MORE DEMOCRACY! MORE REVOLUTION!
In another offering in our First Principles series, Benjamin R. Barber shows how American movements for social change are not about destroying the "system" but joining it--how the recurrent cry "Let me in!" means "More democracy!" He considers the potential impact of increased citizen involvement in the three arenas of government, business and civil society. It is in the last sector that he finds the greatest scope for effective action and hope for change.
BY BENJAMIN R. BARBER
For all its undeniable prosperity, in part precisely because of its undeniable prosperity, there are many things amiss in America today. For each thing that is right, something has gone wrong. For all the prosperity, there is far too much inequality; for all the practiced tolerance, there is too much incivility; for all the push to the center, there is too much recrimination, too much polarization; for all the productivity, there is too much disemployment, too much meanness, too much commercialism; for all the rollback of bureaucracy and welfare statism, there is too much antigovernment paranoia, too much distrust of democracy. In a word, for all the democracy, there is not enough democracy.
Yet the left appears to have neither an obvious constituency nor a persuasive political program to contend with these ills, and the disarray caused by the Clinton crisis can only exacerbate the difficulties it faces. The old coalition that created the New Deal and the Great Society represents an ever-tinier minority of voters. The old programs embody living ideas but dead policy options too wedded to vanished notions of nineteenth-century capitalism. Are there new "first principles" that can make a difference? Or will old first principles do? Although we progressives often make sport of our historical legacy, America's most promising progressive principles have in fact always been its first principles; for America's first principles (if not its practices) have always been fundamentally progressive. Foremost among those principles is Jefferson's bold claim that the remedy for all the defects of democracy is simply more democracy.
"More democracy!" has from the outset been the American battle cry--the cry of colonialists against the British, of tenants against landowners, of farmers against bankers, of disfranchised women against men, of slaves against slaveowners and of workers against those who would expropriate their labor. Radical proponents of democracy have historically made war not on American ideals but on hypocrisy--the distance power elites have put between those ideals and the nation's actual practices. Where Europeans have seen in politics the rationalization of class hegemony and called for a revolution against the political, Americans have seen in politics the means of their emancipation and have used political means to forge revolutions of inclusion. Revolution has taken the form: "Let me in!" "More democracy" has been the American ticket to emancipation, inclusion, equality and social justice. For more democracy means institutions and attitudes that are more democratic, and so means a more democratic democracy and thus a better democracy.
In the years before the Civil War when the women at Seneca Falls sought a place in the American sun, they refused to assail the rights language that had empowered men. Instead they held that language up to the test of its own entailments, asserting that the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration made all men and women equal. William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed he would "strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population" precisely on the basis of those "inalienable rights" vouchsafed by America's founding documents. To abolish slavery required--more democracy. Martin Luther King Jr. assailed the American nightmare of racism by embracing the American dream. More democracy.
What does such a broad formula mean today? More democracy, yes, but how? Where? Well, as Walt Whitman would say, everywhere! "Did you suppose," he queried in his Democratic Vistas, "democracy was only for elections, for politics and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest form of interaction between men, and their beliefs--in religion, literature, colleges, and schools--democracy in all public and private life."
If democracy is, as John Dewey insisted, less a form of government than a way of life, then more democracy means specifically more democracy not only in the domain of government but in the domain of business and the domain of civil society. More democracy in each of these domains could engender three small revolutions and compel significant progress toward more equality, more justice and more security for all.
More Democracy in Politics
To make our politics more democratic is the easiest (and, because we refuse or are unable to do it, apparently the hardest) of the tasks we face. For all the influence of money, special interests and transnational markets, our politics remains formally and legally democratic--which is to say, generically democratic. One person, one vote. That half of the eligible electorate does not vote and that those who do not vote are those who would benefit most by more political democracy (the young, people of color, the poor) is ironic and fateful. Ironic because nonvoters compose a significant proportion of the missing left constituency, and if they voted, their numbers would crucially alter the composition of our representative bodies. Fateful because by not voting they surrender the very power that could break the cycle of despair that paralyzes them politically.
The conservative cynic says to the homeless person soliciting a handout, "Get a job!" The progressive says, "Vote!" We know from Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven that nonvoting is about far more than apathy or complacency, that--disempowered economically and socially by a system that seems closed--the marginalized find it hard to feel that an occasional vote for mostly indistinguishable candidates will be very empowering. But they are in error: What they feel is truly false consciousness. For politics remains the sovereign domain, which means its rules are universally regulative. The law creates corporations and the marketplace and can contain and moderate them as legislators and their constituents please. Bill Gates, it appears, can be tamed if the political will is there. Legislators are first chosen in primaries, and if they lack excellence or ideological variety, participation in the political process can change that.
