The Need for Economic Democracy
by Mark Haywood
“Our planet is small at last, and we will not forever be able to seek prosperity in the impoverishment of others and the destruction of nature. Ecology compels us, finally, to ask if there is a decent future for any if there is not a decent future for all.” – Tom Athanasiou, Divided Planet – The Ecology of Rich and Poor.
The effort to bring democracy and private enterprise into harmonious relations has been an ongoing problem since the inception of our republic and as time goes on it has become more insistent and more difficult until at last it has reached a point of crisis. With the rise of huge fortunes and the submergence of the majority of Americans into the position of employees, the complexities of the problem and the very serious and immanent threat it presents to the structure of our political system and the life of our democracy and the planet itself have dramatically increased. It is a fundamental problem that cannot be settled without profound and fundamental changes in our economic system.
How did it happen that though our Constitution guarantees a political democracy, it does not by any means guarantee an economic democracy – that is, a democracy wherein the general wealth of the nation is fairly and evenly distributed among the people, and everyone has the opportunity to work and prosper independently as free individuals?
The Federal Convention, which was assembled for the purpose of making a nation out of the 13 original states, was the result of a spontaneous movement that had been gathering strength for years. The impulse behind it was chiefly an aristocratic one. The common people, especially the landless workers, had little or nothing to say about it. All the meetings of the convention were held behind closed doors, with the delegates pledged to secrecy. Very few people outside the convention hall knew what was going on.
These delegates all came from the higher social and financial classes, wealthy merchants, slave-plantation owners, lawyers, and financiers. Consequently, part of the motivating spirit of the convention, not openly expressed but understood, was to make the nation safe from too much democracy.
From the first to last, the convention stood for the protection of private wealth and economic interests and for a republican form of government, but not for an unlimited democracy and equal opportunity for all. As with slavery, the problem of human poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth within the country was left to future generations to resolve.
America has always been a land of new beginnings, where almost anything is possible. Already the thoughts of many are being directed toward the creation of a new kind of society that has never before existed in history – a society where all may enjoy the greatest possible individual freedom and prosperity limited by perfect justice and social responsibility.
The concept of economic democracy is in itself quite simple. One can sum it up with Lincoln’s definition of democracy: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. Whatever differs from this, to the degree that it differs, is no democracy.” This kind of democracy is possible only when the nation’s wealth is fairly and evenly distributed among the people, and not concentrated in the hands of a moneyed elite.
It is around this simple idea that our best hopes and dreams for a better life and a better world revolve. Our Constitution is itself proof that a better world is possible. It is the fruit of thousands of years of human suffering, degradation, abuse and injustice at the hands of despotic governments the world over.
Let’s look at the facts. As a free people we are equipped with every legal instrument we need to make great and revolutionary changes when they are necessary. Under Article Five in the Constitution we have the right to call a constitutional convention and make whatever changes we want to make without violence and without the consent or interference of the Congress or of any of the other branches of government. We have the right to put those changes into law in the form of Constitutional amendments. We don’t have to wait until its too late for those changes to do us any good, as has so often been the case in other countries less free than ours. With us it’s simply a matter of deciding what we have to do and then doing it.
There’s really nothing to fear. In our effort to rescue our democracy from the ravages of the power elite, we must take up where the framers of the Constitution left off and do what they failed to do – enact a Constitutional amendment that guarantees an economic democracy now and for all future generations.
There is no law of man or nature that says that humanity must always live in some self-created hell. It is such small world we live in now and all of humanity is linked closely together. In an age of powerful and rapid technology such as ours, humanity can no longer afford to have the majority of its population enslaved and oppressed, tortured and impoverished and the other part free.
In time such a state of things will only result in the impoverishment and death of us all. Martin Luther King’s famous dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” was never more true than today. All that we need to do to turn the world we live in into a veritable paradise for humanity and for all life on the planet is to make a fundamental adjustment that would carry our best traditions as a free people straight into the future.
Poverty is a human creation with a human solution. Poverty and all the oppressive forms of economic bondage and all the human degradation and environmental devastation that goes with it can and must be ended in our time. The massive and overwhelming destructive power of our modern technology alone have made it necessary. It is a widely recognized fact that we need to make fundamental economic adjustments in the wake of the massive industrialization that has swamped our civilization at an alarming and disastrous rate over the last sixty years.
