A Forgotten Resource, the American Spirit
- part two -
Economic Tyranny and the American Spirit
Whatever efforts are made in America, and elsewhere, to subdue the overreaching of corporate power into the lives of ordinary people (e.g. Ronnie Dugger's Alliance impulse), nothing can be changed until those concerned find in themselves that same emotional core from which America's founders drew in order to refuse any longer to submit to the tyrannical impulses of the old aristocracies. We need to realize that nothing will be gained without sacrifice. All must be put at risk: the security of our homes, our families, our current freedoms, and our individual lives.
But even that core of being, that source of courage, will be insufficient unless there is something else done, which is even more necessary. Human societies are much more complicated then that stark analysis which places the greatest blame for our current woes on corporate overreaching. Economics is only one aspect of civilization, and while it is currently out of control, it is not to be set within its proper limits unless other elements of civilization are brought to bear. Thus, while we on one hand must organize, must stand up and proclaim No More!, at the same time we need to deepen our understanding of what makes a Nation, what makes a People, and what makes a civilized society. Organize, yes. But even more crucially, think it through!
America was founded out of a number of impulses. The discovery of a new world was one. The need to flee oppression, another. The colonies would have remained English, but for the fact that the English aristocracy went too far. This is a crucial point. Our ancestors were forced into choices. While America is a Nation based on an Ideal, its impelling impulse was not that Ideal, but rather the overreaching of the hereditary aristocracy. Only after it becomes necessary to resist tyranny, because that tyranny asks too much, does it then become possible to conceive a new nation, and to organize that Nation around new Ideals.
Thus, there is this similarity between then and now; namely, that corporate overreaching has gone too far, and people are beginning to accept the need to restrain it. But there are differences between then and now and it is these differences which are most crucial. Economic Tyranny is a thing much different from the tyranny of the old aristocracies. The main difference is that its power and influence is much less direct and much more hidden and invisible. We know instinctively that concentrated wealth goes too far, but the means is not so obvious as it was with aristocratic abuses.
One thing is the same, namely the shameless display of wealth in which the leading elites live out their excessive life styles. But, just as in the time of the aristocracies, the money changers hide their activities, lead less public lives and strive to remain hidden from the public eye because they instinctively realize the danger of flaunting their greed and ill-gotten fortune. Moreover, we need to realize that merely to name the corporations, to name concentrated wealth, to point out the money changers, this is not enough. For the true Name of these abuses is Tyranny, and more importantly the true Nature of this tyranny is Evil.
Of the many ideas and words we can use to come to a deeper and more thorough understanding of our modern dilemmas, the word "evil" is one of the most essential, but is also one of the more dangerous. The religious in our culture mean one thing and many movie makers another. One politician calls the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and makes demographic points but adds nothing to our understanding. We need to use "evil" in a way that aids our understanding, and nor merely as an epithet. This is not so difficult if we think carefully on it.
First we look to ourselves. We know ourselves what evil is for we have this darkness inside us as well. We lie easily to our bosses, our spouses, or our children when it is convenient and saves us small troubles. If given too much change, how many notice it but do not correct the situation and instead take advantage of it. We gossip excessively, forming our own little groups and saying terrible and unjustified things about those outside our own group. We have many impulses we cannot control, alcohol, smoking, more serious drugs. What family does not have an addictive member, does not have divorce, does not neglect in many small ways the needs of the children and the elderly? The list can go on and on. Evil flows into the world from human beings. It was always this way, and will always be this way.
Evil is also a spectrum; there are greater and lesser evils, and individuals who give themselves over more than others to such impulses. History tells us that this darkness in the soul leads to certain consequences of various kinds. One, which is most significant for us to understand, is that certain evil impulses attract power and wealth, like flies to honey. Balzac's dictum is that behind all great wealth lies a great crime. In a world which has great saints, great souls, so also does it have great sinners, individuals whose denial of their own humanity grants them extraordinary cleverness in the pursuit of their desires. We sometimes make a joke of evil genius, but history has shown us many, and our modern life is full of them as well.
Thus, we need to realize that it is not corporations per se, or even concentrations of wealth, in which economic tyranny is rooted, but rather it flows from the darkness in the souls of human beings, and this darkness becomes an organizing principle in how societies work and live, and grow and die and then become something new.
What this means as a practical matter is that it is not adequate to the task merely to notice that corporations abuse workers, or that making money using money itself as a commodity creates nothing and merely redistributes wealth upwards, or that Central Banks exist to serve the needs of wealth and not the needs of ordinary people, or that concentrated wealth abuses and corrupts our political processes, or any of the hundreds of other unnecessary and unhealthy consequences of our current economic order. Rather we must see that, in what has to be understood as a quite natural reality, the darkness expressed by human beings creates in its wake many consequences, only one of which is an economic hierarchy in which the top one percent uses as their servants, or their prey, the bottom ninety-nine.
With this understanding a great deal can be accomplished. First we give the true name to the opponent of our freedoms and this name is: the evil tyranny of concentrated wealth. Second we give human faces to the perpetrators of this evil. It is dillusional to see Exxon as an evil entity, when it is the decisions makers at the top, and the gods they worship that need to be named. Is Bill Gates' desire to form the world according to his personal vision an act of corporate tyranny, an excessive use of financial power and privilege? Yes! Do we need to confront this directly and to name as false the gods he worships (personal wealth and power, the bottom line, the stockholder, the market etc.)? Yes! Until we give faces to these actors and names to their base impulses, we falsify our picture of the world and live amidst illusions and ghosts.
