Monday, February 27, 2012

700. A Word With the Reader: Participatory Democracy and Ecological Socialism

By Kamran Nayeri, February 27, 2012
Assistant Editor, Sunny, joined the staff in January. She
enjoys spending time behind the philosophy books on the
library shelves.

The Arab Spring of 2011, resistance to capitalist austerity in Europe, and the Occupy Movement in the U.S. have all underscored the need for development and institutionalization of mass participation in charting an entirely new course for humanity.   While the perspective and strategy and tactics of the movement are debated, activists generally agree that participatory democracy is necessary to figure out these and other key questions they face.

History shows us that institutions of participatory democracy arise in any revolutionary situation and that radical social change will not advance unless initial institutional forms of participatory democracy are improved, extended and continually strengthened.

The idea of democracy is tied to the idea of participation.  In class societies, democracy has typically meant the participation of ruling classes in running the affairs of the state, society and economy while vast sections of the population are excluded outright (Athens city-state) or denied effective participation (United States).  

The fact that American working people continue to harbor illusions in “representative democracy” is due to a long period of prosperity that has benefited large sections of the U.S. working class (labor aristocracy and bureaucracy) as well a sizable “new middle class” of professionals.  Together, these groups think of themselves as the “middle class” and help sustain the illusion of a “classless” society and "one person, one vote" democracy.  

Some recent events serve as examples of how American representative democracy functions as a form of capitalist class rule.

Whose representatives? 

Bourgeois politicians (in the U.S. they are organized in the Democratic and Republican parties) emerge from the rank of citizens who are dedicated to the capitalist system, trained by a permanent cadre of the capitalist parties, and selected to run for office through a process dominated by financial contributions from members of the capitalist class. Once in office, these “elected representatives” are ideology and materially part of the capitalist system and will serve its interest.  At the same time, they serve as the proxy for various capitalist factions pursuing their own sectional interests.  These constitute the really effective subset of what in the U.S. is called “interest groups.”  An example of such “interest group” is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

On February 12, the editors of the New York Times complained that in 2011 ALEC was instrumental in the passage of many state laws that are “making it harder for minorities and other groups that support Democrats to vote, obstructing health care reform, weakening environmental regulations and breaking the spines of public- and private-sector unions.”

Founded in 1973 by the right-wing activist Paul Weyrich, ALEC’s major funders include Exxon Mobil, the Olin and Scaife families and foundations tied to Koch Industries. Many of the largest corporations are represented on its board.
Let the Times' editors explain how ALEC functions:
 “ALEC has written model legislation on a host of subjects dear to corporate and conservative interests, and supporting lawmakers have introduced these bills in dozens of states. A recent study of the group’s impact in Virginia showed that more than 50 of its bills were introduced there, many practically word for word. The study, by the liberal group ProgressVA, found that ALEC had been involved in writing bills that would:
“¶Prohibit penalizing residents for failing to obtain health insurance, undermining the individual mandate in the reform law. The bill, which ALEC says has been introduced in 38 states, was signed into law and became the basis for Virginia’s legal challenge to heath care reform.
ҦRequire voters to show a form of identification. Versions of this bill passed both chambers this month.
“¶Encourage school districts to contract with private virtual-education companies. (One such company was the corporate co-chair of ALEC’s education committee.) The bill was signed into law.
ҦCall for a federal constitutional amendment to permit the repeal of any federal law on a two-thirds vote of state legislatures. The bill failed.
“¶Legalize use of deadly force in defending one’s home. Bills to this effect, which recently passed both houses, have been backed by the National Rifle Association, a longtime member of ALEC.
“ALEC’s influence in the Virginia statehouse is pervasive, the study showed. The House of Delegates speaker, William Howell, has been on the board since 2003 and was national chairman in 2009. He has sponsored or pushed many of the group’s bills, including several benefiting specific companies that support ALEC financially, like one that would reduce a single company’s asbestos liability. At least 115 other state legislators have ties to the group, including paying membership dues, attending meetings and sponsoring bills. The state has spent more than $230,000 sending lawmakers to ALEC conferences since 2001.
“Similar efforts have gone on in many other states. The group has been particularly active in weakening environmental regulations and fighting the Environmental Protection Agency. ALEC’s publication, “E.P.A.’s Regulatory Train Wreck,” outlines steps lawmakers can take, including curtailing the power of state regulators.”

The editors of the Times assure their readers that this systemic vote buying process is fully legal and ethical. Their objection is to the rightist nature of ALEC’s conduct and that the liberals have fallen behind in such vote buying schemes. The esteemed editors’ concern is part of a factional struggle within the  U.S. capitalist class in an election year. It has nothing to do with participatory democracy that will fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 promise of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Let us recall the recent Supreme Court ruling that affirms corporations "constitutionally guaranteed right" to make unlimited campaign contributions. This has resulted in formation of Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) for the candidates of both parties in the 2012 election campaigning underway.  The vote of the working people of the United States count as long as it is for the candidates selected by the rich and powerful!

