Thursday, 7 July 2011

Time For That First Bold Step To Action!

It is well past time that we rouse ourselves to action.

The evidence is overwhelming, and it continues to accumulate every day -- large corporations are at the heart of all the major trends that will increasingly, profoundly and negatively affect our lives.

There is an explosion of books, video documentaries, websites and online forums from which you can gain insight into the disasters being perpetrated by Big Business, disasters in which we are all complicit through our continued inaction.

It is, of course, necessary that we become informed and stay current, but we need to do more than just agree amongst ourselves.  The echo chamber on the progressive side is safe and warm, but it is dwarfed by its massive and well-funded counterpart on the right -- in the face of so insurmountable a force, it is not surprising that any initial action will be halting and tentative.  It may be trite to say that nothing was ever accomplished without a first step, but it doesn't make it any less true.  And the consequences of simply wringing our hands on the sidelines are too terrible to contemplate.

A Simple Start.  So this post is about doing something -- dare I say, anything -- as the first step in what must necessarily become a longer-term effort.  We must move outside our comfort zone and take action.

And as I contemplated that thought earlier today, I came across a four-part interview by TheRealNewsNetwork of Jeff Madrick, author of a new book "Age of Greed", on the thirty-year trend by Wall Street toward financial speculation and away from its traditional role of financing the manufacturing sector.  And at the end of the series, Paul Jay asked Madrick, "so what can we do?", referring to those of us -- the great unwashed -- not close to the money and power that perpetuates the system.  And it was satisfying to hear Madrick's response; "start organizing...get involved".  It was the obvious answer, worthy of Howard Zinn -- one that he had himself given countless times.  It does start with that first step.

So if you have roused yourself from your lethargy, if you have begun to educate yourself on the issues of water, energy, food and climate, and their exploitation by Big Business, you may be ready to take that first bold step to action -- and not a moment too soon.  Since we like the comfort of choice when making an important decision, here follows a partial list from which you can make a selection, and to which you can add your own contribution.  Of course, each is worthy of greater comment and discussion than space permits, just as each will be most affective when part of a larger bundle of actions.  But this is, after all, just a start:  
 - Join a food cooperative;
 - Join a credit union;
 - Make specific ecological decisions about how you live;
 - Make informed choices about the consumer goods you purchase;  
 - Hold your member of Parliament or Congress, and/or a powerful corporation, accountable on the issues;
 - Join an activist organization, and then actively participate;
 - Take the issues to your circle of friends and associates, interact with those who share your concerns, and with those who don't;
 - Put the laptop down; change will not come by raging from your couch.

You may have already begun to act, or you may feel this list is far too simplistic.  Fair enough.  But there are countless others who remain uninformed, and many who are aware but have not yet taken even these basic steps.  And, by the way, this is the easy part!  None of these or similar measures remotely begin to address the systemic issues that underly the unfettered power that multi-national corporations now enjoy.  These simple measures are the "training wheels" that allow us to build sustainable habits as we gain experience and community in our activism -- to consistently employ these actions in our daily lives is just the first stage in a longer and deeper commitment.        

Removing The Training Wheels.  I began to understand that next level of commitment when I came across the results for a conference in 2007, organized by Ralph Nadar.  It was called "Taming the Giant Corporation" ( ), and in this three-day session you will find the video presentations on various aspects of corporate behavior.  I found one of the presenters to be particularly insightful; Gar Alperovitz, Professor of Political Economy at Maryland University, made several comments that warrant repetition, and one in particular that best captures the true nature of change in relation to large corporations.

He reminded his audience that the progressive movement, linked as it was to labor, fueled many of the most important social reforms, the very reforms that big business is now effectively tearing apart (have you seen today's reports of Obama's capitulation on Social Security and Medicare?).  The dramatic diminution of labor today, among many other factors, suggests that there will be no easy reforms at the national level (truer today than four years ago).  The pain is most acute at the local level and, Alperovitz suggests, this is where we'll find -- as a start -- the best hope for a new economic system.

