Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 11 - The Band Aids
Crossing the Threshold
Boldly dared is well nigh won!
Half my task is solved aright;
Ev’ry star’s to me a sun,
Only cowards deem it night.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “To the Chosen One” (1797)
Chapter 11 — The Band Aids
We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal right of men and women and of nations large and small. … And for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors … have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.
—preamble, Charter of the United Nations
Economic Crises as Agents of Revolution
The thresholds we face challenge our culture, our economy, and our very survival. What can we do? On an immediate, practical level, it’s good to put things in perspective.
In its history, America has experienced a number of recessions and “panics,” but really only three serious depressions, each separated by about eighty years (or four generations). The first was the worldwide Depression of the 1760s, which hit the British East India Company so hard that Parliament eventually cut their taxes so they could more cheaply export tea into the American colonies and compete with American entrepreneurs. The second was the Great Depression of 1857, which lasted through and extended for a decade beyond the Civil War. The third was the Republican Great Depression of 1929–1940, an event well known to most Americans even though the generation that lived through it is dying out.
Each of these Great Depressions presaged both war and revolution.
The Depression of the 1770s led to the American Revolution and caused the Founders of this nation and the Framers of the Constitution to put into place strong controls on economic activity and limits on corporate power and individual wealth. The Depression of the 1860s led to the Civil War, which was followed by a radical restructuring of the power relationship between state and federal governments, shifting us from a nation of strong states and a weak federal government to the reverse. The Republican Great Depression of the 1930s (and the parallel hyperinflation of Weimer Republic Germany) led to World War II and the New Deal, a radical reformation of the role of the federal government in the lives of Americans, from labor rights to Social Security to federal infrastructure projects.
The Second Republican Great Depression—which we have been slowly entering over the past decade and have now crashed into head first, largely as a result of the rollback of New Deal policies and of the U.S. adoption of the “flat world” ideology—has already brought us two major wars and stands us at the edge of a new economic and political order.
In 1776, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published and the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. This was no coincidence: Both were reactions to a widespread economic depression that had begun in the previous decade. England reacted to its economic distress with a series of efforts to raise revenue—the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Tea Act (among others); the colonists reacted with the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence.
There was war and upheaval, and a new nation was born.
Fourscore (eighty) years later, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer in private practice, working for the railroads. On August 12, 1857, he was paid $4,800 in a check, which he deposited and then converted to cash on August 31. That was fortunate for Lincoln, because just over a month later, in the Great Panic of October 1857, both the bank and the railroad were “forced to suspend payment.”[xlv] Of the sixty-six banks in Illinois, The Central Illinois Gazette (Champagne) reported that by the following April, twenty-seven of them had gone into liquidation. It was a depression so vast that the Chicago Democratic Press declared the week of September 30, 1857, “The financial pressure now prevailing in the country has no parallel in our business history.”
Soon there was war and terrible upheaval: four years later the nation was split asunder by the Civil War. A transformed and more powerful federal government emerged, changing forever our government’s role in managing the country.
Seventy-five years later the Great Depression bottomed out, and again: war and upheaval, on a greater scale than ever before, accompanied by dramatic transformations in the role and nature of our federal government.
Today we’re approaching another worldwide economic crisis and the word “panic” is on everyone’s lips—with good reason. Even beyond the economic consequences, depressions have led to huge political changes. They have ushered in the rise of fascism, the consolidation of communism, the overthrow of monarchy (the American and French revolutions, for example), and the creation of the new and experimental democratic republic of the United States of America. And they’ve almost always led to major wars, with massive suffering worldwide.
But the crisis may also bring the opportunity to transform one of the most important mistakes in American history, with results that will last for generations. Just as the Chinese character for “crisis” is made of two parts representing “danger” and “opportunity,” so, too, we now face a two-sides-of-the-coin potential for either a positive or negative transformation of America.
Few doubt we’re sliding into the jaws of a worldwide economic disaster—nations are in revolt against their own leaders and the IMF/World Bank/WTO; stock market–based savings of the middle class have been wiped out across America, Japan, and Europe, destabilizing the future of a billion people; bankruptcies are at their highest levels since the last Great Depression; and another two billion-plus people in China, Russia, and India are facing financial crises. The remaining three billion-plus people on earth are living on an average of less than five dollars per day.
But what will come out of this time of danger and opportunity? What sort of future can we fashion? Will we use the crisis to create positive change for our culture and our children and grandchildren, or allow forces of oppression to have their way? The oppressors, too, are fighting for survival, and history shows what lengths they’ll go to.
