Down on the Ground with Democracy and Money

By George Sibley

By the time you are reading this, the Great Election of 2012 may be in the can, since voting has been going on in most states for weeks, along with the ubiquitous polling. But whoever wins whatever offices, we probably ought to put in some time evaluating this election – perhaps around the question: was this the election through which American capitalism finally vanquished American democracy?

Okay, maybe that’s too drastic a question for our delicate American sensibilities. But it was certainly an election in which the vast majority of us conceded that money was running the show and there was little to be done about that. We may have moved closer than ever before to the “one dollar, one vote” scenario we joke about, but it’s less a joke today. The other joke about its being “the best government money can buy” may, however, be inaccurate; it will just be the government that money wants, along a narrow spectrum running from a little to the right of Reagan (the Democrats) to somewhat to the right of Goldwater (the Republicans). The same money funded most of the candidates of both parties that agreed to stay within that narrow spectrum – which unfortunately included both major-party candidates. If you wanted to play, you went to those who could pay. The left (to the left of Reagan) sent out millions, probably billions, of email pleas for “$3 or more” to counter the anonymous piles of big money from those court-created simulacra of persons, on the strategy that the only way to fight money is with money.

The only alternative to the dominance of money in this election was the quickly quashed efforts of “Occupy” to raise a little counter-consciousness, but they mustered neither the focus nor the numbers to articulate a real alternative; the trouble is, money is the lingua franca today – the only language we all speak.

What alternative is there? Ummm. I recollect a bravura statement from someone – House Speaker Sam Rayburn, back in the ‘60s, I think (quoting from memory): “If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey and smoke their cigars, then look them in the eye and vote against them, you don’t belong in Washington.” That may have been more myth than reality even then, but it is not an attitude one hears expressed today. Money rules.

I find myself grasping farther backward in history, for straws – like, I find myself thinking of old Ferdinand Tönnies and his dichotomy. Tönnies – often called the “Father of Sociology,” who lived to see the rise of both the New Deal and the Thousand-Year Reich – said that there were essentially two types of human societies: bypassing his quarter-mile-long German names, the two types are usually translated as “community” and “contract society.” His first type is a term used very loosely today, but Tönnies had a fairly tight definition for a “community”: a social group in which the group itself was the basic unit, the principal source of personal identity and meaning for all the group’s members. That doesn’t mean the members were all alike; a “community” had its hunters, farmers, story-holders, healers, et cetera, but whatever a participant’s special gift, it was by, for, and of the group. The participants all drew their vitality and sense of self from their participation, however unique, in the group. Historically and prehistorically, hunter-gatherer bands and small farming villages fit the definition; today, they persist in outlier groups like the Amish, blood-oath gangs, small fundamentalist churches with lifelong members, well-trained military units at the squadron level, et cetera.

The other kind of human group, according to Tönnies, was the “contract society”: a group made up of individuals who all “contract” their participation in the group, each individual letting the group know what he or she can bring to the group, in return for what he or she expects from the group. All businesses, professions, identifying occupations, and all “communities” based on such individual identities, are contract societies.

All theoretical dichotomies are ultimately stressed by reality; few human groups are purely one Tönnies type or the other all the time. A festival or a funeral, a local triumph or tragedy, can temporarily give rise to “community” among people who primarily interact as a contract society; such events become – for a time – “who and what we are.” Church can be a lifelong commitment to a community for some members, while for others it is the place to be on Sunday morning in order to advance business relationships. Tönnies himself believed that, through time and changing environments, communities would tend to evolve or devolve to contract societies.

I think I have only encountered one instance in central Colorado of what Tönnies himself might call a community, and that was the residuum in Crested Butte of the coal-mining labor movement from the 1920s through the 1940s – basically a handful of retired miners who told their stories to anyone who wanted to listen afternoons in the bars. They told hard stories of standing up to armed National Guard units or “Pinkertons,” literally putting their lives on the line, often with their women there along with them.

Their larger story went all the way back to their “Old Countries,” from which Euro-American capitalism had driven them through enclosure acts and other rationalized conversions to contract societies. Some of them had been “Wobblies” – card-carrying members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a global organization fighting the contract society on all fronts, seeking a whole new social order run by and for the workers. But what they eventually settled for was participation as a group, rather than individuals, in a contract society. They had the right to participate in negotiations for their contracts, and that was – as we’ve seen over the past half-century – the long slow end of the community of labor, the brotherhood of workers seeking an alternative to the contract-based economics of American capitalism.

I am not arguing that “international communism” would have been a more equitable or humane system than American capitalism is proving to be – certainly not under monsters like Stalin or Mao. Those guys have poisoned that well for the foreseeable future. But the New Deal, and its expansions into the 1960s, did seem to be a fairly intelligent compromise between the creative individualism nurtured in a contract society and the “we’re all in this together” bonds of the community. It is, however, obviously too much of a compromise for the one-percenters in our society, and they will clearly not rest until they have done away with this “socialism” entirely, or are themselves done away with.


Should we, could we, work toward some kind of a creative mix of community and contract society? Or will the advocates for each insist it has to be all or nothing?

Is one type of group better than the other? Tönniesque communities historically showed a tendency to get too bound up in their traditions – “this is the way we do things” – even when those ways clearly no longer worked. But who could look at our cultural inability today to look seriously at our energy and climate challenges, and not see us being as badly stuck in “the way we do things” as any feudal village?

There may be some genetic predisposition in all of us toward one type of group or the other. It is clear that many “individuals” in America do not do well in a contract society which requires a certain “selling of oneself” for gain; but those same people are often the best neighbors, the backbone of those essential parts of a society that don’t pay anything for service rendered. And tight pre-urban hunter-gatherer or agricultural communities always had to figure out how to handle their “contraries” and other individualistic misfits – who, once driven out of feudal communities in Europe, ran off to join the city-states of second sons, miscreants and other misfits in what became the European Renaissance.

But getting back to the earlier question about the vast and largely unopposed infusion of money into American politics this year: could that be the triumph of the contract society, the disappearance from America of the “we’re all in this together” community? Or is it possible to have democratic governance with some sense of community balancing the individualistic self-fulfilling of the contract society?

We have insisted for a couple centuries that capitalism and democracy go together like horse and carriage, like love and – well, let’s just stick with the horse and carriage. But while no one would question the contractual basis of capitalism, democracy does require some sense in the electorate of being part of a larger whole. Why would anyone “contract” to let a government take part of his or her personal wealth (“I built that!”) to redistribute for the “commonwealth,” the “general welfare”? Democracy as a purely contractual process devolves pretty quickly to a matter of special interests trying to take care of their own; the “general welfare” is too esoteric a concept for contracting at the level of the individual and his or her interest group.

If the concept of true Tönniesque community no longer has a political voice in American society, I do not see how we can continue to claim to be a democratic society. If the “contractors” cannot tolerate the decency of a social net for all, and are out to smash all opposition to their intolerance, I shudder at the road they want to take us down.


George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he is notoriously bad at contracts.