By Donella Meadows
–September 4, 1997–
Whenever opinionated folks in our still somewhat free-speech democracy get to sounding off, whatever issue they sound off about, they always line up on the same two sides.
One side wants to defend property rights, ban abortion, make the U.N. go away, keep health care out of the grip of government, fight crime with cops and prisons. The other side wants to defend the environment, make abortion available but rare, get health care out of the grip of profit-makers, promote the U.N., fight crime by fighting poverty.
Mark Green wrote a great summary of this division in The Nation. Liberals, he said, “want to tax me and send the money to a welfare mother whose son will mug my wife at the shopping mall.” Conservatives “will take the money from my parents on Medicare and send it as tax breaks to polluters who downsize me out of work.”
This fault line is very old. Thomas Jefferson described it in 1824: “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe … depository of the public interests.”
Jefferson defined the difference in terms of fear and distrust on the other side and confidence and cherishing on his. But both sides, underneath the rhetoric, harbor their share of fear and distrust. It might help if we admit that, instead of pretending that there’s actual logic behind our positions on capital punishment or the capital gains tax.
The side labeled “right” fears government — any government, but the bigger the more fearful. The side labeled “left” fears bosses, business, corporations. Again, the bigger the enterprise, the greater the distrust.
Of course both governments and corporations push us around all the time. There is no rational reason to fear or trust one more than the other. They both lie to us, cheat us, endanger us, put us through hoops of their own making, soak up resources, bulldoze literally or figuratively over our efforts and our hopes. They make us feel small, because, as individuals set against organized power, we ARE small.
The infuriating thing is, we depend on that power. Only the most live-free-or-die rightists are consistent enough to let go of the government security blanket when it comes to enforcing the law, banning abortion, or taking away garbage and shoveling snow. Only the most back-to-the-woods leftists are willing, in foreswearing corporate power, to foreswear computers, cars, metals and medicines. In a way we’re like two-year-olds, dependent on the power of our parents, but kicking against them to express our own will.
Many of us try to resolve our helplessness by running to one power to shelter us while we kick against the other. We snuggle into a business niche, build a protective wall of mutual funds, grow blind to corporate abuse, and accuse the government of every form of corruption, often while actively working to corrupt it. Or we join a do-good nongovernmental group, build a protective wall of self-righteousness, and beat on government to curb corporate abuse, while becoming selectively blind to government abuse.
Who knows why we come down with either choice. Maybe it’s genetic. Whatever the reason, we cherish the power with which we’ve cast our lot, rationalize its faults away, ignore evidence to the contrary, and blast away at each other. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.
Only the grown-ups among us — or all of us in our grown-up moments — recognize that both kinds of power are in fact created by ourselves. We confer legitimacy upon government, vote for it, pay for it. We license, work for, buy the products of, and turn on the electronic propaganda boxes of the corporations. No government or company would last a month without our co-operation. Witness the UPS strike, the public shaming of the tobacco companies, Gandhi driving the British out of India, and the Eastern European governments going down like dominoes.
It’s time to take responsibility for the powers we have unleashed, especially since they’re getting overbearing. Before our eyes, government and corporate powers are blending together. The “higher classes” pass money and influence back and forth across a public/private divide that is getting harder and harder to distinguish. The powers aren’t checking and balancing each other any more; they’re melding into a single power. That’s power doing its thing, multiplying itself, taking over, which it will always do in the absence of adults to control it.
We have to cut BOTH kinds of power down to size. Not just government — that idea is a corporate scheme. Not just corporations — that idea is a liberal dream. As voters we have to throw out corporation-run politicians. (That means nearly all of them). Get private money out of government. Revoke the corporate charter when a business breaks the law. Get serious about anti-trust enforcement. Undo the global trade regime, which is just an excuse for business to evade government control. Tax pollution at a rate that either deters it or fully pays for its cleanup. Give government back its mandate and funding to be a strong check against corporate power, and insist that government do so efficiently, out in the open, where we can keep an eye on it.
I don’t think there’s a “left” or a “right” to this work. Only a growing up.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997