Grassroots democracy is a necessary work in progress

Charles Posa McFadden, March 2014

Consistently democratic behaviour and organization continues to elude us, weakening our efforts to achieve common purpose and action. Fewer and fewer people are willing to tolerate decision making by cliques or by persons or committees that act in an unaccountable, non-transparent fashion. The results are altogether too well known and invariably destructive of progressive social purpose. So, why are undemocratic practices so prevalent and recurrent?

Here, in brief - probably well short of the larger discussion we need - is my take on the problem and its solution.

The most fundamental relationship in a capitalist society – the one we live in - is that between employers and employees, a relationship which is antithetical to democracy. Unfortunately, though, it is also the primary model, the one that is likely to be emulated even in much of our practice outside of such relationships. The historical record supports the view that at least as long as privately owned companies – particularly the largest of them – remain the most influential and consequential decision-making organizations in a society, democratic functioning of other organizations in that society, including electoral democracy, will have an uphill battle against the translation of economic power into political power.

My argument is that we carry on that battle as if the very future of human life on this planet depends on our success in achieving greater democracy – because I believe it does. I have argued the case for this conclusion elsewhere (throughout the essays/chapters I have posted on www.greensocialdemocracy.org).

Here let me re-cap what I believe are some of the most basic features which define an organization as democratic, notwithstanding the rarity of consistent democratic practice. In a more fully democratic organization than those that yet predominate in our society, the aims and goals, strategies and tactics, policies, constitution, laws and regulations of the organization are decided by the members of that organization, with each member having the right and opportunity to an equal voice and vote in all these decisions. The membership meeting (whether face to face or online) is the highest decision making body. In other words, the more fully democratic organization is the one with bottom-up decision making. Anything short of these practices is, by definition, a limited form of democracy, at best.

In a bottom-up democratic organization, all elected committees and persons in elected positions as well as volunteers would make their actions including decisions immediately accountable and responsible to those who have elected them or to whom they have volunteered their services. Meetings of the full membership would have the final authority for making the fundamental decisions of the organization, including all those outlined in our definition of a more democratic organization.

It is easy to see how far our actual organizations depart from the practices that would make our organizations more fully democratic. Many of the departures of actual practices from desired ones can be attributed to the practical problems of participation, including the sheer numbers of people in an organization, especially in a governmental electoral jurisdiction, available time free from other responsibilities, knowledge of the issues being decided and civic knowledge (basically, how to participate) and interest and willingness to participate. But these are all mere obstacles, all of which can be reduced and some of which we might succeed in overcoming over time.

The most serious obstacle to consistent, reliably democratic organization and behaviour, however, will remain as long as the institution of private ownership of the resources and tools that all are dependent upon for a living prevails, that is, as long as our predominant economic relationships are capitalist ones. That is in part why we have argued elsewhere for social democracy, the transformation of our economic institutions into fully democratic ones. In the meantime, however, we can prepare for this transformation by making inroads into the extent, rights and political power of private ownership of capital. And there is lots of space in which to make these inroads, given that the present extent of capitalist ownership includes vertically integrated multinational corporations, the current rights of these corporations extend even as far as full "citizenship" rights, including virtually unlimited financial engagement in politics and lobbying rights and even the right to exercise influence through revolving doors between government and corporate offices.

The immediate alternative is the development and organizational strength of democratic organizations and inroads against the concentrated power of the largest private corporations. I believe the alternative path also includes the building and strengthening of consciously working class cultural and democratic institutions as a necessary counter to the class struggle being waged against working people by an increasingly powerful and centralized capitalism, reversing their strategy of divide and rule by people’s unity, taking advantage of every division among the pro-capitalist and antidemocratic forces to advance our common cause in a more just, sustainable future.

Of course, we can expect a continuation of the debate over democracy. Such debate over the benefits and supposed limitations of democracy is nearly as old as recorded history, going back at least as far as the Athenian democracy of ancient Greece. Representatives of the propertied ruling classes have repeatedly made the case against democracy, for the obvious reason of their own self-interest. The principal form of their argument today is against the extent of responsibility taken by government for the welfare of the people.

Unfortunately, even the ostensible opponents of capitalist autocracy as recently as the twentieth century were more persuaded by the example and arguments of the propertied classes than they were to Marx’s clarion call for a society governed by the associated producers. Instead they more frequently copied the example of their pro-capitalist political opponents by substituting themselves and the organizations and political parties they controlled for the direct democratic rule of working people. Perhaps the lower level of education of working people and the fierce and economically powerful opposition of the capitalists explains and largely excuses past behaviour and undesirable outcomes. But isn’t it time that we insist upon and begin to practice consistent democracy in our own organizations as both the path and aim of our opposition to autocratic rule?

Welcome!

This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New

NEW & REVISED

Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them

OPINION

Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement

REVIEWS

Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.

US CORNER

William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class

CANADA CORNER

George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP

RECOMMENDED

Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018

FEATURED WORK

ECONOMICS

1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism

HISTORY

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems

LABOR

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.