When Germany faced the last depression, its government turned to a hand-in-glove partnership with corporations (German and American) to solidify its power over its own people and wage war on others, using a model already extant in Italy and later in Spain. Benito Mussolini first named this new form of corporate-state partnership fascism, referring to the old Roman fasci, or bundle of sticks held together with a rope, which was the symbol of power of the Caesars.
This time, Mussolini said, the bundle was the police and military power of the state combined with the economic power of industry. The fascist system was adopted by Italy, Spain, Japan, and Germany.
Mussolini also noted that there was a more accurate word to describe his political/economic system: “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism,” his ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, wrote in the Encyclopedia Italiana, “because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” And indeed, the results of fascism can look very good—at first. In Germany fascism worked so well that on February 2, 1939, Adolf Hitler was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.
Democracy Is Rarer Than We Think
We think of our civilization as having a democratic heritage, but that’s a mirage. For most of these thousands of years, kings, emperors, Caesars, Popes, and warlords have ruled the lives of ordinary people. Democracy was tried for just 185 years, from 507 b.c. to 322 b.c., on the Greek island of Athens; the experiment came to a bloody end with the conquest of the area by warlord Alexander the Great.
The idea lay dormant for two thousand years. The rule of kings and warlords resumed, until the American experiment birthed it again—in the midst of an economic crisis. There have been just three of these seventy-five-year economic cycles since the founding of the United States, and both of the previous ones threatened the very foundations of human liberty.
Yet as rare as democracy is in history, the concept is immensely compelling to the human spirit, and American expressions of the ideal have been the beacon that has lit the path. From the French Revolution in 1789 to the people’s uprising in Beijing in 1989, people around the world have used language and icons from the pen of Thomas Jefferson and his peers. The Greek-Roman-Masonic-Iroquois-American idea of a government “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed” is one of the most powerful and timeless ideas in the world—even if we didn’t quite get it right at first (realizing the idea only for propertied white males), and even if it’s been strained since its inception.
On May 29, 1989, more than twenty thousand people gathered around a thirty-seven-foot-tall papier-mâché statue in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. They placed their lives in danger, but that statue was such a powerful archetypal representation that many were willing to die for it—and some did. They called their statue the Goddess of Democracy: it was a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands on Liberty Island, in New York Harbor.
It is tremendously ironic that today some assert the cynically fashionable idea that our “founding brothers” intended that power belonged to the moneyed elite. Is that a principle for which people would die in Tiananmen Square? No. The people who died there did so for the oppressed, and for their own hopes for personal freedom. They died for the Goddess of Democracy, who is inscribed with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“Corporatism” Returns—in People’s Clothing
But while much of the world moves to emulate the American experiment, contemporary America is moving in the direction of the corporate-state partnership. Executives from regulated industries are heading up the agencies that regulate them. Another symptom of increasing corporate control of the nation is widespread privatization—a euphemism for shifting control of a commons resource (such as water supplies) from government agencies to corporations. And corporations and their agents have become the largest contributors to politicians, political parties, and so-called “think tanks,” which both write and influence legislation.
Consider the following 1905 Wisconsin law, which reflected other laws across America dating back to the founding of this nation, but which corporations got struck down in the 1950s:
Political contributions by corporations.[xlvi] No corporation doing business in this state shall pay or contribute, or offer consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office.
Penalty.[xlvii] Any officer, employee, agent or attorney or other representative of any corporation, acting for and in behalf of such corporation, who shall violate this act, shall be punished upon conviction by a fine of not less than one hundred nor more than five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment in the state prison for a period of not less than one nor more than five years, or by both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court or judge before whom such conviction is had and if the corporation shall be subject to a penalty then by forfeiture in double the amount of any fine and if a domestic corporation it may be dissolved, if after a proper proceeding upon quo warranto, in either the circuit or supreme court of the state to be prosecuted by the attorney general of the state, the court shall find and give judgment that section 1 of this act has been violated as charged, and if a foreign or non-resident corporation its right to do business in this state may be declared forfeited [emphasis added].
This law, and ones like it in virtually all our states, was struck down because corporations began using the powers of personhood—for example, “speech” free of government constraints against “lobbying”—to convince lawmakers nationwide that they should have ever more “human” rights.
The distinction between corporate control and human control is absolutely pivotal: governments that derive their just powers from the governed are responsible to citizens and voters, and their agencies are created exclusively to administer and protect the resources of the commons used by citizens and voters. Corporations are responsible only to stockholders and are created exclusively to produce a profit for those stockholders. When aggressive corporations are in seats of power, the results are predictable.
