As Russian forces advance westward in Ukraine the constant refrain from the West is that this is an attack on democracy itself. Surely it is, given the political histories of the elected Zelensky government, and the autocratic Putin regime. But thinking in these concrete terms, with a simple focus on leaders, obscures the way democracy is degrading on a more fundamental level globally. Is there a way to look past leadership, towards the base of power - the people - to find a long run and more effective solution? If our best conception of democracy involves groups of self-determining people, then the answer must lie in the most fundamental source - the family.
While it’s easy to condemn Putin for what he does today, few if any attacked his systematic policies that for decades pushed women to have more children, as mothers for the Motherland, so that he could grow his power through the population of Russia. That’s because such policies are increasingly popular around the world, designed to prop up oligarchic economies against the risks of the “baby bust,” and championed by powerful men like Elon Musk and the autocratic Donald Trump whose wealth was built on the patriarchy, unfair starts in life, and on unsustainable population growth.
While the relationship between this form of oppressing women and the natural environment is more subtle than what we see unfolding in Ukraine, it is truly fundamental to the problem – or what one writer dubbed the source of the “real culture war.” While the wealthy are less obvious than the violent in determining the lives of others, their wealth – the power they hold over others - is still protected by the violence of the state. And corporations, generally, are not democratic. We should not be distracted from subtle forms of oppression by grotesque ones – that is the whole point of making ourselves see the obvious racism at play in our reaction to Ukraine. We should deal with the obvious and subtle, the fundamental, at the same time. Certainly, we should address the way the climate crisis represents the tyranny of a few, those alive today, over the many voiceless who will live in the future.
For those decrying the invasion of Ukraine we can simply ask: What policies did you support over the past few decades that would have ensured children were born and raised in ways that meant they would comprise democracies? Wouldn’t the policies necessary to create people for town halls, in terms of numbers of people so each voice could be heard, their level of equality, the investment made in each person, etc. differ from the policies necessary to quickly fill shopping malls – or army barracks – for that matter? Keep in mind that we are not here referring to who people should be – the stuff of eugenics – but the power relations between them.
Russian “pro-natal” growth policies (which urge women to have additional children) are fundamentally enabled by the United Nations’ consistent refusal to embrace more just and sustainable family policies, because doing so would require stemming the growth its member states demand. Instead, the United Nations treats family planning as “private” - as if intending parents were isolated from, and not intersecting in the future, with each other. But the growth the United Nations is protecting is one of the largest drivers of the climate crisis, and the gap between rich and poor. It’s an impediment to freedom. If we imagine an even start line as liberating for all racers, then the alternative, massive wealth and ecological disparities, are bad because they subject us to the power of others.
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Thus if the global growth economy - what one Nobel Laureate called a population Ponzi scheme - will be used to choke Putin, understand that it also fundamentally created him, and will create the next despot. The relationship is clear - men atop pyramids of power, fueled by the creation of people at the base who were not made to have an effective voice in their democracies, but rather to serve as laborer, taxpayer, consumer, and soldier.
These questions may seem abstract, removed from possible policy reforms. They are not. Some politicians, like Corey Booker, have begun to recognize that children being born uber rich or marginalized and poor might not be what many simply assume is fortune or the hand of god, but the absence of policies that ensure equal opportunities in life. His “baby bonds” proposal inched in the direction of redistributing wealth to ensure birth equity, not population growth. In India smaller family population policies are now on the table. These policies would reverse the United Nations’ approach of ignoring how family planning impacts the environment, and inequity. These changes challenge the fundamentally pyramidic structure of power, moving it from top down to bottom up.
What could catalyze that change?
Sanctions against Russia seek to hurt Putin and the oligarchs that support him. But to the extent they fund democracies that lack the bottom-up structure, or are otherwise in decline, that money should be better directed towards true democracy building. That means the limiting and decentralizing of concentrations of power - the taking down of the pyramids. That would require using the funds to expand Booker’s “baby bond” approach, incentivizing smaller families that in the future would ensure a greater voice for each person in politics, true birth equity, and something that naturally comes with such moves - the restoration of biodiverse ecologies. Or, funding women’s empowerment policies around the world, including microfinance that would promote sustainable development goals. Targeting Russia’s antidemocratic power structure should ensure family policies - both here and in Ukraine - designed to fill town halls and not shopping malls or army barracks.
That is what it means to honor democracy, and not just replace one superpower - whose democracy is failing - with another. Building resilient democracies entails taking wealth and power from the concentrations, public and private, and using it to liberate women, invest more in children, and empower people more as citizens than consumers or cannon fodder.