“Four Score and Seven Years Ago”:
Optimistic pessimism as we steamroll towards disaster
Somewhere, perhaps in an afterlife outside of time and space, Troy’s Cassandra and Eric Arthur Blair, born in Motihari, India, on June 25, 1903 (George Orwell to us) sip ambrosia and, helpless but not hapless, look down at our strange new world, one they’d both foreseen. Neither chuckles. This is a rant, of sorts. Perhaps even a very strange poem if, among the clashing concepts defining poetry, one includes something that transmits the author’s emotions writ on mirrors for others to digest and, integrating them with their own perceptions, generate a unique series of constantly changing syntheses.
So, … here goes:
In today’s United States (and in much of the rest of the world), incoherence, hypocrisy and hysteria rule, corruption safely ensconced as investigating it is deemed an impeachable offense, an irony constantly drummed into our consciousness, collective as well as individual, by a thoroughly corrupt mainstream media in service to its billionaire, neoliberal-neoconservative-Deep State masters. With the exception of Hawaii Congresswoman and Army reserve major Tulsi Gabbard, the choices for United States and hence world leadership in 2021 look not only dismal but putrid, the filtering process involved in United States presidential elections, as usual, leaving us with no adequate choices. The electorate, as planned and implemented, is thoroughly polarized and speaking of polls (somewhat), the polls are, as usual, all “pull” and few facts.
“Democracy”, as that term is used today, is a concept riddled with contradictions and bereft of meaning. Consequently, it ought not to be surprising that it is non-functional. It’s an illusion, a political opiate that at best merely provides annoying hurdles to overcome for those who wield power and direct our lives, those who see merely us as tools and weapons in their internecine but very profitable strife. Still, those hurdles sometimes shatter unexpectedly, creating a chaotic cacophony from which the unforeseen sometimes, like a phoenix, arises triumphant. Unfortunately, just as often, the unforeseen merely drops on our collective heads, like a charred vulture drenched in human sludge.
“Democracy”, in its fundamental sense as majority rule and nothing more, is, notwithstanding the contrary propaganda with which we are deluged, inconsistent with liberty, plurality or human rights and incompatible with federalism, thus it is ensconced in constitutional constraints that render it, at best, dysfunctional. “Disfunctionality”, as reformed addicts of all stripes can tell you, is not synonymous with non-functionality but rather reflects functioning in great pain. Great pain we have plenty of, and more and more as time goes on. Perhaps that’s why the principal characteristic shared by so-called democracies is political abstention by the electorate, just what political and economic elites hope for.
Today, as I write (I started on the 17th of October, 2019 so I’ll use that day as the standard), the phrase “four score and seven years ago” keeps echoing in my mind. Perhaps that’s because it’s all too easy (for me at least) to imagine another United States president assassinated (the 20 year cycle for deaths in office broken by Ronald Reagan is due to resume in 2020) shortly after a disastrous civil conflict that raises as many problems as it resolved, if not solved (the two concepts really are different). The odor of civil disaster swirls like smoke in the wind and, as in the fall of 1859 one-hundred-and-sixty years ago, the probabilities involved seem indiscernible to most, especially those most involved in fanning the flames necessary to attain it (or perhaps they do discern the risk but just don’t care; perhaps they even welcome it). Political, social, cultural, racial, gender and class polarization now rival football, baseball, basketball and hockey as the national pastimes, red capes waving in the faces of bulls in china shops everywhere. “Truth” has become utterly irrelevant, especially in politics and what passes for journalism. Political power, the key to attaining and maintaining economic dominance, has become an irresistible addiction and, in what passes for democracy today, subterfuge is key.
When Lincoln first uttered the referenced phrase in 1863, four score and seven years had passed since rebellious British colonies had proclaimed their independence based on duplicitous premises artfully penned by one of our greatest hypocrites, the misogynist slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence, like the movement that spawned it, was actually based on a desire to continue exploitation of America’s indigenous population by our “Founding Fathers”, who, like the current president of the United States, were in large part developers of real estate they did not own at the expense of others, and needed to eliminate British imposed impediments to their “entrepreneurial” aspirations (see “How the Proclamation Line of 1763 Sparked the American Revolution”).
