By guest author, diogenes (bio below).
PART 5: A SUGGESTION (this article)
A progressive campaign for America today based on methods and practices described in this essay would begin by formulating a platform comprising eight or ten serious logical effective legislative initiatives for fundamental progressive economic change and then developing a credible reasoned persuasive concise presentation of the platform planks and the method, the issues addressed and the proposals, supported in turn by a series of “lectures” explaining each plank and the issues in more depth, and another one describing a de-centralized local organizational method creating small neighborhood precinct action groups of a dozen members to begin constructive work in support of voter education and electoral activities to advance these proposals and “compel” (as Eisenhower puts it) their enactment as legislation.
The primary emphasis to start with and for as long as it takes to develop a critical mass and momentum, will need to fall on informing fellow citizens face-to-face, propagating action groups — “each one teach one,” or two or three — and networking to share information and experience and coordinate action. Video offers an ideal medium for the lectures and the internet for much networking. But face to face communication with our neighbors and near neighbors is key — to inform fellow citizens at large, to create a context for public discussion, to build a citizenry of alert, knowledgeable voters and initiate public awareness of progressive ideas in a neighborly way, to offer access to further information, and to find and engage those who are inclined to participate as activists in forming new action groups.
It is not necessary to involve everyone in activism or even to win their approval as potential voters. Ten percent of voters can profoundly alter elections. If one adult citizen in a thousand devotes four hours a month, that’s 100 million person-hours yearly. The Occupy movement shows that the spirit and energy exist. It failed because its methods were unfocused, hopeless, and self-defeating and its program nebulous; therefore its energies were soon dissipated and dispersed. Some went on to other progressive activities but probably more were discouraged by the experience; the movement itself went nowhere. Its most useful accomplishment (not to be slighted) was awakening the American public to an inkling of the real character of the distribution of wealth and power in our country.
Besides elementary public education and propagation of groups, a primary focus of action will need to be securing the vote and vote counts, which are endangered or corrupted in many parts of our country. Paper ballots, and hands-on open counts with multiple volunteer citizen witnesses and transparent collection of totals makes a good first objective and a necessary one — or something better, if it exists. If 14 million American voters could manage to count their votes on paper in 1900 without the “assistance” of absentee corporate-operated electronic devices and the like, 200 million of us can do the same. Our democracy is worth that much time and effort, and requires it.
It is essential to avoid becoming entangled and divided over issues that are not fundamental and universal to the economic well-being of the citizenry at large and to the purpose of promoting and enacting the platform initiatives — not as an expression of lack of support, disdain or opposition, but from a basic defining intention to focus on specific issues and specific initiatives which are of elementary concern to everyone — such as health care, housing, conditions of employment, costs and effectiveness of public utilities and transportation, ecological stewardship and sustainable economic practices and so on, as contrasted with such matters as abortion, guns, sexual diversity, racial (racist) solidarity, sectarian religion and foreign quarrels, which are used to divide us and distract us from basic concerns which we all share — important matters of general agreement and broad significance to the public interest and our general welfare. We must learn to meet our fellow citizens on common ground and talk to each other. It is particularly important that we learn to talk and find common ground across these divisions.
All of us, or nearly, want for ourselves and our children and our neighbors to be able to lead healthy lives in decent homes, to be able to earn a decent livelihood doing meaningful work that benefits our communities, and so on. The system we live in perpetuates itself by persuading us that we have to fight each other for them, and settle for half a loaf, or crumbs. On the contrary, the principle of barn-raising is basic to American democracy and democratic culture — and its disappearance parallels the rise of the plutocracy. Racial inclusiveness goes without saying. As the Populists realized from the start and assumed in their practice (black and white workers made common cause in the St. Louis general strike of 1876), we are all in the same boat, the same “ship of state.” It was a wise man who said, “to keep somebody down, you got to get down there with him.” And conversely, together we can rise far higher than divided, separated, fighting.
