Sunday, October 12, 2008


Over on Truthdig, Chalmers Johnson reviews Sheldon Wolin’s new book “Democracy, Incorporated”. I’m reading the book myself at the moment, but Johnson’s review alone prompts several thoughts. (

Wolin recalls to Us the ancient Greek concept of the ‘demos’, the citizenry – whence We derive ‘democracy’ (and whence I derive my habit of capitalizing ‘The People’ and the personal pronouns ‘We’, ‘Us’, and ‘Our’ when referring to the American citizenry in that common capacity and role and identity as The People, as that ‘demos’ envisioned by the Greeks).

Johnson takes Madison and the Founding vision somewhat to task for its “elitism”, nor does he use that term in its current, queasy and almost mendacious Politically Correct term so favored by the Identities and so recently deployed by Hillary Clinton in response to a question as to why she was having such large ‘ideas’ for public policy without conferring with at least a few people who have dedicated their lives to learning the facts. “Facts”, famously, “don’t matter” to revolutionaries or inside the Beltway.

I wouldn’t go quite so far, although I respect Johnson’s and Wolin’s concerns. The Founders were ‘wary’ of direct rule by the demos, by the citizenry, but they were also very certain that they did not want to see ‘monarchical’ and ‘tyrannical’ rule by kings and aristocracies.

The huge loss of the Moment of 1968 – as I call it – was that the possibility of recovering the great democratic strides made in FDR’s first two administrations was quickly strangled and trampled by the Democrats’ mistaken (I would like to hope) embrace of the already bitterly divided ‘black power’ revolutionism of the post-King phase of what had been the marvelous ‘civil rights’ movement, and the outright ‘revolutionary’ content and method of feminism of the Second Wave, which was dedicated to warring upon the male half of the population and of grasping control of political power to carry that war on.

Neither of these first ‘Identities’ (not to be simplistically identified as ‘blacks’ and ‘women’ in general) were committed to anything less – whether they had taken the trouble to look at the hugely probable consequences or not – than the fracturing of the American communal ‘identity’. And that is precisely what has come to pass.

And it was as surely predictable and observable as was the march to financial catastrophe that could be seen as early as Nixon’s day, glared blindingly in any attentive eye in Reagan’s day, but has become so brutally clear in this most recent – and possibly irreversible – financial mess today.

How to avoid both monarchy and yet also the fathomless dangers of any Tom, Dick, or Gwendolyn simply stepping up to the controls and having a go? Jefferson hoped that We would be able to nurture and recognize a “natural aristocracy” of talented citizens, well-formed in character and dedicated to the rational pursuit of the common weal, free from selfish interests for enrichment in any form. That was a consummation devoutly to be wished, but flew (and flies) in the face of human nature, at least as it has been somewhat revealed throughout human history.

The Founders took a less hopeful, more prudent course. They built the checks-and-balances to prevent anybody from fully controlling the Branches. And they also provided not only a House with more popular election, but a Senate that would be drawn from those among the citizens who had at least some experience in ‘responsibility’ in managing earthly affairs – not a guarantee of character and virtue, surely. But they had not so many idealistic hopes for The People as would develop later on, although the concept of a truly competent People serving as the Ground of the Branches, the struts that anchored the entire ferris-wheel contraption of constitutional government … that concept was implicit in the era of the Founding itself.

Wolin and Johnson are both accurate when they advert to the accretion of political control around the propertied class that occurred over time – bolstered especially by the massive (for the time) centralization of the Civil War era, the erection of the ‘corporation’, and the massive amount of money that became concentrated in very few hands during the First Gilded Age, as the country began to tap its huge resources for industrial expansion. And – almost inevitably – for the expansion of its markets, leading in no uncertain terms to McKinley’s purposeful but cleverly-disguised war with Spain for the large purpose of securing the Philippine ‘enduring base’ (if I may) to position American business for the great China ‘market’, as Walter Karp so deftly describes.

Teddy Roosevelt’s deployment of the power of the federal government to counter the weight of the ‘interests’ – the now monster-sized corporations – on behalf of the rest of the citizenry was wise and almost noble in its way, but undercut by his equally cocky and adventurous determination to ‘show the world’ what America could ‘do’ – he was personally a perfect fit for American expansion, having willfully developed from a childish weakling to a more robust maturity (physically, at least) and – in a way not fully realized these days – having been too young to have participated in the ‘glory’ and ‘heroism’ of Union service in the increasingly hallowed Civil War.

