Monday, July 28, 2008

Our "democracy"

An important essay recently arrived in our home, by way of Law Quadrangle Notes, a University of Michigan Law School publication.* The essay, “Law, economics, and torture” is the text of a talk given at the school last year by James Boyd White. White is a law professor, literary critic, scholar and philosopher who has been teaching at the school since 1983.

To me, the most interesting and relevant portion of the essay was where our crumbling democracy is discussed, in Part I: “Making the rich richer.” I believe we will look back one day and see just how much power we permitted the unelected wealthy to acquire during these years, while the time and imagination of the rest of us was kept busy with consumption, fantasies of consumption, and the required, accompanying passivity about everything else.

White says, “As the government withdraws from the regulation of the economy, as it has been doing for decades now, its place is taken by private individuals or private organizations which have immense power over the lives of all of us.” This makes me think about how democracy in my city was pushed aside, permitting a set of wealthy individuals (especially billionaire Eli Broad who inserted himself in the management of Oakland Unified in June 2002) to acquire power over my school district, and about the millionaires and billionaires who have gained control of, and have infested, public education throughout our country under the guise of “philanthropy” and “educational reform.” I am one of those who is repulsed by this phenomenon.

“The rhetoric supporting this movement speaks of government as the enemy, and the market as freedom for us all. But the power that is created by the disparity of wealth is real power and, unlike governmental power, it is not shaped or guided by law and democracy. Corporate owners and managers are not elected by the people, not subject to the constitution, not supposed – or even allowed – to be motivated by any ideal other than the acquisition of wealth and power, and usually not responsive to argument or complaint.” Do we really trust these people enough, who White describes as “a regime that has no democratic values or authority,” to hand them the reins for our journey to the future?

“The market contains no check on the drive to unlimited economic expansion, a drive that is proving to be suicidal, threatening the planet upon which everything we are and do depends.” That sounds right to me; Professor White and I must be on the same wavelength, or perhaps it's the Jungian collective unconscious at work. Of course, this mentality has gradually been emerging in others around the world.

For several months I've been calling the practitioners of consumption (nearly all of humanity) the “The Planet Cancer.” Aggressive, disseminating cancer cells consume the resources of the host and disrupt its functioning, ultimately killing the organism. Humanity, too, seems to be driven to consume the resources of our life-covered host, the earth, and we are just discovering that we are capable of disrupting its functioning. We will kill it unless our drive is controlled. Even the fishing industry is struggling to find fish for us to eat because we've already consumed so many of them. Soylent Green wafer, anyone?

White goes on to say, “The consumer dream of our culture teaches us that we have no responsibility, no capacity for action, no right to demand meaning in our work and lives, and no obligation for the welfare of others. It induces the sense of learned helplessness I referred to earlier—which is exactly the opposite of the kind of vigorous independence and competence upon which democracy depends.” If we take off the blinders and shake off our self-induced haze, the evidence of this is visible in our society everyday.

Discussing propaganda and advertising, White says, “one characteristic of both forms is that nothing is meant, everything is said for the moment, all on the assumption that the people who make up the audience have no memory and no capacity for critical thought. A world is created where thought is not possible. In neither domain—the consumer economy or the world of politics and government—are we defined as responsible participants in a world of shared life and action. Rather, we are manipulated objects of an empire.”

“…the reason we do not rebel at the immense and unfair transfer of wealth, and all that is associated with it…is that in some sense we do not believe that we really have democracy at all any more, at least in the sense in which we once thought we did.” This reminds me that not all Americans were originally woven into the fabric of American democracy in the same way that others were. With restricted autonomy, democracy is a falsehood and “learned helplessness” is produced.

White claims to retain a tiny amount of hope for our nation because he see instances of democracy still functioning at the local level (such as with school boards, when they haven't been shut down, that is). But be forewarned, most of his message is like our doctor revealing that we have a likely-to-be-terminal condition. It isn't good news, but it gives us the opportunity to take the next step.

*“Law, economics, and torture” by James Boyd White, Law Quadrangle Notes, pp. 98 – 103, The University of Michigan Law School, Summer 2008.

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