Don’t join the system; fight for change instead

Jake Werner

We live in an authoritarian culture. Once we look past all the rhetoric and falsehoods that are repeated so often that people actually believe them — land of the free, high social mobility, a rising tide lifts all boats — we see that undemocratic hierarchy is the basis of most of American society.

The best example is the corporation. Employees have no choice in who their leaders are and have no say in what they will be ordered to do. They are free insofar as they can choose which corporate dictatorship to serve under. The management class wields power over the workers, but managers are themselves subject to the undemocratic authority of executives and owners.

That this sort of social organization is constantly referred to as economic freedom shows how completely we’ve been brainwashed. People who characterize a capitalist country as democratic are very similar to those who, 200 years ago, believed that slavery was consistent with a government “of, by and for the people.”

American authoritarianism doesn’t end with private economic tyrannies. Take a look at how Northwestern is run. Dictators (the president and the board of trustees) control a hierarchical bureaucracy, which imposes their commands. Student input is allowed but rarely heeded (see the administration’s unresponsiveness to thousands who asked it to join an effective anti-sweatshop monitoring agency and a similar disdain for the concerns of Hispanic studies students). The desires of the people who work for the food service or the cleaning staff are given even shorter shrift.

Even the one institution that is not explicitly authoritarian — the government — allows little popular influence. Candidates have to champion the corporate agenda or they won’t get the contributions necessary to win. The two main parties have fixed election rules so that third parties don’t stand a chance (for example, the Democrats and Republicans who run the presidential debates have set the requirements to keep third-party candidates out). And popular preferences are frequently ignored when they clash with the desires of the powerful.

My columns this quarter have been about the bad things that happen when power is concentrated. What we have to fight for is the decentralization of power so that every person has a say in the decisions that will affect him or her; something that’s also called democracy.

Many suggestions have been put forth for a democratic economy, without which a democratic polity is impossible. The basic idea is that workers — not the state or a few lucky individuals — should own and control their workplace and its products. See www.parecon.org for one interesting proposal.

We also need democratic control over foreign policy so American power is no longer used to advance elite interests at the expense of others’ welfare. We need not only to change the decision-making system, but also become informed ourselves on what the United States is doing in the world.

Ultimately it’s up to us to fight for these changes. Think about that before you take a job at an investment bank and before you accept your societally defined role of passive consumer. You can join the system or you can fight for a new one.