Our democratic governments have long been at war with our capitalist economy. One seeks to spread power as widely as possible with each person being equal, having the same rights, freedoms and access to being heard. The other concentrates wealth and power and grants rights and freedoms and access to power based on how much wealth a person owns and controls. In A Preface to Economic Democracy the eminent US thinker, Robert Dahl explored the logical and reality based conflict between the two and posed the question, if democracy is the clearly best approach to the organization of government, why is it not the best approach to organizing the economy? If the ideas and ideals of democracy protect us from political tyranny, why would they not protect us from economic tyranny? Arguments against economic democracy end up resting on self-serving elitism.
Shifting to a democratic economy calls for fundamental and protracted change. We need to shift from investor/capital driven businesses to co-operatives, social enterprises, community owned businesses and government owned accountable corporations at federal, provincial and especially local levels of government. We have an economy whose purpose is to serve capital, and it has put nature and human society fully into service to achieve that end. The results are a growing disaster. Billionaire wealth is exploding. 20% of Canadians own 73.5% of all the wealth in Canada. Young people are losing hope and committing suicide and dying from self-medication in increasing numbers. The number of young people deciding not to have children is growing. Alienation of the poor and middle class is fueling the desperate support for sociopathic and psychopathic pseudo populist leaders from the extreme right.
Hopelessness is the key product of an economy that is driving climate change, plastics in the food chain, pollution of the water and air, commodification of everything, warping of communication, galloping inequality, food insecurity, and loathsome work places – a host of outcomes that erode hope and drive desperation. The culture of capitalism, that denies the dual individual/social nature of humanity and declares the pure self-centered freedom of individuals as the only way to live, is poisoning society and the earth. The list of disasters flowing out of catastrophe capitalism would take pages and has been detailed in many books.
This destructive capitalist economy is in a slow process of disintegration. The mega corporations of free trade globalization have rendered ‘markets’ less and less functional. Financial and commodity markets are becoming more and more toxic, dominated by the accountants, lawyers and lobbyists of the super-rich. The so called ‘miracle of the market place’ is at best a half truth. The bottom 50% of Canadians have little impact in the market because they simply lack the purchasing power to influence demand. In 2014 they owned just 5.5% of Canada’s wealth. ‘Just in time’, global supply chains, designed to exploit the poorest and weakest workers in the world, to maximize profits for huge corporations are proving unfit. During the pandemic many simply collapsed leading to chaos and windfall profit creating inflation.
And we are drifting toward this looming disaster, telling ourselves lies such as, ‘the USA is the leader of the free world’ or ‘we live in a democracy’. We need to face the truth that the USA has violently or covertly overthrown dozens of democratically elected governments and that Canada and the USA are at best quasi democracies. Our governments seldom ever are elected by a majority of our people. In the capitalist economy that controls our governments, it is one dollar one vote. In 2016 before the pandemic poured enormous wealth into the hands of the already rich, 73.5% of the votes steering the economy were held by 20% and with the richest 1% in a position to buy and threaten governments. Will we have the courage to openly face the problems? Will we decide the challenges facing us are too depressing to be honest about the mounting evidence? Will we allow ourselves to slide forward into this disaster over the next 30 or 40 years? Can we not imagine the tears of our grandchildren?
I will survive capitalism. Will my children and grandchildren survive it? It depends on whether we can start and sustain a profound change of direction over the next 10-20 years. Just following the news on climate change, the extinction of species and galloping inequality makes being an optimist seem foolhardy. Daring to look at the news and be aware of the harsh realities that face us demands courage. Unless we recognize and understand the challenges, solutions are not possible. Unless we have that courage, there is no hope of a solution.
Being a pessimist is to enter a bottomless pit of despair. What is left is to be a courageous ‘hopefulist’ and work as hard as possible for future generations. Having spent years taking students to visit co-operative economies in Emilia Romagna and the Basque Country of Spain and in places of co-operative excellence around the world, it is evident that it is possible to build an efficient, creative, satisfying, people centered economy serving people rather than being slaves of capital. 43 Million people in the USA get their electricity from co-operatives. Co-operatives around the world are successfully serving people in spite of predatory capitalism backed by subservient governments. A better world economy is indeed possible. We have examples of what it looks like. Businesses that are people centered actually work much better for their workers, their communities and their natural world. Human beings around the world have demonstrated we know how to do it. Will we do it?
Let’s reflect on the words of Rebecca Solnit pondering the changes of the last few decades including climate change. “Worse than these is the arrival of climate change, faster, harder and more devastating than scientists anticipated. Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the 21st century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.” Every disaster brings out the innate good in people. Thoughtful kindness erupts in frenzies of constructive activity. The natural inclination of people is to make things better. Doing good is the greatest source of human joy.
 Dahl, Robert (1986) A Preface to Economic Democracy, University of California Press