For us, four score and seven years ago was October 17th, 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was running for president against Herbert Hoover (whom he’d once lauded as the best possible option for that role). The Great Depression was at its height. Abroad, fascism wrestled with communism for supremacy in light of democracy’s polarizing ineptitude. At home, desperation and hopelessness seemed the rule. Amazingly, we survived those crises, although all too many lessons that should have been learned as a consequence of the ensuing tragedies, e.g., World War II, the Holocaust, etc., have all too quickly been forgotten. I wonder what four score and seven years from now will be like and whether anyone from our species will be left to ponder the questions that assail me today.
Being an optimist with three wonderful sons, three wonderful granddaughters and two amazing daughters-in-law, I certainly hope so. In fact, on a local level, like most of us my life is filled with people I care for and admire. My dearest dream for our future would involve a synthesis between the world evoked by John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the Star Trek universe: national boundaries, racism and xenophobia having become either anachronistic or extinct, capitalism a concept evolved into a mere memory with only positive residue motivating us to greater and greater social and civic triumphs. Democratic socialism, ironically a variant of the message of hope, caring and sharing ascribed to the mythical Yeshua ben Miriam, become somehow functional. Today, that does not look all that likely. “Truth” is what has become anachronistic, and civility and decency and discourse, replaced by a twenty-four-seven propaganda cycle spewed by would be putschists disguised as journalists; wannabe fantasy writers whose motto seems to be ‘once bought we stay bought and render loyal service”. Honorable in a strange and very perverse fashion.
How likely then is it that we can survive this?
At first blush, not very given the reality that the crude legume based limerick “beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you fart, the more you fart the better you feel, so eat your beans with every meal” has more common sense and more decency, more useful information than the purported “information” presented to us constantly, without respite, by news networks like CNN and MSNBC and Fox, and major periodicals like Carlos Slims’ New York Times and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post. But then, although our survival as a species has never really seemed probable, defying the odds, at least until now, has been our species’ secret weapon.
So much for pessimism, now the optimist breaks through … sort of.
Is our skewed concept of “democracy” at fault? Is it more of a danger than a solution? More and more people seem to think so, some publicly but the most jaded among us in private, all the while publicly extolling its virtues and claiming to act in its name. Information, accurate and complete, is the lifeblood of democracy and an honest and efficient news media is the heart necessary for its circulation but we have neither today (other than the drips and drabs that escape Orwellian Internet censorship through alternative sources, much to the chagrin of the purportedly media “big boys”). Of course, democracy has never really existed, nor has its verisimilitude ever really worked, and the “representative” democracy created by Madison and Hamilton was never really meant to work, it did not involve democracy at all but rather, just an oligarchic concept trussed up in sheep’s clothing. Still, I personally believe that if we could implement real democracy, especially in light of technological innovations, it might work. In fact, a number of the concepts we extoll or criticize despite the fact they’ve never really been tried on a large scale or long term basis might also work. Concepts like “capitalism”, or “communism” for example (I sense the shock, disbelief and outrage), or pacifism, or justice, all illusory so far but perhaps possible. Given all the play and praise or criticism they receive and the billions, probably trillions of words dedicated to their description, they have yet to be tried and certainly yet to be implemented although sematic dissimulation and rhetoric lead most of us to believe otherwise.
