The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: free market

Right to Community – Increasingly Alone

When aspiring Republican U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke at an economic club in Detroit last week he revealed just how hard it is for cities to get much attention in the modern economy. Trying to draw his hearers back to the days of yore when America had been in the process of actually reducing income disparity, he reflected to his audience:

“We should celebrate like we do in the small towns all across America — as you do here in Detroit. You celebrate success. You build statues and monuments. Buildings, you name after them. Why? Because in their greatness and innovation, yes, they created wealth, but they created wealth for everybody else. And that’s a good thing, not something to be condemned in America.”

Unless he was referring to the days of Henry Ford, it’s hard to imagine how out of tune Santorum is with the average city-dweller. Charles Blow of the New York Times noted that, had the politician taken the time to walk around Detroit that day he would have faced the impossible task of finding many statues that honoured people who simply invented something and got rich. Detroit presently has almost 100,000 abandoned homes and is struggling to survive like any other community. But what else could we expect from someone whose closing remarks that day included, “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.” Wonder how the people of Detroit felt about that?

Santorum’s “they created wealth for everybody else,” is no longer a reality in our communities – “trickle-down” economics was a sham – and we now know it. Our small towns, larger communities and big cities are watching wealth fly along at 65,000 feet and experience great difficulty in getting any of it. Groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities have been reminding successive governments for decades that our real innovation, sweat, and equity are to be found in our communities and yet they remain the distant cousins of senior levels of government who seem preoccupied with looking elsewhere for prosperity.

Starting today we begin a new series of blog posts on the “Right to Community.” We live in an age of human rights, where certain protections have been extended in numerous dimensions to the marginalized worldwide but where cities in the West lie increasingly vulnerable to a market ethic that uses them when times are good and abandons them when bad. Our communities were once places where the realities of opportunity and a burgeoning middle-class made them delightful places to live, love, learn and to eventually leave our legacies to our children.

No more. We threw our collective lot in with our communities but now feel abandoned as the global financial world wreaks havoc on our local life. A free trade era that lacked a “communities” foresight, and the debacle of the elite moneylenders virtually laying waste to the international financial system while being bailed out by public funds, have left our towns and cities teetering on the edge. The mega-lending institutions just moved their capital around, wrote off their losses, and picked up public funds, while our communities were stuck where they were – sedentary places that were once the darlings of agriculture and capitalism that now watch their former suitors forgetting learned history and abandoning historical relationships. It looks to only get worse as the impending Canada-Europe Free Trade Agreement (CETA) effectively strips away the rights of communities to secure local labour and resources. Some folks are going to get awfully rich with that deal, but it won’t be us, or average Europeans.

And so we inevitably arrive at the conclusion urban sociologist Robert Park wrote about a few years ago: “But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” That’s us – residents and contributors to community who now don’t know what to make of the transitions swirling around us.

We can’t go back to a largely agrarian lifestyle, and we are increasingly left without resources  – financial, political, and, yes, constitutional – to move ahead. We are a species that, increasingly around the world, has chosen to live in communities as a way of existing and of rounding off the rough edges of living. But now the rapacious open market is bringing the corporate jungle to us and we’re left ill-equipped to face the onslaught.

It is time to reimagine community as not only the place in which we live but as a bona fide partner in a new form of confederation that grants us certain rights.  Those rights include the ability to attain the necessary resources to form and formalize the communities we want for our children. It shouldn’t have to happen, but with the deterioration of a responsible and magnanimous political order that once bestowed a more centralized Canada with the resources necessary to forge a collective identity (everything now is just politics, not effective wealth-sharing and diplomacy), we have to fight for ourselves. The political order increasingly comes into our communities to get our votes and then leaves to pursue it own agenda – a practice that is becoming incompatible.

So it’s time to revisit a bit of history. If we desire fundamental change without chaos, then we need look no farther than the American Revolution.

