Look to Congress for Supreme Court Fix (2010)

by Jane Anne Morris

AllowedInLandOval copyHow is it unconstitutional for a state to require place-of-origin labels on meat? Regulate sale of its water? Establish worker protections stricter than federal standards? Where does the US Constitution say that states cannot require that toxic waste be sorted and labeled? Cannot include labor standards in state purchasing policy? Cannot make companies disclose what chemicals they use in products and facilities?1
The Constitution is silent on these matters, but the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution all the way to next Tuesday in order to declare these measures unconstitutional. Supreme Court interpretation devised concepts like free speech rights for corporations, and that workhorse, money equals speech, to hobble election reform. Judicial interpretation enables corporations to use the Civil Rights Act to claim damages for being “discriminated” against. Supreme Court interpretation dished out rights, powers, and protections for corporations while repeatedly denying same to minorities, women, and workers.
Constitutional scholars routinely describe the Court as the most powerful court in the history of the world.2 In addition to its untrammeled interpretive latitude, that singular institution wields a bundle of powers. It decides cases, rules on the constitutionality of acts of the executive branch, determines the distribution of powers between state and federal government, and judges the constitutionality of any law passed at any level of government. It can “call up” any court’s ruling if it disagrees. Justices scan the nation’s laws, and using easily rigged “test” cases, void any law not to their liking.
This power does not come from the Constitution, which, apart from a few matters (like ambassadors and Indian tribes), specifies very little about the Supreme Court.3 The vast powers and maxed-out discretion exercised by the Court come from the US Congress. A series of Judiciary Acts (1790, 1875, 1925, and 1988) sketch (and stretch) the dimensions of its power.
So if you are concerned that corporations have most of the constitutional rights of human persons, or that numerous “green” state and local laws are thrown out as unconstitutional, then the true object of your discontent is neither the Constitution, nor the Supreme Court, but Congress.
Congress could borrow from other countries’ systems that not only tolerate less poetic license in judicial interpretation, but spread around what the current Supreme Court concentrates into one big-box power center. Special constitutional courts rule on the constitutionality of laws. A separate court decides cases between parties. Yet another court handles human rights violations, and by “human,” they mean, uh, human, and not corporate persons. Sometimes, legislative bodies can overrule court decisions.
Within the US, state legislatures and members of Congress have offered correctives to the existing “Godzilla” Supreme Court. Such as, requiring a supermajority or unanimity of Supreme Court Justices to declare a law unconstitutional; allowing Congress (or another legislative body) to overrule a decision on constitutionality; and removing the Congress-granted power of the Court to second-guess state courts on constitutional questions. A national referendum has also been suggested.
Congress need not retain two centuries of Congressional Acts uploading legislative powers into the judicial bailiwick. Perhaps Congress likes it this way, confident that any serious and effective reforms will be declared unconstitutional by the “branch” next door.
The ball is in our court, the people’s court: the US Congress.

Corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris’s Gaveling Down the Rabble is cited in an amicus brief filed in Citizens United v. FEC (the “Hillary film” corporate speech case). Morris is currently writing a book about the Supreme Court.

This article first appeared in Justice Rising (Alliance for Democracy), ed. Jim Tarbell. Spring 2010, Vol. 4, #4.

Meat, ‘Free Trade’ and Democracy: As Goes South Korea, So Went Missouri (2008)

By Jane Anne Morris

In the Spring of 2008, tens of thousands of South Koreans held candlelight vigils every day for over a month to protest being forced to accept beef from the United States. The US government claims that barring our beef is an illegal “trade barrier.”

This isn’t the first time the US has resorted to international bullying to force people to take our meat. In 1996, the European Union (EU) banned imports of US artificial hormone-fed beef for public health reasons. A challenge from the US convinced the World Trade Organization (WTO) to brand the EU policy a “free trade” violation.

You’ve got to wonder what those South Koreans think might be wrong with US beef. (I’ll give it away—it is a justified fear that the US does not take sufficient precautions against “mad cow disease”—think “downers.”) But my concern here is not the meat but the mechanism.

