Ralph Nader and the Legacy of Revolt (Part 3)

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Walt Contreras Sheasby

“Without a reconstruction of our democracy in order to ensure facilities for informed civic participation to all citizens, no ambitious program of political and economic change will succeed. –Ralph Nader (1993)

RALPH NADER HAS a complex relationship with the historical currents of change before World War I (populism, socialism and progressivism), but it may be his relationship to the Communism of the mid-twentieth century that has shaped his view of reform. Nader readily accepted the prevailing view that the Soviet regime exemplified the definition of socialism, that is, a concentration of bureaucratic power based on government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution.

The Debsian model of socialism stressed a revolutionary industrial unionism that would enable workers to develop “their latent abilities [and] their knowledge” to prepare them “for mastery and control of industry.” (Salvatore, 1982, 263) For Debs, socialism as workers’ control meant the extension of genuine participatory democracy to civil society, a radical reconstruction of society that would leave behind the political instruments of domination and suppression.

That was how Debs envisioned the cooperative commonwealth. When the Bellamyite program of Nationalization [see part 2 of this essay, ATC 89 –ed.] is seen as the sole criterion, however, it is scarcely possible to delineate Stalinism from Socialism.

Thus, in Nader’s campaign talk last Spring at the University of Maryland, shown on C-SPAN, when the first question from the audience was (paraphrasing): “In your critique of the corporations you sound like a socialist,” he replied: “No, socialism results in another form of concentrated power.”

“He says, `I don’t like concentration of power. Whether it’s in Wall Street or whether it’s government ownership of the means of production, which is the definition of Socialism.’” (Frost, 1994)

If Nader ever had any youthful illusions about the Soviet Union (which is doubtful in view of his father’s influence), he lost them very quickly. He felt that such regimes, based on top-down bureaucratic planning, could at best merely trade utilities for the consent of the governed: “This idea that dictatorships `make the trains run on time’ was a way to give a functional utility to the mass of the people for a dictatorial regime.” (Frost, 1994).

Nader had studied both Russian and Chinese in college, and he spoke Russian well enough to converse in it. In 1961 he spent two weeks in Russia talking with ordinary people on every occasion. For him, it was a real eye-opener: “How bourgeois the people are. You got the idea that if Communism was lifted everyone would want to go into business and do exactly what we are doing in America. It hadn’t changed the so-called character of the people at all.” (McCarry, 972, 62)

If Soviet communism was not an alternative, Nader also ruled out the various nationalist and authoritarian regimes that had attempted to opt out of Western capitalism. Six years ago he told an interviewer, “with the collapse of communism and with the absence of any alternative way of ordering private property and using public assets, we’re entering into a generation of global power of the multi-national corporations. There’s no society that’s able to withstand commercial western culture that’s moving in on it.” (Frost, 1994)

Nader at the same time rejected the premise that public ownership within a capitalist system shifted power from the corporations to the people: “Capitalism has developed in our country where (it) doesn’t care whether people own large amounts of property as a commonwealth. For example, the people own one third of America. . . But they don’t control any of it. In other words, they legally own it as a commonwealth, but they don’t legally control . . . As a result, their ownership has no democratic consequences to it.”

On the other hand, corporations could always find refuge from the ravages of the marketplace by seeking the protection of the capitalist state. He recalls what his father told his young son: “One time he said, You know why capitalism will always survive, Ralph? I said, Why? He said, Because socialism will always be there to save it. There it is, right there. That’s happening in this country. It’s unbelievable.” (Barsamian, 1996b).

From that time on, Nader has preferred the disconcerting rhetorical irony of describing this corporate welfare (a term he coined in 1966) as “lemon socialism” or “corporate socialism.” As to the Democrats, “(T)hey’re the biggest promoters among the two parties of corporate welfare; they’re far in excess of the Republicans, who have some modest ideological restraints on it.” (Kuttner, 2000)

“Here’s an example of plutocracy: corporate socialism. That is, corporations who get in trouble if they’re important enough or big enough, do not go bankrupt, they go to Washington. They are then subject to a process known as corporate welfare, entitlements, where their bankruptcy, mismanagement, speculation or corporate crime generates losses, which are socialized on the backs of the taxpayer. This corporate socialism and corporate welfare is booming. (Nader, 1996)