However useful as an explanation for the failures of the left, there is something disingenuous about a sociology that claims the referendum and the ballot box are somehow irrelevant to the challenges of social and economic injustice; that those very injustices destroy the viability of the processes by which they might be remedied. A vote is a vote, and the majority still carries the day. Our problem is winning the majority.
If we did no more than use the democratic means (federal, state, local) in front of our very noses, we could bring a great deal "more democracy" to the political domain. The Christian right figured this out a long time ago and made inroads first into local and then into national politics. The Rainbow Coalition registered a lot of people but too few of them ever actually voted. Getting out its vote apparently remains the left's greatest challenge.
Changing demographics compound the difficulties. As the natural constituents of the New Deal and the Great Society grow old and disappear from the voting rolls, as organized labor becomes a fraction of what it once was, as suburbanites become more numerous than city dwellers and successful minority groups become more politically variegated, and as people without kids at home are increasingly asked to support children's programs, progressives need to rethink how to advance an agenda of inclusion, social equality and justice in terms that do not make enemies of those in the Democratic Party's evolving base.
The key to meeting each of these challenges is cultivating citizens--through programs of civic education, voluntarism, community service and social responsibility that teach the young and old alike the arts of liberty and the competencies and responsibilities of self-government. The Corporation for National Service has been a vital tool of civic education, as have the dozens of campus-based programs of community service. The fight for public schools and against vouchers is in part a struggle for civic education, a battle to preserve the civic role of schools as creators of citizenship and social responsibility.
More Democracy in the Economy
Among the reasons for the failures of political democracy is the changing nature of the deeply undemocratic commercial sector, which today controls not only the production and distribution of durable goods but the production and distribution of ideas, information, knowledge, pictures, news and entertainment as well as the means by which they are transmitted. It is time to recognize that the true tutors of our children are not schoolteachers or university professors but filmmakers, advertising executives and pop culture purveyors. Disney does more than Duke, Spielberg outweighs Stanford, MTV trumps MIT. It is not from their schools that children learn to obsess over the President's private sexual conduct.
As tutor to our commercialized civilization, consumerist culture has been teaching antipathy to government and a misplaced faith in privatization and markets. Rather than serving personal needs in the name of social goods, the market has turned to the manufacture of human needs at the expense of social goods in an economy of endless consumption. It replaces citizens with consumers, urging us to regard ourselves, even in civic clothes, as "customers" of state bureaucracies and clients of government. But as consumers we get choice without power: individual selections from an agenda we do not control and with social consequences we cannot deal with.
Corporations have nurtured an ideology of privatization that has diminished the power of the democratic institutions by which public agendas are forged and common decisions taken. The marketplace must then be democratized: not deregulated but decentralized; not rendered safe and secure by corporate welfare but rendered competitive and self-sufficient; not made merely profitable but made more fair.
This means corporations must now themselves become more democratic. Ideally, this entails workplace democratization--minimally via employee stock ownership plans, cooperatives and stronger (and more internationalized) unions. Democracy is about obligations as well as rights, however. And as the government sector is diminished, corporations will be obliged to assume some of the responsibilities of citizens. Corporate responsibility can no longer be a discretionary policy of those occasional companies headed by civic-minded CEOs. It becomes the price of privatization, an obligation incurred by the private sector's complicity in curtailing democracy in the political domain. As governing institutions (prisons, schools, telecommunications) are privatized, private corporate institutions willy-nilly will become more public.
Rapacious capitalism that brutalizes workers and rides roughshod over the common goods of civil society in the long run befouls its own nest. Capitalism needs competition, democracy and civility, which means it needs to democratize its practices and civilize its executives--especially if it pursues a politics of privatization and government delegitimation.
But I am not so naïve as to think that corporations will take to civic responsibility merely because it is a good thing, or because they have a long-term interest in doing so even where it unbalances quarterly profit sheets. Government can act here as a jawboning partner--as it did in the Apparel Industry Partnership against child labor in foreign plants; as a provider of inducements, through tax breaks for corporations that agree to responsible work practices (now they get tax breaks in return for nothing at all); and as an enforcer, by negotiating effective workplace standards, meaningful protection for labor organization and citizen-friendly policies for international institutions like the WTO and the IMF that depend on US cooperation.
More Democracy in Civil Society
The disillusionment with politics makes political democratization difficult. The private character of the commercial sector makes economic democratization voluntary and thus improbable. The civic domain is, however, democratic by its very nature. It is local, composed of voluntary members committed to association and common goods, and it is by definition not for profit. It contains those "free spaces" where we learn to be citizens. It is in the arena of civic education. In these spaces, democracy does not depend on the reputation of leaders, only on the competence and civic responsibility of citizens.