You might also ruminate on why forcing a country (or community) to import things it clearly doesn’t want to import is called “free trade.” The shortest definition of “free trade” is “forced trade”: communities (or countries) are forced to import stuff they think is dangerous or otherwise objectionable, and export stuff (such as water and other resources) that they want to keep at home. Such matters far transcend the notion of mere “trade.” What’s at stake is no less than self-governance and democracy.

The scraps of self-governance that South Koreans are struggling to retain have already been stripped from, say, Missouri. Those protesters in Seoul (and others around the world under draconian “free trade” regimens) are going through something that has been happening in the US for well over a century.

Passing laws to protect citizens from the possible dangers of incoming meat has long been a concern of governments. And for decades, states in the US did just that. But starting in the 1870s, the Supreme Court, acting in the interests and at the behest of corporate meat purveyors, used the Constitution’s “commerce clause” to rationalize a domestic “free trade” zone in the US.

That meant that protective state laws like these had to go.

Missouri. Fearing the spread of “Spanish fever” in cattle, in 1872 the Missouri legislature passed a law severely restricting import of Texas cattle into the state. The Supreme Court declared the law a “trade barrier”—unconstitutional on commerce clause grounds.

Minnesota. In 1889 Minnesota passed a law that required that meat sold as human food come from animals inspected in Minnesota before slaughter. It was declared unconstitutional under the commerce clause.

Virginia. In 1890 Virginia passed a law requiring inspection of meat that came from animals slaughtered more than 100 miles from where the meat was sold. It was found unconstitutional on commerce clause grounds.

State laws—and not just ones about meat—adapted for local conditions, concerns, and preferences, were routinely rejected as “trade barriers.” Eventually Congress established federal regulatory authorities (often sloppier on standards and enforcement) that helped a few large corporations dominate the national market. As the power of federal regulatory agencies waxed, the influence of both states and small businesses waned.

Much state and local power has been stripped, but states still attempt to do better than the lax and selectively enforced federal standards. But if they step out of line, the US’s own trade tribunal (our “free trade” enforcer)—the Supreme Court—steps in. In 1967, for instance, an Oregon law requiring country-of-origin labels on meat was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it purportedly interfered with interstate commerce.

Current global corporatization efforts use the Supreme Court’s tried-and-true techniques ratcheted up one level of generality. The issues and reasoning are so similar, that you could take old Supreme Court cases, scratch out phrases like “Spanish fever” and substitute “mad cow disease,” and use them for WTO decisions.

But since we know the arguments well, and understand that the issue is democracy and no mere matter of trade or commerce, we might as well simultaneously challenge both the domestic and the international versions of Forced Trade.

***********

This article was first published in The Progressive Populist in 2008.

Green Eats Green. Nettled? (2011)

by Jane Anne Morris

 

JAM’s Top Five Greens

The top 3-4 inches of fresh spring stinging nettles.It’s grid crash, or spring in the upper midwest. That winter diet of muskrat and tree bark goulash has not provided the vitamins and minerals you need to avoid slipping into a 33-degree lake. You can’t live on birdsong alone.

Greens, too often called weeds, start appearing in the spring, when you need them the most. Here are my Top Five.

1. NETTLES. Go for the nettles.

Off the charts in vitamins and minerals, and my personal favorite for taste. Yes, they will sting your skin, so wear gloves or plastic bags while picking the tender 2″ tops. The stingy stuff is formic acid (ants use it, too). Don’t worry, cooking banishes it (as does saliva). Nettles pack more protein than most plants, and are full of potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Nettles are a rich addition to any soup, stew, pot of beans, or broth. Stir-fried/braised with garlic and chopped walnuts, and served with turmericked basmati rice, they’re hard to beat. You can eat them raw if you can get them to saliva without stinging your lips on the way in. (Work it out yourself.)

Nettles also make a nice tea (infusion) that you can drink, or rinse your hair with; they’re great companion plants in gardens, and good additions to compost piles.

2. PURSLANE

Archaeological evidence suggests purslane was a food staple as early as 17,000 years ago. Higher in omega-3 fatty acids than some fish, purslane is also a super source of Vitamin A, among many other vitamins and minerals.

Purslane is a succulent, with fleshy leaves and stems, and like nettle, can be eaten raw or cooked. I like it with sunflower seeds in a pot of black-eyed peas.

