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Grassroots relationships and social associations are essential as grounding for political movements toward economic democracy

I have been reading Martin Buber's Paths in Utopia, an historical analysis of the relationship between social activity and political structures. One major theme which recurrs is the need for political movements to be grounded on grassroots social groupings. In Buber's view these groups represent communities, organic associations between people which grow out of the peoples' concrete activities of living. The contemporary lack of such associations, resulting in the political isolation or "atomization" of many people, may help explain why so many Americans refuse to take an active part in our so-called democracy, even to the extent of not voting.

This analysis makes the possibility of economic democracy dependent upon decentralization of authority and power. The common description "grassroots" is a contemporary label for political activity which is decentralized. This catch-word is currently popular in both conservative and liberal circles, but for different reasons.

Conservatives view decentralization of government as a means to allow business interests to dominate the political process. Liberals are more willing to tolerate temporary centralization of governmental power as a necessary bulwark against the dominance of business. However, in concrete terms, the Greens, and other "third party" movements, represent an attempt at grassroots decentralizing of political power which is now totally vested in the two-headed monster challenged by Ralph Nader's candidacy.

The multiplicity of issues and causes represented in the Greens movement, from environment to criminal justice, from universal health care to union-busting, is concrete diversity and creates vitality as well as tension. The contradictions, voluntarily tolerated, within the movement are essential, just as the inherent contradictions between individuals and groups are inevitable. Grassroots-level tolerance for diversity and effective dialogue in the face of contradictions are the only hope for the survival of an alternative to the current de-personalized system wherein money doesn't just talk, it screams.

Some of the ideas in Buber's now 50-year-old analysis may appear dated, such as the call for grassroots communities to be self-sufficient, or nearly so. Buber's book was written around the time of the genesis of the Kibbutzim movement in the new state of Israel. In the 21st Century, with a huge majority of our population living in urban centers, it is difficult to reconcile our circumstances with those envisioned by Buber. One of the modern ideas which such a dispersal of population would require is the concepts of land-use planning (Oregon's, for example), with concentrations of people in urban settings, leaving vast tracts of land available for mega-agricultural operations. Perhaps the efficiencies of mega-agriculture must be sacrificed in favor of a more dispersed, agrarian society (shades of Mao Tse Tung!), in order for democracy to flourish. Modern hi-tech communications, however, allow population dispersal without isolation.