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Radical Democracy.

Most Americans would probably define democracy as, simply, our system of government. Even radicals identify the term with little more than toleration, civil liberties and other constitutional safeguards. But its essential meaning, going back to ancient Greece, is popular power. This criterion--not primarily institutional forms but the distribution of power--has been all but forgotten.

In this valuable book, C. Douglas Lummis tries to rehabilitate "democracy" by stripping it of its "disfigurements": a long list of paternalistic elisions, including the idea that it means caring for people's welfare--government for the people--forgetting the other two-thirds of Lincoln's formula. "Democracy," he counters, "does not mean that the people are blessed with kind or just rulers. It means that they rule themselves." Nor is it equivalent to the free market, though this notion has acquired the status of holy writ; dividing society into rich and poor is incompatible with democracy. It is not merely free elections, or letting people "have their say," or the U.S. Constitution.

Echoing Paine, Lummis calls democracy "common sense." Popular self-government is a "common denominator out of which all other systems of rule are constructed, and back to which their deconstruction would presumably take us." All power is generated by the people; every regime in history has been formed by taking power away from all the people and giving it to a few. A democratic revolution, therefore, would be, in a sense, a going back, a return to the source of all political power.

Lummis wants to go back in another sense too. If work and technology are to be democratized, we have to recognize that factories and some machines have built into them not only useful scientific knowledge but also the intention to exploit. Lummis's technological conservatism (he looks back admiringly to William Morris and the craft tradition) has affinities with Edmund Burke's concern for preserving ancient customs and institutions. But contemporary ruling class "conservatism," he argues, is really updated Jacobinism, Burke's archenemy--the idea that the world can be forcefully reconstructed to "conform to an ideal pattern dictated by abstract reason." Surely, though, the elites who build nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, who preside over global warming and the decimation of the rainforests, do so in blind pursuit of power and profit, not to remake the world according to some design. Our rulers may be nihilists, vandals, barbarians--but not Jacobins.

Lummis finds authentic conservatism in the ecology movement, battling to preserve life itself against the reckless and destructive forces of change. But it is misleading to label, for example, the Greens' promotion of Ralph Nader's candidacy as "conservative"; they're among the most radical and democratic forces in U.S. politics today because they understand that preserving, or restoring, what is most precious--sociability, a right relationship to nature--requires the destruction of existing institutions like the truly conservative two-party system. The liberals and "radicals" who can't imagine life without the Democratic Party are much closer to the spirit of Burke.

Lummis wants to protect the integrity of traditional cultures, but he also believes that democracy is "common sense" everywhere, since it is based on universal human needs and capabilities. Economic development, he thinks, is inherently undemocratic. It means eliminating the traditional ways in which people have made their living and organizing them to do "unnatural kinds of work under unnatural conditions for unnaturally long hours, and of extracting all or part of the extra wealth so produced and transferring it elsewhere." Since World War II, the horrors of capitalism in the Third World have been justified by an ideology that redefines classical political demands in economic terms: Freedom becomes the free market, the pursuit of happiness a lifetime of shopping. And even these "freedoms" are attainable only for an elite.

During the cold war, Lummis argues, putative Marxists like Paul Baran and Andre Gunder Frank offered only an "insider critique" of the ideology of development; "socialism" was merely a superior method of achieving industrialization. Socialists once believed that development was only a means to an end: By abolishing scarcity and generating a plenitude of economic goods available to all, distinctions of wealth and power would disappear in a free society. At some point the order got reversed and the very terms redefined; the development of the productive forces became the goal and "socialism" came to mean simply state-owned property, not democratic control of economic institutions. Lummis blames Lenin principally for embracing the idea of development as an end in itself. As evidence, he cites Lenin's early attacks on the romantic anti-capitalism of the Narodniks and his often harsh-sounding calls after 1917 for sacrifice, order and discipline on the shop floor.

But there is also reason to believe that Lenin remained committed to the radically democratic ideals expressed in his State and Revolution, and that the authoritarian measures taken by the Bolsheviks were meant to retain power not for its own sake but for the sake of promoting revolution in the developed West. Lummis grants that much of what was bad in Bolshevik policy before Lenin's death was a function of Russia's isolation and extreme poverty. But he fails to appreciate that socialist revolution in Germany, which could not be ruled out until after 1923, was the Bolsheviks' paramount goal; Lenin wanted production not for itself but in order to hang on while awaiting help from the European working class.

Lummis believes that development itself, whatever its ostensible goals, is a "losing strategy." He declares that a high standard of living, like that of the U.S. middle class, is unachievable for most of the world, and that the poor countries can never "catch up"; nor, he suggests, should they. Lummis is not the sort of extreme cultural relativist who argues that subsistence economies are not really impoverished because they provide people with what they need according to the values of their own cultures. But he insists that not everybody needs concrete buildings and leather shoes. What he wants is a new concept of "prosperity." If people everywhere had power, they could sort out their "true needs from those that are the maimed consequences of the fear and envy of class society." They could decide what they want and what kind of work they want to do. Still, Lummis warns, the technologies of the industrialized West are inherently oppressive. Fortunately, "most of the technologies that a human being really needs to live an orderly, comfortable and healthy life are ancient"--cultivating the soil, domesticating animals, catching fish, cooking food with fire, painting, pottery-making.

Lummis's rejection of the possibility that world poverty might be eradicated, and ecological disaster avoided, through democratic development seems unnecessarily pessimistic, given his strong faith in the creative possibilities of ordinary people. Studies by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and other international agencies indicate that there is no global scarcity of most vital resources, and that the technology of farming now practiced in the West could easily feed far more than the world's current population. And, of course, population growth itself is a function of poverty; its rate tends to decline in developed societies.

It may not be possible to universalize the standard of living of the U.S. middle class. But there is no reason to believe that a reasonable abundance of food, clothing, shelter, education, energy and other basic needs is forever out of reach. Providing these things would be a colossal project of investment, planning and significant increases in output and productivity through the use of industrial technology--all of which Lummis profoundly mistrusts. But if radical democracy is possible, why not collective democratic decision-making about resource allocation on a global scale? If certain kinds of machines and industrial processes are intrinsically oppressive and inhuman, why couldn't a real democracy find ways of sharing the burden of unpleasant tasks, while still freeing people to pursue creative and fulfilling work?

The key is popular power, but at the moment its prospects appear feeble. Lummis has been inspired by the great democratic movements of the past decade, principally those in the Philippines and Eastern Europe. But they have been grave disappointments. They have brought down dictatorships only to fall back, leaving power in the hands of neoliberals and others who are far from being radical democrats. In today's world, the victories of people's movements are ephemeral.

Lummis's purpose is to "explore the nature of democracy as a principle in human affairs" and to offer some criteria by which those who are involved in democratic movements may critically evaluate their own goals and methods; in this, I think he has succeeded. Since it is not part of his project, Lummis offers few strategic or institutional proposals. He calls for transborder participatory democracy in the form of North-South coalitions of citizens' movements, and he sensibly counterposes this to the thoroughly undemocratic idea of world government based on existing states and the United Nations, which does not even pretend to be democratic. He insists that the hope of global democracy rests on faith in our fellow human beings. It's the hardest faith to accept, much harder than faith in unseen supernatural beings, and yet we all have it to some degree, as shown in the countless acts of trust we must make in order to live. Democratic faith is "the decision to believe in what people can be on the basis of what they sometimes are." The move to embrace this faith conquers cynicism and gives one hope and the ability to act.
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Author:Harrison, Thomas
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 9, 1996
Words:1575
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