The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States signals a revolution in American politics. For the first time in American history an oligarch has succeeded in buying his way directly into the highest office in the land. By reaching out directly to voters in a self-financed campaign, Trump managed to by-pass the traditional paths to power. Running nominally as a Republican, his independent, direct appeal in the primaries allowed him not only to dispense with the support of the party apparatus and the special interest donor class behind it, but to ridicule and scapegoat them.
Rather than the party establishment dictating their choice of a presidential nominee, Trump effectively dictated to the establishment that he would be the nominee and that they would have to support him, and most have, even if reluctantly, and even as furious efforts to discredit him continue. Trump saw that he could win without the support of other elites. No need to build a coalition. He would appeal directly to the people in rallies and social media. Along the way, he coupled his self-financing with a shrewd instinct for free news, based on his ability to speak, unlike others, freely outside the confines of polite political discourse. He called out the system in general, as a corrupt machine no longer serving the national good, and voters responded. Put a hold on globalization, he said; instead let’s put America first. In the general election, he outmaneuvered the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who was almost entirely a creature of her party establishment fatefully wedded to what Trump denounced as the insider elite politics of corruption. Yes, he is a member of the wealthy elite, but a rogue member. He is our first magnate, the Don, a wholly-owned, independent power source.
This means the end of the republic as we have known it. Trump will not be the last oligarch to buy his way into the highest office. Ambitious magnates no longer need work behind the scenes as king-makers when they can be king themselves. The vastly inflated wealth of the one per-centers guarantees that those among them who wish to do so can establish their own political infrastructure and appeal directly to voters. This means the end for traditional political parties and the donor support system which has driven them. The new era will be one of demagogic mass politics, where the new leader will relate directly to voters. With the power of Supreme Court appointments in his pocket, our new leader has potential opposition only in Congress. But the leader’s electoral coattails, his ability to mobilize over 20 million followers on Twitter, plus the power of federal patronage and executive orders, will ensure that most politicians will fall in line.
What we face is an elective monarchy, or dictatorship. The American Constitution was modeled on the Roman Republic, and it seems destined to share its fate. In ancient Rome vast wealth, particularly after the Punic Wars, created a powerful plutocratic class. Obscenely rich magnates—the Grachii, Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar–competed for political power. Their struggles turned into civil wars, which ended in the one-man rule of the Emperors. We too are likely to drift into increased conflict among magnates focused on advancing their personal power, which brings with it the temptation to override precedent and the law, even if the outward forms, as in Rome, remain in place.
Is there any alternative to this historical dynamic? Who will resist the new kingship? It is hard to see how and where an organized reform movement might arise, any more than it did in Rome. The political classes and parties are too bound to plutocratic power centers to resist them; they will accommodate in order to survive, or to hope to better play the game themselves. The same goes for the media and press, the leading academic institutions, and the major non-profits and foundations. They too are all dependent on plutocratic sources of networking and funding to buck the system. The liberal, bicoastal, big city, pro-globalization, anti-Trump elites are likely to respond by eventually supporting a counter-Trump, not to call for what is needed: structural political reforms of which their interests would be among the principal targets.
If there is to be a resistance to these developments, it’ll have to come from an alternative vision—as it has so often in the past. In the Roman case, that vision turned out to be the universalist message of Christianity, which built up a counter-society, with its own institutions, which survived the fall of the Empire. Such a counter society has yet to appear in our time; but its hallmark will be a similar degree of separation from the current system. We can take its measure, in other words, by how far it departs from what we have; this means trying to imagine politics, economics, and society outside the terms of the current system.
What we have now is a society composed largely of strangers and marked by abstract complexity; impersonal relationships are mediated largely through concepts, stereotypes, bureaucracies, large-scale technologies, and mass media. By this measure, any new society we can imagine will, by contrast, be repersonalized, reestablished on a human scale, where intimate relations among family, friends, and local communities will form the basis of new, non-abstract institutions. These institutions will capture decision-making in face-to-face deliberative bodies and reject externalized institutions and powers. They will be jealous of their autonomy, and will entertain only such interdependencies as will respect their integrity.
The model of the future is in many ways a return to the kinship world of the distant past, if not in material terms, then socially. We think of kinship societies as small and primitive—as stone age or aboriginal cultures, past and present, studied by pre-historians and anthropologists. But those societies, historically or geographic isolated, had little access to the sum total of human knowledge. That knowledge—particularly of science and technology—will remain available, one hopes, even in the event of some kind of wholesale socio-economic collapse. We have the reasonable expectation, at least, that much of much of the knowledge of the past can be mined and applied in a post-collapse world.
A neo-kinship world would be family and community centered; it would insist on the political, social, and economic practices that arise naturally in that context. Much as the American Amish community adopts only such arrangements as preserve the integrity of its culture, so in a neo-kinship world, communities would similarly insist that decision-making, social customs, and economic activities meet the criterion of re-enforcing the community, rather than dividing or marginalizing it.
