet will not allow those air bags to be disabled until they can be replaced. Their monopoly of violence (authority) would be threatened. Gang rape is democracy in action. It could be somewhat alleviated in smaller political units (fewer rapes), but I refuse to participate at any level. Voting merely lends credence to the insanity.

  23. Spot on. Love Ralph Nader’s dad’s comment.

    “We need a good third party.”
    “I’ll settle for a second.”

  24. Yup, you’re so clear on that, so much so that it reminds me of a snowy night years ago where the traffic was backed up for miles where it never usually was, so I walked the distance to find out what the problem was; a motorist stuck on ice couldn’t make it over the tiny hill, and no one would get out of their car to help push him over it, they’d rather sit there all night till their vehicles ran out of fuel. So, my guess is that most Americans don’t even deserve to live because most of them are too stupid, lazy, and self-centered to be able to do even themselves any good.

  25. Does the same principle not apply to the political life of all nations? To apply your ‘Pearl’ reasoning to Thursday’s general election in the UK would indicate that Jeremy Corbyn was a willing participant in his party’s defeat. In fact, he played his part to perfection!

  26. william c wesley Avatar
    william c wesley

    that sounds correct

  27. I have been saying this for years now. Every time an election comes up, I tell folks to IGNORE the bullshit spouted by the politicians ,and make their judgement calls of what the politicians have actually done in the past. I also suggest voting for minor parties thereby ensuring the Big one, (notice I don’t differentiate between the two, as I believe they are one and the same anyway) does not get the majority. But my suggestions are all in vain, pollsters are simply too stupid to work these things out for themselves and willingly accept the crap handed to them instead.

  28. Excellent, this is the best one yet Caitlin! Can you go deeper and do the same for the puppeteer? Who controls the puppeteer I wonder. Who is the grand deceiver?

    1. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole to understand how and why this happens, read David Icke’s latest book “The Trigger”.

      1. Seems like we don’t need to go after the “puppeteers,” those pathetic Gollums. What we need to do is cancel the puppet show and put the theater to good use.

        1. Step O'Rafferty Avatar
          Step O’Rafferty

          Cancelling the puppet show while so many people are enthralled by it may not be the best way to bring about change. I believe Pol Pot did something similar to that in Cambodia. Education is probably our best option, after we have freed everyone from the zombification being caused by fluoridation, vaccinations and the sheer banality of the mass media.

  29. I read the police news quite widely and it always surprised me to hear the GOP supporters calling Democrats either socialists or Marxists, as though the Democrats were any different in substantial policy than the GOP.

  30. If you want to explain it to someone who isn’t into gems (or who is likely to give you a sermon in reply about exploiting the poor oysters), Bill Hicks has a short version to put in your teaching toolkit.

    1. I miss Bill Hicks. I was one of the lucky ones to see him live in Austin, Texas, many times before he made it big. His life was cut way too short and he was one of the most brilliant comedic minds ever to live in my opinion, right up there with the genius George Carlin, may they both Rest In Peace…

  31. I’ve been transpartisan now for many years, trying to tell people to grok Kino’s Dilemma for a long time. But boy oh boy you sure spell out our condition with a simple and elegant clarity by using this poignant metaphor. Your essay needs to go far and wide. Thanks!

  32. “as the two legs of the march of the oligarchs”

    Or, I think it was George Galloway who called them

    “the two cheeks of the same arse”

  33. Our food system is no different. It all comes from the same place, the labels give us the illusion of choice.

  34. “The greatest illusion in this world is the illusion that the market welcomes competition.

    “That the market welcomes choice.

    “In a world where a very few giants own pretty much everything, it is hard to tell people that the market is free.

    “The greatest illusion is the illusion of choice.”

    1. Obviously, there is no free market in America. So, when we see the left blame the free market for society’s ills and the right defend it as the source of prosperity, the charade
      of what I call the Republicrat System reveals itself. In a state of freedom, absent the corrupt institution of the state, the market (defined as human beings voluntarily
      interacting with each other) certainly welcomes competition and welcomes choice.
      Oh, there will always be fools incapable of rational thought but without the coercive
      powers of the state, most humans are capable of entering into mutually beneficial
      transactions with one another. The market is simply the combined activities of
      human beings. The greatest illusion is that corrupt politicians are working to protect you from the very people they work for and they act to help you and your family and community.

    2. Freedom of choice is what you got
      Freedom from choice is what you want

      I don’t want freedom nor liberty, I want to be told what to do and I want to be entertained.

  35. Love your fierce generous compassion towards the humanity that seems to have such little regard for their own welfare. This allegorical tale is your best piece yet. You have brought your point out of the hazy political noise into a still light. “Don’t sell your pearl Kino” yes indeed I should not. Thank you, Howard

  36. In auctions local dealers commonly operate a ring – same idea.

  37. The ” United States political circus ” dazzles the audience while their money and their liberty disappear.

  38. The UK has just voted in the British Nazi party, and you’re wittering on about a false dichotomy that’s older than the USA?
    To say I’m disappointed doesn’t even come close.

  39. “For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, the United States of America reigns without a rival.”-Frederick Douglass

  40. Write on, we’ve got one party, I call it the Money Party, heads and tails. We have a privatized for-profit monetary system, which is usury, the sin of sins, the 7 deadly. Dante’ said usury is “an extraordinarily efficient form of violence by which one does the most damage with the least effort.” Money is the controlling factor, and if you control the creation and distribution of money well then, as the 1912 Pujo Committee investigation showed that through interlocking directorates a few financial and banking elites controlled every industry. Today of course that includes the mass media, government and public policy.

  41. This is just too perfect, Caitlin. I think I was 12 or 13 when I first read this Steinbeck novella – my first attempt at measured speed-reading – 18 minutes I think – if I recall back nearly 60 years (blinded by the speed of light – but I plead my childish innocence). I didn’t see the political application which you have highlighted here so well – though I understood about devious market control with a pretence at the much-vaunted “competition” ‘principle’ – I think my teacher pointed it out – but I certainly see it now – as so many in their letters on forums around the country – most disgusted at the LNP political right are also unafraid to reference the previously left ALP as equally or more-or-less complicit in the ugliness going on in our land – in our world.

  42. “Divide & Conquer, the Left/Right Fraud” > CorbettReport(.)com
    Excellent 10 video on this subject for your semi-literate friends.

  43. You model my thinking so much. It seems everything you write is a mirror of my own thoughts. I’ve long called Republicans and Democrats as the two legs of the march of the oligarchs. On another note, As a kid Ralph Nader was one of the people that spoke to me. To this day I remember him saying “Big business is organized. We will always have a big business dominated world until the people are as organized as big business “.

Leave a Reply