We have recently seen, all too often, the strange fruits borne by placing a corporate sentry where a public guardian should stand: for instance, we now know that the California energy crisis was manipulated into existence by Enron and a few other Texas energy companies. The cost to humans for this corporate plunder was horrific; but who was accountable, and who will go on trial? And more to the point, how did it come to be that corporations had the ability to do such things while the public protested vigorously?
It turns out, says the Supreme Court, that corporations have human rights. In several different decisions, all grounded in an 1886 case, the Court has ruled that corporations are entitled to a voice in Washington, the same as you and I.
But that is a peculiar thought. Our nation is built on equal protection of people (regardless of differences of race, creed, gender, or religion), and corporations are much bigger than people, much more able to influence the government, and don’t have the biological needs and weakness of people. And therein lies the rub—a subtle shift that happened 136 years ago that put us on this road.
The path from government of, by, and for the people to government of, by, and for the corporations was paved largely by an invented legal premise that dates from 1886 when a U.S. Supreme Court’s reporter inserted a personal commentary, called a headnote, into the decision in the case of Santa Clara County v. Union Pacific Railroad, stating that corporations are, in fact, people—a premise called “corporate personhood.” For decades the Court had repeatedly ruled against the doctrine of corporate personhood, and it avoided the issue altogether in the Santa Clara case, but court reporter J. C. Bancroft Davis (a former railroad president) added a note to the case saying that the chief justice, Morrison R. Waite, had said that “corporations are persons” who should be granted human rights under the free-the-slaves Fourteenth Amendment. Davis published it a few months after Waite’s death, almost two years after the decision in the case.
This states not just that people make up a corporation, but that each corporation, when created by the act of incorporation, is a full-grown “person”—separate from the humans who work for it or own stock in it—with all the rights granted to persons by the Bill of Rights.
This idea would be shocking to the Founders of the United States. James Madison, often referred to as “the father of the Constitution,” wrote, “There is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by … corporations. The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses.”
Nonetheless, the headnote for that decision was published in 1887 (a year Waite was so ill he rarely showed up in court; he died the next year). Since then corporations have claimed that they are persons—pointing to that decision and its headnote—and, amazingly enough, in most cases the courts have agreed. Many legal scholars think it’s because the courts just haven’t bothered to read the case, but instead just read the headnote. But at this point, after a century of acceptance, the misreading has essentially become law.
The impact has been almost incalculable. As “persons,” corporations have claimed the First Amendment right of free speech and—even though they can’t vote—they now spend hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections, prevent regulation of their own industries, and write or block legislation. As a “person,” corporations can (and do) claim the Fourth Amendment right of privacy and prevent government regulators from performing surprise inspections of factories, accounting practices, and workplaces, leading to uncontrolled polluters and hidden accounting crimes.
The terrible irony is that corporations insist on the protections owed to humans, but not the responsibilities and consequences borne by humans. They don’t have human weaknesses—don’t need fresh water to drink, clean air to breathe, uncontaminated food to eat, and don’t fear imprisonment, cancer, or death. While asserting their own right to privacy protections from government regulators, they claim that workers relinquish nearly all their human rights of free speech, privacy, and freedom from self-incrimination when they enter the “private property” of the workplace.
This is an absolute perversion of the principle cited in the Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that the government of the United States was created by people and for people, and operates only by consent of the people whom it governs.
The Declaration states this in unambiguous terms:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The result of corporate personhood has been relentless erosion of government’s role as a defender of human rights and of government’s responsibility to respond to the needs of its human citizens. Instead, we’re now seeing a steady insinuation of corporate representatives and those beholden to corporations into legislatures, the judiciary, and even the highest offices in the land.
We Stand Before a Historic Opportunity
Economic downturns have historically represented social and political transition points, times of great difficulty but also of great opportunity. We are now in one of those rare windows in time.
Today’s worldwide economic crisis is quite simply a failure of culture. We forgot that the economy is here to serve us, not us to serve the “owners” of the economy. The Reagan-era “greed is good” mantra so corrupted us that we celebrated moments like June 3, 2006, when representatives of five of the Bush administration regulatory agencies held a press conference in which they brought pruning shears to “cut regulations” from the federal code on home ownership. One, James Gilleran of the Office of Thrift Supervision, as Paul Krugman pointed out in a December 21, 2007, New York Times column,[xlviii] brought a chainsaw to the party.
The cultural assumption underlying this behavior was that greed, rather than community, was the ultimate regulator.