It loves disturbed areas, and since humans are so good at disturbing areas, it’s common almost everyplace Homo sapiens is found. Supposedly, purslane is one of the eight most commonly dispersed plants on earth. I’ve seen it looking really happy growing in gravel.

It’s every bit as impressive as nettle, but without the sting. It’s number two here because I just can’t get enough of them nettles.

3. LAMBSQUARTERS.

These were my favorite before I discovered nettles. Cooked, the leaves suggest extra-rich and earthy spinach. They rival nettles and purslane for their huge lode of nourishment, especially calcium, protein, and vitamins A and C.

Lambsquarters are good in salad if you don’t mind the “furry” coating on the leaves, which disappears if you cook them in any way: stir-fry, soup, whatever.

They like “waste” and disturbed land, and don’t seem to require the rich soil that nettles prefer. Like quinoa, they’re in the Amaranth Family, and Chenopodium genus. In fact, if you plant a quinoa seed, the resulting plant is virtually indistinguishable from lambsquarters.

4. WATERCRESS.

Unbelievably high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other good stuff, reputed to do everything from cure cancer to grow hair and fade age spots, can be eaten raw or cooked, tastes good in everything from soup to salad; is this getting repetitive?

Often found in small streams trickling from springs, watercress is sometimes available even in the depths of winter if creeks are not frozen over. In case you didn’t pick up on it, watercress grows literally in the water, so bring double-plastic bags or something suitable to carry it in.

If cows have peed anywhere uphill of your watercressed creek, your cress may be bearing strains of E. coli you don’t even want to think about, but don’t panic. I’m sure you have developed a foolproof method for removing E. coli from corporate broccoli; just carefully apply this technique to your watercress and you will be fine. Eating it cooked (instead of raw in salads) will further reduce your chances of encountering an “Evil coli” (what did you think the “E” stood for?)

5. DANDELION.

Also off the charts in all kinds of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B-complex, C, and D, and calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, choline, boron, and silicon. The leaves contain more beta-carotene than carrots.

Eat the leaves in salad, if you like a touch of bitterness; otherwise, use them as cooking greens. The bright flowers are excellent as a tempura vegetable.

The stemmed flowers can be fashioned into a grand necklace or thornless crown for celebrating spring days.

Ifs, Ands, and Buts…….

NOTHING IN THE PLANT BLURB ABOVE IS INTENDED TO CONSTITUTE MEDICAL, HEALTH, OR DIETARY ADVICE OF ANY KIND, or suggestions for diagnosis or treatment of any ailment. Do not so much as nibble a leaf without consulting your physician about possible drug interactions.

IDENTIFICATION. This is a life-and-death matter. Use a good plant identification book or books, and never miss a chance to talk to local foragers. If you are one of those people who think that everything with a darling little purple flower is the same species, NEVER forage for food unchaperoned.

PICKING AND CHEWING. Obviously you can get information from any herbal or foraging book on what part to use, what time of day to pick it, how to process it, and recipe ideas, if you need them.

CONTAMINATION. Try to use some common sense about where you forage. Railroad tracks, road rights-of-way, construction zones, and conventional farmers’ fields are among the most toxic places on our fair planet, due to both accidental spills and intentional spreading and spraying. Plants tend to lap up the crap with the rest. Remember, tumbleweed on the Hanford nuclear complex sucks up radioactive material, then dries up and tumbles eastwards with the prevailing winds, carrying the radionuclides along with it.

UNDOCUMENTED PLANTS. The likelihood is that none of my top five greens are native to north america—they’re all probably eurasian immigrants. Food for thought, if you are a native plant fanatic (and I am).

The Pink Oleo Saga: Why So Many Good State Laws Are “Unconstitutional” (and What We Should Do About It) (2008)

By Jane Anne Morris

What’s pink, French, and unconstitutional?

Hint: The story of this early “frankenfood” provides an advance script for the current global “free trade” frenzy. Over a century ago, its introduction was an occasion for greasing the skids toward establishing a U.S. “free trade” zone, one that is as devastating to local democracy as the WTO and NAFTA are to national sovereignty.

Why would the Supreme Court throw out state laws requiring oleomargarine to be colored pink? Why would state legislators pass such seemingly silly laws to begin with?