According to the Hoover Institution, Federal subsidies to U.S. businesses now cost American taxpayers nearly $100 billion a year. As Nader said in an interview, “And these fat cats — we call it Wall Street Socialism — capitalize the profits, but if they lose, you pay.” (Donahue, 1996)

Nader’s irony may be designed to bait the corporate establishment, but the kind of bail-out at public expense that Nader describes (such as the 1979 Chrysler loan rescue, the Reagan-era S&L reorganization, etc.) recalls the mercantilism of Whig capitalism, the “State Socialism” of 19th century German Chancellor Bismarck, the “Political Capitalism” successfully urged by the National Civic Federation [see part 2 of this essay, ATC 89 –ed.], or the “Pentagon Capitalism” that made the military-industrial complex (as President Eisenhower called it) such an enormous factor in the postwar recovery.

Nader contrasts the top-down utilitarian stimulation and satisfaction of consumer wants, and the increasing sophistication of the capitalist market, with the bottom-up democratization that has expanded basic economic freedom and equality for the masses of people. This democratization was never an inherent process in the buying and selling of commodities:

“We have functional utilities to the market place, and the companies flood us with propaganda. What they mistake and miss is that democracy is really what has humanized the market place, because we’ve had slavery as part of the market place worldwide. Serfdom. All kinds of brutality in the name of buying and selling goods. But what we need to point out is that democracy itself is the single most important engine for equitable economic development.” (Frost, 1994)

Tools of Direct Democracy

Can direct democracy be an Archimedian lever to challenge corporate domination? The dilemma of reformers has always been that big business not only dominates the system of representative democracy, throttling progressive legislation, but that efforts to bypass this stranglehold though direct legislation and electoral reform often succumb to the same forces.

Nader has lifted the direct democracy demands of the populist platforms and put them at the forefront of his citizen action. Like the populists, he believes that “Somehow unstructured power, ad hoc power, initiatory democracy, whatever you want to call it, is less likely to be abused and more likely to be continually nourished.” (McCarry, 1972, 313)

As the Peoples Party fusion platform, adopted in convention in Sioux Falls in 1900, expressed it, “To cope with the trust [monopoly –ed.] evil, the people must act directly . . . We therefore demand direct legislation . . . under the initiative and referendum. A majority of the people can never be corruptly influenced.” The Greenback Platform of 1880 declared: “We demand a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, instead of a government of the bondholder, by the bondholder, and for the bondholder.” (Johnson and Porter, 1975, 58, 117)

Ralph Nader, in his platform of Feb. 1, 1992, The Concord Principles, declared: “Whereas, the political system, regardless of party, has degenerated into a government of the power brokers, by the power brokers, and for the power brokers that is an arrogant and distant caricature of Jeffersonian democracy.” Further, “Campaign finance reform has got to go hand in hand with direct democracy like initiative, referendum, recall.” (Brown, 1996)

Nader has supported campaign finance reform initiatives in a number of states: “The citizen organizations in Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Montana are using the initiative process to get big money out of politics. Using the initiative process to recapture the institutions of government that have been seized by well-heeled, large corporate interest lobbies is a high form of citizen action. For the sake of representative democracy, let’s hope the itizens in these states spark a movement for change that engulfs the country.” (Nader, 1993) He also brought the idea of the ombudsman back from Sweden in 1962, co-authoring the first ombudsman bill in the Connecticut legislature. (McCarry, 1972, 61)

In California Nader, through the Oaks Project, also tried to qualify an initiative for the ballot that would enable citizens to cast a vote in the California General Election for None of the Above. He announced, “This gives the people the right to say `no’ and have it tabulated.” Nader launched a corps of volunteers to get the 432,000 signatures necessary to place the measure on the November 1998 ballot. He conceded that many as-yet-unknown consequences could unfold, but added that “voters will have a new option for expressing disapproval of candidates, their campaigns, and their time in office.” (Wood, 1997)

Nader did not, however, accept proportional representation, an important issue for the Greens today as it was for Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party in 1892 and 1896, the National Party of 1896, Debs’ Social Democratic Party in 1900, the Socialist Party in 1904 and 1908, and the Peoples Party in 1904 and 1908. (Johnson and Porter, 1975, passim)

Nader recognizes that “any third party has an uphill fight because of the winner-take-all political system and other ballot access hurdles.” (Kuttner, 2000) But in an interview on December 8, 1995, Nader was asked about proportional representation, and he responded, “I don’t like that. I think that that fractures the kind of consensus necessary for major progress . . . I think that major moves forward in European democracies have come when there has been a great parliamentary victory like the labor parties that win and win major majorities.” (Barsamian, 1996a)