Strong democratic civil society shares with government a sense of publicity and a regard for the general good and the common weal, yet it also partakes in that liberty that is the special virtue of the private sector. It is a voluntary and thus private realm devoted to public goods--the realm of church, family, education, culture, recreation, art and voluntary association.
Without civil society, citizens are suspended between big bureaucratic governments they no longer trust and private markets they cannot depend on for moral and civic values. Where the public square once stood there are only shopping malls and theme parks. In the absence of a vibrant and pluralistic civil society, formal democratic institutions atrophy. What is central democratic government but civil society organized for common action? Government is civil society's common arm, just as civil society is government's restraining hand. Civil society calls for decentralization rather than privatization, sharing rather than abdicating common power. At the same time, it can dissipate the atmosphere of solitariness and greed that surrounds markets. Both government and the private sector can be humbled by the expansion of civil society, for it absorbs some of the public aspirations of government (its commitment to public work) without being coercive, and it maintains liberty without yielding to the anarchy of commercial markets. A reinvigorated civil society can rehabilitate democratic government, now in such low repute. Indeed, to a considerable degree, democratization of civil society is the so-called third way being touted by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton--a condition for democratization of both politics and commerce.
For this to happen, however, requires programmatic action by citizens and by government. Civic space is at a premium in a commercial culture that privileges theme parks, malls and suburban developments. At the Walt Whitman Center we are working with architects, developers and urban planners to create a model of multi-use public space in consumption-dominated commercial malls. We have also designed a civic Web site that features a moderated civic chatroom for political deliberation that is both serious and entertaining. Why should the new technologies profit only the private sector and become the medium exclusively of commerce and entertainment? Why should civil society not have its own educational, cultural and political sites, if necessary, supported by an independent government-sponsored organization like PBS or NPR. Arts education is also an important way to nurture civil society, for the arts are its very soul and the source of that creative imagination indispensable to both culture and democracy. This may be reason enough to fund the NEA.
More Democracy, More Revolution!
In old, well-entrenched democratic states, it is easy to forget that democracy is a radical principle, perhaps the most radical of all principles. It derives from the root claims that people have a right to govern themselves and that no one has the right to govern another. Together, these claims legitimize revolution: a people's right to seize the power necessary to govern themselves. Liberty is rarely a gift of the powerful. It must be wrested from them in democratic revolutions that are just because they are democratic and effective because they are revolutionary.
Jefferson summed up the inherently revolutionary spirit of democracy when he insisted that each generation repossess its first principles anew, observing that the tree of liberty had to be nurtured from time to time with the blood of patriots. You cannot inherit freedom. You may be "born free" in the abstract, but to possess your birthright, you must fight for and earn it. Yet as prudent democrats from Hannah Arendt to Bruce Ackerman have noticed, the revolutionary democratic moment in America has had to contend with an equally potent establishmentarian moment averse to change and popular empowerment. Our real problem may be that we are immersed on the left in one of America's cyclic establishmentarian moments. Feeling swamped by a placid popular culture and its obsession with sex and money, dazzled by a wildly productive if ethically indifferent economy and frightened by a globalization process that seems to remove choice not only from individuals but from democratic nations, we have lost touch with democracy's revolutionary American core. This moment of stasis and uncertainty is the moment to reclaim our radicalism--our radice, or root, principles--and bring the fervor of democratic rebels back to our cause: Jefferson writing the Declaration, John Brown at Harpers Ferry, America's disfranchised women at Seneca Falls, Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial. These Americans did not wait for America to give them the liberty they claimed as a birthright. In the name of America, and with the collaboration of coalitions of citizens they mobilized and took it.
At the end of the last century, a fearful Frenchman cried, Trop de zèle! Too much zeal! Our plea at the close of this century must be Plus de zèle! More zeal! More democracy! More ardor, more rebelliousness, more gumption in the struggle for more votes, more corporate responsibility, and more civil society. Never mind what the President did or didn't do--what are we going to do?
Just a few yesterdays ago, Marxist revolution failed because it refused to take democracy seriously, thinking it had first to establish revolutionary economic and social justice by hook and by crook. It would be a perverse irony if democracy were to fail a few tomorrows from now because it refused to take revolution seriously--refused to enlist America's great revolutionary ideals in the ongoing and never-ending struggle for more democracy.
Benjamin R. Barber, the director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, is the author of Strong Democracy (California) and Jihad vs. McWorld (Ballantine), as well as two newly published works, A Place for Us (Hill & Wang) and A Passion for Democracy (Princeton).
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