As Krugman notes, Ayn Rand devotee Alan Greenspan was in charge of the Fed at the time, and:
In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”
It’s no wonder, then, that he brushed off warnings about deceptive lending practices, including those of Edward M. Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve Board. In Mr. Greenspan’s world, predatory lending—like attempts to sell consumers poison toys and tainted seafood—just doesn’t happen.[xlix]
As a result of a twenty-six-year-long deregulatory spree, we’ve reached the point where it’s painfully difficult for government to undo the damage done to our economic infrastructure by a few thousand millionaires and billionaires playing Monopoly.
And the destructive power of this shift in cultural assumptions isn’t just limited to the economy. We have reached the point in the United States where corporatism has nearly triumphed over democracy. If events continue on their current trajectory, the ability of our government to respond to the needs and desires of humans—things like fresh water, clean air, uncontaminated food, independent local media, secure retirement, and accessible medical care—may vanish forever, effectively ending the world’s second experiment with democracy. We will have gone too far down Mussolini’s road, and most likely will encounter similar consequences, elements of which we have already experienced: a militarized police state, a government unresponsive to its citizens and obsessed with secrecy, a ruling elite drawn from the senior ranks of the nation’s largest corporations, and war.
Alternatively, if we awaken soon and reverse the 1886 mistake that created corporate personhood, it’s still possible we can return to the democratic republican principles that animated Jefferson and brought this nation into being. Our government—elected by human citizen voters—can shake off the past thirty years of exploding corporatism and throw the corporate agents and buyers of influence out of the hallowed halls of Congress. We can restore the stolen human rights to humans, and keep corporate activity constrained within the boundaries of that which will help and heal and repair our earth rather than plunder it.
The path to doing this is straightforward, and being taken now across America. Ten communities in Pennsylvania have passed ordinances denying corporate-owned factory farms the status of persons. The city of Point Arena, California, passed a resolution denying corporate personhood, and other communities are considering following their example. Citizens across the nation are looking into the possibility of passing local laws denying corporate personhood, on the hope that one will eventually be brought before the Supreme Court so the Court can explicitly correct its reporter’s 1886 error. Taking another tack, some are suggesting that the Fourteenth Amendment should be amended to insert the word “natural” before the word “person,” an important legal distinction that will sweep away a century of legalized corporate excesses and reasserting the primacy of humans.
Once again in America, we must do what Jefferson always hoped we would: “the people, being the only safe depository of power, should exercise in person every function which their qualifications enable them to exercise, consistently with the order and security of society.”[l] We must seize the moment to take back the power, for our children and our children’s children’s children.
Define and Defend the Commons
To every Middlesex village and farm,
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear.
—From “Paul Revere’s Ride,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1863)
Many years ago I started my first real business, a radio/TV/stereo repair shop in East Lansing, Michigan, right across the street from Michigan State University. I was eighteen years old, going to college part time, and working as a DJ part time, and as an old ham radio operator (since I was thirteen), federally licensed broadcast engineer (since I was sixteen), and electrical engineering student, I had a pretty good knowledge of how to fix electronic contraptions. I started out by renting, for twenty-five dollars a month, a shelf in the back of a head shop (pipe and cigarette papers store) on Abbot Road, where people would drop off their stereos or TVs or other electronic devices. I’d pick them up at the end of the day, repair them, and return them a day or two later. The store, in addition to my twenty-five-dollar rent on the shelf, took a 15 percent commission on my charges.
We called the business The Electronic Joint, and our logo was a hand-rolled cigarette—rather in tune with the head shop and the times (this was 1969).
Within a year, we had so much business that I rented a storefront down the block on the corner of Mac Avenue and Albert Street, changed the name to the more respectable The Electronics Joint, and hired another electrical engineering student from MSU to work as a technician. I also hired the woman I was then dating, Louise—now my wife of more than thirty-five years—to run the bookkeeping, the front desk, and ultimately as a part-time repair person (she’s an incredibly quick learner). Within another year, we had four employees and I’d taken out a $3,000 loan to buy the newest and fanciest repair equipment (a fateful overextension/debt decision that led to our company’s failure—and taught me a great lesson about how to run a business that I’d apply to future ventures—but that’s another story).
My business was, for a few years, quite successful and prosperous. And I was able to do it all because of something that was, at least to me at that time, invisible.
My company existed because of the commons.
The electricity that was delivered to us passed through public streets maintained by the City of East Lansing. My customers drove to us on public streets. Most were students attending a largely publicly financed “land grant” university. My employees were literate because they’d attended public schools that were operated by the government. I could accept and cash checks and know that the bank wouldn’t run off with my money because of federal and state banking regulators. My contracts with suppliers were enforced by a government-operated court system, making it possible for me to safely predict that people would keep their word to deliver goods after I’d paid for them. If they failed to do so, there was a government-operated police and jail system that could be used to induce them to behave honestly.