We Want In

The Nation magazine recently asked 16 activists and economists the following relevant question: “If you had the ability to reinvent capitalism, where would you start?” The responses were wide-ranging but a synthesis of how they viewed modern capitalism fell into three main categories: 1) surplus is distributed by those who own, not those who work and make; 2) more consumption is always better; and 3) anything “outside” the economy, like the environment, may as well not exist.”

Put in other terms, these three conclusions might say; 1) capital gleaned from production can be taken from the hands from those who make goods and placed in the sole possession of those who own; 2) in order to make more profit each year, as much has to be sold as possible, regardless of what’s left over; and 3) capital seeks its own level with little regard to destruction it doesn’t have to pay for.

What is important about these conclusions is that whether they are correct or not, they are now the perception of average citizens – the rule, not the exception. In any democracy this is capitalism’s major worry. If citizens couple action with their anger, confining legislation can result that seeks out a fairer equilibrium for the fairer distribution of wealth. This would be the figurative equivalent to capitalism having a root canal.

We all grew up with the idea the along with power comes responsibility. Yet it appears nothing possesses greater power and authority today than the multinational corporation – greater even than many sovereign states. No other group holds such influence, and it appears that none has been left with less responsibility.

In the not too distant past, Canada oversaw an economic order where the world of business was expected to accede to certain civic demands. For a time – Confederation up until the 1970s – free enterprise was viewed as a key partner to expanding citizenship and the key enabler of assisting governments in providing average families the ability to progress and learn. Previous centuries had taught leaders that wealth in the hands of the few meant privation in the lives of the many. Time proved them right, as it became clear that democracy was not the product of capitalism but rather it was the other way around. Recent history has shown that capitalism actually requires democracy to produce well-rounded and endowed consumers but actually has no idea how to promote either. In other words, markets are simply incapable of knowing how to build the public space or to furnish it with long-term sustainability. It used to know how, and was in fact a key partner in such pursuits, but has now forgotten its own history in the hurried pursuits of immediate profits.

Much as we have altered our view of corporatism, many corporate leaders have changed their view of us – from multi-dimensional citizens who were also consumers, to consumers solely. The big decisions are made on how we’ll buy and not on how we’ll progress. There are those who will toss out the standard retort that the corporate interest is only rationally pursuing the bottom line and efficiencies. But this wasn’t always the case, as past history has shown. Corporations have morphed from vital community partners to profit-driven entities, isolated and independent from the communities and countries in which they function. Our confidence in this model has become threadbare and in its place is arising the same derision many feel for the political order.

Are citizens ready to take action and insist on a new economic paradigm that no longer accepts that money is superior to people, that credit doesn’t cross-out community? Common goods and benefits are the result of common thinking. Civil society makes that possible, as does an effective form of politics. Private goods are primarily for those who can afford them and the benefits primarily accrue to those higher up the economic ladder. Whatever kind of reordering of the civic/capitalist partnership must plan for the reality that without a healthy public space there will be no sustainable private profits in our communities. Making space for citizens and giving them a choice in future public investments must be the overriding goal of any future strategy to win back our equitable prosperity and begin the shrinking of economic disparity.

By increasingly turning its back on the public right of citizens to say who invests in community, the market is cutting off its nose to spite its face – earnings will eventually fall into decline because corporatism will eventually run out of places to find low-cost labour and they will ultimately return back home to a domestic market that can no longer afford to purchase products.

Montaville Flowers, in his America Chained, predicted in the early 1990s that heading down the road of free market dominance would reduce workers from “the status of independence to that of hireling under humiliating regulations, thus lowering the spirit of communities and the nation.” Ask most citizens from London, Ontario whether they are experiencing that very subtle degradation right now and they’ll nod their heads in the affirmative. Why? One word: Caterpillar. Workers reduced by the mega-firm to having to accept half their salary virtually overnight has brought on an agitated community response of support for the workers themselves.

More than revenue derived from free markets, we require reform emanating from arduous citizens. It has to be about sustainability, not just sales. It’s more about civic progress than about capitalist profits. Thanks to Caterpillar we are slowly beginning to use such language, and in a shared vocabulary of citizenship there is hope.