Eight months later at the Green Gathering the same interviewer said to him, “There’s been a shift in your thinking on proportional representation. What happened to cause you to change your position?” Nader replied:

“Well, first I hadn’t given it much thought, so I didn’t take a stand on it. I knew how it worked in Europe, and in some countries it didn’t work too well. But it’s interesting. In some periods of history it’s been necessary to break up the logjam, and then it can be renewed or changed. The problem we have is, once we get any change instituted, it’s often hard to change it when the conditions for it change. So I’m still exploring the kind of proportional representation that would reflect the voice of people who represent significant numbers of the population, but not a majority or plurality. And second, to do so without paralyzing the governmental process, or even developing too much co-opting and less than savory negotiations between the constituencies.” (Barsamian, 1996c)

The success of new parties in Europe and New Zealand under proportional representation is obvious, but Nader’s warning of co-optation and corruption has also proven apt. State funding of political parties, which has often accompanied proportional representation systems, is also a double-edged sword that may bring increased participation, but also dependency on the major parties of government.

Arthur Lipow, who is critical of the top-down plebiscitarian dangers of direct democracy, says, “The task of those who understand how democratic rights in America are threatened by the encroachments of the military-bureaucratic state and by the all-pervasive power of big business, is to build the kind of mass-based, member-controlled political party which alone can offer a democratic alternative to the prevailing social and economic system.” (Lipow, 1996, 91)

The Illusion and Reality of Democracy

Is capitalist democracy an illusion? If it is, can it be made real? Nader answers the first question: “Corporate democracy has been an illusion for nearly 100 years — which has not of course deterred business executives and the New York Stock Exchange from annually proclaiming its vitality.” (Nader, 1993).

What solution does he offer? In a May 2000 interview Nader reiterated his trademark proposal: “I strongly support the idea of using the corporate charter as a way of increasing democratic control.” (Nader, 2000b, 44)

“What is needed is a Corporate Democracy Act to give all stakeholders in corporate decision-making a real voice in corporate governance.” Like reformers in 1896 and the later Progressives, Nader wants “federal chartering of corporations with minimum national standards,” imposing sanctions against “unfair labor practices, pollution, and wasteful subsidies.” (Nader, 1993).

He says, “This was a great debate, you know, in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The American people were very worried about this corporate Frankenstein in their midst, rising up and taking them over. And controlling them.” (Brown, 1996)

In 1887 Richard T. Ely proposed reforming corporation law to make directors “responsible at all times for double their investments.” He believed that “these measures would be a most effective antidote to socialism. When the truth in that theory of industrial society is recognized and separated from its error, it must become harmless. What better way to spike the guns of socialism?”

Nader’s appeal for federal chartering literally reproduces much of the same rhetoric: “Since the guiding purpose of federal incorporation is to encourage corporate democracy and competition, it is the precise opposite of a socialized economy. To the extent that it attempts to make private firms more accountable to its shareholders and more responsive to competitors, a federal incorporation law is a radically conservative idea.” (Ely, 1887, 263; Corey, 1975, 80)

Notwithstanding its alleged conservatism, this idea has not attracted support from Wall Street, which, as Nader knows, guards the sovereignty of corporations far more zealously than it guards American national sovereignty. As Nader puts it, “Corporations are effectively like states, private governments with vast economic, political and social impact;” and “A democratic society, even if it encourages such groups for private economic purposes, should not suffer such public power without public, or constitutional, accountability.” (Ibid, 81)

But even if legislation were able to constrain corporate decision-making in some areas, it would be tolerating it by default in all areas not regulated. Like mercury lying on a plate, when squeezed it readily regroups elsewhere. As Nader himself concedes, “… corporations are geniuses at undermining the best laid plans of the public interest.” (Nader, 2000b, 44)

Attempts to break up monopolies and restore competition, however, can also have adverse affects overlooked by Nader: “His affinity for anti-trust enforcement and competitive markets seems blind to the nasty consequences for labor and the environment of cutthroat competition,” as Howie Hawkins says. (Hawkins, 2000, 49) The example of transport deregulation, which Nader once advocated, would seem a relevant case in point.