Our society today is dichotomized between subjective radical individualism on the one hand, and the collective force of objective impersonal institutions on the other. The middle ground of family and community has been seriously eroded. A neo-kinship world would insist, by contrast, that individual fulfillment is possible only in a community of peers, and that such communities can prosper only when their members are committed to their preservation. Traditionally this meant above all geographical communities—real physical places informing life and values, not just a place to live, and move on. To that end, neo-kinship communities must be relocalized and made autonomous, free of top-down political, social, and economic pressures. To be autonomous they must be at the base of a bottom-up system of representative government, one that is ultimate accountable back to them. That means, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned, a confederal system in which representatives are elected on a face-to-face basis by small communities (not through mass, impersonal media campaigns); these representatives in turn meet in a regional or county assembly, another face to face body, and that body in turn elects representatives to the state level, and so on. Every level in a confederal system is based on intimate, face-to-face experience, not the distancing abstractions of mass media, advertising, large electoral districts, etc.
Neo-kinship politics is entirely personal. It is conducted at every level exclusively by small deliberative bodies, starting with the local assembly or town meeting, open to all citizens, and continuing up to a national and potentially international level. Decisions at each level would be made by small groups of people well known to one another. Notice how different this is from our current mass politics of big-money campaigns we take for granted. Modern politics would have no place in a confederal system. No donor class or party apparatus would be needed to fund (or not) political campaigns, nor to be the gatekeepers to public office, because there wouldn’t any longer be any such offices.
Neo-kinship community is not some version of socialism or collectivism. It does not require the sacrifice of private property to achieve social justice. Indeed, the very attempt to balance individual and community requires the personal control by citizens of private resources. The lesson of failed attempts at collectivization is that they require the centralization of power, leaving individuals (without sufficient private resources to reenforce their voices) insecure and vulnerable to the whims of committees and collectives. They overturn the balance of individual and community in favor of the collective, whether a local commune or the state. Even Murray Bookchin’s social ecology of small communities portended just so many local tyrannies.
Private property guarantees the individual independence of citizens. Local democratic accountability guarantees that private property will not be used to abuse the community. Property needs to be widely distributed. No one should have so much as to be able to reduce his or her fellow citizens to dependency; nor should anyone have so little as to be subject to such dependency. To ensure the equitable distribution of property, communities need to guarantee a fair measure of access to capital by all. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a way to do this. There is no reason not to establish a system of local credit, as nineteenth century American populists advocated. A local community bank can loan citizens money at little or no interest on the basis of good collateral, including their future earning ability. Instead of borrowing from the private banking system for a mortgage, a business venture, education, an automobile, etc., and paying ruinous usurious rates of interest keeping one an economic dependent, there is no reason why a local public banking system can’t provide the needed credit without the burdensome interest rates. Borrowers, rather than lenders, would reap the benefit of credit.
The neo-kinship vision is one of autonomous, local, self-financing, democratic communities. It is essentially an ecological vision. If ecology in its Greek roots is literally the study (-ology) of the home (oikos), meaning particularly the relationships out of which ‘home’ is constituted, then as human beings we would do well to attend above all to our most personal and vital relationships—those among ourselves within the physical space in which we actually live, our community. This means the people we live with, the places we go, the work we do. Most of the relationships studied politically, sociologically, economically, and historically are far removed from this domestic focus. They treat mostly of large abstractions, trends, forces, and speculations which generally have had little sympathy for and even less understanding of a personalized politics.
Our community neighbors today may not all be literally kinfolk, but an ecological focus on community invites us to think of them as such. When Cleisthenes reformed the political and social structure of ancient Athens at the end of the 6th century BCE, he divided Athens into 139 local districts, or demes, membership in which he made hereditary, thereby creating artificial but effective kinship identities. The demes were local public assemblies—the places where citizenship was registered–and they in turn were grouped into larger units, ridings and tribes, with the whole finally merging into the famous Athenian Assembly of the citizens of the city as a whole.
Establishing hereditary membership in local communities would be one way of repersonalizing them. It would also be a way to literally reconnect citizens with the earth. It sounds an odd idea to modern sensibilities, but consider for a moment: Current residents and their descendents, as well as anyone born in the community, could be made hereditary citizens of the districts of their local assemblies. Not just an abstract American citizenship, but also locating that citizenship in a local place. People moving in and out of communities might enjoy, under appropriate circumstances, some provision for changing membership for themselves and their descendents, but they also would be able to retain their original citizenship if they so choose. The upshot would be to establish a deeper identity—as Cleisthenes did—between people and the physical place they live.
Whether or not citizenship might be linked with hereditary membership in a local community, the primacy of local politics, society, and economics—however achieved–remains the goal of neo-kinship community. The repersonalization of politics and society will not occur, however, except as an intentional goal, a consciously held value to strive for. Nor will it occur as long as the impersonal, large-scale structures of modern society continue to function. Only with their disintegration can a new world arise.
This column originally appeared in the Vermont Independent.