Wilson’s almost maniacal self-importance led that gentleman, not twenty years later, to maneuver the U.S. into the Great War, on the pretext of warring to end all war, a Herculean task for which he felt himself most peculiarly and gloriously suited. A massive growth of government control over the American citizenry followed, symbolized perhaps by the rise of an obscure government clerk of curious sexual proclivity to become the head of a nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation.

FDR had to face the monstrous results of unbridled financial shenanigans by the propertied classes, now far and away mutated beyond the wealthy but educated landowners of the Founding era. The Depression raised the possibility that the ‘demos’ would rise up against the government that had failed to serve them in equity and justice, and yet FDR’s efforts actually resulted in a plot by the propertied to overthrow him (recently described by Alan Nasser on Counterpunch, “FDR’s Response to the Plot to Overthrow Him”, October 3-5, 2008); the plotters miscalculated by approaching then-famous Marine general Smedley Butler, who – in an act of civic courage not recently seen among the starred-set – reported the whole thing to the President, who nipped the plot in the bud, though he then quietly avoided exposing the assorted Rockefellers, Mellons, Pews, Duponts, and Heinzes and others who were behind the thing. Present Beltway approval of large detention camps and private military forces, as well as a militarized police, may not have simply jumped full-blown from the fetid minds of the Bush banditti. Absent Smedley Butler, it can be wondered how the Marines will behave themselves this time around.

The American citizenry, it is to be recalled, put up with a lot of tough times without recourse to overthrowing the government. Leaving the glorious wealthy – as a matter of historical fact – as the greatest threat to the constitutional government of the United States since the secession of the Confederacy. Lest We forget. In fact, since the Confederates saw themselves not as overthrowing the U.S. government, but rather as starting their own government, then the very-rich go to the top of the 'dangerous' column. Bets on whether Bush has put them on any lists?

Johnson notes that Wolin has termed Our present monstrous challenge “inverted totalitarianism”. By this Wolin means that instead of the overt imperialist and fascist governments of the last century, wherein the government took control and flaunted itself as having done so, the present ‘totalitarianism’ that has been brewing is sort of a ‘button-down’ affair whereby the now-engorged networks of corporations exercise control over the government and – with touching respect for the temper of the times – do so ‘benevolently’, as merely the next logical step in the working-out of America’s historical destiny to bring peace and freedom to all the world and closure to all its victims.

I had mentioned not long ago, following Walter Karp’s discussion of the years 1976-1988 in his “Liberty Under Siege”, that it was the Democratic leadership’s revulsion at Carter’s populist plans that caused them to undercut him – a President of their own Party – so as to preserve their own power. And with that, the Democratic erection of PACs, both to ensure their cash sources (the almost-immediate fracturing resulting from Identity Politics having convinced them that they wouldn’t be able to rely on donations from large numbers of voters) and to assure the corporations that they had a friend in the Democratic Party.

I’d add that by that time, it was already clear that America’s industrial capacity was falling both in relative and absolute terms and if there was to be any ‘economy’ at all, it would have to be whatever ‘business’ the corporations – and then the lords of the F.I.R.E. sector – decided to carry on, in whatever fashion they chose to do so. Reagan’s election in 1980 only intensified this dynamic.

“Market forces”, shrewdly and intensely advertised, began to drive Our national activity. And not in ways that would help the little people, the ‘demos’. The requirement then became for a citizenry that was really nothing more than a corporate workforce, taking its orders and settling for whatever wage it was decided to give them. The expansion of ‘credit’ in the 1980s allowed ‘ordinary people’ to buy luxuries and foreign cars while simultaneously keeping up the appearance that the great trajectory of American financial wealth and power for all its people was continuing – with Reagan’s MGM-ish stage management – even as the citizenry were being debauched into a modern-day enserfment.

But it was all smoke and mirrors – or, more literally, paper.

