Updated: Aug 21
photo by phys.org
by: Barbara Peterson
Is it radical to claim that life, liberty, and equity are inherent and inalienable human rights? I’d like to think not, yet we continually find ourselves in a position of having to fight for them. They’re treated as privileges rather than rights, granted to us by the beneficence of a handful of people. Why is this? And more importantly, how can we turn things around so we’re no longer fighting for but enjoying these rights?
Before getting to the “how,” I think it will be helpful to understand “why.” For that, let’s examine two assumptions we’ve held about political power since as far back as the birth of empires and nation-states. Gene Sharp, renowned scholar on strategic nonviolence, described them in the following way: “centralization [of power] is necessary and preferable to decentralization…and State power is required both to maintain social order and to improve the society in any substantial way.” 1
While these two assumptions overlap, in that the State is a centralized form of power, they make two distinct claims, and I believe the difference is important. The first assumption argues that centralized forms of government are best – that is, people are better off in societies where a relatively small number of people make the laws and shape the culture in which everyone lives. The second assumption builds on this. It claims that the best way to make meaningful change is to gain control over the State.
Let’s take a look at each of these assumptions.
democracy under a capitalistic, corporatized nation erects through smoke and mirrors the deception that freedom of public opinion equates to participation in policy making.
What comes to mind when I think of centralized power are dictatorships. That’s not surprising, but it might be misleading because democracies are also centralized forms of power. True, they are more inclusive of public needs and interests. But saying that ignores how successfully they have been corrupted. Consider that elected officials have no legal obligation to keep their promises in representing their constituents. Add to that how strongly their actions are shaped by corporate interests. We don’t even have much in the way of nonpartisan news media outlets to hold them accountable since most news media has also been tethered to the agendas of corporations. And it doesn’t stop there. Look at our courts. They’re meant to be bastions of nonpartial judgement and justice, but too often even they are tools of partisan politics and thus redundantly unrepresentative of the public’s best interests.
Not to cast too bleak a picture, but there’s more. Nongovernmental organizations and societal institutions fail us too. They more often than not regurgitate government decided policies since they likely rely heavily on both government and corporate funding. The point is, democracy under a capitalistic, corporatized nation erects through smoke and mirrors the deception that freedom of public opinion equates to participation in policy making.
Even when we institute a form of governance that is seemingly inclusive of the needs and voices of greater amounts of people, the history of the United States has shown that we cannot trust our system of centralized power to represent us. What we have is a society where too few are given the role of decision-making, and all other members arrange themselves in a hierarchical waiting line to get their needs met. And corporations repeatedly and ruthlessly cut to the front of that line. The sad truth is that policy makers will not be held accountable for disregarding the demands of the people, they will not be incentivized to consider the well-being of the wider public, and they may freely disregard basic citizens’ liberties if it benefits the reinstatement of their positions. This is the system we live under.
the masses are still left running around, hoping against hope, that the few who are in charge will choose to be ethical, compassionate, and just.
Our efforts to improve society usually center around getting better leaders into office. This makes sense – after all, corrupt leaders make life far worse for the people. Trump is a prime example. He passed hundreds of executive orders that dismantled protections for the environment, immigrants, LGBTQ, public education, laborers, and healthcare. His policies and speeches emboldened racial, ethnic, religious, and gender inequity and violence. At the same time, his orders enhanced the political powers of corporations, churches, fossil fuel companies, and the militarization of police. Replacing him was quite an improvement.
But was it enough? The problem with replacing bad-faith politicians for more responsible ones is that our government is still free to do what Trump did because the system hasn’t changed. We’ve done nothing to decentralize power, which means the masses are still left running around, hoping against hope, that the few who are in charge will choose to be ethical, compassionate, and just.
How We Win
revolutionary change requires grassroots construction of governing bodies that operate at the community level and are guided by universal human and environmental rights.
The alternative to focusing most of our efforts on getting new people elected while keeping the same corrupt, centralized system is to change the system. Sounds simple, but I don’t mean to imply that it is. What I do want, though, is to show that it is very possible. In fact, I’d argue that it is far less idealistic to struggle toward an entirely different system of governance than to continue along the same path we’re on now and expect a miracle of radically different results.
