I Am Not the State
Posted in: Occupy Wall Street
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell.*
I am not the State. I am not the Government. I am not capitalism.
The social arrangements that constitute the State, the government and the economy are choices made in the past and put in place by others for reasons of their own. The arrangements have been modified over the centuries, by other people for reasons of their own. Over time, the arrangements, especially the economic arrangements, have reached the point where they seem inevitable.
The Declaration of Independence makes this astonishing claim:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
There were no governments existing in 1776 for which this claim was true. States and governments and economies came into existence based on force and war, not based on the consent of the governed. Once stated, however, this claim took on a life of its own. Over the centuries, our ancestors have worked to make it as true as possible in their day.
The Constitution was designed to protect the interests of property-owners, to create an economy that protects the interests of the few rich people, the Oligarchy. The rich in each generation have worked assiduously to protect their advantages. They used their economic power to crush ordinary people. Think of the post-Civil War period, when depressions came regularly, financiers cheated people and used the government as a treasure box for their own advantage. As Howard Zinn says in A People’s History of the United States, each time the Oligarchy destroyed too many people, government did just enough to mollify the masses, just enough to keep people from revolting, and as time passed and people forgot why those changes were made, the Oligarchy found ways to evade them.
The principle that people create their government is lovely in theory, but ugly in practice. John Dewey made it operational in his book The Public and Its Problems, saying that the purpose of government is to protect people from the indirect consequences of the actions of others. This idea works well for small communities. Dewey talks about the Public, separate from the government and the state. Normally we are a collection of atomist individualists. A Public comes into existence when as a group we become aware of a problem, and seek a solution. The responsibility for carrying out those solutions is given to the government. The government and the Public together constitute the State.
Dewey notes that Constitution itself was designed to carry a group of small communities, small Publics, into a bigger whole. The Electoral Congress is a good example. It assumes that small communities will elect good people from their midst to select the best person to be president. The idea of state legislatures electing Senators to the supposedly more deliberative body is another example.
What happened to the idea of a Public protecting itself from the indirect consequences of the actions of others? How can we even begin to do that? John Dewey describes the problem as it existed in 1926:
An inchoate public is capable of organization only when indirect consequences are perceived, and when it is possible to project agencies which order their occurrence. At present, many consequences are felt rather than perceived; they are suffered, but they cannot be said to be known, for they are not, by those who experience them, referred to their origins. It goes, then, without saying that agencies are not established which canalize the streams of social action and thereby regulate them. Hence the publics are amorphous and unarticulated.
What was true in 1926 is true today. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Crash, there is no Public aware of the problem. The consequences of the actions of government are felt, not understood. There is suffering, but there is no understanding of why. The crash was the result of actions of a few, but there is no one to say who exactly did what exactly. Regulators cower. Legislators hide. Presidents abdicate their duty to enforce the law. The Oligarchy shouts its false problems and fake solutions through its control of the mass media, and channels inarticulate pain into conservative politics. The Oligarchs get away with all their stolen money safely hidden.
We begged the government to correct the situation. We threw out the Republicans and replaced them with the only other party. We expected change, we hoped for change, and we got nothing. War, secrecy and police crowd control increased. The oligarchy used its monstrous economic power to cow every single government official into crass and craven submission. They put their lying lobbyists, their tool lawyers and pet seal economists to work destroying regulation under the weakling new laws. They increased their share of the income from the labor of others.
The government failed to protect us from the indirect consequences of actions of the Oligarchy. The Oligarchy is still trying to channel that recognition into politics, where it can control the outcome. That must not happen.
It is our turn to make the government an instrument of the governed, by our consent, just as our ancestors tried to do in their day.
I am not the government. I am not the state. I am not capitalism.
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