Gramsci for Democrats: Charles Derber’s “Hidden Power”

Published online 24 July 2007.

This is a review of Charles Derber’s (2005) book Hidden Power, a progressive problem-solution book offering advice to the Democratic Party about how to conduct “regime change” in America.  Derber is uninformed in certain ways, but his advice ought to be heeded, especially as regards expanding the realm of “people power” in American politics.  Derber brings a Gramscian reading of the American political situation to his political advice, and this makes said advice stronger and more practical.

Book review: Derber, Charles.  Hidden Power: What You Need to Know to Save Our Democracy.  San Francisco CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2005.

(crossposted at Progressive Historians)

I first encountered the writings of Charles Derber when I found an article in the Teachers’ College Record archives titled Reflections of an Activist Teacher. I liked his suggestions for activist teaching.  I then went to the library stacks to look for his most recent book, Hidden Power.  I was especially interested in his creative use of the theories of Antonio Gramsci in the service of the Democratic Party, having already written a diary on Gramsci for DailyKos.com.

Hidden Power is a “problem-solution” book addressing the defeat of the Left in American politics since 1980.  Hidden Power is interesting because, in it, Derber uses the rhetoric of Gramscian analysis to a strategy which offers an avowed attempt to move the Democratic Party to the left.  “The only solution for the Democrats is to move from the Election Trap to regime change.  This is a huge change, but it is the only way the Democrats can survive and gain a clear vision of how to save the country from the regime itself,” (224) Derber argues.

In a Gramscian analysis, we try to figure out where power lies in society.  Derber characterizes this in terms of “five pillars of society” which apply to societies.  Societies have 1) dominant institutions, 2) modes of political rule (democracy, theocracy, or corporate rule), 3) social contracts (laissez-faire, welfare-statism), 4) foreign policies, and 5) ideologies. (17)  A struggle for control over these pillars is what Gramsci would call the “war of position.”  Domination over these pillars is what Gramsci would call “hegemony.”

Hidden Power suggests that the main problem in American political history is corporate control of government.  Toward the end of the book in Chapter 10, Derber proposes by way of a solution to “get corporations out of politics for good.” (263)  And (once they’re out for good), the next goal is to “put an end to corporate globalization in a global economy regulated by global citizens.” (266)  Derber further suggests that we could “change the moral values conversation to guarantee Americans food, housing, medical care, education, jobs, and a living wage,” (268) “renounce empire, end unilateral wars, and embrace collective security,” (270) and “End our rush to 1984 and preserve our civil liberties.” (271)  This, in short, is a proposed sea-change in America’s political economy.  Politicians could do far worse than to listen to Derber’s platform planks, and to advocate them.

There are of course other anti-corporate economic thinkers out there, of which the most famous is David Korten.  Korten has a lot of valid criticisms of corporate behavior.  Korten seems to understand the future’s ecological challenge more thoroughly than Derber does.  But I don’t think he offers the historical perspective or the specific political thinking that we can read in Charles Derber’s book.

The strength of Derber’s platform consists of his “New Democracy” platform for “regime change.”  This platform runs explicitly contrary to the revolution of lowered expectations that American government has pushed onto its citizens since 1980.  Derber recognizes that corporate domination results in “regimes” which have controlled policy throughout much of American history, and he suggests in Hidden Power that it’s time for a new one.

Power, explains Derber, has (in the modern era at least) been held in these different “regimes,” each corresponding to a stage of American history.  He cites six “regimes” throughout American history:

First Corporate Regime, 1865-1901 – Gilded Age

John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan build this house.

Progressive Regime, 1901-1921 – Progressive Era

Teddy Roosevelt busts the trusts in this house.

Second Corporate Regime, 1921-1933 – Roaring Twenties
Harding and Hoover turn the house back to big business.

New Deal Regime, 1933-1980 – New Deal

Franklin D. Roosevelt designs a people’s house.

Third Corporate Regime, 1980 — ?  Reagan Revolution

Global Corporations build this house for themselves. (18)

Looking at this description of American corporate history, it can be said that there were periods of modern American history in which more benevolent regimes were “in place.”  Derber refers to these periods as periods where “the balance of power shifted away from corporations and empowered ordinary people to renew the American democratic dream.” (19)

Derber’s system of grouping periods of American history is an interesting way of viewing history in terms of class struggle.  American history may not be revolutionary in the way that French or Russian history has been punctuated by abrupt changes in power-structure.  But there are periods where reformist ideologies have been more (or less) successful, and this is suggestive of changes in class power.

Indeed, it can be said that there are periods of American history (and world capitalist history, too) when genuine class compromises were in the offing.  The Progressive movement was one of them; the New Deal was another.  The Progressive movement tried to “clean up” poverty (though historian Gabriel Kolko thought Progressivism was conservative), and the New Deal created job programs through the WPA.  We aren’t, however, in one of these big reformist periods of capitalist history right now, and this is why we need Derber’s idea of regime change (at least).

Derber does not think that the unity of the political class that keeps the current regime in power will last forever.  He points to “cracks in the regime” (96-120) that will at some point, he thinks, lead to a “tipping point” and “regime change.”  Chapter 4 is about this.  Conditions, in short, will facilitate the declining power of the corporate regime we are currently in.

