Office of Citizen
Rest in Peace,
Post-Democratic America - by Randy Cunningham
Submitted by Jeff Buster on Fri, 03/10/2017 - 13:20.
By Randy Cunningham
The election of Donald Trump has caused a bad case of nerves. Numerous articles have appeared in the print and on line media asking if the Trump administration is the beginning of an authoritarian regime in America. The F word – fascism – has been used more since the election of Trump than it has in decades.
The dirty little secret behind all this rending of garments and gnashing of teeth is that we are already living in post-democratic America. Democracy has always been a sometime thing in America and the present era is one of its down times.
If you want to gauge the health of democracy in our country, you need to ask its practitioners. Ask those who are not with the conventional wisdom, who do not buy the official line, and who do not kow tow to the rich and powerful and their willing servants. They will tell you that it is easy to talk about democracy, but quite a different story when you try to practice it. They will tell you that while it has never been easy, it has become much more difficult over recent years. An authoritarian society is not some bogeyman in the future. It is here. It is on top of us and it is snapping at our throats.
Democracy in America is a slogan. Few if any take the time to define it. Most people define it as the right to be left alone, the right to hide out in the bunker of your privacy and the right to go shopping. If democracy means elections, it is strictly limited to a few minutes every two to four years when you vote. It is about being a spectator, not a participant.
I will use an active definition for this essay. Democracy is a society where ordinary citizens are active participants, not passive spectators, in the political life of their societies. Democracy aspires to advance and broaden those venues of life where ordinary citizens participate in the decisions affecting their lives.
Fascism is a term that is thrown around a lot in our society. It causes academics who specialize in political philosophy and science to wince, because they have discreet definitions of the term from the example of Europe during the 1930s.
What is not talked about is how our everyday lives and the everyday behavior of our institutions, creates an everyday authoritarianism. This authoritarianism, that is embedded in the everyday fabric of our lives, is what I call everyday fascism.
The one part of our daily lives where everyday fascism flourishes is the world of work. The moment you clock or sign in, until you leave at the end of your shift, you are not the citizen of a democracy. You are the subject of an authoritarian regime where you follow orders and you have little to no say over how the workplace is run. The power of this authoritarianism is that the workplace is where most of us, spend most of our lives.
Workplace fascism is not enforced by secret police, by gulags or torture chambers. But you are subject to the lynch pin of management power – “employment at will.” This means that your boss can say adios to you at any time, and that you can return the favor at any time. No cause is necessary – that is unless you are lucky to be in the tiny minority of workers who are covered by a union contract. So, what is wrong with employment at will? It sounds like freedom – either person can walk at any time. It ignores the crucial question of who really has power in our society – employers or employees – which is a no brainer, the employer has the upper hand. It also ignores how not having a job in our society makes you an unperson – to use the old Orwellian term. Your status in our society is dependent on having a job. If you don’t, you wear a sign around your neck reading “Loser.”
These facts of life are constantly in the back of your mind as an employee and they bleed into those parts of life where you are supposed to be protected by the Bill of Rights and other bulwarks of individual freedom. If you take a dissenting opinion on some issue of the day, particularly an issue that goes against the interests or opinions of your employer, whether you realize it or not you may be heading for the door. And most people realize that instinctively. This feeds into the reason there is so much civic passivity in the US. You cover your ass and look over your shoulder. Otherwise, you will have a lot of time on your hands where you can exercise your freedom of speech but you might find your right to eat seriously diminished.
Then there is the tyranny of time. Who has the time to be a citizen in a democracy and who doesn’t? For example, say there is a public or a court hearing on a pipeline you oppose. It may be scheduled during working hours and you are out of vacation time. It may be scheduled right after work and you must pick up the kids, and fix dinner and fly out the door and hope you get there on time. You walk into a hearing or court room, and the first two rows of seats are occupied by the suits of those representing your opposition. They are not required to rob Peter to pay Paul in the economy of time. They are well paid to do what you are not paid to do. They show up at all hearings. They have time to stay informed on all the newest developments in the issue. They have time to beat you.
Americans who try to be citizens face a gauntlet of restrictions that nibble away at their rights until they are practically gone.
First off, for most activities such as public forums, rallies, meetings and demonstrations the first line of status quo defense is not the proverbial Ninja Cop, bristling with body armor, helmet and visor, baton and shield. It is the diminutive clerk sitting at the desk of city hall, or whatever agency you must run the gauntlet with. They will make you fill out form A through Z, a spirit and soul crushing ordeal. Will you have a sound system? Who will provide security? Do you have insurance? Will there be a stage and do you have permits for that? Do you have parade permit? What will be your route? Each of these questions must be answered, the proper papers filed and then those files will go through the bureaucratic hierarchy. At any moment, someone in some office will either say no, or will return your forms for a long line of revisions, ands, ifs and buts that are the same as saying no.
Anyone who has gone through this ordeal with a major event probably has all the personal skills needed to negotiate major treaties and end most wars. Most of the time you are negotiating with a governmental body that does not like you, does not agree with you, does not want to be bothered with you, and that fervently wishes that you would just go away. Free speech and the right to peaceably express grievances are not bed rock principles of American democracy to local officialdom. They are invitations to riot, disorder and mayhem. It is hard for most people to understand just how fearful the world of local officialdom is. Most terrifying of all, requests for permission to hold major events require that you as an official make decisions and stick your neck out and nothing terrifies your average official more than that.
