Trickle Up Democracy

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Tikkun on 1 September 2012

I KNOW WE’RE NOT SUPPOSED to say such things, but I have lost faith in national politics. Yes, I’ll vote in the coming elections and do my part to get the less sold-out, less anti-communitarian candidate in office. But I no longer look to the top tier of centralized government to solve our problems or help us grope toward conclusions together.

For me, big government has become as abstract as the corporations that made it possible. The more I study the emergence of corporate capitalism, the more I see central government as the other side of the same coin: a booming peer-to-peer society was intentionally dismantled during the Renaissance in order to reassert the authority of the aristocracy. This was achieved by giving “chartered monopolies” the exclusive authority to do business in their industries (cronyism) and by giving central banks the exclusive authority to issue currency. All work, trade, lending, and borrowing now had to go through the central authorities. This abstracted what we think of as commerce.

We don’t buy from our neighbors anymore. We buy from the firms our neighbors may work for. We don’t create value; we serve as employees. We have no relationships with our producers. We engage instead with the brands concocted to shield us from the labor embedded in what we buy. We live in a society where laborers are disconnected from their competencies; consumers are disconnected from producers; and consumers are alienated from one another.

We are taught to look up, rather than toward one another, for solutions. Our best presidents, true believers in the corporate-government partnership, try to kick-start our economy by giving banks money in the hope that they will lend money to corporations, which will in turn open factories in depressed regions so that people can get jobs. This only creates more dependence on institutions whose true purpose is to extract value.

What a national leader might do instead, of course, is simply encourage the people on the local level to develop their own economies, beginning with “favor banks” (online networks through which people can “bank” services they do for one member of a community in order to receive services from another), local currencies, and community agriculture. Just like what is going on in Greece, where people’s limited access to the euro and the greater economy has forced them to look to one another as resources for goods and services.

The focus on national politics gives people the false impression that a new national leader is going to somehow get us the things we need, when the tools and rules he has at his disposal are intrinsically biased against that ever happening. National politics–from corporate-sponsored candidacies and bank bailouts to spectator democracy and the branding of issues–doesn’t simply occur on an abstract scale that has nothing to do with us; this activity itself reinforces the conditions and beliefs that perpetuate its dominance.

So I have taken my eyes off the prize, and my focus off the national political stage. I am looking instead at very local politics, and the trickle-up effect of people engaging on the ground with the issues that matter to them on a daily basis. I want a state legislator who will help my Community Supported Agriculture group get its land approved for something other than corn, or who will change the regulations on biodiesel alternatives to oil.

But most of all, I want to help develop conversations about what we can actually do for one another, instead of who is supposed to represent us in the abstracted, stalled, and dehumanizing landscape of national politics.