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The Pursuit of Happiness

There are no peasants in America: thousands and then millions arrived from Europe and Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the pursuit of happiness, but they were quickly consumed within the maw of industrial capitalism.

They no longer toiled for their own subsistence while transferring their agricultural surplus to their landlord as they had in their homelands but became, instead, cogs in the industrial production of food, dry goods and furniture, hardware and machinery. In short, their economic purpose was as foot soldiers in the making of stuff and in their off-work consumption of it. Their lives were bifurcated: soul-destroying wage-work and meretricious consumption. It was in the consuming that they measured their lives, in the working, not so much.

As peasants, the producing and consuming had been joyfully, tragically, and sometimes comedically entwined and always subject to back-breaking toil, the complexities of the natural world, the messybiology of domesticated animals and the vagaries of the weather. Life in America beckoned as the future: as the living incarnation of modernity. They exchanged membership in societies that existed as mechanisms to aggregate wealth in the hands of hereditary land owners, to a society where, by the mid 1800’s, the sinews of a global kleptocracy were being built, where wealth was legally stolen by thepowerful through the new industries of railroads, industrial scale farming, chemicals, armaments and manufacturing. Others fled to the United States as victims of the British Empire (notably the Irish) which already existed as the most wide reaching system of global subjugation and
wealth harvesting the world had ever known.

Before Columbus, Native Americans existed in a world where the pursuit of happiness had no meaning: space and time were enfolded in a profound circularity, and within the slow eddying of this bottomless pool, futurizing was impossible. The medieval peasant, the world over, remained in the shallows of this spatio-temporal conception, but the creeping impact of technological innovation and the emergence of a market system began to disrupt the still center of their universe. The market monetized time and space.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, American Indians existed almost exclusively in contested space. They had never recognized the concept of land ownership and in many cases their societal structure existed as not much more than that of extended families or bands. Many tribes maintained elaborate rituals of feasting and gift-giving, which were devices for wealth sharing and inter-tribaldiplomacy rather than markers of indebtedness, territorial or otherwise. But by the end of the century, having been essentially made dependent on the government for food and shelter in duplicitous dealsfor their land, the few natives that remained also reached for a version of modernity: although sequestered in Reservations, they too wished to bathe in the river of money that the white man had created. Much, much later, they would be granted casino licenses on Reservation lands – viewed by all as a financial gusher – in a gift surely as tainted as the diseased blankets they had received in an earlier age.

The Great Father (the synecdoche by which nineteenth century Indians referred to the President and his authority) had previously practiced similar acts of self-serving paternalism when, in embryonic form as the Founding Fathers (a phrase coined by Warren G. Harding in 1916) “they created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1980).

The Declaration of Independence was the foundational document in the attenuated process by which this country wrested national control from Britain whose figure-head, Farmer George (George III), was the proximate cause of the colonists’ discomfiture. In the year 1776, under cover of Thomas Paine’s populist rhetoric, Jefferson word-smithed a document that effectively proposed the transfer of tithing rights from England’s aristocracy and its rising population of industrialists to the rich and powerful colonists in what would shortly become the United States.

Thus was born an Atlantic rivalry between the British Empire and America in the business of global kleptocracy that was finally decided in this country’ favor at the end of WWII when the United States insisted on the repayment of its British ally’s wartime loans and materiel transfers while simultaneously rebuilding the economies of its defeated enemies, Germany and Japan. Russia, the real victor in WWII, threatened an alternative system of government that would demand a reinvention of the revenue streams so carefully tended over more than a century and a half to transfer wealth upstream from the poor and middle class to the rich. In the event, this threat (characterized as the Cold War) was transformed into a tidal wave of wealth funneled to the one percent as armament manufacturers ramped up production to equip our boys deployed around the world in defense of freedom – freedom of the few to steal from the many.

The elaborate shell-games of the Great Father’s representatives used in the defrauding of Indian tribes of their well-watered hunting and gathering lands in exchange for denuded Reservations and sparse rations of meat, beans and flour – regularly manipulated by the Indian Agent (a regional representative of the Great Father’s authority) – pale against the vast machinations by which the military industrial complex, the ethical drug business, banking, real estate, media, and agri-business (amongst virtually all industry groups) maximize their profits via tax relief, uncontrolled price gouging, contracting boondoggles and undisguised hand-outs; these considerations conferred on them by their bought and paid for politicians in Washington and State Houses across the country. Dollar rations reluctantly doled out to their lower echelon employees are maintained at levels that ensure that many of them have to maintain multiple jobs to maintain their true patriotic duty of consuming – coded as ‘supporting a family’ by the nation’s politicians.

Few of us now get to escape the Reservation, where we are dependents of Federal and State governments whose legislation is of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy. We remain pathetic supplicants to our Government’s niggardly parsimony while it practices activist interventions for the rich. Much of this was foreshadowed in 1776. The wealthy Founding Fathers never intended for equality to be established between slave and master or, indeed, between the rich and the poor (Zinn).  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson cribbed the line “Life, Liberty and Property”, from the English philosopher John Locke and then changed the last noun to the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”… an Orwellian prescription if ever there was one, worthy indeed, of the most oleaginous of Madison Avenue’s scribes.

And yet we, whose forebears were peasants, refugees from the British Empire, African Americans whose ancestors were shipped here as slaves, Native Americans and the myriad others who count themselves lucky to be Americans, will gather on July 4th and celebrate the mythography of the nation. Or not. We live in a modern and thoroughly malignant construction of reality where many remain in the frantic pursuit of the sugar rush of happiness. Can we instead take this holiday as a slightly belated Summer Solstice Festival, barbecue the same food and drink the same (craft) beer and begin to fully understand that property is indeed theft and the notion of linear time is the means to larceny; a festival where the erstwhile holism of the nation’s immigrant peasants and of its native peoples is celebrated as a possible gateway to our living in the universe as fully sentient beings?

In the sun-bleached foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains in southern California the turn of the sun northwards is marked by a fading of the spring flowers, the slithering of snakes and, yesterday, the emergence of a rare black-tailed jack rabbit (Lepus californicus) onto the trail. The natural world demands our engagement – not as citizens and consumers in the pursuit of happiness but as participants in the quiet glow of its embrace.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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