It is key that an action group be an action group — not a discussion group or a debating society or social occasion or a venue for petty power plays or formulation of orthodox dogma, but a group of a dozen people intent on and devoting time and energy, caring adult attention and mutual assistance to forwarding specific aims in cooperative coordination with other circles pursuing the same objectives. All these other activities can find their own venues and willing participants. Experience shows that a group larger than a dozen or so — certainly larger than 15 — ceases to function as a circle. The circle of understanding and full participation, the group mind, breaks down, herd behavior and committee behavior replace consensus and reason, mutuality and self-direction.
Twelve is a handy number also because it comprises four sets of three, which is an optimal minimum for an ad hoc task group focusing on a specific aspects of a plan of action. It would be wise to rotate their memberships ad hoc also as they are formed and reformed to pursue specific objectives — to foster group mindedness and mutual instruction — with the whole group meeting monthly to plan action in support of forwarding goals, form task groups accordingly, report successes and setbacks, learn from and address them, assess progress, and brainstorm. Individual initiative and self-leadership are vital and essential: self-directed free citizens employing individual talents and aptitudes in service of common aims in action for the public interest in our general welfare. The characteristic behaviors of people in committees are to be avoided at all costs. The point is not to have meetings but to act intelligently, step by step, to advance and achieve well-conceived objectives. Sectarian and partisan theorizing of all flavors is also to be rigorously excluded. Practice is the object, not dogma.
Some groups may find video-taping meetings a valuable tool for helping groups and members to stay on track and avoid petty digressions (as well as to provide ideal “minutes” for later reference if needed); others may find it too troublesome or distracting. Transparency, good faith, serious adult commitment and mutual witness are of the essence. Legal democratic action is the method, election of local, state and congressional representatives pledged to the platform programs, passage of ballot initiatives and enactment of specific legislation in accord with constitutional process are the aims. Anything that requires concealment is suspect, and today in America concealment is impossible anyway.
As groups multiply they will need to develop precinct networks to share experience and skills and coordinate actions as appropriate. Once a precinct has several circles active it would be wise practice to create a system of rotating pairs of visitors to each other’s monthly meetings to facilitate face-to-face acquaintance and mutual exchange; once it has enough circles active, it might also be good practice to constitute a coordinating council composed of paired delegates from each circle — with pairs of visitors to other groups and of council delegates rotating at different rates — one member of the pair steady for a year, the other changing monthly — to maximize experience and acquaintance while maintaining continuity of attention and effort.
Once a precinct has a sufficient number of sets of twelve groups, a second tier coordinating council with its rotating delegates from their coordinating councils might follow, and so on. But the object is not to create a hierarchy of authority or chain of command — absolutely the contrary: consensus and coordinated decentralized action are essential. The object is coordination, communication, sharing of information and skills and experience, mutual acquaintance, practice in barn-raising together, and the elementary education in the realities of citizenship that human variety offers. A key objective is to minimize organization-building, maximize individual participation and responsibility and eliminate directive authority vested in specific persons (officers, leaders) or wealth (donors). In a free republic, every citizen is the leader of himself and his own acts. As Veblen points out, insubordination (not being subordinated) is fundamental to liberty. To keep somebody down, you got to get down there with him. It is the opposite of barn-raising.
What progressive democracy especially needs as activists are the ones among his listeners La Follette looked for, the attentive and inspired, since they are often most suited and skilled for “alert, knowledgeable” activism. A significant share of the success of the progressive initiatives of 1895-1916 is attributable to the commitment of people with such aptitudes. People old enough to have raised their children past childhood are especially important because they are apt to understand and care about the long-term stakes, and possess practiced skills and balance. Just as “racial” (or post-racial) inclusiveness is fundamental, so is inter-generational and cultural inclusiveness — two more ways the system seeks to keep us divided and subjected. The Social Gospel movement was an important contributor to the progressive tradition from the start, just as many churches were crucial proponents of the abolition of slavery. Walter Rauschenbusch talks about mammon’s minions rather than the financial oligarchy’s but the spirit and informing intuitions, prompting values and purposes are the same. Progressives need to create mutual understanding and active coalitions with Christians and heal this division, just as our country’s racial divisions require healing. Christians need to recognize again that the Sermon on the Mount is devoted to political economy in the real world and try to live up to it in action. The public interest is a fundamental common cause that unites us.