I was involved in planning a major demonstration during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. It was a battle with a City Hall that really wished we would go away. We filed our papers for a parade permit. They countered with a plan that would take you through uninhabited stretches of a post-industrial waste land where no one would even see you. We argued about security zones. We argued about when the demonstration would start and when it would end. The planning for the July event began in January. Most of the seven months between initial planning and the event were taken up arguing with the city. We took them to court. Then if we cornered them on a point, they would say “Heh, don’t blame us. Talk to Homeland Security.” Every form of obfuscation that has been invented since ancient times was thrown at us. Eventually everything came together – on the morning of the event.
Our society does not even allow you any place upon which to stand to express your freedom. Even the most modest of picket lines faces a series of complex and mind numbing imaginary lines where you can go and not go, step and not step. Everything is defined by what is public property and what is private property.
Then we must mention one of the most perverse and vile inventions ever created by the authoritarian mind in America – the free speech zone. This is where the authorities say that your right of free speech only applies in certain limited areas. This practice made its first appearance during the numerous battles over the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund during the 1990s. It usually meant that you had the right to free speech in remote fenced in parking lots surrounded by cops.
The result of this matrix of harassment is that anyone wanting to engage in any form of public free speech or even something as innocuous as gathering petition signatures feels like a ball in a pin ball machine, as you are buzzed, bounced and flipped between the paddles. It is little wonder that so many do not even want to bother. Which is exactly what our society wants.
Finally, we must mention the fact that is it literally impossible to do much more than walk down the street in America without breaking the law. Americans are as encrusted with laws, as a ship’s hull is encrusted with barnacles. Which means that if you do go to a rally, or picket line, or demonstration and the police want to arrest you, they will arrest you. Most of the charges that are made are bull shit. The police know they are bull shit. They are not really interested in prevailing in front of a judge. They are interested in messing with you. It is their answer to the street chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
One of the pet theories of American democracy is that in our society the military, police and other security forces are subordinate to civilian political authority. It is one of many lies that we like to tell ourselves about ourselves.
America is a country occupied by its own security forces. Security forces that over time have come to look and behave more and more like an occupying military. These security forces swear allegiance to the myth of civilian authority because they know how important it is to maintain that myth. Anything else might be too much truth for our body politic to tolerate. But the myth does not explain why politicians fear the police and security forces and routinely grovel before them and kiss their rings. It does not explain why they can write their own tickets when it comes to funding. It does not explain why they can act with impunity when it comes to deadly force and why they operate as if they are a separate branch of government that is accountable only to itself.
I watch you. You watch me. We watch each other and they watch us all.
Fear, not freedom, is the one constant you can bet on in American society. Americans are afraid of everything. We are afraid of criminals. We are afraid of the police. We are afraid of foreign terrorists. We are afraid of those protecting us from the terrorists. This buffet of fear is the bread and butter of our security services. It is their ultimate rationale for fat budgets and the right to operate with impunity. Because you can never be too careful, they tell us as they divest us of another right or another privacy. Do as we say or take your chances with those things that go bump in the night.
Terrorism is a beautiful thing for those who watch us. Terrorism has commonly been understood as indiscriminate violence aimed at terrorizing a general population with the goal of delegitimizing governments. No one argues that setting off a truck bomb in a busy market place is terrorism. But did you know that engaging in a protest against a development project or a polluter is terrorism in the eyes of industry? Welcome to the future. Such a redefinition of terrorism is being pushed in state legislatures all over the country.
Throughout the modern era, the accusation of terrorism has been applied to anyone who the powers that be do not like. If you are not accused of being someone shooting up a police station or bombing a market, then you are accused to being someone who gives aid and comfort to those who are. When it comes to beating the dog of dissent, any old stick will do.
And along with everything else, security has been privatized. The private security industry matches or dwarfs the security services of the government. It spies on critics. It keeps dossiers. And if the situation demands harsher methods, then harsher methods are but a phone call away.
The meaning of all of this is that if you are crazy enough to believe all the garbage you are fed about American freedom and democracy, and you want to use your rights you had better make peace with the fact that others are ready, willing and able to make you regret that decision until your dying day.
Grow or Die
Capitalism and democracy have had a conflicted relationship. The dream of capitalists is to turn all of society into one enormous corporation. They tolerate democracy. But both capitalism and democracy have the same need. They either grow or they die in a zero-sum game, where an advance for one is a retreat for the other. Capitalism has been advancing, and democracy has been retreating for the last generation.
The problem that democracy faces is that democracy has been confined to an institutional ghetto. Most of our lives, and most of the decisions that are made for our society are made in the democracy free zones of the economy. Democracy controls the unimportant stuff, and autocracy controls what is important. Decisions made by corporate CEOs are much more important than the decisions made by all the legislatures in all the states of the union, with both houses of Congress thrown in for good measure.