He further suggests that we think not of taming the corporation, but that we think in the context of moving beyond the corporation.  But, in any case, he asks, "what do you do with large economic entities in any system?".  They will remain an important part of a new economic system, so how do we construct real world change with respect to large scale industry?

Alperovitz suggests that we begin with localized solutions.  Alternative systems of economic control are increasingly modeled on some sense of common ownership.  Collective ownership models have begun to flourish at the local level, in part because it responds to the primary locus of the pain, and in part because it anchors local communities -- such economic entities don't move to Mexico, or Malaysia.  And, as Alperovitz notes, these alternative systems "teach people about models of cooperation that are different from the corporate model", and how to use the power of ownership to constrain corporate behavior.

As he also said, the steps in the process of change will be difficult if we really want to "transform the largest and most powerful political economic system in the history of the world".  To me, though, the most striking comment he made, and certainly the one of singular relevance in the context of taking action, was that "if you want to play this game, in this process of change, the chips are decades of your life".

I recently reached out to Professor Alperovitz and asked what progress he felt had been made in the four years since the Nader conference.  He sent along two links relating to his work on alternative models in The New Economy that I hope you will find interesting and inspiring:

An important take-away from these pieces is that alternative economic models that focus on local outcomes and benefits can provide a wonderful springboard to the evolution of emerging business entities at the national level.  Professor Alperovitz is cautiously optimistic: "And indeed, there's an explosion throughout the Middle East; something was stirring below the ground, something that is likely to take decades to develop from its first explosion.  You can find similar patterns throughout history.  The feminist movement was unpredicted.  The environmental movement was unpredicted.  The explosion of the civil rights movement was generally thought likely, but it was unpredicted when it happened...explosive change is as common as grass...that doesn't mean it always happens, but I see developments that are very encouraging at the grassroots level...many of the elements for building a movement are is great pain; two is a reassessment of the failure of traditional strategies; three is experimentation with new models; and four is younger people being totally turned off by the process." 

Action At Several Levels.  Of course, the realist in me understands that multi-national corporations will remain hardwired to their core function and legal obligation, the maximizing of shareholder wealth.  And they will continue to use the same tactics, ignore the same harmful externalities, cultivate the same calibre of venal politician and lobbyist that has brought us to this perilous moment in our history.  I remain convinced that, concurrent with any effort to build The New Economy, we must initiate actions that would clearly subordinate the power of the multi-national corporations and minimize the worst inclinations of the current corporate culture.

A world in which corporate power is subordinated to the public good would be an epic undertaking.  It would require, for example, nothing less than a radical change in the way corporations are chartered.  It would also require that their status as persons be revoked, removing them from any form of political activity and influence (and, as Thom Hartmann has shown, status as persons for corporations is a fabrication).  It would generate almost unfathomable legal and financial upheaval.  It would require coordination with like-minded single-issue groups, leveraging and reinforcing their collective and specialized expertise across international boundaries.  It would eliminate the financial leverage that big business now holds over policy makers.

Most will dismiss the idea as lunacy, arguing that change of this magnitude is impossible.  I would concede that, at best, such a result is unlikely.  But perhaps we wouldn't need a complete victory to achieve the necessary change -- or a decided trend to change -- though it would be helpful if we could articulate the desired outcome, the endgame (and here much remains to be done).  And I would argue that we guarantee the status quo by failing to act at all.  The potential force of populist numbers has yet to be adequately tapped and, as Alperovitz noted, tipping points are not generally well forecast.  To cite the most recent proof-point, no one could have imagined -- even as recently as this morning -- that the world's most powerful media giant, Rupert Murdock, would close his News of the World tabloid over the public outrage in Britain surrounding phone hacking charges.  

So perhaps we can imagine a multi-tiered strategy, one that addresses existing perils while also creating new models for future sustainability.  

But, as I said at the start, it is time we rouse ourselves to action.  We have not the faintest hope of success if we won't take the first step.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Beethoven, Symphony #3 in E Flat, Opus 55, "Eroica" - First movement, Allegro Con Brio; Paavo Jarji, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremmen. Enjoy.

(This article also posted on July 9 at OpEdNews.)   

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