Democracy and The Poor

In his truly remarkable novel The Princess Casamassima Henry James describes for us the trials and tribulations of a young man, illegitimate son of a prostitute and raised by a poor seamstress who pledges himself to the cause of the revolution that many were convinced was coming to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. The young man, a gifted bookbinder, is conflicted, but pledges his life to the cause only to meet and become close friends with the heroine of the novel who opens to him a world he had never known existed. As a consequence, he  begins to wonder if the revolution is worth the cost of the treasures of Western civilization. The long novel recounts the growing uncertainties of the young man’s early commitment to the revolution as, ironically, the Princess becomes increasingly committed to that ideal.

We might do well to recall that at the time England saw 10,000 people thrown each year into debtors prison because of their inability to pay their way — despite the fact that they were supposed to pay for their upkeep while in prison! It was, surely, a classic case of “Catch 22.” As many as 90,000 in London alone were estimated to be among the poor and destitute at that time. In any event, the hope of young men, like our hero, was the coming of socialism and democracy (the two were not carefully distinguished in the minds of such people). James describes for us the ruminations going on in the mind of his young hero, Hyacinth:

“What was most in Hyacinth’s mind was the idea, of which every pulsation of the general life of his time was a syllable, that the flood of democracy was rising over the world; that it would sweep traditions of the past before it; that, whatever it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a magnificent energy; and that it might be trusted to look after its own. When democracy should have its way everywhere, it would be its fault (who else’s could it be?) if want and suffering and crime should continue to be ingredients of the human lot. . . . [at the same time] he was afraid the democracy wouldn’t care for the perfect bindings [of books] or for the finest sort of conversation. The Princess gave up these things in proportion as she advanced in the direction she had so audaciously chosen; and if the Princess could give them up it would take very transcendent natures to stick to them.”

The Princess, married to a man she had come to deeply dislike and rejecting a way of life she detested, was at this point committed even more deeply than Hyacinth to the revolution that was sure to come. She had given up her worldly wealth and lofty position and moved to the squalor of Soho surrounded by the poor she was determined to help release from their poverty. But the changes in her way of looking at and speaking about the world were palpable, and this is what the narrator refers to in this passage. But what is more interesting is the hope of such people for their deliverance at the hands of a democracy and an economic system that held up to them possibilities beyond their wildest imaginings.

We might also recall that de Tocqueville had visited America in the early part of the nineteenth century and had written his classic study of Democracy In America which was in large measure a contributing factor to the hopes and dreams of young idealists like our hero who were convinced that “the flood of democracy was rising over the world.” More to the point, it would erase poverty and crime and help humankind achieve true equality.

One does wonder, as we can now look back from our lofty perspective, what could possibly have gone wrong?

Advertisements

Culture Studies

I have made passing reference from time to time of the postmodern trend in the academy away from traditional coursework in the standard academic disciplines and toward something that has come to be called “Culture Studies.” These studies are an attempt to replace those traditional disciplines that are regarded by a growing number of academics as irrelevant or even “a part of the problem” in an attempt to radically change the climate not only within the universities but also in society at large. As literature professor James Seaton tells us in Literary Criticism From Plato to Postmodernism:

“In the twenty-first century, the academic study of popular culture has become a part of culture studies, a transdisciplinary approach whose attraction derives in  large part from its implicit promise that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.”

I have discussed in previous posts the birth from this movement of New History that insists that historians simply express their own particular view of events — without footnotes or corroboration of facts — because, they say, the traditional view of how to write history is based on the absurd notion that there are such things as facts and even a thing called “truth.” In the end, the movement of postmodernism in general agrees in rejecting such “absurd” notions and in the process  moves on toward a more radical manner of viewing one’s world and the things that go on in that world. I have noted the tendency of this movement within the academy to morph into movements outside the academy in society at large — in the form, most recently, of “alternative facts.” In a word, the repercussions of what growing numbers of academics do within the hallowed halls of academe have an effect on the way people think both within and without the academy. Most interesting in Seaton’s remarks above is the notion that culture studies — which is his special concern in his book — are an attempt to replace traditional academic disciplines, especially in literature, history, and philosophy, and transform them into something that loosely resembles sociology, badly done.

