During some of my years spent living in Portland, Oregon I worked on-and-off as a canvasser for the Oregon Public Interest Research Group (or OSPIRG), as well as the nation-wide umbrella group the United States Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG).
I could spend my time typing here about all of the economic setbacks I experienced while employed there, but I would rather focus on the topic of lobbying (including citizens lobbying) and its lack of compatibility with a truly free market. I also feel it would be a worthy topic to cover in the midst of the dramatic stock market crash that took place on Thursday and Friday. Friday’s crash was placed as the ninth largest in America’s history, with a 530 point plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
I feel it’s worth mentioning my reasoning for the belief I held that citizens lobbying (and my canvassing) was making some kind of sustainable, positive impact in the United States. First, there was the initial overall awareness of the profoundly negative impact certain business practices had (and still have) on the environment and pubic health, so much so the future of human existence was at stake.
This manifests in the very real threat of widespread species extinction, and the destruction of natural habitats at the expense of certain human habits relating to the consumption of natural resources, such as fossil fuels, and old growth forests. Another one of these urgent threats is the dumping of toxic waste, if not directly into rivers and streams, then into water tables, with their soil meant to act as a filters for bodies of water nearby (some of which provide drinking water local human populations).
Besides my basic understanding that it was probably not a good idea to threaten the health and existence of the very resources our species depend on for survival, the thought of a looming environmental catastrophe of seemingly biblical proportions struck fear and anxiety into my heart and mind. And, looking back, I think I was particularly susceptible to these feelings after the childhood experience of living in an area of Arizona that was first rural, and then paved and developed, with countless malls, shopping centers, and fast food restaurants constructed for the convenience of peoples’ fast-paced and stressful lives (at least the adults in my life appeared to be particularly full of stress).
I felt a strong sense of grief for the animals who once inhabited the now-developed desert areas, including the coyotes who would sometimes sing me to sleep at night, and the quail living in the area, making their distinct and musical calls. In a way it gave me some sense of learned empathy for the earth itself, at least enough to buy into James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis for many years, which is often used as fuel for what Lovelock himself has acknowledged as religious qualities of environmentalism.
And I do still to some extent believe all life on the planet to be part of some interconnected whole, not unlike the view held by First Nations people in the Americas, who were forced onto reservations, similarly to the way prisoners in concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe were treated, including my Jewish ancestors. And there is very good reason why this comparison exists. So there was (and still is) also a sense of anger.
At the time my connection with Anarchist philosophy was only through my experiences with punk culture. So my understanding of the concept was less clear and well-rounded, and my belief in government as a means solving problems in the world was still a driving factor in my life (at least on the local level). This being the case, it was also easy for me to buy into the concept of a citizen lobby.
Consequently it was, at the time, also a perfect example of the “power to the people” idea expressed by so many of those involved in the civil rights movement, most notably by the Black Panthers. Furthermore, it was something I could do to put the emotional pain I felt so strongly at ease, and make enough money to live, though not at always very comfortably.
For any readers who may be unacquainted with the PIRGs and the idea of a citizen lobby, I also feel it’s worth it to provide a short background. Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who is widely regarded for his work with the Green Party, first started the PIRGs during the 1970s on college campuses throughout the country, with public interest lawyer Donald Ross. In a short period of time they moved from the campus level to the state level. The WikiPedia page about them describes them as “non-profit organizations that employ grassroots organizing, direct advocacy, investigative journalism, and litigation to affect public policy.”
When I worked for Oregon’s chapter, canvassing recruits were also given a full briefing on their background, stated purpose, and goals, along with training. The training involved a script, including a description of the assigned campaign, a message of urgency, and and a donation request.
Come to think of it, it was not unlike what Jehovah’s Witnesses do whom I have shared brief encounters with after knocking on my door. Only it was for governance rather than religion (I also remember hearing people describe the cultish qualities of the organization). And believers in the religion of government, as well as green politics, were the “lifeblood of the work”, as we were encouraged to say. And, while there are many people with otherwise noble, morally sound, and/or altruistic intentions who become involved with government and political power, it is still in its very nature corrupt and unsustainable, as much as the “evil” corporations whose lobbying power they claim to regulate through the citizen participation of groups such as the PIRGs.
This brings me to my observations and conclusion relating to the incompatibility of a citizens lobby with a truly sustainable free market. While it is clearly designed to even out the proverbial playing field of lobbying dollars, and give otherwise busy and hard-working citizens a voice they may not otherwise have (or the illusion of a voice), it does nothing to address the unsustainable and corrupt nature of government itself, and the political power it wields as a weapon. And this weapon is often wielded to legitimize its destructive and abusive nature through its public relations tool known as corporate media, which will always prove to keep the power structure it thrives off of in place.
And, as long as that structure is in place, the political favoritism of corporate lobbyists will always outweigh the voice of natural citizens, ensuring increased corporatism, and what is widely referred to as “crony capitalism.”
A citizens lobby also contradicts the promotion of voluntary and peaceful market relations, as it seeks to participate in, rather than put an end to, these practices. Consequently, this is why – as well-intentioned as it might be – a citizen lobby will not succeed in the long term at its stated goals.