More urgently than ever, we need to lay the foundation for a new kind of democracy that will serve as a model for all the nations of the world to follow, to find the elusive “Middle Way”, the perfect compromise between total communism and monopoly capitalism, a compromise that Martin Luther King described as the ” Kingdom of Heaven” on Earth: “Truth is found neither in traditional capitalism nor in classical communism. Each represents a partial truth. Capitalism fails to see the truth in collectivism. Communism fails to see the truth in individualism. Capitalism fails to see that life is social. Communism fails to see that life in personal.”
“The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of both.”
We must at some point before it is too late, recognize the fact that it is entirely possible for us to create a just economic system that balances the rights of the individual with the rights of society. As history shows, we can create any kind of economic system that we choose. The time has arrived for us to choose a just one. It’s the next big step–perhaps it is our final step–in our evolution as a free people.
When Lincoln called this country and its people the “last, best hope of Earth” his vision went far beyond his own time. Not only the best hope of Earth, he said, but the last hope. We have it in our power now to destroy all life on earth within the space of two hours, yet we still have no guarantee that a nuclear war will not erupt sometime in the future. In the wake of global pollution, the ongoing destruction of nature, increasing social unrest, economic instability, increasing fear everywhere, increased military spending and various forms of disaster capitalism wrecking democracies in the name of democracy. We must act.
We can’t always live in a state of fear. The highest end and aim of our life is not to be safe, but to live and to live dangerously if need be. Few of us have the courage for what we really know, because we feel that whatever we know, there’s nothing we can do about it. But there is a way, a possibility that has in our time become a necessity, an economic necessity, a life necessity and for that reason has every chance of success. Up until now the people have had no real power to act because they have no unity, no simple unifying thought or principle to organize them under a single purpose. And until then they do they will continue to be as so many grains of sand in the hands of the powerful, who are at all times united in their basic intentions and their actions and have at their disposal all the leisure time and money and access to power they need to succeed at whatever they attempt.
Old habits of thought and feeling must be broken up and our hearts fired with a new and different approach to an age old injustice. It is within our tradition as a free people to make vital changes when they are necessary in spite of the politicians and their agendas. We cannot look to them for help or guidance. Whenever we do we are looking in the wrong direction. By its very structure the Constitution assumes that politicians are not to be trusted very far with their power. We must look to ourselves for answers.
A young man said to me the other day: “there is no right or wrong anymore”. But there is in fact a right and wrong. What is right lies in our instinct for justice, and for all that promotes and strengthens individual life in individuality itself. No individuality – no life. It’s that simple. What is wrong lies in whatever suppresses, neutralizes and finally arrests and destroys individual life at its source, finally spreading like a blight into the very heart of nature.
Things have not yet grown so monstrous that we can’t make a start at changing them. Are we going to allow ourselves and the precious life systems of this planet to die away merely because we cannot find the right balance between individual prosperity and social responsibility?
The future of the planet hinges on this deep and momentous shift. It can be the rallying point for all the diverse factions working at cross purposes in their efforts to make a better world and unite them into a powerful political force that could in time sweep the nation.
It’s no good at all and it can’t come to any good to have the moneyed interests in power determining the economic and environmental policies of the world. And all the fine talk in the world won’t unseat them until the people find a way to unite and fight head on those who are leading them into more economic bondage and dependency. For the last two hundred years our failure to create an economic democracy has been the one great failing that has led us into all the other contradictions and failures our democracy has had to suffer since its inception, and as yet no serious attempt has been made to correct it. We must put control of our economic system back into the hands of the people where it belongs, clearing the way for new and wholesome forms of living and working.
In an April 7th article on joining with 350.org, Naomi Klien writes: “I see this campaign as a break through moment in the history of climatic movement, recognition that the struggles for economic justice, real democracy and a livable climate are all connected.”
