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Remaking Democracy

In search of a more democratic, green form of socialism

I want to violate the American taboo on socialism in response to the Weekly’s Jan. 17 Slant column that asks are we really listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s message. “If so, why the growing disparity between rich and poor?”

The pathologies the Russian, Eastern European, Chinese and Cuban forms of socialism are obvious. But the truth and political relevance of Marxist – and, I would add, biblical, Buddhist and ecological – critiques of capitalism are, I think, ever more persuasive in a world of increasing inequality and ecological limits.

We need a dark green, democratic and humanist socialism. But it needs to be in an American form about which more at the end. 

We need to continually remake democracy. We never have it once and for all. For example, the Midwest progressive tradition, which anchored Oregon’s late great Sen. Wayne Morse, is a response to the late 19th century’s Gilded Age of unrestrained capitalism. The Great Depression catalyzed FDR’s “New Deal,” the American welfare state.

After WW II the U.S. and Europe began a 30-year period of increasing equality, spreading prosperity, a widening of the middle class, and near full employment.

 But since the Reagan-Thatcher era, we see a growing and frightening gap between rich and poor. Decreasing opportunities for steady work, increasing part-time, little jobs, declining income levels, and ecological limits mark this era.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many had a sense of political efficacy. Blacks, students, farm workers, women, environmentalists, and others made progressive social and political changes. Today, many ask, “What difference will it make?” This leads to less voting.

Ironically, voter participation declines primarily among non-elites – the poor, less educated, minorities – all of which undermine a sense of the key democratic value: citizen equality.

“Democracy” comes from the ancient Greek “demos,” which means “the people” – not everybody but non-elites, the common people.

But when economic elites are in gated communities and the poor in ghettoes, how can they possibly imagine themselves as equal citizens?

The rich don’t object to the ideal of citizen equality. Insidiously, they argue others aren’t living up to the ideal of citizen equality, to the normal requirements of citizenship. The “47 percent,” Mitt Romney’s term, aren’t pulling their weight. They’re living off the government. So why should the rich feel obliged to the poor?

This contemptuous view breaks our understanding of equal citizenship. It creates an exclusionary politics not unlike the situation in downtown Eugene regarding street youth and the homeless. Some see others as not belonging and read them out of the picture.

Such ideologies create a huge rift – and they lack any detailed understanding of the extraordinarily difficult, dramatic struggle of the poor to make do with very little.

Occupy is one expression of deep dissatisfaction in our society. But dissatisfaction is not enough. We need to harness its energy. The idea that voting, parties and so on are all corrupt is self-defeating. We need, rather, new forms of mobilization, hearing people and generating majorities that allow various voices to become part of the debate and parties to take them up.

We need to avoid single-issue politics and realize inequality is inextricably intertwined with such issues as public debt, multiculturalism and – perhaps the biggest of all – global warming.

It’s also important to understand how money colonizes American politics. The left today would have been moderate Republicans 20 years ago. Talk-radio, Fox TV and well-funded conservative foundations distort public debate and influence even universities.

Money in our elections is bad enough. But lobbyists buy politicians, including Democrats. Native Eugeneans and Yale and UC Berkeley political science professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson respectively point this out in Winner-Take-All Politics (2011).

We need a coherent social movement organized around inequality and global warming. This goes together with getting money out of lobbying and elections.

There are deep structural problems in our society: economic, political, social, institutional. But we need to find ways to express those impulses and commitments that connect us to one another –and to the natural environment – and that identify us through those ties and commitments, not against them. Yet, the moral drama is how to overcome our extreme individualism.

There are rich vocabularies of connection in the biblical and civic humanist traditions, which already have standing in American history. They’re not foreign imports. We need not cede them to conservative reactionaries. Rather, we can draw on them, critically and creatively, as Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. knew and did toward a better – if not a dark green, democratic socialist – society.