Chomsky lays out the reduction of democracy as an ongoing battle between the elite and the populace over property rights. This age old conflict seems to have two obvious solutions, create institutions that reduce democracy or create institutions that promote equality.
Founding Father and Classical Liberal, James Madison, argued that protecting an individual’s right to private property was critical to American democracy. This is why the original draft of the Constitution did not provide for the direct election of senators; this change would not come until 1913 with the passing of the 17th Amendment. Instead, the ranks of the Senate were filled by elections from within state legislatures. This was an attempt to strike a balance between the interests of the elite and the populace.
On the other end of the spectrum is Aristotle. Like the Classical Liberals of the 17th and 18th centuries, he believed that inequality could create a crisis for democracy in which the populace would seek to take and redistribute property held by the elites. However, Aristotle’s solution was to reduce inequality through market regulations. In order to accomplish Aristotle’s aim, states would have to some extent fix prices and wages thus creating a more equal distribution.
I see the reduction of democracy in the slow death of civil society. All politics aside, unions are a democratizing force. It’s no wonder why the greatest periods of unionization occurred alongside the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression. These eras were marked by rampant exploitation and wealth inequality not matched until recently. Unfortunately, labor unions are in decline all around the United States. Aside from a good smearing by the Right, unions are also grappling with the recent surge in right-to-work legislation.
There are currently 27 states with right-to-work laws. These laws allow workers to refuse to join a union upon employment. At first glance, this seems to be a very reasonable thing to have on the books. If I don’t want to join, I shouldn’t have to right?
Rather by design or by accident, these laws defund unions while temporarily extending their benefits to non-members. I say temporarily because I can easily conceive of a situation where a union eventually loses its bargaining power due to a lack of participation or funds. Prior to this hypothetical downfall, all employees, regardless of their membership, would have benefited from demands made by the unions concerning working conditions and possibly even wages.
I once declined a job because I would have been compelled to join a union. My rationale was that the job, store clerk, would already be working me part-time and paying me a low wage. This meant that my income would be already be strained without adding union dues. This was a very basic decision made by a 17-year-old Robbie. I share this story to highlight another cause of the decline of unions.
Depressed wages and the general push to hire only part-time employees is trend that makes participation in a labor union seem unappealing. Admittedly, it is a shortsighted argument but the gravity of financial and employment decisions pushes workers to think primarily about the short term consequences.
Unions will probably not make any grand resurgence spearheading civil society. These free association, no matter how beneficial and democratizing, are relics of America’s industrial past. The current economic model, one centered around technology, information and labor competition, does not foster a sense of identity. Civil society will have to be revitalized through another route.