Why are provisions that protect citizens against fraud, safeguard their health, and protect local industry unconstitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court? A recent example applies to corporate agriculture. A South Dakota constitutional amendment — passed by 59% in 1998 — prohibited most corporate ownership of land used for agriculture. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively threw it out. Nebraska’s even stronger anti-corporate agriculture constitutional amendment, first passed in 1982, was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by a lower federal court–citing the South Dakota case.1 Why do such measures garner the dreaded unconstitutional label?
Probably for the same reason that has stood for over a century: they interfere with the care and feeding of large corporations. They challenge the Supreme Court’s policy, evident since at least the 1870s, of nurturing and protecting corporations against the very states that created them. After corporate lawyers do the research and outline possible arguments, the Court has only to cut-and-paste a decision.

The myth that the Supreme Court began its turn toward “business interests” only since the early Nader years (as claimed by Jeffrey Rosen in “Supreme Court, Inc.” in the March 16, 2008 New York Times Magazine) ignores the long history that fills the pages of Gaveling Down the Rabble.

Commerce Clause to the Rescue

Even the Supreme Court needs to point to something in the Constitution that justifies its consistent pro-corporate decisions. The handy constitutional clause that has become a favorite is the domestic version of international “trade barrier” language: the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Congress shall have power… to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes. [Article I, section 8, clause 3]

The late-nineteenth century Pink Oleo saga provides a perfect example for a quickie workshop on how the Supreme Court uses “free trade” to get rid of good state laws.

After the mid-nineteenth century, more than one inventor around the world sought to turn slaughterhouse offal into something that people could be convinced to eat. If it had a long shelf life and was cheap to make, all the better. The successful solution came from Frenchman Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who obtained a U.S. patent for oleomargarine in 1873. Its commercial potential was quickly appreciated, as Mark Twain captured in a chapter of Life On the Mississippi written in 1883. The gleeful conversation takes place between two businessmen on a riverboat.

You can’t tell it from butter; by George, even an expert can’t!… We’re going to have that entire trade… You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with… we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it… There’s more money in oleomargarine than–why, you can’t imagine the business we do. [emphasis in original]

Oleomargarine’s introduction into a nation long accustomed to the joys of udder butter churned up controversy. The “Oleo Wars” that ensued pitted state legislators against the growing power of meatpacking corporations. Corporate efforts to put oleomargarine in the nation’s pantries tell the archetypal story; at issue was whether state and local governments would determine their own laws, or have terms dictated to them by distant corporations.

The original oleomargarine was made not from vegetable oils (as it is today) but from slaughterhouse byproducts subjected to industrial processes in a factory. Mere inspection of a firkin of manufactured oleomargarine could not determine whether it had been made from inferior, doctored, or even dangerous ingredients. To add insult to possible injury, sometimes this easily adulterated industrial food product was fraudulently sold as real dairy butter. In addition, many feared that competition from oleomargarine would threaten the growing dairy industry. Health, consumer protection, and economic concerns were closely intertwined.

In response to citizen concerns, state legislatures started passing laws against oleomargarine. At the time, protectionist measures of this ilk were nothing out of the ordinary. In 1884, the New York state legislature prohibited the sale or manufacture of oleomargarine. In 1885, Pennsylvania followed suit. These and other overtly protectionist acts reflected the people’s will to use their imperfect representative democracies to keep out a product they feared would endanger them.

Manufacturers and purveyors of oleomargarine as a cheap butter substitute (and source of profits) were not pleased at this legislative attention. A variety of laws and a matching variety of corporate challenges evolved into a cat-and-mouse game between legislature and court ostensibly over artificial butter. Pennsylvania’s outright ban on oleomargarine was an early target.