“The big banks and corporations are parasites. They greedily devour the entrails of the nation in a quest for profit, thrusting us all into serfdom and polluting and poisoning the ecosystem that sustains us… they seek to make us prisoners in our own land. They view human beings and the natural world as mere commodities to exploit until exhaustion or collapse. Human suffering, wars, climate change, poverty; it is all the price of business. Nothing is sacred. The Lord of Profit is the Lord of Death.” All our public institutions and economic policies having failed us, it is up to us to make the decisive step toward economic democracy. We can never have justice until our neighbor has justice. Civil disobedience, which will entail hardship and suffering, which will be long and difficult, which at its core means self-sacrifice, is the only mechanism left.”
To save our democracy and save our dying planet by creating a model of economic justice for all the world to follow, this is our vision and this is our goal. To say it again, any political democracy needs an economic democracy for its foundation or it can be no true or lasting democracy.
We are not animals. We are not by nature or anything else subject to any sort of Darwinian struggle or Malthusian limit to the satisfaction of our desires and needs. As intelligent beings gifted with the power of reflection, we are free to create our own environment and sources of plenty without despoiling the earth or any of its life systems. All agree that the global evils spawned by the economic injustices of our time combined with the power of our modern science and technology have made it necessary to restructure the world we live in from top to bottom, in such a way that this new power can be made to work for us and not against us and against life. In a just world modern forms of technology can be a blessing. In an unjust world it becomes a curse and will be our doom if we let it.
Democracy, ecology, and cultural vitality depend on a new economic vision for the world. We cannot correct environmental problems if we don’t correct the assumptions that cause them. Most of the world’s economy and the behavior of the world’s governments is under the control of the corporations. Corporations are striving to increase their control: at the same time the world is increasingly out of control. There is a direct connection.
The question is before us: do we want democracy and self-determination, or do we want oligarchic institutions? Do we want strong and regional and native cultures devoted to the land and committed to true developement and the future of their children, or do we want a world structured by and for the benefit of the rich only? A world where 20% of its people get less than 1% of its goods and resources, where nearly a billion go to be hungry, a world torn by strife, riddled by greed controlled by small, petty men bankrolled by transnational corporations is not cheap.
The sustainability movement, without forsaking its understanding of life systems, must move from a resource flow model of saving the earth to a model based on human rights, the right to food, the right to a living wage and a livelihood, the rights to culture, community, and self-sufficiency.
The environmental movement must become a civil rights movement, a human rights movement, a movement toward economic democracy.
We have to rebel against that which oppresses our imagination and our ability to dream and to realize that not only is another world possible, but we have the means here and now to create it: a world conducive to life.
We must find the exact point where economic necessity fuses with the hopes and dreams of all those who are passionate about the future of our race and of our planet and all our efforts must be brought to bear upon that single point. To do so is a matter of strategy as much as it is a matter of truth. Without simplicity there is no possibility of unity, without unity there’s no hope of victory. People cannot long rally together into a binding political force unless there is a single burning thought, a single point of action, to unify them. Today that thought is economic democracy.
Earth is in the balance, life is in the balance. So far the global corporations have been victorious on every front in their ongoing assault on democracy, on humanity, on the earth itself, dislocating entire populations, enslaving them or leaving them stranded, ravaging the planet, destroying democracies in the name of democracy and restructuring national economies to suit their profiteering agendas, without batting an eye. No oligarchy can co-exist with democracy for long. In time it must destroy all vestige of democracy in order to ensure its own permanence. Today we are living in a house divided between a constitutional cemocracy and an oligarchic one percent that is bound and determined to attack and destroy all our Constitutional rights and freedoms.
Is there no stone to bring down this Goliath?
How long must we as a race continue to be a menace to ourselves and our works an ugly blight on nature? Let us prove ourselves truly alive, and worthy to be alive, on the side of life and not of death.
Economic democracy is our point of departure from the monstrous death civilization that we have built up over the last hundred years, with all its toxic evils.
We must take the fundamental step of restoring our democracy and putting human civilization in a healthy state of harmony with all natural life systems. How are we to do it? This is the great question, this is the experiment.
It all comes down to the simple problem of space which is the first condition of everything that exists, and for that reason should be treated as the natural common right of all, like the air we breathe.
We can make a sweeping and fundamental start by making the land (or space) the common natural right of all. Private land ownership and all its resulting evils is a six thousand year old injustice that has never in the history of human civilization been seriously addressed. The best way to do this is to get rid of all unjust and extortionate forms of taxation and taxing land values alone, as was proposed by the American economist Henry George over a hundred years ago.