My employees would reliably show up for work because their food supply was safe because of government standards and inspections, and because the air and water were clean enough to breathe without causing asthma attacks or disabling diseases. They didn’t demand a pension plan from me because we were all—they and I—paying into Social Security. We were able to offer an inexpensive health insurance policy—as I recall, it cost us around thirty dollars a month per employee—because at that time Blue Cross/Blue Shield was required by the State of Michigan to be a not-for-profit corporation whose sole purpose was to provide health insurance, and at that time our hospitals were all similarly nonprofits that delivered high-quality, inexpensive care.
The commons is a notion as ancient as humanity itself. It’s the stuff that we all share and, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, we all own. The air we breathe. The public places. Our public institutions.
Twenty-four-hundred years ago, the Greek Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, talked about how the war itself came about in part because individual greed was elevated in society to a heroic status and care for the common wealth came to be considered a quaint notion (an eerie echo of Reagan-era philosophies: “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays.”[li]
Fifty years later Aristotle shared his doubts about the possibility that the commons could survive without active support by government:
That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.[lii]
Thus, protection of the commons—and creation of more useful commons such as currency and courts and parks—is arguably the single most important function of government. The Framers of our Constitution placed a variety of commons right in the preamble of that document, capitalizing the words they considered the most important:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The history of the commons in the United States is long and strong, although it has come under assault several times in our nation’s history, most notably in the late 1800s (by the oil and railroad barons), the 1920s (by land speculators during the great land bubble that led up to the Republican Great Depression), and from the 1980s to today (by “conservatives” bent on privatizing virtually every aspect of the commons except those that support corporate activity).
Most people have heard of—and many Americans have visited—the Boston Common, one of the first and most famous explicit commons in the country. In 1634, its fifty acres were purchased from William Blaxton by the City of Boston, and for some years were used as a common cow pasture, until the land suffered from overgrazing. In 1660, while Massachusetts was still a theocracy run by Protestants, Mary Dyer committed the crime in that state of repeatedly preaching the ideals of Quakerism, and the Puritans sentenced her to death and hanged her from the biggest oak tree in the Boston Common. The British used the Common to garrison their troops during the Revolutionary War, and more recently both Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King, Jr., gave speeches to massive audiences on the Commons’ fifty mostly grassy acres.
Benjamin Franklin, who was so horrified by the theocrats who ran Massachusetts when he was a child in the early 1700s, fled that state for Philadelphia, where he helped expand the idea of a commons by organizing both what later became the United States Post Office and one of the nation’s first and largest municipal fire departments.
What is and isn’t appropriately part of the commons is a debate that has raged on in this country since its inception, and similarly rages on around the world. Most industrialized nations, for example, have concluded that the “right to life” (one of the three rights mentioned in our Declaration of Independence) is an absolute right and not a privilege, and so they include health care within the commons administered by the people through their government. Indeed, a constitutionally limited representative democratic republic such as most of the “free” nations of the world have means that, by definition, the government itself is both the protector of the commons but arguably the most important of all the commons. We commonly own our government, and it must answer to us.
The Assault on the Commons
Arguably the first contemporary author to highlight how a growing population combined with a fraying sense of the public good would lead to pressures on the commons was William Forster Lloyd, who took on the issue in his 1833 publication of Two Lectures on the Checks to Population. A century and a half later, Garrett Hardin picked up the theme with a 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science.[liii]
The most easily understood and persistent threat to the commons is the one of simple greed. As Lloyd pointed out, when people share a common purse, or grazers share a common pasture, in the absence of specific laws or strong social pressure there will almost always be some greedy individual who will take a disproportionate share of the purse or move in a larger herd of cattle, and thus essentially steal the commons from everybody else.
The larger version of this is something we’ve been watching since the founding of this nation. From the theft of commons-held land lived on by Native Americans to the 2002 diversion of water from the Klamath River in Oregon by Karl Rove to gain support from farmers for the senatorial bid of Gordon Smith (a diversion that later led to the death of millions of salmon, causing the governor to have to declare a state of emergency several years later when the salmon nearly vanished from the Oregon coast), we’ve seen our commons poached, snitched, stolen, moved, and appropriated over and over again.
Many nations believe that the mineral or energy wealth is part of the commons—the reason why Mexico, Venezuela, and many other nations of the world lay claim to all of their oil for the national purse, rather than allowing individuals or corporations to extract and “own” it. In the United States, about half of all power companies are community-owned, and most water and sewage systems, making them part of the commons, but power, water, and sewage systems are rapidly being privatized to give corporations monopoly power over these “necessary” services. In this country, the only real consensus on the commons has been our roads, police, fire, and the air we breathe—and now governments are selling off roads (and in some communities even police and fire have been partially or entirely privatized), and our air has been under assault since we began extensively burning coal (1820s) and oil (1870s) to power industry and meet the needs of householders.
