Do you think the corporations and media are too powerful, that they hold all the power, that you can’t save the world? Frances Moore Lappe lets us know that we do have the power. We can save the world. My daughter is taking her first political science class in college. If you read only her textbooks for the course, you would be convinced that the corporations have so corrupted the media and government that there is nothing, ordinary citizens can do to influence the system. Lappe’s book is the antidote to the malaise reported in my daughter’s textbooks.
Lappe begins by asking, “Why are we as societies creating a world that we as individuals abhor?” She acknowledges that human beings don’t wake up thinking they will allow a child to die of hunger or that they will contribute to global warming and the destruction of the planet. Yet every day children die hunger and one hundred species disappear from the earth. We think we are powerless to do something, and yet as Lappe observes, this is a misplaced attribution error. In the late nineteenth century, the native people of India outnumbered the British civil servants that ruled them. The Indians thought they were powerless, but Gandhi revealed the power was theirs. They could oust their colonial rulers and did so within seventeen years of following Gandhi’s example. It is our concepts, ideas about reality, which empower and dis-empower us. She says that this misconception about power begins for us, with a misunderstanding about democracy. The dominate concept of democracy in our society is that elections plus free market equal democracy. We think that our responsibility is to show up at the polls, vote, and shop. But Lappe reminds us that, “Real Democracy and our peculiar variant of a market economy are based on opposing principles. Democracy derives from the Greek: demos (people) plus kratos (rule). This democracy depends on wide dispersion of power so that each citizen has both a vote and a voice. But our market economy, driven be one rule—that is, highest return to shareholder and corporate chiefs—moves inexorably in the opposite direction. By continually returning wealth to wealth, a one rule economy leads to an ever increasing concentration of power.”
But there is a fragility of centralized power. The Incas and the Aztecs fell to the conquistadors quickly, but the leaderless, decentralized Apaches fended off attacks for two centuries. A top down approach results in a thin democracy that fails to tap into the best of us and fails to protect us from the worst of us. What we need instead is a “living democracy—democracy as a way of life, no longer something done to us, or for us, but what we ourselves create.” It means rejecting the view that democracy is a “set system and begin to work with the idea that democracy is a set of system qualities, driven by core human values.” We are told we just want to be left alone, that we want government to leave us alone, but this is contrary to human nature. Humans are cooperators. We have learned from are early tribal experience that our best chance to thrive is when we work together within a community. There is also a sense of fairness that that lives within us because injustice destroys a community. We are problem solvers. We need to have an impact on out world. We are creatures of meaning. As Lappe notes, “We human beings want our days to have value beyond ensuring our own survival; and one way we have long met that need is by striving to be good ancestors, enhancing our children and their children’s futures. This has made living democracy possible because we developed a set of system qualities that is dynamic, never finished. Each generation applies the lessons of its experiences. Its values are guided, not dogma driven.
But we are not born knowing how to do democracy. Democratic skills can, and must be, deliberately taught. We need to learn the skills of active listening, negotiation, mediation, mentoring and reflecting on our experiences. We are taught that power is a limited quantity. Who has it, who doesn’t--- it is something to be divided up, and the battle is over how to divide it. However, Lappe notes that the Latin root for power—posse--simply means ‘to be able.’ Power is simply our capacity to act. She states that, “Maybe we should be talking less about power division and more about its creation—what’s really needed to solve our problems. Living Democracy practices create more power by enabling people to act on their values and interests” This enables us to apply our values to all the roles we play, as voter, buyer, employer, saver, worker, and volunteer—we can apply our values everywhere. We work within a network of relationships that influence each other. And when we begin to view democracy within this paradigm, we realize that corporations, and corporate power are not independent of us or unchangeable monoliths, in a multitude of ways we do shape corporations and can redirect them to life-serving ends. Lappe notes that, “Businesses respond to market cues, but with accountability boundaries that citizens set, from tax and trade rules to environmental and buyer safety protections. We recognize both the formal channels ---through government—and informal influences—including our own daily choices and organized advocacy—we can use to keep the market fair and life promoting.”
Chapter by chapter Lappe introduces you to groups that are putting these ideas to work. They are practicing real democracy and making a difference. They are taking back the power. To help you learn to apply these principles to your group she has provided a study guide, with chapter-by-chapter study questions exploring the issues raised in practicing real democracy. This book ought to be required reading for every political science student.