A platform is an instrument for forming coalitions and disseminating policy information as well as a statement of legislative objectives. Some activist participants will be at first more drawn by, informed about and attentive to one issue, others to another — and the process will allow them to explain them to each other. Fostering this exchange is primary and essential to (in)forming an alert citizenry.
It is crucial to heed Pinchot’s observations about platform planks. They must be “specific measures” that avoid “superficial reform.” “To succeed it is necessary to advocate for a clear, understandable, and brief program which will be so obviously unacceptable to the interests that carry on the invisible government that they will have nothing to do with it.” To be persuasive as well as effective they need to address essential issues in realistic fundamentally transformative ways — effective convincing alert knowledgeable citizens that they are seriously worthwhile and promising, that they embody pragmatic good sense, that they can work in immediately appreciable ways to effect positive change in the daily conditions of our lives and livelihoods. To expect anything less to be persuasive is to plan to dupe our fellow citizens — not to practice democracy in the service of the public interest. America’s ruling oligarchy maintains a vast system of hirelings — believers and cynics — to persuade us that initiatives in the public interest are impractical, illegal, unconstitutional, unamerican, communistic, depraved, etc. That is why citizen mutual self-education is essential. Otherwise, “garbage in, garbage out.”
The following platform proposal sketches basic areas and programs for legislation; it does not embody “specific measures” except in general terms. It will probably take a decade or more of persistent wise action before the possibility of passing legislation can emerge — plenty of time for activists possessing the appropriate skills to write effective legislation and vet it extensively and closely with their fellows from every conceivable angle. As they write legislation, they will need to design it with particular attention to not repeating the last 120 years’ history of legislative mistakes and betrayals — notably by courts and regulatory bodies “captured” by the vested interests they are delegated to supervise and corrupted to betray the laws they are impaneled to enforce. In securing the legislation of platform planks it will also be crucial to insure that they are not supplanted (a frequent fate of progressive initiatives) by accepting half loaves and trojan horses in their stead.
As Senator Pettigrew wrote a hundred years ago, progressives need to be especially careful, skeptical, and untrustful of lawyers, who are trained to argue any case for their fee and to place the supposed “rights” of property above the quality of human life and livelihood as a matter of course. Undoing the lawyerly enablements of predatory corporate and financial power enacted in law and in vicious judicial precedents is a necessary preliminary objective of progressive economic legislation. An advantage of the process described above is that it provides numerous witnesses to observe, vet and supervise plans, including proposed legislation, as well as each others’ acts. The right legal talent for the task will emerge in due time. In a republic the answer to Juvenal’s classic question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who will guard the guardians — is Nos ipsi cives — we the citizens, ourselves. This is what Eisenhower means by “alert.” What he means by “only” is that it is our task alone; it cannot be delegated and it cannot be “taken for granted.” If we don’t make American democracy work in the public interest, no one can and no one will — on the contrary, as we can see and feel every day of our lives.
People intent on persuading American citizens of the hopelessness of prospects for fundamental change often cite the courts and “constitutionality” as insuperable bars. Either they are ignorant of basic legal, judicial and constitutional facts and history, or they are deceitfully ignoring them. Since the Civil War the courts have played a devastating role in thwarting progressive initiatives but reading of the works, decisions and dissenting opinions of Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, and Hugo Black (to mention three of America’s greatest jurists) suffices to demolish the idea that this is inevitable or irreversible. In the 1950s the Supreme Court overturned a century of decisions affirming the constitutionality of segregation. It can do exactly the same, if necessary, to free the public from economic enslavement. Lincoln passed his greenback legislation and prevented a typically plutocratic Supreme Court from blocking it by passing legislation to add more justices to its panel — as Congress can do; Franklin Roosevelt was defeated in the same strategy because Congress distrusted his motives and his programs. In our system Congress, especially the House, represents the power of the citizenry at large and the power of the purse and ultimately it can insure that the will of the citizenry and the public interest prevail. The problem is political, not legal or constitutional: the solution is using our votes to “compel” action by Congress instead of allowing its continuing usurpation by a predatory oligarchy.
