Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Myth Rushes in to Fill the Gap

"We praise democracy most of the time, but we practice it as if we had accepted every argument against it, as if we believed it must depress the level of culture and of public life." - Marilynne Robinson (2007)

". . . when communal memory, dialogic memory, breaks down or disappears, myth rushes in to fill the gap." - Gabriel Josipovici, "Memory: Too Little/Too Much" (1999) in The Singer on the Shore (2006)

"Opportunitys once lost is not easily recovered." - William Petrikin, letter to John Nicholson (1789) quoted in Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy

I've made the argument here that democracy, properly understood, should mean a society in which people have non-trivial say over basic decisions affecting their actual lives. We have a fantasy that the history of the United States is the unfolding of this great experiment in democracy, but it is exactly that: a fantasy. A case can be made, fairly easily, that the history of this country is in reality the history of the systematic prevention of democracy. The U.S. Constitution, that holy document, in particular is a key element in this thwarting of democracy, and yet in our imagination, the Constitution is held up as defining and protecting democracy.

In a recent post, I mentioned my reading of Eric Foner's book, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. I said that, for me, the most interesting aspect of the book was how it showed "how the established leaders of Pennsylvania, for example, co-opted the more radical elements, before re-consolidating their power during the revolution itself, with the resulting system being far less free than many had hoped and fought for." Subsequent to that post, I read the book Taming Democracy (Oxford 2007), by Terry Bouton. Bouton's book is subtitled "The People," the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution and is a fascinating study of the raised and finally crushed hopes of the revolutionary generation. (Full disclosure: Bouton was one of Aimée's college professors. I've never met him.) One thing that struck me about reading the book is the centrality of economics to the arguments and struggles of the time. As Ellen Meiksins Wood has shown (see her Democracy Against Capitalism or Empire of Capital or The Origins of Capitalism), one of the key features of capitalism is the wholesale separation of the economic from the political. Economic decisions are made outside of the political realm, whereas the state enforces the conditions necessary for these decisions to have weight. That is, since economic power lies elsewhere, our impact on crucial decisions is negligible, regardless of whatever political victories we may claim. This is why voting is reduced to our selection of one of two candidates, both of whom ultimately serve not the people, but big money. This is difficult to see, since capitalism is like the air we breath, so it is bracing to read about the obvious role of economics in the conceptions of freedom held in earlier eras.

Bouton focuses on Pennsylvania, as did Foner, largely because of Pennsylvania's role as both the center of the most radical popular revolutionary attitudes and as the focus of the counter-revolution that began during the war itself, finally resulting in the Federal Constitution, “taming democracy”, as the title has it. He explains the various economic policies imposed by the British that led to the revolution. It begins with British attempts to extract payment from the colonies in order to pay for the heavy expenses of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which it tried to do by "enact[ing] a set of policies encompassing trade, finance, and taxation that created a profound scarcity of money". Colonies were forbidden from printing paper money as legal tender, and paper was pretty much all the colonies used, since they had so little gold or silver (there was a huge trade deficit with Britain). Through the 1760s, it was increasingly argued by ordinary people that what was wrong with British policies was not just abstract political concepts like "Taxation without Representation”, but that such policies impacted the population unequally, and that this inequality, aside from being unfair, meant that people lacked say over important decisions. In the popular conception, independence meant owning property; most people were farmers. Economic independence meant political independence. It was widely felt that one could not be "free" if one was economically dependent. For most people, this meant owning land. (We are, of course, talking about white men, let's not forget. And it was taken for granted that they had the right to take land from Native Americans.)

By 1776, a decade-plus of popular agitation led to the adoption in Pennsylvania of a new constitution. It was the most radical, most democratic constitution in the colonies, and very popular with ordinary Pennsylvanians. It included many of the features which later became part of the Bill of Rights, and most interestingly, a unicameral legislature:
Modern Americans are accustomed to thinking about the height of democratic government as a divided legislature (house and senate) and a powerful executive (president) armed with the veto. Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries thought otherwise. They viewed such a government as checking democracy rather than promoting it. After all, divided government was a British legacy, where the king and upper chamber of Parliament (the House of Lords, filled with titled aristocrats who served for life) checked the democratic branch (the House of Commons). Most Pennsylvanians believed they had suffered under such a system. Consequently, they wanted a new government that would remove the barriers that had kept their voices from being heard.
The executive had only advisory and enforcement powers. "[T]his was the most democratic government in the new nation; according to Benjamin Franklin, that meant it was also 'the safest and best.'" Consider Marilynne Robinson's quote at the top of this post. She's right, isn't she? Don't we think it's in our best interests that there be an "upper" house of Congress, or any legislature? Got to keep the rabble in line. That is, I would wager, our official American position. Whenever I see a discussion about democracy in its purest form, there is a recoiling away: always the assumption is that you simply can't have it; people can't be trusted. But in the 18th century, the bulk of ordinary people seemed to believe otherwise. Naturally, the wealthy were horrified at the idea.

