Why Are We Playing Monopoly When We Could Be Living Democracy?

By Frances Moore Lappé

Cultures live or die not because of their natural endowments but according to whether their ideas sustain life. ("It's the ideas, stupid!")

We human beings are creatures of the mind; for us, ideas are so powerful they can trump instinct. We see it every day. A person will, for example, deny herself food in a hunger strike in order to awaken others to an idea of justice; for another, the idea of honor motivates the murder of his very own child; still another will knowingly cause the death of what's predicted to be a billion people this century, justified by the idea of the right to sell, in this case, cigarettes.

Ideas either serve life or not. And unfortunately for our species' chances, our idea of democracy--our shorthand for the system we use to shape society and solve problems--itself is life-stifling. Accepting the idea that democracy equals elections plus a market economy, we do not question an especially peculiar notion: that a market driven by a single rule, that of highest return to existing wealth, can return benign outcomes for all. We cling to this nonsensical belief-that in a game of Monopoly all players win-even as it so concentrates wealth that it leaves almost a billion of us without the means to eat.

Americans, especially, suffer from what linguists call hypocognition: the lack of a core concept we need in order to thrive. The missing concept is of democracy as a way of life; democracy not as a set system--something done to us, for us, finished and done--but as a set of system values that usefully apply in all arenas of life. In the dominant, failing idea of democracy, society is a subset of economic life. To make the needed planetary turn to life, we must envision the opposite: economic life re-embedded in society guided by shared human values, including fairness, inclusion, and mutual accountability.

Even for many liberals and progressives in America such an idea of living democracy has yet to take root. Robert Reich's 2007 book Supercapitalism is a case in point. Reich critiques the many excesses of corporate capitalism but argues that "the purpose of capitalism is to get great deals for consumers and investors." It is separate from culture. As many Americans do, Reich believes it possible and desirable for human beings to carve ourselves up in order to act from opposing values as we show up in our varied roles. Employees of corporations have no choice but to seek immediate return, says Reich, and as consumers all we can do is seek the best deal for ourselves-to hell with the laborer or the environment.

Reich argues that believing we have power as purchasers is delusional: Purchasers will not pay more to assert non-market values, he writes. And, besides, our acting in the marketplace won't change corporations anyway. Plus, the corporate social responsibility movement takes citizens off the hook for changing the rules via legislation and regulation. His cure? We step up as citizens to make government make corporations behave. Their re-regulation is the only answer.

I disagree strongly. There is no either/or here. Reich operates from an outdated view of self and society, which flows from a false assumption about our nature-that we can act from opposing sensibilities and values and remain sane. Because all aspects of our internal life as well as our external life are interconnected, trying to carve ourselves up makes us crazy. I'm convinced, for example, that doing has contributed to the epidemic of depression.

From an ecological worldview of interconnectedness, we realize that all our actions ripple out to create real impact and to change norms. The fair trade movement has, in less than ten years in the U.S., awakened millions to the issue of decent return to producers. Overall more than a million coffee-producing families have benefited.

In fact, acting on our values as purchasers increases our sense of alignment and power, which makes it more likely we'll recognize the need to change the rules and vote for those willing to put fair government rules and standards in place. What makes a society healthy depends in large measures on the norms citizens create through daily actions.

Why does McDonald's serve organic dairy products in its Swedish stores but not here? Why do cooperatives contribute 35-40 percent of the GDP in Italy's region of Emilia Romagna but not in any U.S. region? No law demands organic milk in Sweden nor that people join coops in Italy but norms created by citizens created the context.

In other words, beneath the disasters of today's economy-the financial crisis, the food crisis, the climate crisis-lies the democracy crisis. It is not the result of a few unscrupulous actors, but of the patent failure of the pervasive idea of democracy as being elections plus a one-rule economy, and the as-yet lack of an alternative, life-serving, idea of living democracy.

Thus, in all efforts to address specific economic issues-whether for the spread of cooperatives or living wages-we can communicate that these are not separate "economic" questions at all. They are core aspects of democracy itself. Because human beings cannot create what we cannot envision, we can work with ever-greater clarity to develop and share a language and stories making visible the more viable, rewarding, emergent democracy of everyday life, one in which economics is only one facet. There is no more urgent task in this moment of unprecedented crisis and suffering.


Frances Moore Lappé is the author of sixteen books, most recently Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad, winner of the Gold "Best of Small Press" Nautilus Award 2008. (www.smallplanet.org)