The Broken Promise of Democracy: An Interview with Frances Moore Lappé

Jensen: You’ve written, “Put most simply, the root cause of hunger is not a scarcity of food or land; it’s a scarcity of democracy.”

Lappé: The hunger that is so common worldwide and that kills so many people every day does not result from a scarcity of food. Hunger is not about the relationship of people to food: it is about a human relationship in which a small number of people determine who has access to food and what is grown on what land. In Diet for a Small Planet and with my work at Food First, I’ve tried to drum home the fact that, in many of the countries where people are the most hungry, much more land is devoted to crops grown for international trade than to crops that sustain the people who work the land.

Hunger isn’t the result of people being ignorant of how to raise their own food, or of land being unsuitable for growing food, but rather of antidemocratic human relationships. And the picture that is emerging, both here in the United States and internationally, is that fewer and fewer people make the decisions about what is grown and who has access. This is true on every level, from international corporations to local villages.

The great awakening of my life came when I started working on Diet for a Small Planet in 1969. All the newspaper headlines and all the experts were clamoring that we were running out of food and that famine was inevitable. The solution proposed was always to grow more food, but as we’ve seen over the past thirty years, it’s very possible to have more food and more hunger at the same time. Over that period, food production per person has outstripped population growth by 16 percent. In grain alone, the world produces thirty-five hundred calories per person, per day. Yet there are 800 million hungry people in the world. Where increasing food production consolidates land into the hands of fewer people, it can mean more hunger. This pattern is also true in the U.S., where we have continual increases in production, but poor people are still going hungry.

Jensen: But the U.S. claims to be a democracy.

Lappé: What I mean by “scarcity of democracy” is not a lack of democracy in a structural, formal sense, because many of the countries that have the most severe hunger and starvation have all the trappings of democracy. As a nun in Guatemala once told me, “If having many political parties were the definition of democracy, we’d be the democracy capital of the world.” But their twenty-odd parties represented only a tiny fragment of the population. And the people not represented by the political parties continued to go hungry. So I came to understand that a country could have checks and balances, regular elections, and multiple parties, and still the majority of the people could have no voice in shaping their future. To me, a democracy is alive to the degree that its members actively participate in making decisions about their future. Under that definition, I’m afraid you won’t see many living democracies today.

A primary obstacle is our belief system. We’ve inherited the notion that democracy has to do only with the structure of government. But to create a society that serves the lives of all citizens, democracy must become a way of life, affecting every aspect of a culture. Historically, for example, it’s been assumed that economic life lies largely outside democracy – a big mistake, because economics so determines our well-being. At the time of our nation’s founding, for the majority of people economic life consisted mainly of managing one’s family farm or shop. In that environment, it made sense that people thought of economics as private and politics as public. But what made sense then, is now standing in our way, preventing us from embracing economic life as part of democratic public life. Now “private” corporations have more public impact than governments.

The result is that, while economics exerts a powerful influence on political decisions about jobs, the environment, and so forth, we have almost no voice in the process. We have some minimal voice in politics, but virtually none in the economic system.

This voicelessness is not caused by some conspiracy among corporate CEOs and their pet politicians. Instead, it has to do with how we view the world. Although we ex-perience economics as having a real effect on our lives and communities, we continue to act as though it is part of the private realm, where the decisions are someone else’s and none of our business. And because of the influence – some would say control – our economic life exerts over our political life, we experience the public, democratic government as not really answerable to us. It’s all because we’ve bought this myth that corporations are private.

We are now experiencing what I think of as a second round of feudalism, where the corporation has replaced the manor. Until we see this new economic structure for what it is – a world-governing system that exists alongside governments but outside democratic accountability – we cannot create life-serving societies.

Jensen: Do you see any shift taking place that counterbalances these antidemocratic economic trends?

Lappé: For the current system to continue, people must continue to believe that they have no power. My hope is that, if people can make changes in their own communities and begin to perceive of themselves as effective actors in the public world, they will see through the myth of the private corporation. Until they experience their own effectiveness, people will continue to mystify the structure of governance and give away their power.