The Ultimate Commons in a Democracy
One of the reasons why nothing is being done, even though most Americans are concerned about global warming and favor some sort of caps on carbon emissions, is that corporate interests have largely taken over our government.
Most unsettling in terms of the future of democracy is the privatization of the commons by which our commons is regulated: that is, our vote.
At the founding of this nation, we decided that there were important places to invest our tax (then tariff) dollars, and those were the things that had to do with the overall “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of all of us. Over time, these commons—in which we all make tax investments and for which we all hold ultimate responsibility—have come to include our police and fire services; our military and defense; our roads and skyways; our air, waters, and national parks; and the safety of our food and drugs.
But the most important of all the commons in which we’ve invested our hard-earned tax dollars is our government itself. It’s owned by us, run by us (through our elected representatives), answerable to us, and most directly responsible for the stewardship of our commons.
And the commons through which we regulate the commons of our government is our vote.
Yet over the past twenty years, we have let corporations into our polling places, locations so sacred to democracy that in many states even international election monitors and reporters are banned. With the implementation of “black box voting” (the use of electronic voting machines), these corporations are recording our votes, compiling and tabulating them, and then telling us the total numbers—and doing it all using “proprietary” hardware and software that we cannot observe, cannot audit, and cannot control. If the vote-counting corporation says candidate X or candidate Y won the vote, we have no means of rebutting that, and they have no way of proving it. We’re asked simply to trust them.
Why are we allowing corporations to exclusively handle our vote, in a secret and totally invisible way? Particularly a private corporation founded, in one case, by a family that believes the Bible should replace the Constitution; in another case run by one of Ohio’s top Republicans; and in another case partly owned by Saudi investors?
Of all the violations of the commons—all of the crimes against We the People and against democracy in our great and historic republic—this is the greatest. Our vote is too important to outsource to private corporations.
It’s time that the United States—like most of the rest of the world—returns to paper ballots, counted by hand by civil servants (our employees) under the watchful eye of the party faithful. Even if it takes two weeks to count the vote, and we have to go, until then, with only the exit polls of the news agencies to predict who has won. It worked just fine for nearly two hundred years in the United States, and it can work again.
When I lived in Germany, they took the vote the same way most of the world does—people filled in hand-marked ballots, which were hand-counted by civil servants taking a week off from their regular jobs, watched over by volunteer representatives of the political parties. It’s totally clean, and easily audited. And even though it takes a week or more to count the votes (and costs nothing more than a bit of overtime pay for civil servants), the German people know the election results the night the polls close because the news media’s exit polls, for two generations, have never been more than a tenth of a percent off.
We could have saved billions that have instead been handed over to ES&S, Diebold, and other private corporations.
As Thomas Paine wrote at this nation’s founding, “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which all other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.”
Only when We the People reclaim the commons of our vote can we again be confident in the integrity of our electoral process in the world’s oldest and most powerful democratic republic.
The Other Benefit of Privatization of the Commons—Feudalism
Emerson told us, in his lecture “Angloam,” that in America “the old contest of feudalism and democracy renews itself here on a new battlefield.” Perhaps seeing our day through a crack between the skeins of time and space, Emerson concluded, “It is wonderful, with how much rancor and premeditation at this moment the fight is prepared.”
Let’s be blunt. The real agenda of the new conservatives is nothing less than the destruction of democracy in the United States of America. And feudalism is one of their weapons.
Their rallying cry is that government is the enemy, and thus must be “drowned in a bathtub.” In that, they’ve mistaken our government for the former Soviet Union, or confused Ayn Rand’s fictional and disintegrating America with the real thing.
The government of the United States is us. It was designed to be a government of, by, and for We the People. It’s not an enemy to be destroyed; it’s a means by which we administer and preserve the commons that we collectively own.
Nonetheless, the new conservatives see our democratic government as the enemy. And if they plan to destroy democracy, they must have something in mind to replace it with. (Yes, I know that “democracy” and “democratic” sound too much like “Democrat,” and so the Republicans want us to say that we don’t live in a democracy, but, rather, a republic, which sounds more like “Republican.” It was one of Newt Gingrich’s efforts, along with replacing phrases such as “Democratic senator” with “Democrat senator.” But Republican political correctness can take a leap: we’re talking here about the survival of democracy in our constitutional republic.)