Playing with definitions and premises and facts deludes us so let’s strip some of those concepts to basics so we can attempt to understand what we’re considering:
· If capitalism is defined as an economic concept based on unfettered supply, demand and competition, it cannot coexist with government granted privileges such as franchises and intellectual property rights, and those have always been in play restricting competition and facilitating price manipulation by producers. Thus, what we are sold is really entrepreneurial welfare. The concept of private property as an evolution from collective property is well described by John Locke, one of the most impactful philosophers in modern political theory. While acknowledging that by nature the concept of property is collective (the essential argument of communism), he observed that when individuals add unique value to collective property, such as when land is farmed, its privatization is justified and it becomes private property. Of course, that begs the question as to what happens when the added value disappears, when private property lies fallow or unused as when intellectual property rights are “warehoused”. Today, the vast majority of wealth and the exponentially increasing gulf between the wealthiest and the poorest among us, indeed, the vast difference in wealth between the top tenth of one percent and the rest of us is based on property rights as to which the added value element essential to making it “private” has been drained, or indeed, never existed. It is amazing that wealth creation today is based much less on hard work and useful innovation than it is on the creation of illusory financial instruments by crafty financiers (think hedge funds) with no really representative value, and on inherited wealth by people who did nothing to earn it, as disclosed in French economist Thomas Piketty’s seminal research reflected in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see, e.g., “Piketty’s Inequality Story in Six Charts”, The New Yorker).
· Communism eliminates the concepts of both private property and state compulsion, a Christ-like utopia of selflessly good, hardworking moralists. I know of only one historical example and that is the Jerusalem Community (see “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?”, New York Times) purportedly founded by the original apostles and disciples of the legendary Bethlehemite, Yeshua ben Miriam, but Saul of Tarsus quickly corrupted that experiment with foreign donations. Fascinating that Saul, better known as Saint Paul, most exemplifies the Biblical Serpent and had he not actually founded Christianity as we know it today, would have made the perfect anti-Christ. Certainly the myriad governments that arose and mostly fell during the twentieth century under the guise of Communist Parties were very different things.
· “Democratic socialism” is an interesting concept but it has been successfully made incomprehensible by its opponents. They have succeeded in doing so by turning descriptive phraseology into unexplained pejoratives, bogyman words: “socialism” being portrayed as a synonym for evil and authoritarianism and theft of what ought to be private. Few things could be further from the truth as proponents as varied as Albert Einstein, Noam Chomsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and many more could explain and have explained. In essence, it is merely a synthesis between the realization that we have two essential natures, one individual and one collective, that at times such natures will conflict and that all reasonable efforts must be taken to reconcile them but, if reconciliation is not possible, that our social natures must predominate. It is the concept philosopher John Stuart Mills, rebelling from the property and contract-centric notions of his father and his godfather (John Mills and Jeremy Bentham respectively), sensed when he spoke of the “greatest good for the greatest number”, the concept reflected in popular culture of the second half of the twentieth century in the Star Trek series when the popular character Spock (no first name needed) spoke of the “needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few” (although today the debate would be more accurately phrased as “the desperate needs of the many outweighing the ludicrously extravagant luxuries of the very, very few”). It does not, as its opponents in scaremonger mode insist, demand the extinguishment of individual rights and private property but it does properly analyze the concept of private property enunciated by philosopher John Locke and described above.
Using the examples of failed non-democratic socialist regimes as illustrations of democratic socialism is as inaccurate as claiming that the Republic of Haiti is representative of capitalism. A complicating factor is our tendency, either through ignorance or malice, to deliberately mix metaphorical apples with salami (pears are not different enough). Societies are comprised of complex combinations of systems and subsystems at varying levels and their analysis should be constrained by the typology of the systems being compared. Thus, economic systems should be compared with economic systems and not with political systems, or cultural systems, or religious systems, etc. Thus one can have authoritarian and non-authoritarian models for socialism or capitalism or communism or fascism but each element should be evaluated separately. Equating socialism with authoritarianism is a deception and the same is true with respect to capitalism. The same applies to democracy, it can be coupled with libertarian values, authoritarian values or totalitarian. Hitler was overwhelmingly elected, hence a democratic model, but certainly not libertarian. A similar situation arises, for example, with Cuba and China, much more democratic than, for example, the United States or the United Kingdom, in terms of popular participation in the electoral process, but perhaps significantly less libertarian. Using the same countries for purposes of comparing respect for human rights, Cuba and China are much more respective of cultural, social and economic rights but lag behind the United States and United Kingdom with respect to rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of association, free speech and a free press.