In his time George was the third most famous man in the world and his land tax proposal was supported and endorsed by some of the best thinkers of the time: Bertrand Russell, the American philosopher John Dewey, Leo Tolstory, and Albert Einstein to name a few. His books were sold by the millions and translated into 17 different langruages. And yet he is virtually unheard of today and his proposal dismissed by main stream economists as a Utopian dream that had its day and is now forgotten. How did this happen?
Only by taking the land out of the controlling hands of the big agribusinesses and corporations can we hope to realize the Jeffersonian dream of an agrarian economic democracy comprised of small local family farms and farming villages and communities and flourishing small businesses. In this way we would not only be making the land generally available on a perfectly just basis, at the same time we would rid ourselves of the monstrous, unjust and extortionate system of taxation system that we have now.
Clare Hope Cummings in a 2009 issue of Yes Magazine stated that: “After a four year global study, 400 experts prepared a report adopted by 60 countries, known as The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The report said that bio-technology cannot feed the world. The is now a consensus in government and the scientific community that small scale farming, traditional knowledge and a focus on local economic vitality and adaptable agro-ecological methods are the optimal way forward.”
And in an article dated Feb. 27, 2012, Pulitzer prize winning author Chris Cook explains why Big Food Must Go: “It is no longer news that a few powerful corporations have literally occupied the vast majority of human sustenance. The situation is perilous; nearly all human food production, seeds, processing and sales, is run by a handful of for-profit firms which, like any capitalist enterprise, function to maximize profit and gain ever greater market share and control. The question has become: What do we do about this disastrous alignment of pure profit in something so basic and fundamental to human survival?”
“The corporate stranglehold on our farmlands and food has wreaked havoc on the environment, our health, farmers, workers, and our very future. It is time for an end to Big Food, and a societal shift to something radically different. We all deserve a future where what we eat feeds community and land, instead of eroding soils, polluting water and air, and tossing away small farmers and immigrant workers as if they were balance sheet losers.”
For the future of the environment and local economies, we must redistribute land from corporations and agribusinesses to small sustainable farms, and reverse the long trend of huge subsidized landholders buying out the family farm.
In the Summer 2011 issue of the Small Farm Journal, Joe Finnerty writes: “Farms feed people, and there can be no rest until we create a fundamentally different food system, one that honors diversity, fertility and craft driven by the engine of the small family farm. If you do the math you will realize that we need many, many, many farms. We need the equivalent of a new homestead act, a new land movement, one in which large numbers of people exchange the urban material life for one of authenticity on the land.”
“We cannot rest until the big dairies are dissolved and small herds spring up once again in every town and village. We cannot rest until the Midwest is repopulated and restored to its former agricultural glory with a diversity of crops, livestock and farming communities. … In this country we are sadly down to 1% of the population growing food for the other 99%. It is clear that there is plenty of room for more farms of all colors and stripes. Once small farms are in place they form the solid foundation upon which supporting businesses then grow, providing real, long term economic and cultural stability.”
“In the light of the challenges facing humankind in the coming decades, it is clear that we must fundamentally change the way we do business on this planet. A return to a nation of small farms has to be done. It will not be easy or swift, but it can be done. In the not too distant future small farms will become necessary to our very survival.”
Let this be our unifying idea and our instrument of attack against all monopolistic forms of capital, against the corporate dominance of our lives, our land, and our ailing planet. Only by making the land alone the common, natural right of all can we create the perfect balance between individual life and social responsibility that all of humanity is in desperate need and is calling for, east and west. It is time for us to make way for a world wherein all may live, freely, independently, wholly and in perfect harmony with the earth and all its natural life systems.
In itself capitalism is no evil. The minute that I make something or perform a service and accept money for it I am a capitalist. The true evil lies in monopoly capitalism and to this day practically no one today makes that all important distinction. Karl Marx himself was in agreement with Henry George when he wrote that “monopoly in land forms the basis for all other forms of monopoly capital.”