The Thirty-year Memory

For many citizens, especially the progressive kind, there remains a deep and latent desire to rediscover a Canada that is not so divided along economic, social and regional lines. As the years pass, it feels as if it’s becoming more of a dream than a real possibility. Ottawa doesn’t so much reflect the divisions of Canada as it exacerbates them, willfully promoting the seeds of animosity as opposed to finding new levels of cooperation whereby we can all pull together to prepare for the gathering storm.

Enough money exists to solve our most basic problems – more than at any time in history. Yet an increasing amount of the wealth created has gone to the people at the top and this lies at the heart of our predicament. Our real challenge isn’t so much balancing a global economy, presently sailing too close to the rocks, but to actually restructure it so that its benefits are shared more widely by all Canadians, as it once used to be. It was never perfect, but it was more equitable.

Taken in historical perspective, those years in which the economy was on the move, and with it the prosperity of most Canadians, occupy merely a short parenthetical phase. From the very beginnings of humanity, at least as they’re recorded, it had always been that the power and wealth went to the few. Look at any age, even the glory days of Pericles and Greek democracy, and you’ll see the same principle holding true – a few benefitted while the rest made do with little. It went on century after century, millennia after millennia.

Although World War One was a global phenomenon and shook up the economic and global order, it shifted little from this practice of the few wealthy and the many poor. The seeds of the next great war were planted in this soil of wealth inequity. Science was bringing massive knowledge, not only of a broader world, but of the inner workings and possibilities of humans themselves. Efforts to attain this new era for average citizens were quickly tamped down by those who benefitted the most from wealth creation.

The financial mismanagement of those supposedly in charge of the economy eventually led to the Great Depression and opened the doors for Franklin Roosevelt to usher in the New Deal. We know all this already, but it’s important to see it in perspective. The fundamental restructuring of economies that took place in Europe, the U.S. and Canada in those years quickly elevated a small middle-class into the mainstream, lasted all but 30 years. Economists tell us that it ran the span from roughly the early-1940s to the early-1970s. Thirty years, that’s it. They were remarkable times and along with the money generated post-World War Two, there was the expansion of society in almost every dimension. An empowered middle-class bought the products, deepened their own potential, and voted for progressives in ways that kept the deeper enrichment of places like Canada growing.

Thirty years later we began the process of losing it. The new corporatism, global in scope, returned with a vengeance and used its influence wherever it could. Industrialization and manufacturing were suddenly on the decline. Economies sagged. Political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher waged war on the excesses of the earlier order but cut into the very sinew of the middle class in the process. From that point on, middle class families would watch as the greater wealth moved steadily beyond them. They made do with “things,” but their real purchasing power would remain stagnant until the present day. Cheap credit meant they could keep buying, but they have now ended with the largest private debt in the world.

Thirty years – that’s all it was. So when progressives talk about restoring a societal order that was as equitable as it was empowered they are really talking about a blip – a remarkable period where history was turned on its head, the wealthy were forced to yield up some of their riches for the benefit of society as a whole, and average citizens found themselves as co-creators of a new destiny.

Is that memory of those brief decades enough to recharge us again, to cause citizens to fight for the progressive track they once travelled but which appears to be slipping away? Will they begin to sit up and take notice that the flaws of our modern economy are imperiling our political and social order, and that large numbers of citizens now feel the game is rigged against them. And will they then serve notice that they refuse to support an economic order that calls for the privatization of everything public when it can’t even run its own shop?

It’s time we started focusing on the real economy and not just the financial one. Thirty years wasn’t a long time, but it was enough to build dreams and to remember them. People who can’t even run the world or national economies are purposefully and shamefully dismembering our public heritage in hopes that the days of Roosevelt will never be repeated. Our only real hope against that is responsible citizenship and even more responsible government.

Already things are stirring, with demonstration on Wall Street, in Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro and at some point in places across Canada. This is no way to run an economy but we as citizens were too busy shopping to notice. But that 30 years still burns in our memory and we must live more responsibly in an effort to get them back. It’s time we started talking and fighting for the real economy.

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