There was and still is an overwhelming consensus spanning the full range of America’s citizenry favoring the eminently sensible idea of single-payer health insurance. In aiming to disenable a legalized private predatory toll on a public necessity and replace it with an equitable arrangement serving the public interest it is a classic progressive economic initiative. A progressive platform needs ten such planks similarly addressing other fundamental issues: shelter, conditions of livelihood and employment, public utilities (power, water, communications, transportation), public works, public credit, education, for examples — all of them as reasonable, practical and badly needed as single-payer health insurance. Until after the Second World War they were all parts of the discussion at the American table. In a “fireside chat” radio broadcast on January 11, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt said “We have come to a clearer realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’… We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station or race or creed. Among these are the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of farmers to raise and sell their products at a return which will give them and their families a decent living; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home and abroad; the right of very family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical cre and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age and sickness and accident and unemployment; and, finally, the right to a good education.” From the beginning, progressive policy centered on proposals concretely addressing these and other fundamental economic rights. Since Roosevelt’s death the prospect of insuring them has been deliberately and drastically rolled back. As Brooks Adams, Brandeis, Douglas, Hugo Black and others make clear, a “second Bill of Rights” is not necessary — but a functioning democracy is. Our Constitution as written can serve the purpose, if we use it. It is the lever that our “democratic processes” provide specific to our service of the public interest, the republic (res publica) — we, the citizens, ourselves, the custodes, the guardians, at last the “only” guardians, as Eisenhower puts it to us, who can see to it that America’s “security and liberty may prosper together.”
The House of Representatives is elected every two years by local districts whose ultimate electoral parts are neighborhood precincts. Today it is an assembly of “Two Party System” oligarchic hirelings squatting on party gerrymandered “safe” districts. And today there are “sixty thousand corporate lobbyists who work the hallways of the Capitol.” But there are 200 million of us. If we play their money game, we lose, since they have all the money, but if instead we step entirely outside the money game and act in our proper role as citizens using our votes alertly and knowledgeably, and are persistent and patient, and act wisely, and learn from history instead of repeating it, we will be following the advice of a great general. The House is the forum our Constitution provides for an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to “compel” legislative and administrative action in the public interest for the general welfare. It is not unreasonable to imagine snowballing coordinated activism creating an effective non-partisan progressive majority in the House in fewer than ten election cycles. It took California progressives fifteen years to elect a governor and legislature to end the reign of the Southern Pacific Railroad corporation over all aspects of state political life and establish government in the public interest. That’s a pertinent example. The railroad on whose tracks Americans are tied is much larger today, but so is the American citizenry and our access to information. General Eisenhower’s patriot strategic advice is doubly potent: “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge” economic machinery of our general welfare to operate in the public interest (instead of the interest of the money lords who have usurped it).
A Progressive Platform
Fundamental Preliminary — Skill Development and Practice
Develop and coordinate the cooperation of a seed core of alert, knowledgeable citizens, and grow it.
Insure the security of the vote.
Elect representatives committed and pledged to pass platform legislative planks as written, monitor their action and don’t re-elect duds and sell-outs. Repeat until legislation is passed and continue monitoring its enforcement and make adjustments as required.
Health care: Assure universal access to state-of-the-art health care: single-payer health care; health care development initiatives (universal access to topflight local clinics, medical education publicly funded and expanded to create and staff them); price controls, patent reforms, and public buy-out and rationalization of pharmaceuticals corporations; elimination of the for-profit “health care industry” and business in “health care” beyond specific manufacture and research facilities (and of course their staffs) and locally owned and operated clinics, hospitals and private practices; health care treated as a public utility; development funding by public credit as required. Doctors and patients alike need to be rescued from the same predatory interests.
Housing: Assure universal access to decent housing owned by those who make it their home: guaranteed tenure of tenancy and ownership; public credit supported buy-out of mortgages and conversion of rentals to cooperatives; mandated right to buy-out at will; public credit finance for repairs and improvements and new housing construction as needed, “middle-class housing” the norm (no tenements, no housing projects: local human scale mandated); prohibition of speculation in private housing; public credit mortgages at cost with depreciation instead of interest (it worked for Singapore, probably America can manage it, when not controlled by predatory bullies). Housing and employment policy designed to build and foster healthy stable local communities — people-friendly local communities, not absentee-investor-predator-inviting profit extraction sites.