Democracy, and only direct democracy qualifies conceptually (the other variants all being oligarchic in essence), democracy in the Athenian sense, was at best dysfunctional and incoherent given that most people were excluded from participation. Indeed, even in theory, it could only function in a slave society, something Thomas Jefferson understood. It was certainly not something the Founding Fathers “strove to bring forth on this Continent”, rather, their fear of the unlettered masses is reflected in virtually every institution created under the Constitution of 1787–89 (under which we currently live), especially the federal judiciary which, much more than the executive, involves imperial prerogatives and powers to unelected, life tenured aristocracy. Today’s polarized judiciary makes that absolutely clear as usurpation of executive as well as legislative functions and prerogatives in support of or opposition to partisan political policies seems more and more the rule rather than the exception.
Still, perhaps a government based on expressed popular rather than oligarchic will could work if, as in the case of the ancient Hellenes (or at least some among them), political participation was deemed a fundamental duty rather than a fundamental right. If the vast majority of decisions were made at the local level in all inclusive popular assemblies rather than in distant centralized capitals, and if the death penalty were reserved for violation of the public trust. Of course, an essential element would involve vastly simplified international relations based on enforced concepts of mutual respect and equal status and the elimination of coercive force, whether military or economic, as a dispute resolution medium, and today that seems significantly less likely than it did “four score and seven years” ago. Common people, at least those who manage to survive, share a fount of practical wisdom which enable most of them to earn their daily bread, to raise their families providing adequate shelter and clothing and education, both formal and practical. Parents provide quotidian examples of selflessness frequently working multiple jobs to provide better futures for their descendants (instead of hobbling them with generational debt), neighbors provide quotidian examples of charity and cooperation, all elements sadly lacking, except in their narratives and discourse, from those who currently rule us. In my experience with successful societies, it is not governments that make them possible but rather, they somehow thrive despite the selfishness of those entrusted with governance. That is not to say that the mass collaboration made possible through social institutions, among them governments, is not useful, or in many cases, essential, but rather, that the locus of political power ought to percolate from below rather than be imposed from above, imposed by elites, whether moral or selfish. So yes, in light of the foregoing, real democracy might well work, … were it ever given a chance, real democracy, perhaps in the context of democratic socialism, or real capitalism, or even real communism.
So, back to “four score and seven years from now”, or even months from now, what might we expect?
In the midst of total deliberate polarizing obfuscation by those on whom we are forced to rely for information but whom we have sense enough not to trust, it seems impossible to predict. In the United States we are living under an unusual presidency, one led by an individualist who tries to govern outside the box carefully crafted by the neoliberal (globalist) — neoconservative (military interventionist) cabal, a conglomerate of our most devious and selfish individualists, those who have orchestrated a pre-scripted, violent reaction on their behalf against the current admittedly far-from-perfect administration (one virtually indistinguishable from its predecessors). A group that includes almost all leading Democratic Party politicians (congresswoman and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard being a possible exception), many traditionalist Republican politicians, virtually all of the self-denominated “mainstream” media and the conglomerate of imbedded bureaucrats and functionaries many of us are referring to as the Deep State. Their collective faith in our gullibility is amazing and highly insulting, a faith based on the belief that volume and repetition of narratives, regardless of how inaccurate, incoherent, illogical or hypocritical, will overcome our common sense. Neither group offers real long term solutions to our problems of which there are many and varied, preferring merely different variants of the status quo.
Is there nothing we can do, ourselves, without counting on our current leaders, to save something for our progeny?
It really is up to us, possibly under the much maligned banner of “populism”, a democratic reaction against imposed elitist policies disregarding constraints and restraints on public governance imposed in the guise of constitutional institutions. “Populism”, neither an individualistic nor collective philosophy but rather, a mood of dissatisfaction with things as they are that scares elites and their tools (political, journalistic, financial and military) to death. The kind of reaction that swept the current United States president into power, and the current British prime minister but also Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Mohandas Gandhi in India and Evo Morales in Bolivia and Pepe Mujica in Uruguay, unpredictable chain reactions that delight the Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame.
Perhaps into our own hands we need to commend our souls.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2019; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at www.guillermocalvo.com.