People say, for example, that our economic system is to blame for a lot of the world’s problems, but I don’t think that’s strictly true. It’s not capitalism; it’s the belief system that supports capitalism. This belief system says it is somehow acceptable for CEOs to earn more than four hundred times what workers do. It says the commercialization and commodification of human relations is inevitable, because it’s impossible for human beings to get together and deliberate and reach an agreement. It’s all a vicious circle: the more we lose confidence in our capacity to deliberate and make decisions, the more we feel we must reduce all human relationships to economic transactions.

About twenty years ago, I attended a lecture by a Harvard professor who talked about how corporations operate like modern-day kingdoms. At one time, she said, people believed kings ruled by divine right, and today we seem to believe the same thing about corporations. Toward the end, she asked, “Do you know what it is that allowed people to let go of, overcome, and reject the notion of the divine right of kings?” I held my breath and got ready to take some notes. Her answer: “They just stopped believing in it.”

Jensen: So how do you get people to stop believing in the system and start believing in themselves?

Lappé: Erich Fromm has a wonderful line: “I affect, therefore I am.” I believe that one of the best ways to empower people is to give them examples of people just like themselves who are actually making a difference. That’s one reason I helped to form the American News Service. We cover stories of people taking responsibility and finding solutions in all areas of public life – from education, to health care, to the workplace, to community development. We distribute ten stories each week to our subscribers all across the country, including some of the nation’s biggest papers, like the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. Our slogan is “We cover America’s search for solutions.”

Humans are imitative animals. We learn from watching each other, and we take on the characteristics of people we observe. If the media primarily show us people who are corrupt and self-serving, who can’t see how their own interests are linked to the interests of others, then that’s all we’ll believe is possible for us. So I helped start this news service to show people the possibility of their own effectiveness.

Really, all American News Service does is cover what we as human beings do best, which is try to solve problems. That’s our nature: we see a problem, and we try to solve it. Still, it is precisely what the media don’t cover. For the most part, the media present only problems, not problem solving. The few who are presented as problem solvers are almost exclusively elected officials, celebrities, and experts. The message this sends disempowers us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. So our news service’s stories are primarily about people who aren’t in positions of power.

Jensen: Can you give me a couple of examples?

Lappé: One of my favorite stories is about a primarily Hispanic group in Texas, where a large multinational chemical plant had exposed the surrounding community to toxic fumes that made many residents very ill. A local group led by a young Hispanic woman, along with a statewide group called Texas United, was able to get the company to agree to an annual environmental and worker-safety audit by the community – not by some puppet group stacked in favor of the corporation, but by genuine community representatives. And the audit is legally binding. So now the community has legal grounds to hold the corporation accountable for the health of workers and nearby residents.

This story is not only about community empowerment and the breaking down of the myth of the private corporation, but about the democratization of knowledge. One of the keys to this struggle was right-to-know legislation that allows communities to know what toxins they are being exposed to. Now, this legislation may seem like nothing more than common sense, but corporations have fought it for years, because much of that knowledge is “proprietary.” They’ve said that to make this sort of information public would harm their profits. But the citizens said, in effect, that if the consequences of toxins are public, then information regarding toxins must be public.

Right-to-know legislation is a huge triumph over the myth of the private corporation, because knowledge is power. Historically, corporations have held tight rein over information concerning what chemicals they were spewing into the air or to which they were exposing their workers. But if workers and communities do not have access to that information, they can’t possibly organize to protect themselves. As long as information is distributed nondemocratically, so, too, is power. And the opposite is true as well: that increased democratization of information leads to increased democratization of power.

We did a story just last week on a new stockholder strategy for holding corporations accountable. General Motors agreed to be held accountable for the environmental impact of key elements of its production process. It even made significant alterations to its process as a result of working with a citizens’ environmental group.

Jensen: And if GM violates the agreement, can it be taken to court?