Labor and livelihood: Assure universal access to a decent livelihood — an economy that does not is, in the most fundamental way, a gross injustice and a total failure. 20 hour work week; fair wage law (minimum fair wage established sufficient for middle-class livelihood); unemployment insurance paying full minimum fair wage; open employment in public works at market rates; support for re-training and individual skill diversification. Mandatory high standards of workplace and labor conditions. No business that can’t pay a living wage has any business doing business or staying in business in America — it is a basic affront to the general welfare. Full public support for higher education (as in most western European countries) — stop student debt-slavery, present and future. Insure the widest diversity of educational opportunities and monitor results to insure against fraud and abuse at public expense. Expand, refine and effectively enforce public welfare, health and safety legislation. Conditions of employment mandated to insure families time and resources to parent children. Eliminate exploitation of immigrant labor, legal and illegal; insure that levels and kinds of immigration can be decently accommodated and are not detrimental to American social and economic conditions. No loopholes.
Justice & policing: full universal civil rights mandated and effectively insured; local policing, regional, state and national oversight; a transformation of police and prison practices in light of the successful experience of many countries, all of which imprison far fewer people per capita and kill far fewer people yearly by “policing” than does the United States today.
Finance & credit: public credit for public finance and for initiatives advancing the public interest and the general welfare (and not for profit-seeking investment, speculation, etc.). End private fractional banking. Regulation to prevent predatory private investment, speculation in assets and securities, overseas transfer of American wealth, etc.
Public utilities (power, water, communications, public transit, etc.: public utilities broadly conceived as infrastructure and services necessary or generally useful to the health and safety, welfare and business of the public at large): utilities purchased and rationalized (consolidated on appropriate scale with removal of predatory toll-taking, redundancies and waste), maintained, improved, developed and created at need with public credit under local management and effective public supervision for optimal design, operation and service, including environmental responsibility and stewardship.
Public works: infrastructure maintenance and development with public credit supplying public fair wage employment as needed, privately contracted as appropriate with local businesses strongly preferred, public management of works where appropriate; local management and design supervision with regional and national assistance, coordination and oversight.
Cartels & monopolies etc. disenabled from predatory operations, fairly taxed without deceitful exemptions, phony bookkeeping, off-shoring, etc., dissolved as appropriate, bought out, rationalized and operated in the public interest as appropriate, starting with the “defense” industry — by far the biggest weapons monger on the planet, arming anyone who will pay — in the pretended service of “our defense!” Return to “national armories” on the original English model (armaments and munitions manufacture publicly owned and operated) and terminate the profit-making, government-corrupting, global environmental disaster of the armaments industry and its predatory corporate financial operators: plainspoken Americans in the 1920s called them “merchants of death.”
Private local initiative supported by public credit — formation of worker cooperatives in small businesses at will of employees by means of buy-outs with public credit; assistance, advice and support for cooperative management transitions); public credit rescue from private debt of viable local small businesses which effectively & efficiently provide beneficial local services when freedom from usury debt loads will permit them to stay in business paying fair wages.
Environmental laws: serious effective regulation and remediation aiming for no further harm, correction of damage and creation of sustainable conditions with strong local input and guidance; terminate wanton plunder and wreckage by absentee and local predators of all denominations.
The plutocratic response to all these proposals is predictable: they are “wild-eyed, radical, impractical, impossible, unconstitutional, communistic,” etc. But far from being any such thing, in fact they are all eminently reasonable and pragmatic progressive initiatives for the alert citizenry of a republic to pursue in service of the authentic public interest and see enacted to “promote the general welfare,” as the Preamble of our Constitution puts it. All of them have a long history in progressive policy discussion. The serious threat their reasonable practicality presents to continuing plutocratic dominion is demonstrated by their long banishment from the American table by the vested interests which have usurped our national discourse along with our government.