On the same day that the 1885 Pennsylvania law was passed, a Harrisburg grocer (Powell) was arrested for selling oleomargarine. Lawyers representing corporations that manufactured and sold oleomargarine argued on his behalf that their product was clean, pure, and yummy, and that the right to make and sell it was covered by the Constitution. On the other side, defenders of the Pennsylvania ban argued that its intent to protect health and prevent fraud made it a legitimate exercise of a state’s “police power,” the legal term for the power to pass whatever laws are necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

State Courts Upheld Rights of Legislatures to Protect People

A Pennsylvania court found the ban to be well within legislative powers. In 1888, the U.S. Supreme Court also upheld it, strongly endorsing a state’s police power. The Court affirmed that protecting and preserving public health and morals was one of the main tasks of legislation, and that public policy should be determined not by courts but by legislatures. If some were dissatisfied with the legislative outcome, then appeal should be “to the legislature, or to the ballot-box, not to the judiciary.”2

But “Big Oleomargarine” tried again a few years later. In 1893, a Pennsylvania resident (Schollenberger) and registered agent for a Rhode Island oleomargarine-manufacturing corporation sold a tub of oleomargarine in Pennsylvania. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again upheld the state’s ban, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But meanwhile, states were also trying out a more colorful approach.

State legislatures that wanted to keep oleomargarine out of their states — and there were many of them — did not give up when their oleo bans were threatened by commerce clause arguments. Instead, they started to see pink as a way to regulate oleomargarine.

In 1890, the Vermont legislature prohibited the manufacture of oleomargarine in that state, and specified that it could be sold in Vermont only if colored pink. In 1891 Minnesota, West Virginia, and New Hampshire passed similar laws. Not long afterwards, an alert Minnesota oleomargarine S.W.A.T. team carried out a pantry raid and confiscated a quantity of not-pink oleomargarine that had been imported from Missouri by Armour Packing Co., a New Jersey corporation. A federal court upheld Minnesota’s pink law as an appropriate use of the state’s police power. Things were looking good for the “pink is beautiful” movement.

But it was not to last. Corporate lawyers challenged the “pink oleo” laws just as they had challenged the oleomargarine bans. Both the Minnesota Pink Law and the Pennsylvania Oleo Ban reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898.

Because only ten years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an oleo ban as a legitimate use of a state’s police power, defenders of the Pennsylvania law reiterated tried-and-true arguments about protecting and preserving public health. Little did they know that a new argument would be offered and the Supreme Court would go for it. This time, “Big Oleo” trumped arguments about state police power and public health and welfare by playing the commerce card. The oleomargarine corporation lawyers argued that the Pennsylvania oleomargarine ban was what today the WTO tribunals would call an illegal trade barrier. The U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded, and, basing its decision on the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, the late nineteenth century analog of what today is touted as “free trade,” ruled the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court’s reasoning had two steps. First, it determined that oleo was included in the “interstate commerce” category. Inclusion in this category had consequences, which were the second step. An item of interstate commerce might be regulated by a state, but could not be prohibited, said the Supreme Court. “Absolute prohibition of an unadulterated, healthy, and pure article” goes beyond the allowable use of the state police power. A state cannot prohibit the import from another state of a “lawful article of commerce,” because that amounts to regulating interstate commerce, which is a power of the U.S. Congress.3

The decision took a big bite out of a state’s police power. The ban that had been okay in 1888 was unconstitutional by 1898. Now, a state would have difficulty banning the import of anything that the Supreme Court could be persuaded was an article of commerce (and by the late twentieth century, this included toxic waste, air pollution, and nuclear waste, among many other things.)

Pink wouldn’t work either: again the high court sided with the corporations against the states. States’ pink oleo laws were unconstitutional because the pinkness requirement was as much a burden on commerce as a ban. The reasoning was that if a state lacked the power to prohibit the import of something (in this case, oleomargarine), then it also lacked the power to require that the imported item be adulterated in such a way that it would be unsalable. As for example, by requiring that oleomargarine be pink… or blue or red or black (other colors mentioned by the Supreme Court)… or impregnated with an “offensive smell.”4

In ruling against blue or stinky oleomargarine laws, the Supreme Court took another bite out of an already dwindling state police power. Legislatures, responding to a new situation (in this case, the appearance of a new product) acted to protect citizens against inferior products, fraud, and economic disruption. In this, they were supported by farmers and dairy corporations. So far, it sounds democratic enough, a routine use of the police power.

But then lawyers working on behalf of corporations hoping to profit from this new product challenged the states’ power to take such action.5 These challenges, being constitutional in nature, brought the matter before federal courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court. In evaluating the issue and explaining their decision, the justices had exactly the kinds of discussions that must have previously occurred in state legislatures, and prior to that, on street corners and in hayfields scattered throughout the states.

