Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Crisis of Civic Disengagement

So what if people are less inclined to band together to shape the decisions that affect them? Fewer and fewer people join political parties or trade unions, organise themselves in deliberating and questioning public policies, vote or stand for public office. Some embrace this phenomenon as a minor side effect of the spread of consumerism. But for those of us who have not forgotten how throughout history the powerful few get away with exploiting the many when the latter give up on collective action, it is a serious crisis indeed.

The Roman Republic and the early days of America witnessed citizens who were similar in status, working to achieve comparable rewards for their families, and were thus willing to take action through their public institutions on terms of mutual respect. But when those with the military strength and corporate muscle started to amass power in themselves at the expense of others, republican virtues gave way to irresponsibility, inequalities, and imperialist hubris. Powerful elites know that by fragmenting the public into strangers separated by widening gaps of wealth and social standing – from those too rich to have to worry about being accountable to anyone else, to those pushed so far down the hierarchy that they feel they have nothing to lose however self-destructively they behave – they can dissolve the citizenry into a multitude of disconnected individuals.

For too long, society’s readiness to allow those at the top to secure better and better terms for themselves while making lives for those at the bottom more precarious and insignificant, has left those lower down the towering pyramid with dwindling self-worth and deepening alienation. Not surprisingly, rights for workers to seek better treatment are now branded costly red tape to be cut, while rights for employers to exploit the weak bargaining position of others are celebrated as essential freedom to be enhanced.

The problem of civic disengagement we have today is not going to be solved by encouraging a few young people to volunteer to help run the odd charitable projects, or enticing a few more rich philanthropists to donate to good causes. It is a manifestation of the onslaught on civic cohesion at the heart of the rise of global plutocracy. We need to stir our democratic conscience and challenge the hegemony of the so-called ‘wealth creators’ – the corporate elites who between them dominate the private media, the lobbying of lawmakers, the consumerist industries, the arms and surveillance business, and much else besides. To adapt Niemöller’s observations, doing nothing is not a sustainable option:

First they came to strip the trade unions of their power,
One did nothing,
One was not a trade unionist.

Next they came to halt state bodies from interfering with their ‘wealth creation’,
One did nothing,
One was not a member of a state body.

Then they came to undermine the authority of public broadcasters,
One did nothing,
One was not a public broadcaster.

Finally they will come for the rest of us,
If one still has not done anything by then,
It would all be too late.