by Geoff Olson

It was no regular ivory tower exercise when professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University posed an intriguing question: does the US government represent its people?

By combing through 200 public opinion surveys over 20 years, and measuring them against policies written into law, they found an answer: the desires of 90% of Americans have made no impact whatsoever on the deciders and their decisions. In their words, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

It would be an interesting question to ask of Canadian government. I suspect the figures would look better for Joe and Jane Average, but not by much.

Participatory democracy south of the border has been iffy from the start. As in, if you’re a white male property owner. The 1776 Declaration of Independence was engineered by, for, and about this demographic, and voting rights were grudgingly extended to women and enforced for blacks late in the game; 1920 and 1965 respectively. Even today with an African-American at the top, Barack Obama’s White House is about as far removed from the average working American’s reality as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Perhaps the Gilens-Page findings are not so much a condemnation of the United States’ counterfeit democracy as of hierarchical institutions in general – whether they are left or right, governmental or business, profit or non-profit. (Some of the biggest, most inefficient bureaucracies are found in the private sector rather than in the public sector.)

Former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham outlined this long-standing problem in his seminal 1988 book, Money and Class in America:

“Having listened to a good many self-congratulatory speeches at annual conventions, I have been struck by how often the objectives announced as the institution’s primary reasons for being prove to be precisely those promises on which it cannot make good…The legal profession preens itself on its concern for justice, and yet most lawyers devote their lives to preserving whatever interest, just or unjust, pays the highest fee. The military believes that it preserves the nation from harm, that without it nothing is safe, and yet…by its deranged stockpiling of weapons it constitutes a constant threat to the world’s peace. Prisons supposedly protects society; in fact they serve as spawning grounds for accomplished criminals. The media assume that they unite society, binding it together with the lines of communication and understanding, and yet most of their efforts result in suspicion and rancor.”

The unacknowledged threat to law enforcement agencies is not widespread crime but squeaky-clean streets, just as the biggest threat to health charities is not the diseases they lobby against but their total elimination. And of course, mutual animosity serves the interests of political parties far better than any sort of agreement or cooperation – hence Stephen Harper’s continued political survival.

When a large institution professes to have a particular purpose or goal – conveyed in glossy brochures decorated with laughing couples or in television ads adorned with cherubic babies –  it is safe to assume that the central message comes down to two words: feed me.
Hierarchical organizations may begin with the best of intentions, but they often end up as dinosaurs with massive bodies and tiny brains. The best and brightest become nerve ganglia in entities lumbering toward an evolutionary dead end. Yet this leaves opportunities open for the shrews scampering below.

In Europe, thousands of workers are literally picking up the pieces shattered by years of  bankster-engineered fraud and government austerity programs. At over 500 sites across the continent they are reclaiming abandoned factories and offices and turning them into profitable cooperatives.

Cooperatives occupy a gray zone between the top-down central planning of socialist states and the monopoly capitalism of neoliberal states. They are much more laterally organized, by workers who not only have a stake in the profits but a voice in the business decisions. As a bonus these organizations are without the extreme income disparities found in most large corporations.

Even though cooperatives are economic rather than political organizations, they offer a worthy lesson for those labouring in any big dinosaur of an institution: if those the top are no longer listening, it’s time to start conversing with those at your own level.

The Vancouver Courier, June 5


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