Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 26 May 1996; on the web by permission, August 2003

Practicality deserves high priority. Books are too easily a refuge from the world. The satisfaction of finding questions answered and problems solved in print can be so great as to make one overlook the lack of answers and solutions in actuality. Readers and writers can live for years in the comfort of their books, unwittingly counting themselves out of the historical process, leaving it to chance or naked power.

Good books serve practical purposes. Somehow they hit home, throw monkey wrenches into the status quo, render life as usual impossible, and compel adventure into fresh alternatives.

The two good books reviewed here give practical service to democracy. This word means to these authors much more than competitive elections in a multiparty state. That is what Benjamin Barber, a theorist cited in both books, calls thin as opposed to strong democracy. The latter means the active engagement of citizens in political debate and dialogue, and their ongoing participation in defining and redefining the options from which they then choose in order to shape their collective life. This fleshed-out version of democracy describes a world in which everybody makes a difference in what goes on.

The format of Sclove's 335-page monograph is conventional, but not the content. As a way of promoting democracy, Sclove here systematically shows how it relates to something commonly considered separate from it. Technology is normally thought of and revered as an economic phenomenon prior to and independent of politics, a context in which different kinds of politics can be played. Not so, Sclove explains. The degree of democracy in a group shapes the kind of gadgets and machines it invents, produces, and employs, while these in turn enhance or inhibit the extent to which democratic social relations are achieved. The Old Order Amish are only the first of the examples Sclove describes to show the connectedness of the tools and techniques a society uses and the extent to which it gives everyone a say in how work is done.

In a sense, Democracy and Technology is an updated version of Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. Sclove's priority on decentralized power, recognition of limits, insistence on sustainability, and defense of the sacred are all reminiscent of Schumacher. On the other hand, the detail of Sclove's critique of conventional economic reasoning and of his strategy for democratizing technology makes this book an original and gives it an importance of its own.

No wonder Lappé and Du Bois liked Sclove's book so much they contributed one of the accolades ("compelling moral argument and practical guide") printed on its back. The same accolade describes their own book. Let Canadians not be put off by that word America in the title. The techniques of quickening they propose work just as well north of the border as south of it.

The most striking thing about this co-authored volume, the same length as Sclove's, is that here even the format of the book has been creatively designed for democratic purposes. These pages cannot be a refuge from action, because they invite and demand action in response. There are extra-wide margins for scribbling in. Questions to answer or options to review in boxes on every other page. A clear, script-like, almost conversational typeface. Autobiographical references that compel readers to reflect on their own biographies. Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of more than a hundred organizations across America that are trying to build grass-roots democracy. And at the end, an invitation to readers to send in comments on the book's strengths and weaknesses. The technology of book publishing has never been made to serve democracy so well as in this almost square paperback.

Part One sets forth the basic argument: that neither power nor self-interest is bad, provided both are exercised in a balanced way in public life. Part Two gives graphic examples of doing this—at work, through the media, in schools, and by abandoning the role of client in favour of sharing tasks as a citizen. The critique of professionalism here packs punch. The third and final part of the book gives practical tools for mastering the arts of democracy. Chapter 12 is especially engaging: "Embracing the Democratic Self."

To a professor like me, aware of how detached from action much academic writing is, the most sobering fact about these two books is that none of the authors is a professor. Sclove is an activist scientist, director of the Loka Institute in Massachusetts. Lappé, author of the classic Diet for a Small Planet, works with Du Bois at the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont. What a shame that the academy is producing so few books as good as these! Thank God somebody is producing them!