Lappé: Probably not. But just the fact that GM sat down to listen and felt it had to act is an important step. We’ve all heard of stockholder protests, but this took it to a new level, where there was actually dialogue with the corporation and the beginnings of corporate accountability.

Another story, which appeared in the business section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, described how some corporate executives’ pay is now being tethered to the environmental impact of their decisions and to employee evaluations of their leadership. This is another sign of the breakdown of the notion that corporations are accountable only to their investors. People are beginning to accept that, if you have public impact, you must have public accountability.

Jensen: These stories remind me of something the anthropologist Ruth Benedict observed: In cultures where the social structure and institutions positively reinforce acts that benefit the group as a whole, there is little hostility, violence, or cruelty, no harsh punishment, hardly any crime, little war. Children are not mistreated, women are generally considered equal to men, and an attitude of trust and confidence prevails.

The social structures of aggressive, violent cultures, on the other hand, reward actions that emphasize individual gain, even or especially when those actions harm others in the community. Put most simply, what you reward is what people will do.

Lappé: That rings true with everything I’ve ever read or experienced. The primary human need is to be accepted in your community, which means that whatever your community esteems will become the goal.

And what do we esteem now? What brings one into the group? For the most part, monetary wealth, private accumulation, and individual achievement. Take relationships. We are taught that what gives meaning to life is our private relationships, rather than our relationship with the community. Talk shows, advertisements, and magazines all focus on what makes you attractive in an intimate relationship, how to deal with your kids, how to succeed in your career. The message is that all of life’s riches are in personal relationships and advancement, while the public realm consists only of headaches and ugliness and stress and powerlessness.

We need a new message in our culture – the message that public engagement is a source of great reward and personal growth. We need to see people finding satisfaction by getting involved in schools and their communities. The woman who led that campaign against the chemical plant in Texas was changed forever. She’s in her twenties. I can only imagine what it might have done for me in my twenties to have read a story about her.

Jensen: It would have helped me a lot. Probably the most difficult part of finding my own path in life was that I didn’t have models. I had to make everything up as I went, fighting my preconceptions and the mainstream models of success I had been handed.

Lappé: That is one explicit reason I helped to start this news service: to make these models available. They are out there. It’s just that they are underreported and therefore invisible.

Jensen: I have to admit, when I first heard about the American News Service, I was skeptical, because it seemed too positive. I shy away from any attempt to put a positive spin on our current world situation. It’s like an abusive relationship: before you can get out, you have to peel away the layers of false hope to see the abuse for what it is.

Lappé: I struggle to balance the positive and the negative all the time. Because my tendency is to focus on the positive, I’ve often been teased about being a “cheerleader” for the revolution. But I don’t believe that I’m denying the larger picture: the destruction of life on the planet; the needless hunger of millions of people; the stagger-ing concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few.

It’s a constant struggle. What I do in speeches, to avoid portraying the situation as too positive, is to start off with some powerful facts showing how awful things are – the incredible maldistribution of wealth and so on. I try to ground the discussion in today’s dominant reality before moving on to the potentially emergent reality – what I call “living democracy.”

Jensen: I think that’s necessary for all of us. We have to earn the right to be positive. I know, for myself, that I often have to collapse before I can come out the other side.

Lappé: Yes, with Diet for a Small Planet and what followed, I was seen as the Julia Child of the soybean circuit, the expert on food problems. Now I’ve moved on. People have said to me, “Oh, that must have been scary to shift directions after you’d already established yourself.” But I never shifted directions. I tried to go deeper, to the underlying question of democracy itself. Then, suddenly, I was not an expert on anything. I had to reinvent my life, my field of knowledge, and my contacts in the world. It has been scary at times, but more than that, it’s been fun. Maybe the best thing in life is to keep questioning, no matter what you may think you’ve figured out, and never to believe that you’ve arrived.