They discussed the invention, composition, and manufacture of oleomargarine; methods of determining its purity; testimony from an analytical chemist; the fact that it was used by armies and navies throughout Europe; and what size and type of container it might be packaged in. The justices then gave their opinion that oleomargarine was obviously safe and widely recognized as a food item, and that butter and oleomargarine were “substantially identical.” In short, they had the kind of discussion that we might want a legislature to have. But they are not legislators.

“Free Trade” Constitutionalized in Commerce Clause

Using the commerce clause, the “free trade” mantra of the time, they decided that states could not ban the manufacture, import, and sale of a substance that obviously many states wanted to ban. In other words, Supreme Court justices legislated their own opinions by declaring unconstitutional laws that they disagreed with. The Supreme Court acted as a legislature. If we step back from the Supreme Court’s musings on oleomargarine chemistry and pink dye as a burden on commerce, we can see the oleomargarine rulings for what they were: direct assaults on people’s power to govern themselves and shape their communities.

The language of commerce (or trade), shrouded in the gravitas of constitutionality, is a ruse to disguise a corporate elite’s efforts to escape government actions taken to protect the public welfare. It has long been understood that corporate interests use the judicial lever to undo legislative deeds. According to a legal historian, writing in 1943:

The old fights of state against nation were largely smoke screens to hide an attempt by some private interest to invoke the aid of the Court in combating public regulation. In large measure, this is the case today.6

The underlying issue is not whether butter is better, or whether pink margarine is repulsive, or even whether food policy (or economic policy) should be a local, state, or national matter. The issue is who should decide public policy: the people acting through a legislature, or a handful of judges.

Courts provided a more favorable forum than did legislatures for a “rematch” between corporations and states. Commerce clause rulings exempted corporations from the concrete exercise of state and local power, while delivering them into the kinder and gentler hands of the federal judiciary. In Gaveling Down the Rabble, I show how Supreme Court Justices since the 1870s used trade barrier language based on the Constitution’s commerce clause to promote the corporate agenda by invalidating state and local laws that threatened corporate power.

Like the “Oleo Wars,” other controversies decided under the commerce clause amounted to corporate challenges of state and local laws, with the role of arbiter falling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Analogous struggles were played out over other staples, and in other industries, with surprisingly few variations to this day.7

The transformation of the commerce clause into a wish-fulfillment machine for corporate lawyers was breathtaking. The harm to democracy done by the commerce clause “doctrine” is as damaging to democracy as the “separate but equal” doctrine was to human rights. Both deserve the same fate.

If African-American schoolchildren in unheated schoolrooms could understand “separate but equal” and in the face of horrible violence courageously demand its rejection, then today, those of us striving for justice and sustainability ought to be able to see the Supreme Court’s commerce clause doctrine for the anti-democratic pro-corporate scam that it is. I can only hope that we can begin to show the same courage in working to reject it.

***********

This article was adapted from Gaveling Down the Rabble: How “Free Trade” Is Stealing Our Democracy. You can also read it here. Jane Anne Morris generally cooks with olive oil.

First published in Spring 2008 By What Authority.

Notes

Stone Soup, Democracy Salad, Just Desserts (1997)

By Jane Anne Morris
 

John Colepeper
What would JC do?
Centuries ago, Sir John Colepepper said of the “corporations” of his day,

Like the frogs of Egypt, they have gotten possession of our dwellings and we have scarcely a room free from them; they sip in our cup; they dip in our dish; [and] they sit by our fire.

Today, as corporations slobber in our cups, they also get into our minds, so much so that the very mention of “Participatory Democracy” sends people fleeing.

What gives “democracy” such a bad name? Everything about the way we practice it in the USA today. What we experience every day as “democracy” bores us to tears, leaves us frustrated, and gets us nowhere.

We know from experience that our “democracy” is a fake: we get to go through the motions of voting, testifying, writing letters, picketing, but most decisions have already been made before we even raise our voices. And if we do get a tiny concession, it will be temporary, just enough to pacify us until our government officials can go back to carrying water for their corporate masters.

One might argue: if our current “democracy theme park” is a boring, frustrating waste of time, then the Real Thing — Participatory Democracy — must be even worse.

