Updated: May 24, 2020
(an addendum to Section 12 of Democracy STRUGGLES!)
What is the greatest challenge to democracy in the early 21st century?
The overwhelming power of the capitalist elite (economically, culturally, legislatively, politically, judicially) to craft domestic laws and the rules for a global economy?*
Naive ideas about democracy, power, and participation in a complex society where concentrated wealth must be wisely managed?
Perhaps they're equally dangerous? Perhaps one is the result of the other? Perhaps they are mutually reinforcing phenomena?
Certainly, naiveté and lack of information prevent far too many of us from being aware of the very shallow roots of institutional democracy which, despite the checkered example of Ancient Athens, reach back only as far as circa 1789. On the other hand, we all share a deep-seated resistance to domination. This may even be “hard-wired” by evolution into our species. But on Tevye’s other other hand . . . our species seems (almost) disturbingly adaptable to all types of harsh conditions - including those imposed by the most ruthless of our “brothers and sisters” who will ceaselessly seek to test all limits - including those of mutual decency. But, then again, the milk of human kindness and the thrill of solidarity (especially when infused with music) count among the most rapturous of all human experiences (excluding, perhaps, chocolate and sex). And yet, we are also so very prone to fine distinctions leading to intense jealousies and resentments even among those who are most similar to each other and who largely share the same interests. Finally, do all these questions lose any possible salience for someone - once he is no longer tempted to wonder how it would be:
“If I were a rich man, yaha diah dia dia dumb”?
Complexity, scale, and the ever-important need to avoid overly concentrated power, all militate for a pluralist menagerie of robust institutions including those somewhat like modern corporations. Historical naiveté also plays a huge role here. Western corporate forms can be traced back to medieval towns, universities, and construction projects. But this institutionalized quest for profit is a modern innovation not really much older than the institutional roots of modern democracy. Joint-stock companies originally had a "built-in" limited liability. Then after the Tulip Bubble (1637) and The South Sea Bubble (1720), the early modern ruling class was shocked into a chronic allergy to corporations, speculations, and insider trading. Both sentiments and laws regarding corporate charters earnestly sought to ensure corporations would only be established to serve some well-defined public interest. This was accompanied by reasonable allowances for certain ventures to be able to reclaim legitimate investments in roads, bridges, canals, etc. along with a fair profit - with the expectation that they should then be dissolved. A similar philosophy guided the establishment of early copyright and patent laws.
Anyone with a sense of history should be passionately alarmed by the ongoing radical growth in corporate power and greed. They should “literally” feel the shocking danger of this - as if it were freezing their very blood. The obscenities of corporate personhood, immortality, along with razor-sharp allegiance to short term stockholder benefits began in earnest only in the late 19th century but, as if on a well-greased sled on a very steep slope, these perils are only accelerating. As it crashes forward, this juggernaut accretes ever-increasing powers over public functions and human needs.
As this is being written, the advisors surrounding the president* of the United States are seriously considering privatizing US military operations even more radically than allowed for under current patterns of profitable corporate contracts. The benefits and dangers of allowing corporations to profit directly from the carnage and destruction of war are certainly being discussed with due lamentations and foreboding. And no doubt(?) there will be widespread public concern about the prospect of rapacious corporations equipping themselves with feudal armies capable of overseas(?) regime change. How much attention should be given to the possibility of this proposal is, at least in part, motivated by the difficulty of recruiting US citizens to risk their lives in uncertain foreign adventures with doubtful motivations?**
In the meantime, corporations already have an overweening degree of control over who has access to medicines, therapies, and all forms of healthcare. Their self-interested influence over our educational systems extends well beyond textbooks and prepackaged curricula. Increasingly they are owning hospitals, running jails, and providing security forces that rampage in the public streets.
And the profit motive routinely routs much-needed campaigns to control poisons (like tobacco) and environmental contaminants (like excess greenhouse gasses).
Civic control over corporations and their weaponized concentrated wealth will be critical not only for democracy but for the future of humanity.
Eventually Cassandra was proven right.
* When is da powitical pawties gonna GIVE us choices we wike?
**Shouldn’t that be considered a form of us “voting with our feet”?