Friday, April 17, 2009

Community and Democracy

Most Americans believe that we live in a "free" society. The United States is the land of the "free." "Freedom" is one of the most important words in this nation's political lexicon and most Americans take pride in the fact that America is a "free" society. I want to start out be examining this idea of American freedom. First I want to state that I believe that the American idea of freedom is not in fact a delusional concept. It is real. Traditional American concepts of freedom, ideas that have to do with ideas of limited, representative government, traditional ideas of freedom of religion, and press; democracy, the freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom from arbitrary state power are all valid concepts. They all have a certain degree of reality within the context of American society. They are not fictitious concepts. Americans have a right to feel pride in these freedoms.

While these freedoms are real, it is also a reality that there are aspects of American life which are lived in the antithesis of "freedom." This realm of life centers primarily within the economic sphere of work and workplace. It is characterized more by freedom's opposites, unfreedom, servitude, and submission. To initiate my discussion of this realm I will first start out by suggesting some definitions of "freedom." This is not easily done because freedom is generally not defined precisely by most people. However in spite of this, we can make some generalizations. Most people define freedom in primarily negative terms. Freedom is experienced as the lack of arbitrary oppressive restraints and limitations to one's freedom. Thus in America freedom is defined by the relative absence of governmental restraints on life, liberty, the use of property,etc. Often in the purely conservative political lexicon, freedom is simply identified as a absence of governmental power or interference in one's life.

However lets attempt to define freedom positively. One definition is that freedom is the ability of people and individuals to do what they in fact want to do independent of institutional controls. Again in the American context the primary limitations of this freedom are normally seen as coming from government the power of arbitrary religion or from cultural limitations such as racism or sexism. What is intrinsically interesting about this, however, is that the structure of the economic system or the vary structure of individual economic institutions are very seldom viewed as in any way limitations on the freedom of individuals or of people. In fact even within the political left, economic oppression is normally seen as being only about the unequal distribution of economic resources. Left liberal analysis or even socialist analysis seldom questions the unjust structure of economic institutions.

Yet this is what I believe must be done. I would argue that the real limitations of freedom in the modern world of advanced capitalism in fact comes not from the governmental realm but instead from the very nature of capitalist society itself. Before developing the theme of capitalism's restraint of freedom any further, I need to introduce some other vital concepts into the analysis. These two concepts are "power" and "community." Freedom can not be defined adequately in separation from the concepts of power and community. The freedom to act in a certain way, the freedom to do what one wishes is intrinsically related to the realities of power and community. Simply stated if one has no power one has no freedom. If the power of others prevent one from doing as one wishes than one's real freedom is restricted. Community is also deeply involved in this. First community can be viewed in its largest context as that of the national community. Seen in this way, the community by its very power relationships defines the freedom that individuals can in fact experience.

I will say a lot more about community latter. It is the relationship between power and freedom which I want to explore at this time. In spite of the very real freedoms that Americans experience as citizens of this nation, it must be acknowledged that the capitalist structure of our society has very real limitations to freedom built into it. The reality is that workers as workers within capitalist society are not in any real sense "free." Except for those born to wealth all people within capitalist society must sell their labor to either the state, non profit organizations or more commonly capitalist firms in order to live. For the vast majority of people no real alternative to working for a weekly paycheck really exists. During this time of the work day, often eight to ten hours, one is not free in any real sense. One in fact is subordinated to the economic firm to whom one is employed. One lives at the beck and call of one's supervisor, boss, or the production schedule etc. The rules of the work environment in which one is employed are not controlled by oneself or by one's fellow workers. It is controlled by a cooperate office and corporate hierarchy which generally views its employees as an expendable resource, as a factor of production.

To summarize, the work place and the overall all environment of the capitalist firm is by its very nature the antitheses of freedom for the worker. By definition it is a place of submission to authority; it is governed by rules that take little regard for the workers needs or wishes; it is the realm of un freedom. All of this of course explains many aspects of American life and particularly how Americans define freedom. Freedom in the American context is always about how one spends one's "leisure" time. It is about the power of the consumer; it is about the beautiful automobile that symbolizes one's freedom. It is about the golden years of secure retirement which is freedom; it is about one's freedom as a consumer ala Milton Friedman. It is about one's clothing styles, one's sexual life style; ie it is about every thing except work.

Another point must be added here. Freedom is almost always also defined as an individual good and not collectively or communally. It has little to do with community. Now lets look at the issue of community within the context of American capitalist society. It is often stated, I believe correctly, that community has declined as an aspect of life within this society. What does this mean? What is this "community" which has declined.?
Let me start stating that there seems to be two primary ways of defining community. One form of community is what can be called organic or
traditional community. By this I mean the traditional familial hunting and gathering, horticultural, or agrarian village communities in which the vast majorities of human beings have lived through most of human history. These small scale traditional communities in which ties of kinship, common religious values, cultural ties, common political and economic activities united people in a deep net of relationships,.this form of community scarcely exists within the United States any longer. The closest this nation has to this sort of community are the old ethnic working class communities of past generations.

However the increasing suburbanization and corporate individualization of people is increasingly erasing this sort of community from American life. What then functions as community for Americans? Church and organized religion? Religion is one of the strongest sources of "intentional" community in America. However since most church members share little of their lifes together either by ways of kinship, or in common economic or political activities; the actual communal bonds created by modern American religion are in general rather weak. The other great source of communal bonds, ie workplace friendships and relationships that Americans experience in fact comes from out of the workplace. This of course is how it should be. After all out side of the family, the workplace is the place in which most people spend the greatest amount to their waking lifes. Therefore one would expect the workplace to be the source of many of the most important human communal relationships. In fact the work place in many ways is the modern equivalent of the tradition village in which the common work and shared life of the villagers was the norm.

The real mystery here is not that the work place provides the context for the communal ties to the majority of people but the mystery lies in fact does it not do this much better than it does. Why for instance are there so few television shows such as "The Office" in which the life of work is shown as a dominant context of social life. I think the reason lies in the fact that the work place as is portrayed in "The Office" is in generally not experienced as the place on which workers experience any kind of collective power in working together. It is not the place of freedom in which workers act freely by collectively making the economic decisions that effect their lifes. Instead the work place of "The Office" is a place in which they simply must be if they are to earn a living. Work simply in this context is not about freedom but submission and arbitrary authority.

Now to the issues of Cooperativist thought. Cooperativism wishes to destroy the dictatorship of capitalist control of the workplace. It seeks to end capitalist power and replace it with worker control over the economic institutions of society. The purpose of work within the cooperativist society will be not just to receive a bi weekly paycheck. It will also be about the expression of one ability to make decisions, to express one's power and creativity through one's work. In contrast to the situation within the capitalist firm in which the surplus value of one's work goes to the capitalist or boss, in the cooperatives of the cooperative commonwealth the value of one's work will accrue to the worker himself. It will accrue to all of the workers of a firm communally. I would argue that within a cooperativist economic order real concrete power will be returned to workers as individuals, but also to workers in community. because the workplace will now be experienced as one of the primary places in which the freedom of workers is experienced. I will argue that the workplace will become the primary center for the revitalization of community in the post capitalist, cooperative commonwealth.

Glenn King