Democracy in America is at an impasse. It is crowded up against a mighty wall of private and corporate power. It can only expand by taking rights away from capitalism. There is no other place to go. Stay here and perish, or break through that wall and live.
Breaking through the wall of wealth.
Great fortunes are inherently undemocratic because great wealth brings great power to a minority of individuals and families. The role that wealth plays in corrupting our political system is a common complaint. Its power goes much further than that. The maldistribution of wealth undermines every other alternative center of power that could possibly challenge great fortunes. It also extends to the areas of culture and philanthropy. Foundations not only decide what issues are addressed in our politics by funding the non-profit sector, but they decide how these issues will be framed and acted on. Their ability to do so comes from their ability to shelter great amounts of private wealth with philanthropic foundations. If that wealth was subject to taxation, it would be subject to democratic control through the budgetary process of our local, state and national governments. Now, that budgetary process is left to decide how the chump change is spent, instead of the wealth of the society which society in all its facets produces. All other reforms we may pass, all other changes we make to democratize our society will not matter for much unless redistribution of wealth and a levelling of our class structure becomes one of our goals.
Breaking through the wall of workplace autocracy.
People should not cease to be citizens of a democracy when they go to work. For this to happen, we must begin to push for corporate structures of cooperatives and employee owned and run enterprises. This is a total break even from the furthest edge of liberal thinking, which is stuck with redistributing wealth – and not much of that – from the autocratic corporate sector. The issue of power within economic enterprises is totally off the table. It needs to be the main course in our menu on the table.
Retiring from the Super Power racket.
Being a super power is like the old Mae West movie where she comes into a nightclub on the arm of her sugar daddy. She hands her mink to the hat check girl who exclaims “Goodness, what a mink!” To which Mae responded, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, sweetheart.” Well, goodness has nothing to do with being a super power. All super powers, however they rationalize and excuse their power, are international predators. They can only be powerful by keeping other nations poor, powerless and servile. We Americans should realize that we cannot be free or further develop our society while lording it over other people and garrisoning the planet with our military. Real progress towards justice and democracy cannot be made while being a part of the racket.
Democracy as a compelling public interest.
Over the past generation both parties, but especially the Republican party, have busied themselves with turning American democracy into a dead letter and an empty slogan. Voting rights have been rolled back. The right of local communities to self-government has become irrelevant with pre-emption legislation that gives state government greater rights to determine what local governments can control or not control. Supreme Court decisions have given corporations the same rights as individuals. The result is that American society has been turned into a corporate plantation and most of us are in the fields, not in the big house.
We need to make the encouragement and promotion of democracy at least as important as clearing streets of snow, responding to emergencies, picking up trash and maintaining water and sewer systems. Currently it is less important than these services. These services are managed by real agencies, and some of the services include investigative arms that can result in court action. We need real agencies with the mission of promoting and defending democracy and promoting an expansion of democracy.
Call it a Department of Democratic Life. It would be aimed at investigating heavy handed bureaucrats who have forgotten who they work for, CEO’s and other demonic bosses who terrorize shop floors or offices. Its power might be legal. Its power might be public shaming and exposure. It would seek out petty regulations whose sole purpose it is to harass those trying to exercise their free speech rights and draft legislation to repeal those regulations. It would provide legal help to protesters who are arrested on bull shit charges. It would help employees in setting up employee owned and run businesses and cooperatives. In short it would end all our blather about American democracy, and make it real.
Taking out the garbage.
We have been the victims of a reactionary blitzkrieg for the past 40 years. Reactionary and authoritarian laws and measures have been inserted throughout our legal, and constitutional system.
There are things that we can do.
· Remove corporate personhood. Corporations are things, not living sentient being.
· Nationalize the electoral system. Giving states control over how American elections are conducted has been the source of constant mischief.
· Get rid of the electoral college.
· Make voting a fundamental right instead of a privilege. Put it into the constitution as an amendment.
· Make voting a national holiday taking place over a three-day weekend.
· Outlaw the private funding of elections. Private money in elections is not free speech. It is bribery.
· People do not have time or energy for democracy. This is why activist movements are so dominated by either the young or the old. Those in between are doing twenty year sentences at hard labor, raising kids and working jobs. Rolling back the work week from the standard 40 + hours, and providing more support for families with federally funded child care, parental leave and longer vacations are democratic reforms on par with voting rights, and anti-discrimination legislation.
Audacity! More audacity! Always audacity! Georges Danton, French Revolutionary.
The best defense is an offense. For too long we have been playing defense against those who have turned the country into a corporate plantation. But we need to go on the offensive. We have been too ready to compromise, to pull our punches. We wonder why the Republicans have marched from victory to victory. The answer is that they are audacious. They are willing to be shot down time and again with proposals that appear crazy and have no future. But with each proposal they gain a few yards and that is the secret to their success.
We must be willing to fight for our dreams. We must be willing to fight for what we want, not what we will settle for. We must be willing to fight even if we lose at first, even if we lose time after time until we win. An old saying of the National People’s Action, a community organizing group, was “If you aren’t ready to fight, you aren’t ready to win.” We must be ready to fight to win. Upon that readiness hangs the future of justice and democracy.
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