David McReynolds, Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, has also raised serious questions about how Nader approaches the question of corporate reform: “When Nader speaks against the corporations, what does he propose as a solution?” McReynolds continues: “Like all corporate reformers, back to the beginning of the last century, he is for trust busting, for government interventions and regulations. If this hasn’t worked for the last hundred years, why does he think it will work now?”

McReynolds speaks for much of the left when he says, “We want a society which empowers working people and makes the entire process more democratic, from the way elections are held — through proportional representation — to the way decisions over what to produce and how it is to be produced. We are clear that huge concentrations of capital in private hands must be ended.” (McReynolds, 2000a, 20, 21)

Nader has promised to lead a “sustained effort to wrest control of our democracy from corporate government and restore it to the political government under control of citizens.” (Lazaroff, 2000) To carry through on that would mean building an independent left considerably stronger than the one that was howling at the backs of the corporate reformers in the Gilded Age.

That populist left, as we have seen, when deflected from the hope of a government of, by, and for the people, fanned the flames of radicalism in direct opposition to top-down Progressive corporatism.

Is Nader’s attempt to revive the reform program of Progressivism more realistic than a reveille for Debsian radicalism? In McReynolds’ view, “Nader’s approach of government intervention is, I think, even more utopian than socialism. To say `it hasn’t worked’ since 1900 is a vast understatement in the midst of global capitalism.” (McReynolds, 2000b)

A Debsian Trajectory?

In an interview with David Barsamian (1996) Nader was asked about Eugene V. Debs. Nader had received the Debs Award in Indiana in 1992. Each year since 1965, with 1971 excepted, an award banquet has been held in Terre Haute honoring a person whose work has been in the spirit of Debs and who has contributed to the advancement of the causes of industrial unionism, social justice or world peace.

Barsamian observed “a lot of people don’t even recognize (Debs’) name.” Nader replied, “That’s part of the historic estrangement of our present-day society. He was a great labor organizer, a man of conscience who went to jail for his beliefs around World War I. You ask most workers who Eugene Debs is and they don’t even know.”

Debs, who ran for president five times, set the benchmark for authentic left Presidential campaigns by winning 6% of the vote in 1912; Nader hoped to at least come very close to that historic record in 2000. Debs has long been one of Nader’s inspirations, and Nader certainly draws from the tradition of U.S. democratic socialism represented by Debs, regardless of his public disavowal of socialism.

In an address on Industrial Unionism delivered at Grand Central Palace in New York City, December 10, 1905, Debs said, “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.” (Debs, 1908, 447)

Nader shares with Debs an insistence on the goal of “making people contribute of themselves rather than hurrah some leader.” Debs had told workers joining the cause, “for the first time in your life you will stand perfectly erect and know what it is to be self-reliant and touch elbows with your fellow-workers throughout the world.” (Debs, 1908, 419).

Nader, like Debs, harbors a deep sense of radical democracy and distrust of elites: “I don’t like the concept of heroes. It’s the reliance concept;” and, “A hero is a crutch.” (Corey, 1975, 53, 297) He says, “I think people are lulled and duped into thinking that all it needs is for a leader to come along and it’ll be okay.” (McCarry, 1972, 163).

Nader may be closer to than he realizes to the Debsian spirit. But it will be some time before the movement he is building can sort out and come to terms with the internal contradictions of progressive populism and the need to articulate a vision of a cooperative commonwealth better crafted to fit the 21st century than Bellamy’s utopia.

During the Green Presidential Primary, eco-socialist candidate Joel Kovel issued a challenge to the Greens to go “Beyond Populism,” and his message stirred a lively discussion. (Kovel, 2000) Certainly, most Greens are committed to bottom-up democratization and are critical of the bureaucratic and technocratic approach of past reformers. It may be that the growing concern over global ecological crises (which has spurred the growth of Greens in many countries) will help unify the U.S. left.

Perhaps the deepening of that crisis, in conjunction with opposition to global corporatization, will persuade progressives to embrace a radical Green platform, much as the agrarian and labor populists adopted the anti-capitalism of the Omaha platform in 1892 and then the Debsian socialism of the Chicago platform in 1904. As a seasoned observer once quipped, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

ATC 90, January-April 2001

1 comment

  1. It should be crystal clear that the two-party plutocracy has accumulated so much power that the only path to obtaining more forms of direct democracy is through constitutional amendments, and the only way to get those is get the nation’s first Article V convention, the never-used option the Founders gave us; learn the facts at http://www.foavc.org and become a member.

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