Saturday, October 11, 2008

Roots of democracy

Commentary : Roots of democracy

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: October 11, 2008

Not long after the $700-billion bailout of banking institutions was announced, we walked down lower Broadway to Wall Street, the “ground zero” of the recent financial disaster. It was a bright sunny afternoon, but Wall Street was deep in shadows.

Wall Street is so narrow (perhaps only 12 meters from the buildings on one side to the buildings across) and the buildings are so tall that the sun shines on it only at high noon.

We sat on the steps of the old Federal Reserve building where George Washington delivered his first inaugural address and waited for something to happen that might explain the collapse, or at least show how the people involved would react.

The street was quiet because traffic was not allowed, except for the sleek, soundless limousines of the very rich. Hundreds of people milled around, mostly tourists and also dozens of policemen eyeing everyone, including people on the steps with apparently nothing to do. Nothing happened. No crowds protested Wall Street’s ruinous behavior. None of the powerful came out to apologize, or tried to atone for the financial crisis by harming themselves, as bankers did in the Great Depression. The tourists, as always, posed for pictures. One of their favorite shots was the flag-bedecked New York Stock Exchange. Another was the larger than life statue of Washington beside us. An Asian TV reporter stood on the pedestal of the statue as he made his report and seemed to interview the old president.

There was an aura of gloom, however — as if the street was aware the good times were over. A few days later, an article would appear in the New York Times under the headline: “Wall Street, R.I.P.”

The collapse of the finance world is hurting every citizen in various degrees — because people are losing their houses and ordinary workers’ pensions are tied up in the devalued stocks. But there were no rallies or protests anywhere, no crowds of investors calling for justice. There was no organized people’s reaction reported anywhere in the country.

People reacted individually, emailing their representatives in Congress, responding to TV polls and man-in-the street interviews, but they did nothing together; there was no social protest. Nowhere was it clear that ordinary people had gathered together, discussed the problem and decided what they as a group would do in response to the Wall Street failure.

The financial collapse seems to be not a concern of angry mobs wanting their money back from banks. People are still behaving as individuals, not as an organized group. The concern is for ordinary people’s thoughtful actions agreed on in their own associations after discussion.

The same pattern appears in the presidential election. Most American voters make up their minds by themselves based on what they learn from their families and the media. There are few associations that bring people of a certain class or work group — or people who share the same interests — to discuss who of the candidates can best do the things they want done. The labor unions and the ethnic Catholic parishes and other ethnic groupings often did this in the past, but the unions are now weak and for the most part the ethnic parishes and groups have largely disappeared. What emerges in group discussions is that people are more inclined to vote based on their own intuition or “gut feeling” rather than on rational self-interest.

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published his “Democracy in America,” which remains one of the very best analyses of American democracy and maybe of all democracies. He found that the role of voluntary associations (cooperatives, political clubs, special interest groups, occupation groups, ideological groups) was crucial in American democracy. He wrote: “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations …. In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine [these associations] is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.”

He said that if the vitality of these associations dried up, democracy as Americans knew it would falter. The associations are the foundation of national movements. They are the cradle of responsible and effective action and politics. Between elections, the associations keep the pressure on government to fulfill its promises.

Philippine democracy can produce people power movements and thousands of NGOs and other types of associations. The first challenge is to increase their number and to encourage the associations to widen their agendas to include national and political problems. The second challenge is, as De Tocqueville said, to unite or combine them into a powerful reality for the common good.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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