Disinformation campaign to undermine action on climate change.

Last week, Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and activist, disclosed documents throwing light on the activities of the Heartland Institute, a non-profit organization funded by corporations (like Exxon Mobil) and individual capitalists (like Charles G. Koch) to discredit the science of climate change.  The documents show that several million dollars—much of it coming from a single individual referred to as “the Anonymous Donor” has been used in the past 5 years for such disinformation campaign.  
The New York Times reports that “The documents say that over four years ending in 2013, the group expects to have spent some $1.6 million on financing the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, an entity that publishes periodic reports attacking climate science and holds lavish annual conferences. (Environmental groups refer to the conferences as ‘Denialpalooza.’)
“Heartland’s latest idea, the documents say, is a plan to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that ‘whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.’”

The documents also show that Heartland has been involved in anti-union and other rightist activities.

Again, what the Heartland Institute has been doing is consider legal.  While there are some indications that some of the money spent by Heartland may have violation its non-profit status, it is worth considering that the media’s attention is focused on ethical status of Peter Gleik’s disclosure of these documents. (Gleick has issued a statement admitting errors of judgment in how he handled the disclosure of these documents. He has lost a number of his professional positions because of these errors of judgment).

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Heartland Foundation will discontinue its misinformation campaign about climate change and its more general anti-working people’s agenda.  The example shows how in the United States public policy is influenced by monied interest.  Propaganda is used to influence voters behavior. 

Green Capitalism

In early February, Corporate Crime Reporter and the Time magazine Ecocentric Blog  disclosed that Sierra Club had secretly accepted $26 million from individuals linked to the natural gas industry.  In particular, the gift from Chesapeake Energy, a leader in fracking technology, has raised popular outrage;  some environmentalists have labeled it as “sleeping with the enemy.”

However, having a cozy relationship with corporations and the government is nothing new in the U.S. environmentalist establishment. What caused some stir was the secrecy surrounding Sierra Club’s cozy relations with the gas industry (see, for example, Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, response to the  New York Times).  

For over two decades the U.S. environmentalist movement has followed the so-called “partnership model.” The idea of collaboration with the capitalist class and governemtn is essentially similar to the reformist course of Social Democratic and Stalinist parties.  In case of the environmental establishment this collaboration is based on a similar view of nature as resource for exploitation.  The environmental establishment preaches "sustainable use." 

In this view the planetary ecological and environmental crisis caused most immediately by the capitalist system is divided into a number of “problem areas” and each environmentalist group focuses on particular problem area and hopes to find common ground with the capitalist class regarding "resource management."

This point of view and political strategy is a matter of concern for participatory democracy because of how it channels the energy and good will of millions of people into supporting capitalist "solutions" to environmental and ecological crisis.  In a sense, the environmental establishment follows a liberal version of how the rightist Heartland Institute functions--by fostering false consciousness among the working people concerned with the environment.

Those concerned with the twin crises of nature and society would do well to defend forms of participatory democracy that empowers the working people.  This will require presenting facts about society and nature and their crises.  It also requires a philosophy of nature and society that respects the intrinsic value of the former while acknowledging the class character of the latter.  This is the promise of the ecological socialist movement.

At times of crisis, democratic and civil rights won by us come under attack.  Rightists and incipient fascist movements emerge as they have in Europe and the United States to take these back.  Confronting these attacks is part and parcel of building a national and international ecological socialist movement.  
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There have been 99 posts since my last communication (nos. 601 to 699 inclusive).  As usual, a focus has been ecology, environment and ecocide (18 posts) and global warming and climate change (11 posts).  There has been 8 posts on science/method and three posts on evolution.  Ten posts dealt with various species and 4 posts address animal welfare and animal liberation. Agroecology had 5 posts and agriculture 3 posts. Four posts deal specifically with the theory and practice of ecological socialism.

Eighteen posts addressed issues regarding the Cuban revolution; three posts dealt with the Occupy Movement.

Other topics covered include energy, population, political economy, imperialism and repression.  There has been a few book and film reviews. 

I like to thanks readers who sent materials to include in Our Place in the World. Their recommendations help to improve the quality of the posts. 

I like to restate a standard journalistic policy: all signed articles represent the views of their author(s).  They are posted here because they relate to a subject of our interest and some from mass media can even represent current bourgeois thought.  Only unsigned articles are the points of view of Our Place in the World.

A list of hotlinks to the last 99 posts follow:

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