From Corporatocracy to Democracy
by Bruce E. Levine
Let us train ourselves to sustain individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, determination, courage & solidarity.
The majority of Americans oppose rule by giant corporations, a very wealthy elite and corporate-collaborator government officials--a "corporatocracy". However, many have given up hope that this kind of tyranny can be defeated. To focus only on knowing how we are being "screwed" can result in helplessness. We also need pragmatic tactics, strategies and solutions. Finally and crucially, we need morale--the “energy to do battle.”
1. Understand the nature of corporate oppression
When Harriet Tubman, who participated in the Union Army raid that freed more than 700 slaves, looked back on her career as a freedom fighter, she noted: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” To be aware of the truth about the oppressive nature of the corporatocracy will not by itself win us freedom and justice. But it is absolutely necessary.
We are ruled by multiple “industrial complexes”—military, financial, energy, food, pharmaceutical, prison, etc. In fact it is almost impossible to stay on top of the many ways we are exploited or abused. The good news is that—either through independent media or basic common sense—polls show the majority of Americans know enough about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Wall Street bailouts and other corporate welfare policies to oppose them. When Americans were asked in a CBS/New York Times survey in January 2011 which program—the military, Medicare or Social Security—to cut to deal with the country's financial deficit, 55% chose the military, 21% chose Medicare and 13% chose Social Security.
2. Pragmatic tactics, strategies and solutions
In addition to awareness of economic and social injustices created by a ruling corporatocracy, it is also necessary to know something about the strategies and tactics that oppressed people have historically used to overcome tyranny and to gain their fair share of power.
In From Dictatorship to Democracy, sociologist Gene Sharp describes nearly 200 'Methods of Nonviolent Action'. His 'Methods of Economic Noncooperation' include 20 kinds of strikes. His 'Methods of Political Noncooperation' include 10 tactics of citizen noncooperation with government, 9 citizens’ alternatives to obedience and 7 actions that can be taken by government personnel. Nothing was more powerful in ending the Vietnam War and saving American and Vietnamese lives than the brave actions of critically-thinking U.S. soldiers who refused to cooperate with the U.S. military establishment.
A succinct history lesson on the use of disruptive tactics in fomenting the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement and the labor movement is found in sociologist Frances Fox Piven's Challenging Authority:
Ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.
For example, in the midst of the Great Depression when U.S unemployment was over 25%, working people conducted an exceptional number of large labor strikes, including the Michigan sit-down strike (1936) when auto workers occupied a General Motors factory to earn recognition for the United Auto Workers union as a bargaining agent. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment describes the 19th-century farmers’ insurgency that became the largest democratic movement in American history. Their Alliance organization created worker cooperatives that empowered economic self-sufficiency and came close to transforming much of the country into something like a true democracy.
The elite’s money—and the influence it buys—is an extremely powerful weapon. So it is understandable that so many people who feel defeated and demoralized focus on their lack of money rather than on their lack of morale. However, we must keep in mind that in a class war when one’s side lacks financial resources, morale becomes even more crucial.
Activists routinely become frustrated when truths about lies, victimization and oppression don’t set people free to take action. Having worked with abused people for more than 25 years, it doesn’t surprise me to see that when we, as individuals or a society, 'eat crap' for too long, we become psychologically enfeebled. Many Americans have been so worn down by decades of personal and political defeats, financial struggles, social isolation and daily interaction with impersonal and inhuman institutions that they no longer have the energy for political action. Observers of subjugated societies have recognized how subjugation leads to demoralization and fatalism. Many Americans are embarrassed to think we too may have developed what musician Bob Marley called “mental slavery.” But unless we acknowledge it, we cannot emancipate ourselves from it.
How can one maintain enough strength to free oneself when the opportunity presents itself? The process requires admitting we have been in an abusive relationship. We don't need to be ashamed of having believed the lies of the corporatocracy. It even helps to forgive and have compassion for those who continue to believe them. When faced with expert liars, it helps to have a sense of humor about one’s predicament, nurture respectful relationships, and take advantage of opportunities created by the abuser’s arrogance.
Individual self-respect and collective self-confidence are the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics. Without individual self-respect, people don't believe they are worthy or capable of using power wisely. Without collective self-confidence, people don't believe they can take power away from their rulers. No democratic movement succeeds without determination, courage, and solidarity, yet modern social scientists ignore these essential non-quantifiable variables. The battle against corporatocracy requires us to understand certain ugly truths about social reality. We must think critically even about our own pessimism—realizing that it can cripple the will and destroy the motivation to take action. Antonio Gramsci (d. 1937) recommended pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will—an idea that has inspired Noam Chomsky among others.
Can we have hope without being an insipid Pollyanna? Until shortly before it occurred, the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed impossible. However the shipyard workers in Poland, did not view their Soviet and Communist Party rulers as all-powerful forces. Solidarity simply refused to go away, providing a strong dose of morale across Eastern Europe at the time other historical events were weakening the Soviet empire. Today in Iceland, citizens have refused to acquiesce in the demands of global financial institutions that they be taxed for the mistakes of a financial elite that caused their nation’s financial meltdown. In a 2010 referendum in Iceland, 93% voted against repayment of the debt. Icelandic citizens have been drafting a new constitution that will free their country from the power of international finance. Participatory democracy is still possible.
As we saw in the events of the 2011 "Arab Spring", dehumanizing institutions are often more fragile than they appear. With time, luck, morale and an ability to seize the moment, almost anything is possible. We never really know until it happens whether or not we are living through a time when historical variables create an opportunity for seemingly impossible change. This is why we must train ourselves each day in all our activities to regain individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, determination, courage and solidarity.
Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America's Depression Epidemic (2007) & Get Up, Stand Up (2011). The above article is an edited version: you can read the full piece here.
Artwork: Untitled (1988) by Sam Francis.