In 2009 Wall Street extorted from the federal government a bailout to prop up its fraudulent mortgage securities and re-inflate Americans’ cost of shelter with funds on a scale sufficient to have paid off every mortgaged home in America. The claim that public credit can’t afford to serve the public interest and the general welfare in ways such as those mentioned here is an obscene lie and a craven deceit. In a republic that is exactly what the public credit is for. In a predatory plutocracy things are otherwise. As the populists understood from the start, since they faced it naked and witnessed the issue and curtailment of Lincoln’s greenbacks, the “money question” is key.
12 X 12 X 12 X 12 X 12 = 2,985,984 = over 1% of 250 million adult citizens, which might be enough. Twelve times that certainly would be.
In a single year the Townsend Plan organized 4500 clubs nationwide to promote it before Franklin Roosevelt deflected it with a Wall Street trojan horse. That’s another pertinent example.
It is imperative to find and deploy a method of action that goes completely around the Two Party System and completely around the Dominion of Money in politics, which are the double barrier that has prevented legislative reform in the public interest since the rise of Wall Street’s plutocracy, and completely around the barrage of lies and misinformation with which the oligarchic system bombards us from all sides. It is equally imperative to find a method of coordinating action that does not recreate the systemic problems of hierarchical organizations in the form of a Third Party or the like, or become captive in it turn to the Money Power, and imperative to deploy a method that engages, informs, focuses and coordinates the energies of an “alert, knowledgeable citizenry.” The foregoing suggestions aim to address these formal imperatives.
It’s time to revive and recreate the American Dream, it’s time to start.
REICH is everywhere pertinent to this discussion. See (again) the note to 3.8 above.
P. LA FOLLETTE 1935 p. 243 is worth repeating: “theory is necessary, but theorizing, discussions, resolutions are empty, futile, provocative of wasteful dissension if they do not lead to practical, constructive action…. The Progressive movement is dedicated to action.”
RAUSCHENBUSCH p. 367-372 quoted above in a note to 3.6.
NACE on the devastating role of the courts in creating the “rights” of corporations by judicial fiat see esp. p. 70-117, 152-178, 243-250. The courts have also acted as a major force in blocking union activism, thwarting anti-trust, safety and environmental legislation, and hindering, limiting or reversing regulatory bodies in their efforts to contain corporate depredations.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “A National Service Law and an Economic Bill of Rights,” in FDR’s Fireside Chats, ed. Russell D. Buhite & David W. Levy (Norman, University of Oklahoma, 1992), p.282-293; the passage quoted is on p. 292. See also NACE p. 133 and REICH p. 125-130. I do not cite this passage as indicative of Roosevelt’s actual policy initiatives; he made nearly identical comments in a campaign speech in San Francisco in 1932 (REICH p. 125-128) yet his eleven years in office through 1944 are singularly void of efforts to pass legislation to forward them. His “Fireside Chat” mentions them as part of an effort to sell Congress and the country on a universal citizen service program that would have drafted civilian labor for the war effort. I cite it as indicative of what was part of the American political conversation in 1944 and banished from discussion by 1950 and ever since.
NACE p. 151 quoted (“sixty thousand corporate lobbyists …”).
On finance & credit see:
VOORHIS 1943 e.g.; also Voorhis H.R. 4931 (1939) in note to 3.6 above, and BROWN.
On public credit aid to workers’ cooperative formation:
WILKINSON & PICKETT see p. 244-264.
“Twelve times that certainly would be”:
M. KENNEDY p. 5 is worth repeating: “Most people believe that only a committed majority can bring about changes. But that is not true. Recent research demonstrates that if only 10% of the population learn something that makes them change their behavior, others will follow.” See the penultimate note to Part 4 (above) for her citation.
Diogenes is an over-educated American landless peasant. His great-grandfather, a co-operative orchardist, helped California progressives overturn Southern Pacific’s corporate political machine in 1910. He thinks this advance needs to be re-established and greatly extended, nationally, not reversed. He regards progressive successes in many states during this era as a recommendation for their non-partisan grassroots methods of public education and legislative action and for their targeting of the legal enablements of financial predation, and he considers it crucial to extract lessons for the present from their history of defeats and failures as well as of successes, and to understand the methods by which they were thwarted, the better to succeed in the future.