What conservatives are really arguing for is a return to the three historic embodiments of tyranny that the Founders and Framers identified, declared war against, and fought and died to keep out of our land. Those tyrants were kings, theocrats, and noble feudal lords.
Kings would never again be allowed to govern America, the Founders said, so they stripped the president of the power to declare war. As Lincoln noted in an 1848 letter to William Herndon: “Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our  Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”
Theocrats would never again be allowed to govern America, as they had tried in the early Puritan communities. In 1784, when Patrick Henry proposed that the Virginia legislature use a sort of faith-based voucher system to pay for “Christian education,” James Madison responded with ferocity, saying government support of church teachings “will be a dangerous abuse of power.” He added, “The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.”
And America was not conceived of as a feudal state, feudalism being broadly defined as “rule by the super-rich.” Rather, our nation was created in large part in reaction against centuries of European feudalism. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his lecture titled “The Fortune of the Republic,” delivered on December 1, 1863, “We began with freedom. America was opened after the feudal mischief was spent. No inquisitions here, no kings, no nobles, no dominant church.”
The great and revolutionary ideal of America is that a government can exist while drawing its authority, power, and ongoing legitimacy from a single source: “The consent of the governed.” Conservatives, however, would change all that.
In their brave new world, corporations are more suited to governance than are the unpredictable rabble called citizens. Corporations should control politics, control the commons, control health care, control our airwaves, control the “free” market, and even control our schools. Although corporations can’t vote, these new conservatives claim they should have human rights, such privacy from government inspections of their political activity and the free speech right to lie to politicians and citizens in PR and advertising. Although corporations don’t need to breathe fresh air or drink pure water, these new conservatives would hand over to them the power to self-regulate poisonous emissions into our air and water.
While these new conservatives claim corporations should have the rights of persons, they don’t mind if corporations use hostile financial force to take over other, smaller corporations in a bizarre form of corporate slavery called monopoly. Corporations can’t die, so aren’t subject to inheritance taxes or probate. They can’t be put in prison, so even when they cause death they are only subject to fines.
Corporations and their CEOs are America’s new feudal lords, and the new conservatives are their obliging servants and mouthpieces. The conservative mantra is: “Less government!” But the dirty little secret of the new conservatives is that just as nature abhors a vacuum, so also do politics and power. Every time government of, by, and for We the People is pushed out of administering some part of this nation’s vast commons, corporations step in. And by swamping the United States of America in debt with so-called “tax cuts,” they seek to force an increasingly desperate government to cede more and more of our commons to their corporate rule.
Conservatives confuse efficiency and cost: They suggest that big corporations can perform public services at a lower total cost than government, while ignoring the corporate need to pad the bill with dividends to stockholders, rich CEO salaries, corporate jets and headquarters, advertising, millions in “campaign contributions,” and cash set-asides for growth and expansion. They want to frame this as the solution of the “free market,” and talk about entrepreneurs and small businesses filling up the holes left when government lets go of public property.
But these are straw man arguments: What they are really advocating is corporate rule, and ultimately a feudal state controlled exclusively by the largest of the corporations. Smaller corporations, such as individual humans and the governments they once hoped would protect them from powerful feudal forces, can watch but they can’t play.
The modern-day conservative movement began with Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who argued that for a society to be stable it must have a governing elite, and this elite must be separate both in power and privilege from what Adams referred to as “the rabble.” Their Federalist Party imploded in the early nineteenth century, in large part because of public revulsion over Federalist elitism, a symptom of which was Adams’s signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. (If you’ve read only the Republican biographies of John Adams, you probably don’t remember these laws, even though they were the biggest thing to have happened in Adams’s entire four years in office, and the reason why the citizens of America voted him out of office, and voted Jefferson—who loudly and publicly opposed the Acts—in. They were a 1797 version of the Patriot Act and Patriot II, with startlingly similar language.)
Destroyed by their embrace of this early form of despotism, the Federalists were replaced first in the early 1800s by the short-lived Whigs and then, starting with Lincoln, by the modern-day Republicans, who, after Lincoln’s death, firmly staked out their ancestral Federalist position as the party of wealthy corporate and private interests. And now, under the disguise of the word “conservative” (classical conservatives such as Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower are rolling in their graves), these old-time feudalists have nearly completed their takeover of our great nation.
It became obvious with the transformation of healthcare into a for-profit industry, leading to spiraling costs (and millions of dollars for Bill Frist and his ilk). Insurance became necessary for survival, and people were worried. Bill Clinton was prepared to answer the concern of the majority of Americans who supported national health care. But that would have harmed corporate profits.
