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E-M:/ NYTimes.com Article: A Failure of Democracy, Not Capitalism

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For those who are believe that the standard Republican and "New Democrat" idealization of the marketplace deserves to be challenged, an excellent commentary by Benjamin Barber on market fundamentalist ideology and the undermining of the democratic social contract, and and the wisdom of the individual consumer-as-citizen.  This is extremely relevant to the argument for collective citizen action in creating public policy and for the merits of using government regulation to protect the envrionment and other areas of the public interest.


A Failure of Democracy, Not Capitalism

July 29, 2002


Congress passed sweeping legislation to reform corporate
conduct and governance last week, and President Bush has
pledged to sign it. A mere two months ago, the prospects
for such broad reform were grim, as Congressional
Republicans and the president himself favored a more
limited approach. 

The new law - among other reforms, it creates an
independent oversight board for the accounting industry and
curbs executive abuses like sweetheart loans - may appear
to be the reassertion of the public will over private
interests. But it fails to address the deeper scandal: the
real cause of spreading corporate malfeasance in America is
a lack of faith in democratic institutions themselves. 

Politicians on both sides of the aisle long insisted the
scandals could be traced to a few rotten apples in an
otherwise healthy barrel; a few radicals worry that the
barrel itself (the capitalist system) is rotten. But
business malfeasance is the consequence neither of systemic
capitalist contradictions nor private sin, which are
endemic to capitalism and, indeed, to humanity. It arises
from a failure of the instruments of democracy, which have
been weakened by three decades of market fundamentalism,
privatization ideology and resentment of government. 

Capitalism is not too strong; democracy is too weak. We
have not grown too hubristic as producers and consumers; we
have grown too timid as citizens, acquiescing to
deregulation and privatization (airlines, accounting firms,
banks, media conglomerates, you name it) and a growing
tyranny of money over politics. 

The corrosive effects of this trend are visible not only on
Wall Street. The Bush administration, which favors energy
production over energy conservation, has engineered a
reversal of a generation of progress on environmentalism
that threatens to leave the Superfund program underfunded,
air-quality standards compromised and global warming
unchecked. These policies can be traced directly to that
proud disdain for the public realm that is common to all
market fundamentalists, Republican and Democratic alike.
Such attitudes represent a penchant for a go-it-alone
economics that undermines the social contract and turns
corporate sins into virtues of the bottom line. 

Even in foreign policy, where unilateralism and the
repudiation of partnerships might suggest a muscular
governmental policy, there is a tendency to treat the
international sector as a Hobbesian "state of nature,"
anarchic and disorderly, where "force and fraud are
cardinal virtues" and the life of men is "nasty, brutish
and short." 

The United States fails to see that the international
treaties it won't sign, the criminal court it will not
acknowledge and the United Nations system it does not
adequately support are all efforts, however compromised, at
developing a new global contract to contain the chaos. The
American belittlement of these efforts betrays a strategy
that enhances global anarchy in the name of preserving
national sovereignty. Thus the new global disorder is as
incapable of constraining global crime as the deregulated
domestic market is incapable of containing corporate crime.

Market fundamentalism, which defined the era of Ronald
Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, encourages a myth of
omnipotent markets. But this is as foolish and wrong-headed
as the myth of omnipotent states, which reigned from the
New Deal to the Great Society. It tricks people into
believing their own common power represents some
bureaucrat's hegemony over them, and that buying power is
the same as voting power. But consumers are not citizens,
and markets cannot exercise democratic sovereignty. 

The ascendant market ideology claims to free us, but it
actually robs us of the civic freedom by which we control
the social consequences of our private choices. We are
unlikely to achieve a genuinely public and democratic plan
for the World Trade Center site, for example, by polling
the myriad private interests with a stake in the
development of the site. Democracy is more than consumer
polling. It demands the consideration not only of what
individuals want (private choosing) but also of what
society needs (public choosing). 

The truth is that runaway capitalists, environmental
know-nothings, irresponsible accountants, amoral drug
runners and antimodern terrorists all flourish because we
have diminished the power of the public sphere. By
privatizing government functions and refusing to help
create democratic institutions of global governance,
America has relinquished its authority to control these
forces. Within the United States, we foolishly think we
possess a private liberty that allows us to work and
prosper individually, not together or in conformity with a
social contract. In the international realm, we seem to
believe that our claim to national sovereignty allows us to
operate unilaterally - America first and foremost, not
together or in conformity with a global contract. 

On Sept. 11, no one looked to Bill Gates or Michael Eisner,
let alone Kenneth Lay or Martha Stewart, for national
leadership. On that day Americans remembered the true
meaning of words like citizen and public servant and relied
upon firefighters, mayors, Congress and the president. Why
then today do we expect corporate executives or "market
professionals" to cure the disorders of anarchic market
capitalism - which, as Theodore Roosevelt understood,
responds only to democratic oversight? And how do we expect
a go-it-alone superpower to depose terrorists who exploit
the global interdependence America is reluctant to

These ends are public, the res publica that constitutes us
as a common people. To secure them is the common task of
every citizen - as well as the principal responsibility of
the president and Congress, whose problem is not that they
may have once been complicit in the vices of capitalism,
but that they are today insufficiently complicit in the
virtues of democracy. 

Benjamin R. Barber is a professor of political philosophy
at the University of Maryland and the author of ‘‘Jihad vs.


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