I don't plan a detailed review of the Taming Democracy here, but suffice it to say that reading it was an often revelatory and infuriating experience. I was inspired by the simple idea that most people believed they had the right to a say in decisions affecting their lives, that they believed they had the right to fight for it and did in fact fight for it. I was especially inspired by what he calls the "rings of protection", concentric rings of people resisting unpopular laws: sheriffs refusing to enforce, judges refusing to sentence, people refusing to attend property auctions, people digging trenches across access roads, preventing tax collection and eviction, and countless other kinds of acts in common cause. To quote from John Pilger, writing about his native Australia (in his book Heroes): "Genuine Australian radicalism, without the closed logic of any fear or prejudice, flowed from experience and conditions, rather than from theory or intellectual fashion. . ." The experience of ordinary colonial Americans led to the radicalism of the Revolution against the British, and to the decades-long resistance to the counter-revolution and to the unpopular Constitution. Most of this history is lost, effaced, forgotten, replaced by the myths of the founding fathers and the glory of that Constitution.

Marilynne Robinson's words quoted at the beginning of this post come towards the end of her short essay, "A Great Amnesia", which was adapted from a talk she gave at Amherst college and which appears in the Readings section of the latest issue of Harper’s (May 2008). I think it's an important piece. She discusses the time she spent reading political economy in her spare time at Amherst, during which she learned of the "iron law" of wages, which has it that "the great class of those who lived by their labor could not earn more than subsistence", an iron law that "has come into force again in much of the world as a consequence of a form of competition that has based national economies on the poverty and low expectations of the mass of their populations." But her discussion begins in the library at Amherst, a library that was "almost always equal" to her demands. She talks about a house that was part of the Underground Railroad, and "other hints at participation in the great issues of an earlier America". And here's where her piece unfolds. The significance of these hints only struck her when she found herself in the Middle West, and "found any number of Amhersts . . . scattered over the landscape." She talks of colleges founded in the Midwest, the faculties of which
seem to have been composed largely of graduates of divinity schools in New England and New York, which sent bands out in to the West to advance the cause of liberal education and the reforms it was meant to promote, including the abolition of slavery and the advancement of women. Many of these colleges were racially integrated and integrated by gender also before the Civil War.
She elaborates:
A very generous hope was abroad in America which undertook to realize itself in the wide diffusion of a kind of education historically associated with privilege. That it was intended to break down the barriers education had historically enforced is clear from the fact that it was open to otherwise excluded groups, African Americans and women. Also, many of these schools were organized according to what was called the Manual Labor System. This meant that everyone in the college community, including the faculty, did the work involved in the keeping it fed and housed, in order to assure that there would be no economic barriers to education. On the frontier this meant everyone chopped weeds and butchered hogs and operated the printing presses that poured out abolitionist pamphlets, many of them mailed to the South. The association of learnedness with privilege or leisure was intentionally undercut.

. . . the strength of this movement was based on the willingness of a surprising number of highly educated people to leave the relative comfort of the East for lives of almost unimaginable difficulty, based on the assumption, which proved true, that the populations that found their way to the prairie would have an interest in Latin and Greek, mathematics and logic. [. . .] Their intention was to re-create American society by practicing as well as promoting standards of justice and freedom to which the nation had not risen.
What happened to destroy this great experiment in democracy? She points to "the emergence of Social Darwinism". Certainly Social Darwinism "had precursors in many forms, not surprisingly, since there is nothing easier than persuading people of their natural superiority to other people." But Social Darwinism was accepted as science for a long time, and "[t]here is no arguing with science". She talks about a "great amnesia": it mattered not that there had been blacks and women admitted to and succeeding in colleges before the Civil War; since science now "proved" that they were inferior, "there was no use for that kind of information." I think she makes a compelling point about Social Darwinism and its scientific imprimatur. (This is not the place for me to go into the differences between science as a practice, and the effects and practices of institutional Science then and now.) I would also point to the bottom-line needs of the emerging industrial economy (though they are related: Social Darwinism was tailor-made for capitalism).

Robinson in her essay notes that if she "had not been struck by the anomalous presence" of these Midwestern Amhersts, these New England colleges and towns found in the middle of the heartland, she would not have "learned that aspirations for American democracy had once been so generous and at the same time so high". While reading the essay, I immediately linked it in my mind with the stories found in Taming Democracy. With both, we have the lost history of a more expansive conception of what democracy can be, of what community can be, conceptions that I believe can help us find a way forward, out of our current mess. These conceptions have been buried beneath the weight of History. As she says, these things are not part of the "story we tell ourselves". We tell ourselves other stories, exaggerated stories: of individual freedom, of invention, of progression over time, of rights granted from above instead of won from below. Meanwhile, our communal memories of what once was, and what once was thought possible in common cause, have been obliterated, replaced in many ways by persistent "fear and prejudice" and by diminished expectations. And myth rushed in to fill the gap.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting take on Bouton; I'm reading Taming Democracy for comps & it seems that he certainly fits in the now conventional Neo-Progressive/Radical tradition with Alfred Young, Gary Nash, Alan Taylor, and esp. Woody Holton

May 11, 2008 1:40 PM  

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