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FROM THE BEGINNING – AND DEMOCRACY AFTER THAT

September 8, 2013

FROM THE BEGINNING – AND DEMOCRACY AFTER THAT

I will be using the insights of John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney from their wonderful new book, DOLLAROCRACY, along with my own to give some historical color to the concept of democracy as a form of governing. Jared Diamond has classified social organization of humanity into four classes: band, tribe, chiefdom and state. While occasional forms of democratic government and other acts of altruism where you recognize the rights of other members of your class may exist outside the state class, they are not numerous. The economies of some of these classes were, after all, based on hunting and gathering, and members of such societies had neither time nor inclination to probe the niceties of governing of the group. The constant search for food was a first priority. This essay will be based upon the state model, where agricultural surplus finally ended the daily quest for food and allowed humanity to undertake the art of mass governing, letters, the arts, philosophy, and all the other human endeavors which civilize humanity. My starting point for a brief look at democracy begins in Athens some 2,500 years ago.

Greek democracy was not perfect. Women and slaves were not allowed to vote. They were never any suggestions made to the contrary. Aristotle, one of the world’s premier thinkers, well explained the concept of the democratic process while personally dissenting from expansion of it. He favored an aristocratic constitution. He, after all, was a tutor of Alexander the Great. Wealthy Greeks of that day feared democracy because it posed an existential threat to extreme economic inequality, and they liked extreme economic inequality – so long as they were the superrich who were enjoying such wealth. Greed was not unknown, even then. It probably started in earnest when there was agricultural surplus to amass in the Fertile Crescent. Better herding techniques helped, too. Before that, there was no surplus to save, or horde. Greed on any large scale was not an option.

Aristotle wrote in his POLITICS that “Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers. If liberty and equality are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons share alike in government to the utmost.” There had to be something wrong with a system where the vote of an Athenian tradesman had the same clout as that of a rich Greek patrician, and those with the money and property were quick to exploit the seeming distinction (just as a conquering Rome later did). This led to spending lots of campaign money to bribe or otherwise attract the votes of the hoi polloi. Indeed some have written that it was campaign spending that led to profligate corruption and the downfall of the Roman Republic, which is in accord with my view that Rome didn’t fall to barbarians; it fell from within. (So the rich Romans maintained power via corrupted votes in order to keep economic inequality intact? Other than togas and Latin, that looks a lot like today’s lineup, and all as assisted by a toady Supreme Court and its Citizens United holding). This is democracy, Mr. Chief Justice?

As with the Greeks, American democracy has not been perfect. Black men (not women) could not vote in elections until the post-Civil War 15th Amendment was passed. Women of any color could not vote until the 20th century in an amazing display of second class citizenship based on chromosomes. Some states required ownership of real estate as a prerequisite to the vote. Some racist states demanded that minorities pay poll taxes or pass constitutional tests as prerequisites to voting. The ruling class, whether based on color, gender, property ownership, economic classification or whatever, found ways to water down Athenian democracy at the polls, thus assuring that their relative positions remained intact, as they are attempting via voter suppression programs to do again today.

Some of the early Americans when putting the Constitution together openly questioned why anyone who did not own real estate would be interested in voting since such results could not possibly affect their interests. John Adams, our second president, said at the time that if men without property could vote, “an immediate revolution would ensue.” He was wrong. Likewise, our first Chief Justice, John Jay, had this to say in such connection: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” (We are seeing a renewal of such an idea these days as corporations own the country and should therefore, presumably, be entitled to govern it. The rest of us are excess baggage, destined to a life of service to our corporate owners/governors in their continuing quest to amass assets.)

The Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in an address to the graduates of the University’s law school, in 1873, told the audience that: “The accumulation of wealth is the handmaiden of disaster.” He further noted that “There is looming up a new dark power. The accumulation of individual wealth seems to be greater than it has been since the downfall of the Roman Empire. The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economic conquest, but for political power. For the first time in our politics money is taking the field of organized power. The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, which shall rule – wealth or man; which shall lead – money or intellect; who shall fill public stations – educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?” If here, he could make that speech today.

Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th president: “It is time for the public to hear that the giant evil and danger in this country, the danger which transcends all others, is the vast wealth controlled by a few persons. Money is power. In Congress, in state legislatures, in city councils, in the courts, in the political conventions, in the press, in the pulpit, in the circles of the educated and the talented, its influence is growing greater and greater. EXCESSIVE WEALTH IN THE HANDS OF THE FEW MEANS EXTREME POVERTY, IGNORANCE, VICE AND WRETCHEDNESS IN THE LOT OF THE MANY.” (my emphasis)

As this Gilded Age series of excesses worked its way into the clutches of relief provided by Teddy Roosevelt (the trust-buster) in the 20th century and beyond (women’s suffrage etc.), we are told by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis that “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

If this is an either-or choice we must make, then the philosophical choice for governing is simple. Per Justice Brandeis, we can’t have both – so which shall it be? I am not in favor of violent revolution in which we strip the rich and corporate class of their assets. I am rather in favor of a system of taxation and regulation which evens the playing field between the superrich and the rest of us. There will be, of course, howls of socialism, lawsuits galore etc. Nobody ever said that bringing fairness and equality back into the American marketplace would be easy – and it won’t be – but what are our choices? I will vote for democracy. It has a checkered past, to be sure, but as Winston Churchill noted: “Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others.” He was and is right.

The transition back will be noisy and rowdy, but we have no choice, so let’s get on with it.  GERALD

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