To what end, one might ask? The answer is to the end of radically transforming the world. Revolutionaizing the world, if you will. The three editors of an anthology titled Culture Studies and published in 1992 put is quite explicitly:

“. . .a continuing preoccupation within culture studies is the notion of radical social and cultural transformation . . . in virtually all traditions of culture studies, its practitioners see culture studies not simply as a chronicle of cultural change but as an intervention in it, and see themselves not simply as scholars providing an account but as politically engaged participants.”

Thus we should not be surprised that on many college campuses across the land militant faculties and students are turning away prospective speakers with whom they disagree and are steamrolling their political agendas through committee meetings, commandeering professional journals, and turning the curriculum into a homogeneous series of studies in like-minded writers that will indoctrinate students into their way of thinking. This unanimity of opinion is regarded by this group as essential to the ends they have in view, namely “a commitment to education as a tool for progressivist politics.” This has disturbed even a few of those who regard themselves as liberal members of the faculty. As one recently noted (and please note that this person is not a reactionary conservative):

“. . .by putting politics outside of discussion, and insisting that intellectual work proceed within an a priori view of proper leftist belief — conveyed between the lines, parenthetically, or with knowing glances and smiles — all sorts of intellectual alliances have been foreclosed at the outset.”

When he says that “politics[ is] outside of discussion” what he means, of course is that political issues have already been decided: America is a corrupt imperialistic country, our democracy is irremediably damaged, racism and sexism are rampant, and corruption is the order of the day. These things may or may not be true, but they are not to be discussed. The matter has been settled, “foreclosed at the outset.” Their success, which has been surprising, has been due to simple tactics: intimidation and guilt. Much of what they say is true, or at least half-true, but it is all beyond discussion.

Folks like this writer, and a diminishing number of other relics, following in the footsteps of the brilliant Black historian W.E.B. DuBois, attempt to defend what was once called “High Culture” and is now regarded as “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” Such folks are regarded as past their must-sell-by-date, not worth a moment’s reflection or worry on the way toward the transformation of the university  from a place where ideas are freely exchanged and discussion is open-ended and hopefully leads to something we can agree is true or factual (or at least plausible) to an institution where future leaders of shared radical views of society are bred and raised in a comforting and comfortable atmosphere of inflated grades where they will find only support and agreement.

The agenda in “higher” education has changed radically: it is no longer about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It is now about making sure they see that the only way to transform society and eliminate injustice is to read and discuss those who agree with the program that has been carefully laid out for them by growing numbers of faculty who see themselves as having arrived at a place where disagreement can no longer be tolerated if it is likely to lead students away from what they regard as the truth — despite the fact, of course, that they insist that there is no such thing as “truth.”

This may help us to understand why at the moment 45% of America’s college graduates think the sitting president is doing a good job. A figure that surprises many but which makes perfect sense to those who see this man as the embodiment of radical change — and who have not been taught how to think, only what to think.

Repressive Regimes

Josef Theodore Konrad Korzeniowski was born in the Ukraine in 1857 and grew up under Tzarist autocracy. His parents, ardent Polish patriots, died when he was a child, following their exile for anti-Russian activities. Later, Josef became the author Joseph Conrad who wrote mostly stories about the sea based on his own experiences as an English merchant seaman. English became his third language, after Polish and French, and he is one of the best writers I have ever read. But in addition to his sea stories, he wrote two novels about politics and about repressive regimes, of which he had first-hand knowledge (as he did the sea). One of these is Under Western Eyes which examines the “psychology” of Russia in the early part of the twentieth century.  I take a few snippets from that book which are worth reflection as we in this country have undergone a revolution of sorts and seem to be headed for four years, at least, of despotism and distrust, characteristics of the political world familiar to Joseph Conrad, the Russia so admired by our president-elect.

“. . .and still more characteristic of the moral corruption of an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.”

“Calumny is a weapon of our government, too.”

“In Russia, the land of spectral ideas and disembodied aspirations, . . . they turned to autocracy for the peace of their patriotic conscience as a weary unbeliever, touched by grace, turns to the faith of his  fathers for the blessings of spiritual rest.”