And in an echo of McKinley, who engineered the American ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht’ with the lubricant of God’s will to Freedom and Democracy, the now-debauched government continued its overseas machinations for expanded financial vitality under the banner of ‘humanitarian intervention’, saving the ‘victims’ overseas as it was riding to the rescue of ‘victims’ at home. Unlike at home, however, the erstwhile ‘victims’ overseas quickly figured out what was going on – and began shooting back.

Just as the ‘paper tiger’ (to think that Mao got that right, at least) began to choke on its paper.

Thus Our present situation.

The whole of the New Deal has been disassembled, not through outright class war but through the “selective abdication” of the government for the well-being of The People, and since the early 1970s behind the massive dust-clouds raised by the hardly-clear demands of the Identities, which were then also incorporated into the cloak by which “inverted totalitarianism” has continued to subvert the Republic and The People.


And in that regard, this country’s incomprehensible imprisonment rate, and the insinuation of ‘registries’ and restrictions of all sorts imposed on the utterly fabricated category of ‘sex offenders’ can be seen as merely the first-phase tests to establish a larger and more thorough control over the activities of The People, and as a mechanism for guaranteeing the acquiescence of The People in whatever it is that the corporate-government decides.

This is not an encouraging state of affairs. We are “meanly losing” this Republic, just as Lincoln feared. Just as Franklin intimated when he said that We had “a democracy – if you can keep it”. It may well be that this generation cannot “keep it”. And what may be lost on Our watch can never be regained.

Indeed, Johnson seems to feel that Wolin’s proposals at the end of his book are insufficient to save the situation. He says that “once the United States has followed the classical totalitarianisms into the dustbins of history, Wolin’s analysis will stand as one of the best discourses on where we went wrong”.


It seems to me that the first key change has to be disconnecting Congress from its enwhorement to corporate cash: repeal – by popular referendum or Constitutional Amendment if Congress can’t muster the character to do it legislatively – the PACs. A PAC is not a vehicle for individual ‘free speech’; it is a legal vehicle for bribing Congress away from its sworn allegiance and responsibility. Of course, the Supreme Court might reconsider its approval of the PAC – and I am loathe to presume that the Court cannot ‘find itself’ after its initial collaboration with the insidious forces corrupting Us. Slowly, now, the State Supreme Courts are even starting to put the brakes on the sex-offender mania, so who knows what is possible for jurists who can exercise reason and independence?

And in the matter of Law, I think it is also essential to worry about the militarization of Law – on top of so much else – in Our society. The military justice approach – an official ‘arm’ of the command, guided by the supreme objective that the ‘command’ will ‘win’ any case – has migrated into civilian law with noxious effects. The gravamen of the Patriot Act and all its spawn is not at all abhorrent to the military system, a hierarchical, top-down organization completely trained to obey orders and achieve that ‘victory’; no other consideration can be allowed to override that prime objective, to interfere with the hierarchy’s definition of ‘victory’ or its achievement. And that organizing-to-win destroys the checks-and-balances wisely and uniquely built into the system of adversarial justice. And it becomes militarized justice. And militarization is no guarantee of success, as We are seeing on the Eastern Front.

The second key change is to re-establish the independence of the media: no more centralization of ownership of large numbers of outlets, no more treating media outlets as ‘cash cows’ or ‘cost and profit centers’ for corporate owners that have no expertise in, or dedication to, the role of ‘the press’ in a free society.

By these two changes – if quickly effected – We can start getting accurate information and then start making Our mind known to a Congress that actually relies on Us rather than on corporate paymasters.

The danger remains that the dubiously grounded and toxic agitprop of the Identities – hiding under the oxymoronic “radical politics” of the past few decades – will simply be revived by those Identities and their engorged Advocacies, and thus the huge mistake following ’68 will be repeated.

And this is where We must exercise the common will to assert once again FDR’s ringing affirmation: “We are Americans”. Not black or white, not male or female, not ‘oppressed’ or ‘victims’ – but Americans, responsible for the flawed but marvelous gifts of the Republic and the Constitution.

So if you’re not planning to do much shopping this holiday season, I think there’s still a lot that could usefully occupy your time and energies. And if under the tree at Christmas there are not so many gifts, but there is the Constitution and the Republic in the flush of “a new birth of freedom”, well I’d say it’s a gift worth giving. Or getting back again.

Only a certain number of shopping days left now.

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