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"Democracy is not a spectator sport". (Editorial).

As the Stephen Waldhorn/James Petras exchange indicates, the relationship between economy and society is central. Even if globalization improves the world's standard of living (a doubtful proposition), the question remains: do people have more or less control over major institutions? One of the questions to be asked of any public decision or institution is whether it enhances opportunities for people to democratically determine decisions which affect their lives.

Do we have and what do we mean by "democracy?" Under what conditions does it blossom; against what conditions must it struggle? These are questions small "d" democrats must address. The following articles address them and others. Omaha Together One Community's (OTOC) slogan begins the discussion. If "consumer" is substituted "spectator," the same point is made.

In Norman Hill's Sleeping Car Porters' story, relations of power are clear. The porters were once "a docile labor force..." Firings, violent assaults and other reprisals by the company intimidated them: their bread and butter were on the line. Can democracy exist when power relations in the economy are so unbalanced? While democratic forms are important, are they so hollowed out today as to be almost meaningless?

Democratic citizens are self-confident and competent people. Joe Blum describes them in the San Francisco shipyards. "Fathers brought willing sons into trades that conferred honor, dignity and respect upon the craftsman." The unions negotiated contracts and brought some rights to the workplace. But decisions regarding "capital investment, market or product selection, acceptable rate of return on investment and alternative investment possibilities --remained managerial prerogatives with virtually no input from the workers or their unions." Can there be a democracy when decisions regarding where jobs and housing are located and what investments are made are beyond the scope of authority of direct citizen or worker participation or of representative political bodies because a "free market" ideology precludes asking them?

OTOC (and others like it) offers some answers: when people organize multi-issue organizations rooted in democratic values they can effectively challenge oppressive power. Meatpacking management could say of its employees, "we take care of our kids," while creating an environment of fear and intimidation or, at best, paternalism. To imagine another possibility, "to create hope from fear people need an opportunity to process their pain in public, to tell their stories and listen to others...only then does fear give way to passion that leads to action and formation of a community of interest." Such organizing takes place at people's points of pain, which is why local participation is a pre-condition for democracy at more distant levels of decision-making.

Organizing uses First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech, press and assembly -- requirements for democracy. These are endangered. "Slap suits" and other legal action taken against unions and community organizations to stop or slow organizing are an increasing sign of the times. Corporations with limitless financial resources can drain the treasuries of "peoples' organizations" with injunctions, unfounded liability claims, restraining orders, cooling off periods, deliberately slow regulatory procedures, government induced fear and other limits on freedom of assembly -- all shrinking the power of democratic forums.

Democracy requires that people speak in their own behalf. Clifford Bob and S.M. Miller post warnings about the "third sector:" Bob notes, "the most democratic and participatory local movements may garner the least (international) assistance...Perhaps most troubling, the myth of an equitable and beneficent global civil society breeds apathy and self-satisfaction among the industrialized nations..." Advocacy organizations dot the map, and are called "civil society" even though they bear little resemblance to the voluntary associations that have historically been considered its underpinning. S.M. Miller defines such organizations: "an advocacy organization...speaks in the name of someone else, but those someone elses do not have their own voices in the organization that speaks for the unheard... (T)hey seldom involve the poor as subjects of their own destiny..." Well intentioned, smart and politically sophisticated advocates are not a substitute for participation by people experiencing the problems. Miller conti nues, "social exclusion (is) a major aspect of poverty."

Seeram Chaulia warns against a new conception of humankind seeking acceptance as the norm: "The essence of these sweeping economic and social forces is a new outlook towards humans, a commodification where 'the working unit is no longer the organism, but rather the gene' and respect and dignity shift from the individual to strands of manipulable chromosomal information. 'Cell by cell,... organ by organ, we may willingly surrender our personhood in the marketplace.'"

Democracy requires more than procedures protecting against abusive power--however important these may be. Wilson C. McWilliams states the issue: is democracy an end in itself or simply the means by which decisions are made? Advocates of the former are the "second voice in American political culture...regarding self-government as a reason for rights rather than means to rights." These different understandings now play themselves out in stark contrast. McWilliams: "...For an oligarchy wealth is the ranking public good and the greatest contribution to civic life. Consequently, in the oligarchic view, those who most contribute to the wealth of a regime deserve the most from it. It follows, as in President Bush's argument, that the rich deserve a bigger tax cut because they pay the most taxes, just as it makes sense to take a hard line on welfare recipients while being more accommodating to corporations...

Rather than exposing elitist/racist/sexist assumptions of the Constitution (important but different), McWilliams places his discussion squarely within the American political tradition where, surely, it must be to persuade most Americans of its merit. For example: Jefferson knew economic insecurity "breeds courtiers and lickspitties rather than citizens."

Paul McLeary's review indicates how far we are from such a democracy. Bertram Gross' Friendly Fascism comes hauntingly close to describing present realities. Written twenty years ago, it argues, says McCleary, "Fascism would establish a foothold in this country not as a result of coup or popular insurgency, but rather in a quieter way as a result of the marriage between Big Government and Big Business." As if in anticipation of post 9/11, ENRON, Arthur Anderson and Attorney General Ashcroft, Gross said in the late 1970s, "various crises in American society (will provide) opportunities for Establishment leaders to do things that would accelerate--often unintentionally--the tendencies toward a repressive corporate society."

Marion Nestle's Food Politics brings these issues to the dinner table. "Free choice" justifies marketing demonstrably unhealthy products to students. "A school administrator wrote, '...each student has the option to buy or not to buy...Americans drink 13.15 billion gallons of carbonated drinks every year...someone is making a lot of money. Why shouldn't schools get their share?...'"

Many causes link "freedom of choice" to their claims. But something else is going on here. Those fighting for healthy food, environmental protection, economic sustainability and social justice lack the political muscle and cultural clout to combat corporate America's claims. It is not because there is lack of "education" or policy alternatives on these matters. The problem is one of power: how to place health, environment, economy and democracy high enough on the political and cultural agenda to expose and defeat institutions that now shape "free choice" to serve their own selfish ends.
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Author:Miller, Mike
Publication:Social Policy
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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