The Path to a Stronger Democracy Lies in Strengthening Community

Two new books examine how putting capitalism before community has distorted the economy and put democracy at risk.

I participated in a panel discussion last week to help launch The Occupy Handbookin which I and about 60 others made contributions. It was mostly composed of economists and mainstream journalists, and the focus was income inequality. One wouldn’t expect anything much different from a discussion of Occupy Wall Street, which after all made “the 1 percent” a household tag line for what is unfair about the American economy.

But OWS is actually raising broader issues than that, and my sense in talking to a few early organizers is that they can’t seem to find answers to their questions. Granted, most of these questions are not entirely well formed as yet, but the economists’ view, it must be admitted, is a rather narrow one. Correcting inequality a bit and regulating Wall Street some are flimsy palliatives in the organizers' minds, I suspect. Even infrastructure investment sounds like a weak corrective to them. Do we never question the intense idealism of the Anglo-American economic model?

The Occupy Handbook is actually a fine, diverse, and sometimes contradictory set of contributions put together with remarkable speed by editor Janet Byrne. For example, it includes a couple of pieces by well informed anarchists and others by those to the right of center who believe America’s answer is better education (and that’s about it). Many concede OWS's contribution to the nation is awareness. There is no sound in American politics unless Washington is listening, I wrote. OWS got them to listen.

But there is another small book out just today that does propose rather serious alternative to the individualist/materialist American model of economics. It is called The Path to Hope, and it is written by two former French Resistance veterans who are now in their 90s. Stephane Hessel wrote Time for Outrage! a couple of years ago, a pamphlet of political anger—a cri de coeur—that called for public protest. It swept the world, selling millions, and was said to have a profound influence on the Spanish indignados and the Arab Spring. Now he has teamed up with the eminent sociologist, Edgar Morin, to put a little more meat on the bones of their rage.

I proudly wrote the prologue to the book -- proudly because, if highly rhetorical and abstract, their brief piece talks about much that is forgotten in the governance of nations and the true interactive meaning of democracy. I usually draw two circles in the air when I speak about these issues. One is the circle of free markets, defined by Milton Friedman, who basically argued in Capitalism and Freedom that left to themselves, markets can produce social goods more fairly and cheaply than government—from retirement security to highways to health care.

The other circle is community, which has long been the source of social goods in which people care for each other. Friedman’s circle is individualist. This circle is the circle of Hessel and Morin. It is the circle of compassion and community. Being American, I suppose, I tend to believe the circles should be of equal size. Since the 1970s, our potential tragedy is that the Friedman circle has gotten immense while the community circle has shrunk.

Hessel and Morin would argue that the community circle should be far larger than the Friedman circle. They are not pure anti-capitalists; they hold a significant place for business. But they say enough is enough. We have seen the power of finance capitalism to distort and undermine productive growth and equal opportunity. We are also witnessing the rise in Europe of ethnic bigotry again. This, they demand, must change.

In writing the prologue to The Path to Hope, I acknowledge that I don’t agree with all that Hessel and Morin write. They offer but an outline of high ideals of community and fellowship. But they are on the right track. They saw the rise of pure totalitarianism and they worry that if the fortunes of the rich are again threatened, they may side with those who would plunder democracy. I don’t think we are nearly there yet, but democracy in America is threatened and warped by financial power these days. We do care too little about each other, I fear. The Path to Hope is on sale now.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.