Just think of it: day-long meetings, institutional coffee, plastic molded chairs in a stuffy conference room. Sounds like something we would want to really struggle for, eh?

Imagine the bumper sticker slogans: “Participatory Democracy: Almost as Good as Warmed-Over Spit!” Or, “Participatory Democracy: It’s Boring and Tedious But It’s Good For You!”

Not so fast. What we have here is a half-baked idea. Judging democracy by our current political process is like evaluating Mexican food by what you get at Tacko Bell.

“Theme Park Democracy” is boring, frustrating and tedious because it’s neither democratic nor participatory.

And this suits corporations just fine, because over the last century and a half they have moved in to occupy the places that people are supposed to have in the democratic process. (They sit by our fire.) Corporate “persons” now exercise many of the constitutional rights guaranteed to human persons. And this invasion of the “personhood” snatchers is a huge part of the reason why our current political system is undemocratic to the core.

But even when its very personhood is threatened, ours is an irrepressible species. There’s always someone who remembers how to make Stone Soup.

A woman goes to the middle of an impoverished village, where many are near-starving, and sets a huge pot of water to boil. She throws in a stone, and tells the hungry villagers that she’ll make them a hearty meal of stone soup, if only they’ll chip in. A few hesitant villagers toss in table scraps, bits of greens, an onion or a potato here and there. Soon the villagers are bringing in handfuls of grain, vegetables overlooked in their gardens, sprigs of herbs from their barren pantries, forgotten roots from corners of their cellars. And, you guessed it, the stone soup is a culinary success. And the making and eating of it is spontaneous community-wide democratic performance art.

Our version of Stone Soup is the pot luck dinner.

We invite a salad of people. Friends, family, visitors, and various hangers-on — all are welcome. The only “persons” left out are corporate “persons” — who would ever invite a corporation to a pot luck? (They dip in our dish).

We invite people, sovereign people. Hungry sovereign people.

We share and share alike. Everyone brings what they can. Artful chefs who sing to their vegetables bring the fruits of their art. But the exertions of the choppers, the graters, the knife-sharpeners, the pickers of fruit, the tossers of salads, the cleaner-uppers, are appreciated as well. There is room for everyone at this Inn.

We eat what we need. Individual actions are leavened by the gentle sifting of circumstance. People don’t load their plates with choice morsels before everyone has had a chance at them. The pot luck is egalitarian, with special consideration gladly given to the very young, the very old, and all others with particular needs.

And as we eat we breathe air permeated by the signs and sounds of friends, family and community. We are reminded that food is a gift of the earth, shaped by human hands, molded by longstanding cultural preferences. We are linked to sun and moon and stars by the rhythmic ripenings they dictate and reflect. Berries in their season, root vegetables in theirs. The time of the greens, of the wild rice, of the maize and the squash.

The meal is more than the sum of its parts, as is the community. The sharing of food, that link between the land and the stomach, between nature and culture, renews, reaffirms, and renegotiates social and economic relationships through participation. That’s why a famous religious figure had a Last Supper, not a Last Staff Meeting, and that is why it is remembered.

From each according to ability, time and skill. To each according to need. A redistributive celebration that balances differences without obliterating them, and absorbs and transforms want and plenty. There is no accumulation of wealth beyond stomach contents. Those who stay to clean up distribute any leftovers.

Whole cultures have run on the Pot Luck Principle, sustainably, for milenia, until certain invaders came and insisted that Society should submit to Economy, instead of the reverse. If we are to wrestle Economy back into its proper position as subordinate to Society, we’re going to have to remember the lessons of Stone Soup and its kin Pot Luck.

Now, what if you used a pot luck — this egalitarian, community-based gathering that fulfills a biological need in a social way, — what if you used this gathering as an opportunity to make social decisions about your community?

Hearing from everyone in-between mouthfuls (or platefuls, as the case may be.) Sharing ideas and opinions as they share beans and greens.

What if you used this gathering, this crossing of paths, this breaking of bread together — as an occasion to make economic decisions as well as social ones?

If you did that, we’d call it the monthly Madison Hours Pot Luck.

We’d call it a lot of fun.

We’d call it participatory democracy.

I’ll drink to that.