Beyond Elections: People Power

January 3, 2012, 9:00 pm

Beyond Elections: People Power

The presidential election may be grabbing headlines, but the true rallying cry for 2012 is to struggle and organize around those issues that a president might take seriously, to stake out positions that would benefit what used to be called the working class (and now goes by “the 99 percent”) and to garner enough political will and power to pressure the president and Congress to move resolutely on the issues that matter.

Tall order, and one that’s of more than passing interest to those who think of themselves as part of the food movement.

Or the environmental movement. Or the Occupy movement, or the foreclosed homeowners movement, or the indebted students movement, or the unemployment movement, or pretty much any movement you can name that implicitly or explicitly acknowledges that there is a class war in this country, one that the wrong side is winning.

It doesn’t matter what you call the movements, or the people behind them. What matters is forcing the government to act in the interests of the sometimes-silent majority rather than its corporate paymasters. That struggle, probably as old as representative democracy itself, most notably dates from the consolidation of corporate power that began after the industrial revolution. It’s a struggle that’s causing more and more Americans not just to see that something’s wrong with the system but to find the will needed to change it. Again, these people go by a variety of names, though it’s interesting that a recent Pew poll found that just about half of all young people now have a more positive view of “socialism” (whatever that is) than “capitalism” (we know what that is), as do nearly a third of all Americans.

Whatever. We should be able to agree on this: there is an oligarchy in this country, one that uses financial strength to gain political power, one that fights and bullies for its “right” to make money regardless of the consequences to the earth or anything on it. Exxon will do all it can to prevent meaningful climate change legislation; Cargill and Pepsi will fight any improvement in agriculture or diet that threatens their profits; Bank of America would rather see homeowners go under than discuss changes in financial structures. And so on.

There are two ways to fight this oligarchy: by making personal and local changes that counter its power, and by joining mass movements that protest that power. The first can be as simple as light-bulb changing (which Republicans famously detest) and salad-eating [1], though obviously it can be far more involved. The second begins with voting, but it takes more than a president, however well-intentioned, to bring about real change. Does anyone believe that Lyndon Johnson wanted to combat racism, or that Richard Nixon cared about American troops or Vietnamese citizens? No: they were forced, respectively, to support civil rights legislation and to begin ending the Vietnam War. Forced by masses of Americans marching, yelling, demonstrating, sitting in and more — Americans driven by their conscience, not by profits.

Only if there is collective action by large numbers of citizens will politicians — even principled ones — have the support they need to resist the power of corporate lobbyists. It’s not an easy process, and it’s one that’s often met by violence.

I focus on the effect the oligarchy has on the food system — and in turn on our health and that of the environment, farm laborers, animals and so on — but in 2011 I was most inspired when thousands of people sat in front of the White House to protest the approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which the climate scientist Jim Hansen called the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” More than 1,000 people were arrested, but the pipeline’s approval, supported by the State Department and taken for granted, was subsequently delayed, possibly forever.

Why? Certainly not thanks to the pipeline’s 234 supporters in the House of Representatives, who collectively pocketed $42 million (Speaker John A. Boehner’s office alone took in more than $1 million) from the fossil fuel industry[2]. No, it was delayed because President Obama was responding to pressure from normal people, rather than pressure exerted by the energy industry.

A system that allows what amounts to direct payments to congressmen from corporations may be technically legal, but as the journalist and activist Bill McKibben — one of the organizers of the Washington Keystone protest — said to me last week, “Not only does it offend the notion of fairness, it leads to irrational outcomes.”

The most “irrational outcome” is permission to poison air, land, water and living things in the name of profits and without penalty: a hefty subsidy for the products of both the fossil fuel and big food industries. The relatively paltry sums these corporations pay to members of Congress are nothing compared to their profits. (Because $42 million isn’t much  when you consider that the total profits of Exxon, for example, were more than $30 billion in 2010.)

That’s oligarchy in action, and the lesson of Keystone is as old as protest itself: only by uniting people who are willing to fight for a cause can we change things. (Do I need to bring up Egypt, Tunisia, and the American and French Revolutions?) And whether the food movement finds a representative issue of its own (food safety? the casual poisoning of the earth or our bodies?) or it joins with other movements of people victimized by the oligarchy, it will take dedicated protest — lots of it, by lots of us — to compete with corporate dollars.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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