New Orleans Talking to my friend and comrade, the learned and brilliant professor from the embattled University of Wisconsin, Joel Rogers, I asked him if he was taking any incoming from the Governor Walker Wars being waged against anything not goose stepping to the Republican far right wing and its master donors. I knew the answer was inevitably, “yes,” and in good humor mixed with exasperation, Joel shared with me some of the more easily dismissed and trivial attacks, but in the same email he thoughtfully included his essay on “Productive Democracy” from The Nation’s 150th anniversary issue. Not surprisingly, that was much, much more interesting.
Joel is a big thinker and, often more troubling to the enemies of the people, a big doer as well. Reading “Productive Democracy,” I realized this was something I knew well, and had heard somewhat in previous iterations in work and presentations that Joel had made over the years, but had now been refined to a sharper point through constant renovation and continual reflection. The essay had all of the Rogers’ hallmarks: soaring rhetoric made more palatable by wry humor and depreciating switchbacks; a habitual fondness for fabricated abbreviations of course converting productive democracy to PD, while claiming to not care what it might be called; and a signature chart comparing neoliberalism, social democracy, and productive democracy to the strong benefit of PD. I ate all of this up like candy, if for no other reason than the fact that Joel and I share an old fashioned, naïve but overarching belief and commitment in democracy and embracing the necessary a priori of the peoples, or the public as Joel writes, participation in all affairs of public policy and governance. There you have it, I’ve now confessed that Rogers’ work gives me an intellectual hideaway when I’m accused of being a hopeless political romantic, so on to his argument.
Some of his case for PD is straightforward. He believes that there is a valid role for government producing citizen wealth. He is unabashedly clear that modern democracy must be urban-centered, noting that 12% of the USA population lives in the top 100 metropolitan areas and produces three-quarters of our annual GDP and houses two-thirds of our total population. He argues for early life investments as a social prophylactic for longer term and more expensive social problems. Fair trade, broadly understood, with shared benefits throughout the chain is also critical. These are hardly radical positions and solidly within the progressive tradition. Rogers though also stands tall for guaranteed annual income, which is a necessity if we are to build a more equitable society, yet still abhorrent to virtually all politicians and their sycophants.
Creatively, he argues for a clear rule on monetizing “the commons,” meaning essentially direct distribution to our people of income produced from access to public properties whether land or airwaves. He believes we have to deflate the role of the judiciary and, fearlessly, inflate the role of the legislature with the important condition that these elected representatives be chained to public participation and mandates. He opines that we should also pay for some of these PD programs with a progressive consumption tax that would be triggered at the level we might all agree was excessive and conspicuous. He believes that the USA should invest in “global public goods” in order to allow all boats to rise. There’s also a strong anti-bureaucracy, knocking on the door libertarian streak to some of his arguments. This is heady, radical, and exciting stuff.
Rogers understands the “base” is fundamental to any of this happening. I think I had mentioned earlier he is a doer, more than a dreamer. He closes this way:
Finally (and this goes to the question of “base”), nothing I’ve argued for here is remote from humanity’s evident desire. All around the world—a world in which the United States has far less limiting power than in the recent past—billions of people are repelled by the effects of predatory capitalism and would grab at a plausible democratic alternative. For most people, the choice between further degradation and a plausible route to greater security and freedom is an easy one. I think productive democracy offers people that choice. Progressives should put it before them.
And there comes reality, the tormentor of the best laid plans of mice and men, and an improbable, but scalable, wall that confronts us. As progressives and as true democrats, we don’t suffer from a lack of innovative and exciting ideas and formulations, but from a dearth of mass-based institutions and formations able to suit up to carry our banners and win the battles of the day. That’s a crisis, like that of our democracy, and one that shouts and cries for action.