“For that is the mark of Russian autocracy and of Russian revolt. In its pride of numbers, in its strange pretensions of sanctity, and in the secret readiness to abase itself in suffering, the spirit of Russia is the spirit of cynicism. It informs the declarations of her statesmen, the theories of her revolutionaries, and the mystic vaticinations of prophets to the point of making freedom look like a form of debauch, and the Christian virtues themselves appear actually indecent.”

“. . .Western ears . . . are not attuned to certain tones of cynicism and cruelty, or moral negation, and even of moral distress already silenced in [Western] Europe.”

“As if anything can be changed! In this world of men nothing can be changed — neither happiness nor misery. They can only be displaced at the cost of corrupted consciences and broken lives — a futile game for arrogant philosophers and sanguinary triflers.”

“It is more difficult to live a life of toil and self-denial than to go out in the street and kill from conviction.”

“Truly, the oppressors of thought which quickens the world, the destroyers of souls which aspire to the perfection of human dignity, they shall be haunted.”

“Life. . . not to be vile must be a revolt — a pitiless protest — all the time.”

“There is not much perspicacity in the world.”

In all, it is a fine piece of work and well worth reading as we contemplate the challenges that lie ahead of us in a country now led by a would-be autocrat surrounded by disciples who have already shown that they share their leader’s intolerance and bigotry and his need to bully and belittle others into following his lead.

 

 

 

Revolutionary Theory

It is well known that Thomas Jefferson held fast throughout his life to the conviction that nations should experience a revolution every generation. While he was not averse to a violent revolution, if necessary, he preferred (as did all Enlightenment thinkers) that these revolutions be guided by reason and whatever changes came about, however radical, should come about slowly and peacefully. Late in his life he wrote a strange essay in which he developed his theory of continual revolutions that were, in his view, the only guarantee of individual liberty against the relentless encroachment of the power of the political state. The essay was called “The Earth Belongs To The Living,” and it spells out the conditions Jefferson, as an avid reader of history, perceived to be the conditions of despotism that always precede violent revolutions. The essay was read and commented on by Jefferson’s close friend James Madison but in general it has been dismissed by many historians as “the dream of a theorist” and not taken seriously.

One of the few historians to take the essay seriously — and to take Jefferson at his word about the need for continual revolutions — was Daniel Sisson, who, in his book The American Revolution of 1800, provides us with a careful, if overly favorable, study of Jefferson’s attitudes toward revolution and his commitment to the notion that his own election to the Presidency was itself a revolution in that it marked a radical change in the political life of America, which was tending toward Federalism and even the reestablishment of a monarchy — which is to say, the growing satisfaction on the part of the general population with an increase of central power. Jefferson saw his Presidency as an opportunity to return the nation to the people and place the sovereignty where it belonged, in the hands of the citizens, and lay to rest once and for all the desire that this nation should be governed by a monarch.

Sisson remarks at length about Jefferson’s “theoretical dream” and lists the conditions that Jefferson saw as precursors to every revolution:

Those conditions [Jefferson] enumerated at the end of his letter [to Madison] had been present in all despotisms throughout history and were particularly characteristic of the ancient regimes yet in power. Further, they could be summarized as those conditions that existed in America from 1760 to 1775: attempts by the government in power to maintain its authority were gradually undermined; laws became arbitrary; ‘obligations,’ once bearable, became ‘impositions’; traditional loyalties faded and new forms of attachment (outside the existing circle of government) became noticeable — the idea of community no longer held people’s attention to the interests of the nation; factions arose that exploited the frustrated classes in society; representatives no longer were representative, but spoke for the privileged few; accepted forms of wealth and income suddenly appeared corrupt or ‘ill-gained’; existing concepts of prestige changed; those people with talent, normally integrated into society, began to feel ‘left out.’ Indeed, this is the picture of an . . . emerging dialectic of two competing cultural systems warring against each other in the same society.

Santayana has told us that we need to read history or we will repeat its mistakes. Jefferson took that notion seriously and we should as well. The conditions Jefferson describes for us resemble in so many ways the conditions that persist in contemporary America. As Sisson points out, these are conditions that can lead to revolution or even to civil war. But there are mitigating factors at work in America today that may well prevent that from happening: schools that do not educate but simply train people to find mind-numbing jobs; news media that have degenerated to the level of mere entertainment, coupled with entertainment directed at a grammar-school mentality; electronic toys that mesmerize and lower I.Q.;  and wide-spread apathy brought on by complacency and ignorance. If Jefferson is right, then this translates into the loss of individual liberty — the very thing a republic was established to protect and preserve. But the majority of Americans seem unaware of this fact, or they just don’t care.