Hidden Power suggests two agencies to perform this regime change: the Democratic Party and the progressive movement organizations.  The movements will network the public into the actual engineering of this “regime change,” and the Democratic Party will run candidates who are faithful to its goals.

In Chapter 3 Derber spells out a laundry list of suggestions for Democrats, ways in which the Democratic Party could be improved.  All of them are worth trying, IMHO.  The positive ones are:

  1. Embrace Defeat (70)
  1. Play Offense, Think Big (72)
  1. Make Your Party A Social Movement (77)
  1. It’s All About Credibility (92)

By “embracing defeat,” he explains, we remain faithful to the goal of changing the country.  He suggests that the Democrats need to organize for long-term success, as Republicans did after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.

By “playing offense” and “thinking big,” he suggests, Democrats should have the courage to promote progressively more radical solutions.

By “making (their) party a social movement,” Democrats can organize the public, and by being “about credibility,” they can run against pernicious forms of entrenched power.

Derber’s depiction of the Democratic Leadership Council as a hindrance to his suggestions is apposite:

What the DLC actually has done is ensnare the party in the Election Trap.  The party shifted from a social justice agenda to an electoral obsession.  Focus on winning the next election and abandon ideas about systemic change.  Go for the center and forget the poor, the base, the non-voters.  The whole idea was based solely on winning the next election.  But this shift is driving Democrats out of the game and not winning back the red states.  (210)

Thus the Derber solution I mentioned at the beginning of this diary: out of the Election Trap, into “regime change.”

One agenda promoted in Hidden Power is that of a transformation of the political and economic role of corporations.  He approvingly cites James W. Rouse:

James W. Rouse, the founder of The Rouse Company, writes that “profit is not the legitimate purpose of business.  The purpose is to provide a service needed by society.  (261)

The point, for Derber, is to “rewrite corporate charters to ensure that business serves the public rather than vice versa.”  It’s hard to see how that’s really going to happen, though.  Derber continues the quote above:

Rouse is a CEO and his idea is identical to that of the Founders.  The earliest corporate charters stated that corporations must ensure the public interest and be directly accountable to the citizens’ representatives in state legislatures.  The new charter today should legally redefine big business as a public entity with three chartered missions:

    Serve the public and be accountable to it
    Return profit to shareholders
    Protect workers, consumers, and other stakeholders, including the environment and democracy itself

Now, I hope I’m not the only person who thinks Derber’s idea of reforming corporations here would be difficult to manage.  First off, if one of the three “chartered missions” of the corporation is to “return profit to shareholders,” what is to stop this particular “chartered mission” from becoming the only one?  If the politicians are corrupted by money, what says they’ll pay attention to the other two “chartered missions”?

And I don’t see how “getting corporations out of politics for good” is going to keep political will from becoming a commodity.  Derber’s complaint about “hegemony” is mostly a complaint about how corporations can “buy” government through campaign contributions.  Indeed, the corporate investment in government looks good by any definition of “investor risk.”  But won’t partnerships (or transnational clubs or syndicates) “buy” government once the corporations are “gotten out of politics for good”?  And will that be any better than the corporate purchase of government?

But none of this is a complaint about Derber’s idealism.  Indeed, Derber’s call to “regime change” in Hidden Power is the most cogent argument to be made yet in favor of a resurgent Democratic Party.  As the author argues, Democrats will continue to be a party of defeat if they can’t do any better than “triangulation.”  My objection to Derber’s anti-corporatism is more a complaint about the practical difficulties of his proposed solution.  By going after corporate power without changing the economic system as a whole, Derber thinks he can “improve the economy.”  Here is his plan:

We need to retain the parts of the business order that yield economic efficiency and innovation, while changing the anticompetitive, hierarchical, and deeply politicized corporate elements that are destructive for the economy as well as for democracy and society.  Most jobs are generated in the small and midsize business sector where genuine entrepreneurship still exists.  (274)

These economic arguments, combined with Rouse’s argument, read together are a lot like Adam Smith’s (1776) argument against corporations in The Wealth Of Nations.  From the University of Chicago edition:

The pretence that corporations are necessary for the better government of the trade, is without any foundation.  The real and effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman, is not that of his corporation, but that of his customers.  It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence.  An exclusive corporation necessarily weakens the force of this discipline.  (144)

Derber is a radical, to be sure, but economically, he’s a Smithist.  For the future we face, this just simply won’t do.

Here’s my main problem with Smithism as such.  Derber says “we need to retain the parts of the business order that yield economic efficiency and innovation” (274).  But the business order yields these things for what purpose?  Under capitalism, economic efficiency is yoked to economic expansion, which means higher levels of consumption.  Under capitalism, innovation means that inventions which sell are favored over those which don’t.  And selling involves separating people from their money.  In the future, however, efficiency improvements will have to reduce consumption throughout the system, and innovation will have to work hand-in-hand with charity.

The main economic challenge perceived by past “regimes” (in Derber’s terms) was the creation of economic prosperity.  The economic challenge our global society will face in the future, with abrupt climate change, biodiversity maintenance, and food security, will be the creation of ecological stability.

The business order as a whole, then, will have to change in a manner altogether more radical than that which Derber proposes.  Capitalist discipline will no longer improve our world; ecological discipline will be necessary.  Saral Sarkar’s idea of the future is ultimately more believable than Derber’s.

However, I’d still endorse Derber’s political plan, which could be meaningful if it were to garner enough support.

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