I recently wrote that citizens unhappy with the state of the world should not expect the political and economic systems to rectify its ills -- these systems are there, for the most part, to protect the status quo, not to regulate it. As Adam Smith said two centuries ago "the real purpose of government is to protect those who run the economy from the outrage of injured citizens".
At the same time, the inability of our political and economic systems to rectify wrongs, and our lack of recourse to progressive laws and regulations, is no excuse to give up on achieving reforms. We merely need to exercise the power we have as citizens and consumers. That power is considerable, and is amplified by the highly democratic networking, organizing, information-sharing and communications power of the Internet.
Here are five levers of power we can draw on as citizens and consumers:
Boycotts: Although some excellent global and national boycott lists exist, local boycotts of polluters, offshorers and otherwise unethical companies are even more effective, especially if they're well-coordinated and publicized, since they hit the companies 'where they live'.
Ostracism: While environmentally and socially unethical organizations may have the law on their side, we can still use the power of numbers to make them socially uncomfortable, and to dissuade those who would work for them, do business with them, or come to their defence. Locally, signs, protests, letters to the editor and editorials in the local newspaper can make a company or government very uncomfortable for their misdeeds, and make politicians wary of taking money from them when lists of campaign contributors are published and talked about. 'Shunning' is an age-old and very effective way of getting a poor citizen or poor corporate citizen to either clean up their act or leave town.
Shareholder Activism: Although shareholder meetings are among the least democratic events in Western society, minority shareholders do have rights, including the right to put measures on the agenda of the annual meeting, and speak to them. And if the press is alerted to the disgruntlements of shareholders, they will often show up, and sometimes this is enough to embarrass the company into taking some corrective action.
Public Advocates: Most governments and many media companies have ombudsmen whose job it is to identify, surface and address abuses of power by government and corporations. In the US, some state Attorneys General, like New York's Eliot Spitzer, have become citizen and consumer activists, often fighting government bureaucracy, corporate fraud and cover-ups on behalf of the weak and disenfranchised.
Collective Intelligence: The Internet allows self-organizing groups to form, recruit members, and invest their collective energies and time into doing direct research -- gathering data, interviewing people, first-person observation, and filming of wrong-doing and suspicious activity. There are many sites that guide citizen and consumer activists how to collect intelligence and what to do with it when they get it.
So even when the political and economic deck is stacked against us, there's much we can do to counter socially and environmentally irresponsible behaviour. All it takes is the will, the investment in time, good social networks and the knowledge of how to do it.
Technorati tags: politics, activism, democracy
Buy Paul Rogat Loeb's The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear at Powell's City of Books.