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.