“Do you want government bureaucrats deciding which doctor you can see?” asked the conservatives, over and over again. To this yes/no question, the answer was pretty simple for most Americans: no. But as is so often the case when conservatives try to influence public opinion, the true issue wasn’t honestly stated.
The real question was: “Do you want government bureaucrats—who are answerable to elected officials and thus subject to the will of We the People—making decisions about your healthcare, or would you rather have corporate bureaucrats—who are answerable only to their CEOs and work in a profit-driven environment—making decisions about your healthcare?”
For every $100 that passes through the hands of the government-administered Medicare programs, between $2 and $3 is spent on administration, leaving $97 to $98 to pay for medical services and drugs. But of every $100 that flows through corporate insurance programs and HMOs, $10 to $24 sticks to corporate fingers along the way. After all, Medicare doesn’t have lavish corporate headquarters and corporate jets, or pay expensive lobbying firms in Washington to work on its behalf. It doesn’t “donate” millions to politicians and their parties. It doesn’t pay profits in the form of dividends to its shareholders. And it doesn’t compensate its top executive with more than $1 million a year, as do each of the largest of the American insurance companies. Medicare has one primary mandate: serve the public. Private corporations also have one primary mandate: generate profit.
When Jeb Bush cut a deal with Enron to privatize the Everglades, it diminished the power of the Florida government to protect a natural resource and enhanced the power and profitability of Enron. Similarly, when politicians argue for harsher sentencing guidelines and also advocate more corporate-owned prisons, they’re enhancing the power and profits of one of America’s fastest-growing and most profitable remaining domestic industries: incarceration. But having government protect the quality of the nation’s air and water by mandating pollution controls doesn’t enhance corporate profits. Neither does single-payer health care, which threatens insurance companies with redundancy, or requirements for local control of broadcast media. In these and other regards, however, the government still holds the keys to the riches of the commons held in trust for us all. Riches that the corporations want to convert into profits.
For example, an NPR Morning Edition report by Rick Carr on May 28, 2003, said, “Current FCC Chair Michael Powell says he has faith the market will provide. What’s more, he says, he’d rather have the market decide than government.” In this, Powell was reciting the conservative mantra. Misconstruing Adam Smith, who warned about the dangers of the invisible hand of the marketplace trampling the rights and needs of the people, Powell suggests that business always knows best. The market will decide. Bigger isn’t badder.
But experience shows that the very competition that conservatives claim to embrace is destroyed by the unrestrained growth of corporate interests. It’s called monopoly: Big fish eat little fish, over and over, until there are no little fish left. Look at the thoroughfares of any American city and ask yourself how many of the businesses there are locally owned. Instead of cash circulating within a local and competitive economy, at midnight every night a button is pushed and the local money is vacuumed away to Little Rock or Chicago or New York.
This is feudalism in its most raw and naked form, just as the kings and nobles of old sucked dry the resources of the people they claimed to own. It is in these arguments for unrestrained corporatism that we see the naked face of Hamilton’s Federalists in the modern conservative movement. It’s the face of wealth and privilege, of what Jefferson called a “pseudo-aristocracy,” which works to its own enrichment and gain regardless of the harm done to the nation, the commons, or the “We the People” rabble.
It is, in its most complete form, the face that would “drown government in a bathtub”; that sneers at the First Amendment by putting up “free speech zones” for protesters; that openly and harshly suggests that those who are poor, unemployed, or underemployed are suffering from character defects; that works hard to protect the corporate interest, but is happy to ignore the public interest; that says it doesn’t matter what happens to the humans living in what Michael Savage, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host, laughingly calls “turd world nations.”
These new conservatives would have us trade in our democracy for a corporatocracy, a form of feudal government most recently reinvented by Benito Mussolini when he recommended a “merger of business and state interests” as a way of creating a government that would be invincibly strong. Mussolini called it fascism.
We see this daily in the halls of Congress and in the lobbying efforts directed at our regulatory agencies. We see it in the millions of dollars in trips and gifts given to FCC commissioners, which in another era would have been called bribes.
These corporate-embracing conservatives are not working for what’s best for democracy, for America, or for the interests of “We the People.” They are explicitly interested in a singular goal: Profits and the power to maintain them. Under control, the desire for profit can be a useful thing, as two hundred years of American free enterprise have shown.
But unrestrained, as George Soros warns us so eloquently, it will create monopoly and destroy democracy. The new conservatives are systematically dismantling our governmental systems of checks and balances; of considering the public good when regulating private corporate behavior; of protecting those individuals, small businesses, and local communities who are unable to protect themselves from giant corporate predators. They want to replace government of, by, and for We the People with a corporate feudal state, turning America’s citizens into their vassals and serfs.