So, how do we create this new system? The good news is there are real life examples.
In Jackson, Mississippi, residents are enacting a Just Transition where they “struggle for democratic rights, economic justice, self-determination, particularly for people of African descent in the Deep South, and dignity for all workers.” Cooperation Jackson is a thriving example of worker-owned businesses and community-run governing associations. They are guided by such goals as eco-justice, worker-dignity, housing as a right, socialized production, and so on. In short, it’s an ongoing practice of equity, liberty, and life-sustaining values and customs at the local level.
Another example is occurring in different municipalities throughout the United States. People are working with the Community Rights Network (CRN) to enact laws that help protect their economic and ecological wellbeing. In our current system, when corporations pollute the air, soil, and water of local communities, our system allows residents to lobby for stricter ecological regulations, protest harmful enterprises, and sue corporations if they exceed EPA standards. This has the illusion of democracy because people are given the right to speak out against such harms. But is it democracy when raising voices against corporate damage is, at best, minimally and temporarily effective? CRN recognizes that corporations have the legal right to poison and pollute regardless of what people say. This organization plays an important role in putting power back into the hands of local communities, giving them legal rights to have their voices heard above the narrow interests of corporations.
Above are just two examples nationally where people are creating new systems of governing that put power in the hands of local communities guided by global human rights of equity, sustainability, housing, dignity, healthcare, security, and justice. Internationally, there are many more cases, but we’ll look briefly at only two. The hope here is that these handful of national and global examples will shed some light on how we might envision and enact new systems that create the sort of changes we need to save our planet.
Mondragon Corporation is a great example of community empowerment. They are a cooperative association with 95 self-governing cooperatives guided by values of social transformation, grassroots management, and economic stability within a capitalistic world. It began in 1956 in Mondragon, Spain, and has become one of the largest corporations in the entire country.
Another example can be found in northern Syria where the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) created what they called a “democratic confederalism.” Briefly put, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is a radical experiment in self-governance that is guided by the values of direct-democracy, women’s equality, and ecological sustainability. Sometimes still referred to as Rojava, it began in 2012 during the Syrian civil war when a power vacuum was created by President Assad moving his forces away from this area to defend western borders. Though it continues to struggle against outside capitalistic and centralized forms of power to maintain its values and sovereignty, it is nevertheless an instructive case of how people can operate as an autonomous society that promotes life-sustaining principles and practices.
To be sure, it’s challenging to sustain radically progressive systems in the midst of governments and corporations that see them as a threat. Yet, in spite of that, municipal and region-wide cooperatives march forward. Some do not survive, but others do. And their success, in the face of Goliathan opposition, is more than a beacon of hope. They are real, boots-on-the-ground actualizations that show how possible it is to build parallel structures that serve communities rather than the interests of centralized forms of power.
Gandhi is often applauded for his nonviolent campaign that achieved Indian independence. Yet his constructive program is often overlooked. He was adamant is his belief that it is not enough to tear down a corrupt system. If it is not replaced by a better system that is already organized and built, it will be taken over by people whose interest is in self-aggrandizement and personal power. Sharp highlights this in his 198th method of nonviolent action he called “parallel government.” In short, this means that revolutionary change requires grassroots construction of governing bodies that operate at the community level and are guided by universal human and environmental rights.
Small so-called “fixes” are no longer good enough. The climate crisis is here, and it is literally killing us. We are seeing a dramatic rise in people fleeing their homes merely to survive. Violence and oppression against marginalized populations is on the rise as is authoritarianism throughout the world.
Sharp claimed that “[t]he power relationship exists only when completed by the subordinates’ obedience to the ruler’s commands and compliance with his wishes.” To create an equitably sustainable world, our communities can engage in nonviolent intervention. They can withhold both passive and active support of systems and structures that are threatening our lives by building new, local-level structures. Grassroots construction of communal governance can give us the decentralized power we need to save the world.
1Sharp, Gene (1980) Social Power and Political Freedom. Porter Sargent Publishers: p. 17.