I’m not sure that raving about how bad things are, the way I used to, works anyway. Sure, I got more standing ovations when my primary role was as a social critic. I knew how to stir people’s righteous indignation. But I’m not sure how much of that stayed with people once they left the auditorium. What transforms people throughout a lifetime is real engagement. I believe that, as people become engaged, they begin to incorporate the negative realities without becoming discouraged by them. I think of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that took on the mining industry. None of the people we interviewed there had ever been involved in any kind of social action, and they were having the time of their lives! Their activism wasn’t coming out of any abstract notion about environmentalism. It was coming out of their own life experiences. They were coming together with their neighbors, listening to each other, and figuring out what to do about their current situation. And their perspective kept broadening and broadening.

I’m not certain that we have to broadcast all the bad news anyway, because most people already know it. They may not get the message from the corporate media, but they know it from their own lives. They know things aren’t working.

Jensen: I used to teach at Eastern Washington University, and when I would ask my students – working-class kids mostly – whether we live in a democracy, they would laugh.

Lappé: So how do you reach those kids? One thing’s for sure: you don’t reach them just by verifying what they already know – that things are going to hell.

My outlook changed very consciously ten years ago in reaction to the Reagan revolution, which popularized the notion that the free market will be our salvation.

Jensen: Which is based on a lie, since the “free” market requires massive subsidies.

Lappé: Yes, but that doesn’t affect the mythology of the market. The only way to question the mythology of the market and all that it implies is to believe that human beings can work together and come up with something better than what the market alone determines.

Jensen: But the market doesn’t determine our way of life. Subsidies do.

Lappé: It’s both. The market in general leads to a focus on accumulation of wealth. All I’m saying is that, if you don’t have faith that human beings can come together and make decisions, if you can’t trust people – and the Reaganites told us you couldn’t – then the only thing you can rely on is the market. I knew I had to do something to counter this destructive worldview. One way to oppose it is by talking about the experiences of the many people and communities who do come together to find solutions.

Fundamentally, it comes down to what you believe human beings are capable of. If you don’t believe we’re able to reason together and come up with solutions, then you accept that the “magic of the marketplace” will lead to the best outcome for the most people.

My book Rediscovering America’s Values was a conversation between me and an imaginary mainstream American conservative. “We” talked about the big questions: What is fair? What is democracy? What is freedom? The disagreements, as I saw them, always came down to disparate views of human nature. If one believes human beings are essentially isolated, self-seeking “atoms,” then relying on the market to determine outcomes makes a lot of sense, because it requires nothing of us but narrow self-interest. But if one sees human nature as profoundly social – as seeking community and looking for meaning beyond ourselves, however clumsily – then the market is woefully inadequate. As social creatures striving to create communities that address our need for connection and meaning, we might use the market as a tool. Now, though, the market uses us. We’ve lost the confidence that we can devise limits within which the market could function. So the market limits our freedom instead.

Jensen: So what is freedom?

Lappé: The conservative view sees freedom as the right to fend off others and protect oneself. My own experience of freedom is the opportunity to achieve our fullest potential. And because we are social beings, we can’t develop to our true capacity if those around us are not allowed to develop fully. We need others around us, fulfilling their own potentials, to draw out our very best.

Freedom, in this understanding, can’t exist without justice. Individuals ultimately can’t be free to develop if they live in a society where others are unjustly prevented from developing. If I’m allowed to achieve, but everybody else in the community is not, then I’m denied the benefit of their talents, whether those talents are for music, conversation, botany, or whatever. By depriving others, we deprive ourselves.

Jensen: What do you think is the greatest obstacle to our realizing a living democracy?

Lappé: I think the hardest thing today is that, in both our personal and public lives, the status quo seems so permanent. It looks as though what we see around us is the way it has to be. I think the first step is for each of us to realize that this system is brand-new on the planet. We created it only recently, in a short period of time, and its sense of permanence and power is an illusion. If we appreciate this, we can liberate ourselves from this false mythology. We can realize that history could conceivably have been very different. It still can. How did people do away with the divine right of kings? They simply stopped believing in it.

Originally published in the November 1999 issue of The Sun

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
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