Military Intelligence

I was once told that the title phrase I have used here is an oxymoron. I am beginning to believe it is. The determination of those folks in uniform to use their deadly toys to “win” wars that no longer can have winners and simply breed new enemies is marginally stupid. It is not that surprising, however, when we consider the narrow minds that control a military organization that is focused entirely on one thing: fighting a war. No doubt, these people are sincere, not to say zealous. And that’s the problem, especially when the Commander In Chief they answer to seems to be intimidated by the uniform and willing to go along with pretty much any plan they come up with. History has taught us to be more circumspect.

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

During its infancy our nation was struggling to come to grips with the difficult problems of self-government. After the British were defeated and the states had ratified the Constitution, George Washington was the leader of a nation that was struggling to find its way in a confusing world without a road map. There were as yet no political parties, but there was a wide variety of groups who all thought they knew the best way to do things. The two major groups were led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. The former was concerned that the country maintain its republican principles and never again allow itself to be governed by a despot. The latter had aspirations to great power and a disarming fondness for things English. There was every reason to believe that Alexander Hamilton wanted to restore the monarchy, because he saw the republic as a nation of rabble who had no idea how to do the right thing. The battles in print between Jefferson (and his friend Madison) and Hamilton make interesting reading. But what is most interesting is the fact that on nearly every key decision that came up in Washington’s cabinet the president sided with Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson, his Secretary of State, was repeatedly left wondering what went wrong.

It’s not that Washington didn’t have confidence in Jefferson. On the contrary. But Hamilton was his aide-de-camp during the revolutionary war and as a close military friend he had Washington’s ear, and was clearly his fair-haired boy. When there was an uproar in Western Pennsylvania — later called the “Whiskey Rebellion” — Washington promoted Hamilton to the rank of General and put him in charge of a force of 15,000 men to quell the disturbance. This showed poor judgment on Washington’s part and led both Jefferson and Madison to worry that the appointment was a sign of senility on Washington’s part.  Both men were horrified: this was a nation founded on the principle of no standing army and here was one in their own back yard — lead by a man who had lofty aspirations and limitless ambition — and who regarded Julius Caesar as the greatest man who ever lived! Both Jefferson and Madison were convinced that this was the first step toward a counter-revolution, like the one they had recently witnessed in France. As it turned out, they were wrong — barely.

But the close association between the two military men, Washington and Hamilton, at a time when Washington stated publicly that he didn’t entirely trust the military mind, is worth noting. Clearly, Washington, who was one of the greatest presidents in our country’s history, allowed his judgment to be colored by his close association with the man he went to war with. One can understand it, but one can also worry that the military mind has its biases and does not always see things clearly.  Dwight Eisenhower knew this first-hand when, as President,  he presciently warned us about the military-industrial complex and famously said “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”

Compassionate Capitalism

Capitalism comes in many forms, from raw “free market” capitalism to the form we recognize in which capitalism is tempered somewhat by social programs to benefit those who might otherwise be excluded from the table of plenty where the capitalist sits and eats his fill. Robert Heilbroner wrote the definitive study of “raw” capitalism in 1985 and he characterized it as follows:

Its ideological aspect lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus accumulation. . . .The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material

world. — a point of view that would be impossible if the world were portrayed as ‘mother’ Nature.*

This view of the world was, of course, the view that Karl Marx attacked in this three-volume study of capitalism that led, eventually, to the establishment of socialism in countries like Russia and China. Marx was particularly concerned about the unethical dimensions of capitalism, its notion that the exploitation of workers was acceptable in the name of higher profits for the owners of the means of production. In fact, the ethical concerns raised by Marx were what carried the book to the popular heights it achieved later on; as a book on economics it was filled with flaws and misconceptions and is nearly unreadable. Marx’s economics rest, for example, on the “labor theory of value,” which has since been shown to be simplistic and downright unworkable.

