Democratic Underground  

As Good As It Gets?
March 6, 2002
By Christopher Harrison

In the 1997 film by the same name as the title of this article, Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall - a successful writer (and social malcontent) living in Manhattan who is afflicted by obsessive-compulsive disorder. In an unforgettable scene, Melvin storms into the office of his therapist, who refuses to see him on an immediate basis and tells him to make an appointment. Melvin suddenly stops his ranting, looks at the other people in the waiting room and says, "Is this as good as it gets?"

I often find myself asking the same question when I look at the state of the world economy.

If you were to tune into the evening news two years ago, you would have thought that the American economy was booming. People everywhere were investing in the stock market, and profits were going up, up up. Markets had finally won out over social liberalism in eradicating poverty.

However, reality tends to paint a very different picture, indeed.

Although jobless rates remained low through the 1990's, actual purchasing power for the three lowest income quintiles - commonly referred to as the "working class" - actually declined. The overwhelming majority of stock ownership rested in the hands of the top 20% of wage earners. Some 40 million Americans - over half of them children - were left without any type of health insurance. Since the inception of NAFTA in 1993, good-paying manufacturing jobs have left the United States in droves, only to be re-established just south of the Rio Grande where corporations can find much cheaper labor with little or no environmental regulation. All the while, the wealth of the "corporate class" - the top 1% of wealth in the US - continues to grow at an exponential rate.

This is just the situation in the United States, the richest country in the world. If you look at the rest of the globe, the landscape is even more bleak. The Japanese juggernaut economy has ground nearly to a halt, mired in recession and economic contraction with no end in sight. South Korea's "mini-Asian tiger" economy has fallen on rough times since the country was forced to liberalize its banking institutions. The complete collapse of the Argentinian economy, a poster child for the "successes" of the IMF-driven neoliberal economic policies of deregulation, privatization and austerity, has sent up red flags all across the landscape. Still, corporate and government officials preach the same failed policies.

In the developing world, things are much, much worse. Over 1 billion of the world's people live in abject poverty - surviving on less than $2 per day. Economic growth in Latin America has slowed incredibly over the past 20 years, while growth in Africa has actually turned into retraction over the same period. Despite a global surplus of food, hundreds of millions go to bed hungry every night. Approximately 8 million people die of preventable and curable diseases every year.

Corporations dominate the economic landscape around the globe. Their willingness to do anything in pursuit of profit has led to a global "race to the bottom" in labor cost and environmental regulation. They have infiltrated the democratic processes of every industrialized nation. Their money speaks louder than the combined voices of concerned citizens. The so-called "rule of law" has been rigged to permit corporate interests to consistently win out over citizenry. The end result is a lowering of living standards and a bland homogenization of culture with a McDonalds, Gap and Starbucks on every street corner.

Now, we find ourselves embroiled in a global "war on terrorism." Officialdom and punditry tells us that no cost is too high for "preserving freedom." Meanwhile, the US military budget approaches $400 billion per year - an expenditure that exceeds the combined military budgets of the next ten largest national armed forces combined. US foreign aid is being increasingly tied to military hardware. The rights of people to organize and speak freely are being violently repressed around the globe, often with the implicit or explicit blessing of the world's self-appointed "defender of democracy."

Is this as good as it gets?

Centrally-controlled socialism - what could be termed "crony socialism" from its heyday in the former Soviet Union - has been denounced as a failure, and rightly so. Although it kept people from living in abject poverty, it also enabled a government repressive of free speech and rife with cronyism and corruption. It is not an experiment that should be repeated.

But it could easily be argued that the same cracks are being seen in the fašade of modern-day capitalism, which could be best described as "corporatism." Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs - a man who is largely responsible for the economic reforms in Russia that have resulted in a steadily declining standard of living and widespread poverty - has acknowledged that "markets do not serve the poorest of the poor." In light of this, several questions must arise. First, if this system doesn't work, why do we cling to it? Second, how do we go about changing things for the better?

Most people believe in capitalism because it has been equated with democracy. Throughout the Cold War, we were inculcated in the belief that it was "Democracy versus Communism." We were all told that we were fighting on the side of freedom, while we proceeded to support some of the most brutal dictatorships on the face of the earth. While no one can argue that Soviet-backed governments in Eastern Europe were not repressive toward individual freedoms, it can also be argued that US-supported regimes, such as the Pinochet government in Chile, were much more repressive and brutal in their governance. All of this is aside from the fact that a system of governance (democracy) and an economic philosophy (communism or capitalism) are actually two totally different things - "apples and oranges," as it were.

The fall of the Cold War should be opening our eyes to its real objectives. The "New World Order" exalted by then-President George H. W. Bush has deteriorated into a period of some of the greatest global strife and civil war in history. International corporations, backed by the government officials whose campaigns are financed by them, are establishing hegemony over even our daily activities. The right of these corporations to pursue profits are enforced by state police and military services throughout the third world, while the citizens of these countries face possible death for simply organizing or speaking out against these corporate excesses. Short-term profit is the one and only goal, as these rapacious organizations destroy the earth, livelihoods and cultures in their attempt to satisfy this unquenchable thirst.

Corporations are even promoted as "democratic" institutions. This is done despite the fact that there does not exist a more totalitarian structure than the corporation. One person at the top decides, everyone else down the ladder falls in line. Free-market ideologues argue that democracy comes through shareholder voting. Given the fact that a very small minority of people hold the majority of stock ownership in most large companies, this type of governance amounts to a plutocracy in the best-case scenario. Regardless of how you slice it, an overwhelming majority of people have their voices silenced in this type of system.

So, what is the alternative to the current system of capitalism? Can we make things better? I would hope that we can - but it will not be easy. Changing things for the better involves taking away much of this power from corporations - essentially removing them from the policy-making process. Changing things involves a complete revaluation of our institutions of business and government themselves. Changing things involves entire communities of concerned citizens standing up and saying, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

We must collectively educate and organize others in our communities to fight the corporate juggernaut. We must impress upon people that just because this is the way things are done, it does not mean there is not a better way. We must spread the word that the presence of money in politics ensures that speech is not free. We must stand against the old ways of violence and militarism. We must make people realize that every tax dollar our elected officials allocate toward the military protection of overseas corporate assets is a dollar they take away from our failing public schools. We must all stand up and make a difference, first as individuals, then collectively.

All of this is a rather daunting task. As individuals, we all feel so powerless in the face of such imposing organizations and structures. But we must start somewhere, and that is through taking individual action. We must take the steps necessary to invigorate real grassroots, participatory democracy throughout the country. The people and institutions in power now will not give up their absolute control without a long and protracted fight. But, like many things in history, reinventing democracy - realizing the dream of true democracy in which citizens actually control their own government - is well worth the struggle.

What other options do we have? To fail to change things now is simply to invite more hunger, more violence, more suffering and more despair. Is this the kind of world we want to leave to our children and grandchildren? Or do the vast majority of us long for something better?

It all begins by asking, "Is this as good as it gets?"

Christopher Harrison is a Fair Trade Activist in Westchester County, NY and an overly irate citizen. He can be reached at

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