Our next task is then to see more clearly the nature of our enslavement, and this means first to understand what a tyranny truly is.
Fundamentally tyranny is the abuse of power. In colonial times that power had over centuries come to reside in the hands of the hereditary aristocracies. Nor is it the concentration of power that is the problem, for power is, like many other things, a two-edged sword. It can be used for good, to benefit those who don't possess the power. The evil comes, just like any other human act, from the intention that wields the power, whether it be the power of directors of large institutions to influence and corrupt governments, or the power of a parent to abuse and demean a child.
In the case of economic tyranny we have a number of aspects and abuses. Modern economy is not a natural order, such as, for example, a local eco-system. Many aspects of it are created, are invented. Banks don't have to make profits, but could be organized simply to perform the same functions but only extract from those whom the bank serves the necessary costs. Capitol doesn't have to belong to individuals, banks or corporations. Capitol can belong to the whole society and be administered by groups whose talent it is to carry out that administration. The only interest capitol has to earn is its costs, which would probably need to include those losses where capitol could not be repaid. Labor does not have to be treated as a commodity, and the well being of individuals and families made thereby dependent upon bottom line, i.e. profit motivated, thinking. Wages can be according to real need, and thus the cost of producing products has to bear the reality of that need. There are many options, and our problem is more that we don't give the real names to how our system works, but falsify the picture with abstractions and pseudo-scientific jargon.
In America, for example, we have a peasant class with the greatest standard of living in history. What does this mean? Now a peasant class is merely that group of individuals within a society that are landless. Without access to land what can you do for yourself? You can grow no food, nor make any shelter, nor produce your own goods. You then become dependent upon what the landowners offer to you as opportunity; and what is worse, but not so well understood, is that with this dependence and landlessness something essential in the soul dies because there is no way for it to be expressed. When we look at the decay of the inner city, this is what we must learn to see, landlessness and dependence leading to the death of the soul. No wonder there is so much rage which cannot express itself properly because it cannot even give name to its pain or its true enemy.
We are also peasants in the realm of ideas. We only have as ideas about society what we have been given, rather than what we might create for ourselves. Here is another tyranny, one which helps hide the other. The whole language, in which human economic life and its relationships is expressed, is false. Economics, by trying to emulate natural science and thereby mathematics, became completely divorced from reality. It doesn't describe what goes on in the real world at all, but rather only certain lifeless and abstract relationships which equates quite falsely the production of goods with the nature of land, money and human labor. Its like the grade school problem of multiplying apples and oranges. Goods are nothing like land, which is nothing like money, which is nothing like labor. None of these elements is like the other, and to draw abstract relationships between them and think that something is understood is to live in an illusion which has only served to aid and abet the evil tyranny of concentrated wealth, and to confuse us, almost completely, about how societies work, and what it means to have civilization.
There is a darkness which lurks over our way of life, casting a shadow over how things are actually arranged and what they actually mean; a darkness that abhors the light. And just like our Sun, which grants us illumination as well as warmth, so the goodness in human beings is capable of bringing forth into societies and civilization the illuminating light of understanding, and the warming heartfelt strength of mutual aid and community.
Evil cannot be defeated, no more then one can repeal the law of gravity. Human nature gives forth this darkness, but human nature also gives forth light, and before this light the dark retreats and finds its proper place in the whole balance. Our world is out of balance, and by bringing out of ourselves greater understanding of how things work, what they mean, and how they can fit together, we create illumination and cast aside the darkness which has so far lead to the current state of things. And by bringing out of ourselves sharing and community we bring forth the warmth which repels the cold of that darkness - the aloneness, the despair, the hopelessness, which has for far too long been the soil in which abuse of self and of other has taken root. Drugs and child and spousal abuse will fall before no man made law. Only the light of understanding and the warmth of community can cure these dark impulses before they wake and take possession of human beings. These evils are merely symptoms of the greater imbalance which holds our societies in thrall and drags us unwillingly toward places no ordinary human being has any desire to go.
The evil tyranny of concentrated wealth can be understood by this means to be a goad, a tool in the wise and self-correcting governance of the human race, which having had for a time free reign, now exhausts its welcome because its excesses have become too obvious, and we are finally fed up and will no longer tolerate them. Isn't this in part the story history teaches us? Don't the ordinary people live their lives quietly, minding their own business, accepting life's ordinary pains and pleasures. Until - until something is too much and this dark excess touches that deeper realm of soul and spirit, which mostly passive and self contained does then no longer accept the pain and the loss of freedom. And so something stirs from deep inside, something awesome in its genius and its force for goodness and moreover its willingness to sacrifice itself for something greater.
Over two centuries ago America was born out of spirit which said No! to the tyranny of hereditary aristocracies. The beginning of this No! was a "shot heard round the world", first fired at the Old North Bridge in Concord Massachusetts. In the spring of 1996, at a conference on economic rights, which finished its sessions on this same ground made hallowed by the blood spilled there, there was heard not a "shot", but a "shout".
No! it said, No! No! to the tyranny of concentrated wealth, and No! to the tyranny of abstract knowing which supports it. And then Yes! Yes! to understanding, to illumination and to light. And finally, Yes! to social good and to community and to warmth and human sharing.
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