Our country started out with what historians call “mercantile” capitalism, a form in which the mother country, Britain, dictated who the colonies were to trade with and to whom they could send exports. Most exports went directly to England, of course, while others were taxed heavily by Britain when sent elsewhere. In a word, the mother country called the shots and merchants and farmers who were eager to make profits in this country had to bend to the yoke willingly provided by Great Britain. This yoke eventually became a burden and erupted in the American revolution, of course. Indeed, Marx predicted that all forms of capitalism would eventually lead to revolution as the workers of the world would find their burden excessive and rise up and throw it off.

The fact that this has not happened in this country after the British yoke was thrown off is largely due to the growth and expansion of the middle class — a class that Karl Marx never saw evolving from the heart of capitalism. In addition, especially since the Great Depression, this country has introduced a number of social programs that have tempered capitalism and made it more compassionate, if you will — programs designed to assist those in need, those excluded (as mentioned above) from the table filled with rich foods that feed the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalist hierarchy. Also, a number of steps have been taken to temper the “rapacious” attitude of those in this country toward Mother Nature to whom they owe their very lives.

But the middle class and the social and environmental programs that make capitalism more compassionate have recently come under fire in the form of the Republican strategy to enrich those who control the wealth in this country and widen the gap between those with great wealth and those who are impoverished — while, at the same time, eliminating as far as possible those governmental restraints on further capitalist “rapaciousness” toward the planet. In a word, as the planet itself comes under attack, the middle class, which Karl Marx never saw coming, is in danger of falling into the chasm that is widening in this country as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. I discussed this in an earlier blog and it is reinforced by information collected by the Pew Research Center:

As the 2012 presidential candidates prepare their closing arguments to America’s middle class, they are courting a group that has endured a lost decade for economic well-being. Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some—but by no means all—of its characteristic faith in the future.

Will this eventually erupt in a revolution as Marx predicted? Is “Occupy Wall Street” a sign of things to come? Will our continued denial of the stewardship we owe Mother Earth finally catch up with us? Time will tell. But much depends on the awareness of the growing number of those at the bottom of the capitalist pyramid who may or may not realize what is occurring. As of this writing they seem content to remain in the dark.

__________________________________

Robert Heilbroner: The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton, Inc.), p. 135.

Political Hogwash!

“I think he cares for his country, don’t get me wrong about that, but I think he truly misunderstands what this country was based upon, the values that America was based upon, which was free enterprise and having the ability to risk your capital and having a chance to have a return on your investment,”

These are the garbled words of Rick Perry who is referring to President Obama whom he calls, in the same interview, a “socialist.” I have spoken about scare words like “socialist” in an earlier blog, so I won’t go there. I would prefer to reflect on the longer comment about the values Perry thinks this country was founded upon. One must wonder whether he ever read any of the founders’ words! Almost to a man, even the staunch Federalists had deep reservations about unbridled capitalism. They tried in any number of ways to put reins on human greed and see to it that no one became so wealthy they were a threat to found a new aristocracy.

One of the most common steps taken by every colony was to write into law prohibitions against “primogeniture”: the ability of a father to pass along his entire wealth to his eldest son. By the time of the Revolution all of the colonies had outlawed this practice, choosing instead a more equitable distribution of wealth through wills — what was called “partible inheritance.” The idea was to spread the wealth as much as possible and not allow it to accumulate in the hands of a few who would then become powerful, or worse yet, aristocratic. It didn’t always work that way, of course, but the point is that the values this country were founded upon are not to be found in raw, unbridled capitalism. Though most of the founders were not Puritans, they espoused largely Puritan values — such things as industry, courage, charity, and thrift. That is, the values that were prominent in the eighteenth century were other-directed and most assuredly unrelated to the “return on your investment.” Perry is deluded and is simply trying to re-write history as he slanders the President. What he says is hogwash.

When we take these words together with candidate Michele Bachmann’s praise of the residents of New Hampshire for the courage their ancestors showed in the local battle of Lexington and Concord, we must assume that the corporations who back these candidates don’t choose them for their intelligence and knowledge of history, but for their malleability. It would be wise to brace ourselves: there will be more of this sort of nonsense in the coming months, not less.