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Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America

By Jeffrey Stout

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A politics completely empty of the vehement passions…tends in practice to be antidemocratic.  It cedes the authority of decision making to elites – experts and social engineers – who characteristically present themselves as disinterested and rational agents, intent only on maximising fairness and efficiency. The actual victims of injustice are thus assigned to passive roles, as objects of pity and as potential beneficiaries of properly rationalised decision-making. Expressions of anger on the part of the underclass violate the elite code of decorum. 

In a society where surplus value in the form of profits is taxed in order to benefit the entire population…it should be possible to in principal to compensate workers adequately for the imbalances implicit in the basic contractual arrangements of a profit driven economy…Executives…often make millions of dollars a year, and use then use a portion of their profits to influence the political system to deregulate corporations and drastically cut taxes paid by the wealthy. 

Because a just society gives everyone his or her due, the circle of moral concern must be expanded to include everyone affected by society’s arrangements and policies.  This means every citizen’s voice must not only be heard, but given due consideration.  To be denied such consideration is an affront to justice and liberty.  Liberty can be defined as security from domination.  Love of liberty and hatred of domination are two sides of the same coin. 

A press hiding behind a claim of even-handedness cannot perform the role that justifies its constitutionally protected freedom. A press that pretended to be neutral on the difference between domination and accountability would be a press that had already sided implicitly with domination.

Democratic constitutions place power in the people's hands. That power might rein in powerful elites if enough citizens made good use of it.

Holders of high office will always have power at their disposal, but in a healthy democracy that power can be held in check…Ordinary citizens, by relating wisely to one another and to the elites, are able to influence and contest decisions made on high. No society can free itself from domination unless citizens make good use of the power at their disposal.

…political equality…is centred in the notion that every law-abiding citizen in a society bears responsibility for the condition of that society’s arrangements and ought therefore to be recognised by others – and under law- as entitled too fulfil that responsibility.

The debate over democracy goes awry when people assume that society must choose between a perfectly rigid hierarchical system and a perfectly flexible culture of freedom, the former committed to unchanging absolutes, the latter prepared to tolerate anything but intolerance. No actual society exhibits either of these patterns.  There is no need to choose between them.

Substantial freedoms for ordinary citizens can be found only in a society bound by, and capable of enforcing, determinate legal and ethical norms prohibiting relationships of domination.

Substantial freedoms for ordinary people can be achieved only in a justly administered system of just laws.  Without such laws there can be no security…

…the nation-state, as it now exists, does not seem capable of framing, administering, or enforcing laws justly. It is true that the nation-state is not capable of doing these things when citizens fail to cultivate and exercise power of their own.  

Democratic political power derives from being organised.  Developers are already well organised. Corporate bosses in general derive power from organisations that use market incentives to induce cooperative behaviour. For there to be a balancing counter power of a sort that would foster democratic accountability, organisations of other kinds, including religious institutions, will have to provide it. Pastors, no less than CEOs, occupy leadership roles in politically significant organisations. There is no getting around this.

To claim to speak for others without having listened to them and without being held accountable to them is either to pretend to have power one does not in fact have, or to stand in a relation of dominance over one’s followers.

Grassroots democrats offer what appears to be a devastating critique of politics-as-usual.  It claims that party politics is incapable, by itself, of preventing dominant classes from having their way with the rest of us.  Unless ordinary citizens organise themselves, educate themselves and hold the powers that be accountable, interest groups, big money and manipulation of the public are bound to keep the most important forms of domination in place.  

Letters to the editor, static on the blogosphere and the occasional public demonstration are not enough to rein in the rich and the lucky. But neither is participation in an organisation the true purpose of which is to strengthen the hand of a particular politician. It is irrelevant that he regards himself as a permanent ally of the average citizen. 

The more politicians talk about change, the more things remain the same.  They talk about change because they know we are unhappy with how things are going, but they don’t want to commit themselves to anything substantive.  The term change has done the trick because of its vagueness.  We will know that significant change is coming when citizens are too well organised to be tricked – and too powerful to be ignored – demand laws and institutions able to prevent corporate elites from exercising power arbitrarily over others at home and abroad. 

Of some things, however, we can be certain.  To maintain a position of dominance, even the most powerful people in the world rely on the inaction of others and the resignation that lies beneath it.  The powerful become powerful by organising others to work for them and creating incentives for profitable cooperative activity.  It appears against the interest of the rich and the lucky for everyone else to be similarly well organised. The rich and the lucky benefit from making large-scale democratic reform appear hopeless. 

To understand grassroots democracy one needs to experience something like the face-to-face interactions in which its spirit takes shape and acquires organisational and evaluative substance. 

While demonstrations create a little mayhem, the G8 summit carries on with its business unperturbed.  Racial social critics preach to the choir, while the choir says Amen, but the ritual exchange of sentiment serves only to persuade the participants that their own dispositions are righteous. Meanwhile centrist politics masquerades as grassroots democracy…Mainstream candidates offer something intermediary to hope for and an equal indeterminate way of bringing change about.  The … rhetoric of change puts the idealistic cart before the organisational horse, and then neglects to feed the horse.