Reduced to its simplest elements, in a perfectly natural and just arrangement, our economic system can be a thing of beauty, as demonstrated in Henry George’s book “Progress and Poverty” published in 1879. George’s proposal to make the land common property by getting rid of all taxation save a single tax on land values alone had the support of some of the best thinking men of his time: Bertrand Russell, Leo Tolstoy, John Dewey, and Albert Einstein, to name a few.
In brief, making the land the natural, common right of all on a just basis would:
(1) Restore the dominance of small family farms and locally run businesses as the backbone of the national economy and bring back the prevalence of small nuclear farming villages and communities and towns, by dispersing the general population more evenly across the country, removing forever the toxic blight and disgrace of congested, overpopulated cities.
(2) Spell the end of factory farming and all it abusive and polluting practices on both livestock and the natural environment, and the dominance of wasteful subsidized agribusinesses and their monopolistic control of our farmlands. It’s a known fact that on a yield per acre basis that small diversified farms operate on a vastly more efficient basis than the heavily subsidized mono-crop corporate farms that monopolize our farmlands today.
(3) Open the way for new experimental communities that thrive on alternate sources of energy and employ wholesome farming methods that do not pollute and damage the earth’s fragile ecosystem.
(4) Enable every man or woman of whatever capacity, background or education to work and prosper independently, unhampered by the fear of poverty.
(5) Decriminalize our present extortionate and corrupt tax code by simplifying it to one that is perfectly just , simple and incorruptible.
(6) Put an end to the treatment of land (or space) as a form of private wealth, a commodity to be bought, sold, speculated on and finally monopolized by the few, which by its very concept is a form of violence and an injustice that has led to practically all the other injustices and abuses that humanity has suffered since the dawn of civilization. As Karl Marx himself wrote: “Monopoly in land forms the basis for all other forms of captial monopoly.” Capitalism itself is not inherently evil; the minute I make a pair of shoes and sell them to someone I am a capitalist. But monopoly capitalism resulting from the treatment of land as a commodity instead of the first condition of labor is an inherent evil, because to limit our natural and common right to the land is to limit the opportunity for labor. By its very concept, private land ownership is an injustice and a form of violence based soley on prior occupation. There’s no more glaring example of this than the Oklahoma land rush of 1890, where people lined up to claim a parcel of land that was not yet claimed by someone who in the heat of the race arrived there sooner. And so Oklahoma got to be known as “The Sooner State.” The principal is the same everywhere all over the world: Land is either forcibly claimed by war and conquest or by whoever occupied it before anyone else.
(7) Reduce the functions of government on all levels to a minimum. With the wealth justly distributed, politicians become representative of the interests and wishes of the people instead of the corporate funded oligarchy that the country is saddled with now.
The idea of making the land the common right of all is not new. There are practical examples throughout history. In “Capital” Marx gives such an example: “Those small and extremely ancient Indian communities, some of which have continued down to this day, based on common possession of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labor which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme already cut and dried. Occupying areas of from one hundred to several thousand acres, each community forms a compact whole, producing all it requires. The chief part of the produce is destined for direct use by the community itself, and doesn’t take the form of a commodity. It is the surplus alone that becomes a commodity, and a portion of that goes into the hands of the state in the shape of rent. All civic functions are maintained at the expense of the local community. If the population increases, a new community is founded, on the pattern of the old one, on unoccupied land. The simplicity if the organization for production in these self-sufficient, independent communities free of political corruption remains unchanged in structure and untouched by the changing storm clouds of national politics throughout the long centuries.”
This is exactly the kind of agrarian democracy that Vandana Shiva and others like her are calling for today; one dominated by self-sufficient, independent farming villages and communities that are immune to the corruptions of national politics and governments.
The German philosopher Nietzsche said that “the world revolves around a great thought, revolves silently.” Today that thought is economic democracy.
Our first step toward making it a reality would be to collectively pressure the separate states to call a Constitutional Convention. It is the only legal instrument the people have to make lasting and fundamental changes in our political and economic system. It will mean a costly and bitter fight demanding much personal sacrifice: no new birth of freedom comes easy. Here in America the forces of life and the forces of death are slowly beginning to range themselves out in pure opposition to one another, getting ready for a head-on collision that will send shock waves around the world. Can we make ourselves equal to it? Only time and events will tell.