MPW-17611I was fortunate enough this past week to have received numerous emails from Kellogg’s employees, thanking me for some recent posts.  A theme from these messages began to emerge.  People wanted to explore some of the ideas about how our current economic/political/social system is no longer sustainable.  I think they hit on the crowning struggle and question of our age.

Things are coming to a head – perhaps not this year or next, but soon.  It’s like the Gary Cooper movie High Noon, when the solitary figure of a man determined to do right and protect his community goes up against a number of individuals determined to undo his value system.  Today, democracy is squaring off against the forces of a capitalism that has, perhaps besides its best intentions, begun to undo the very human capital it once so much depended upon.  To date, it has had its way in many of our communities, but as its deteriorating effects become more obvious, as with a situation like the Kellogg’s plant, a democratic backlash is emerging.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise.  Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation.  Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling.  Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings.  In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring – power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

In any good society, the greatest interactions are played out by non-profit organizations, neighbourhoods, civic celebrations, citizen encounters, houses of worship, local coffee shops, clubs, groups and a myriad of places where traction is gained for the broader community.  These are the things that provide those places where we live with their life-giving energies.  Vaclav Havel might as well have been talking about London, Ontario:

After all our upheavals, it is time for goodwill, tolerance, decency, interest in others, faith in the good in humanity, respect for our neighbor, natural responsibility, modesty, and an amicable view of the world to return to our social climate.  The more successfully this is done, the better we will all live.”

In so many of our communities these are the very things that are under threat, as neither politics nor capitalism can produce them.  In reality, together they are resulting in the opposite.  Only a rediscovered civil society can save us.

But those attempting to build that society have some sincere questions that, while many will question their validity, are rising to the forefront in citizen consciousness.  In their way, the questions are simple.  The importance right now is not the answer, but the very fact they are increasingly being raised.

  • Why can’t communities recall their political representatives who behave badly or put the party before their constituents?
  • If capitalist elites are stripping wealth from our communities while still using our roads, banks, universities, airports, security measures, and natural wonders, should they be brought back into the social compact that worked for decades?
  • If corporate taxes continue to decline, how can our communities possibly maintain the living style they took years to establish?
  • Why are politicians permitted to govern when they have already confessed to crimes?

What is interesting about questions like these is that they are being asked everywhere around the globe – the supposed capitalist domain.  Everywhere it has ventured and enriched itself, questions such as these are being left in its wake.  And from them have come certain theories that are gaining increasing traction.  Why can’t a global tax be placed on those global transactions that remove wealth from one country to another that will help to reimburse the communities they have left somehow depreciated?  What if citizens practiced civil disobedience to reveal their displeasure with a political class that seems as inept and it is remote?  If large businesses get public funds to expand their efforts, why not charge them a service fee for using a community’s infrastructure?

Look, these are questions that many will object to and attempt to refute, but the reality is that citizens and communities are asking them increasingly – Kellogg’s employees are asking them everyday.  Such queries are being brought forth because of the very inability of politics or commerce to reverse our slide.  Corporate barons and economists alike might belittle them, but such challenges are beginning to keep pace with corporate profits.

If the economic reforms of the past three decades are not matched by the increasing capacities of civil society, our lives will inevitably become one-dimensional, caricatures of themselves, and will result in an apathy towards public affairs – much like we have now.

We must rebuild a system in which words, kind deeds, responsible business, and responsive politics can shake the very structure of the elites and where words themselves can become more powerful and transcendent than capitalism’s call to our baser selves and the penchant for politics to turn us away from the public space. 

What took place at Kellogg’s this past week is just another step bringing our communities into a showdown with capitalist forces gone astray.  And such power will not prevail as long as citizens openly ask such questions.