“If triangles made a god they would give it three sides.”
A forgiving way (the liberal way) to define modernity is through our transition from a passive-at-best horde to a consenting public. ‘Consent’ in that we vote more than we riot, and ‘consent’ in that its vulgar to rule without it. And ‘consent’ in that our hamster wheel-world keeps turning because, if out of habit, we continue to run.
But if we are, or if there is such thing as a consenting public, it’s second to the fact that extraordinary private stakes are based on it. The more ‘liberty’ it takes to extract a personal fortune, the more ‘democracy’ it takes to excuse it. …As they say, you can’t have both.
Thus, paradoxically, as the franchise has grown, as we elect instead of appoint senators, and as ‘connectivity’ connects more and more people- in sum, the more ‘consent’ empowers liberal government, the more our government defers to extra-legal security agencies, corporate think-tanks, and their conflicting financial interests.
If consent is public power, than circumventing it defers power from the public to its then-competing factions, to whatever degree each can turn it back into capital. It’s no surprise then, private wealth is outrunning, even trouncing our democracy. And true to its corporate structure, it parcels America and the rest of modernity to its richest shareholders. From the national until the Neoliberal era, democracy made a useful incubator for their capital. But now that it’s hatched, the democracy amounts to bits of scattered shell.
Yet by rechristening what amounts to a coup, ‘Neoliberalism’ we can trudge on. So it’s not unexpected, imaging ourselves in the world’s oldest and longest-standing democracy, that the rest of us should still feel some entitlement. Perhaps enough to forget that a living wage and relative equality did not come with the Bill of Rights, but with following years and years of collective resistance, strikes, riots, and sometimes war. However, with the state operating in reverse, and it clear that work, let alone civism, won’t really sustain us, we’re forced to claim our entitlement in terms of ‘rights’ rather than in terms of power.
We can celebrate such victories as marriage equality, (billionaires likely give a toss who can smoke pot or marry) but it’s plenty-clear by now that ‘rights’ are a diminishing return. Whatever ‘rights’ we’re inclined to feel, fact is, press freedom is in decline, public opinion, including the vote, is ineffective next to corporate money, and a quasi-religious understanding of liberty has made the common good non-viable in the world’s richest nation. We need to think, instead, in terms of power.
What is to be done? ‘Consent’, in capitalist terms, took shape in the 1700s when British merchants entering Parliament rallied public opinion as leverage against the old guard. In France the desperate financial minister, Necker went public in attempt to coax a deal between the hopelessly-stubborn nobility and myopic king. (Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1962) While in America, ‘liberty for all’ helped the merchant-class’ wriggle free of British taxes. Obviously none had their sights set on real democracy. Rather, public opinion was for use by one set of elites against another.
Still, that they turned to the public at all suggests the public held more than just notional power. And with their string of revolutions, lest they grow, that power needed to contour to both fronts, between contending elites, and the same contending elites locking arms against the rising working-class. Somewhat out of sequence, Liberals held that public power came from capital, since property rights and competition required free labor, and free labor meant free elections, braces against monopolies, and free press and education. It even seemed true when, after administering the shocks of industrial-capitalism, states reclaimed their populations by (gradually) contributing to their recovery. Growing the state did in fact increase democracy, and the publics’ share of the spoils actually rose, at least in the industrial World, for most of the 20th century.
Whatever contradictions had remained, votes, a free press, and time, itself promised to elucidate, and clear obstructions (from slavery to the electoral college) as capable. Yet, by its 1950s apex, there were already hints of our present crisis. Time (by way of the New Deal) had built a political class to confront the banking and industry barons, and with considerable, initial success. Yet the dovetailed interests of the corporations and non-democratic branches of government like the defense agencies would sideline anyone stuck representing the public. (C. Wright Mill, The Power Elite, 1956) Far from a conservative or partisan victory, decision-making would pass from the bosses, business owners, and professionals to the untethered mega-rich who kept them scarcely on radar. Increasingly, instead of represent us, woo us, or even try with much vigor to graft their values onto ours, the ‘Power-Elite’ would gain more from secrecy, and from our resulting anomie and confusion. And yet they’d retain the luxury of political front-men who, no matter how much they dissented, would find it hard to muster public support by revealing their condition.
Where are we now?… Among the most-incisive critiques of modernity, Eric Hobsbawm’s, The Age of Extremes, closes in 1991, with the forecast that if public consent was one of the most-violent century’s few survivors, neoliberalism was already half-way through its vivisection. With competing types of government gone the victors could gut every item that made liberal-democracy democratic, so long as they still called it a democracy. (Age of Extremes, 1992) Indeed, their ironic venture to make this century ‘safe for democracy’ reads like instructions. It did not matter that the president was unelected, the Senate did not declare war, that the journalists were embedded, that stripping our civil rights was part of the strategy, that strikes -in our name- violated international law, or that it took an out and out lie to gain our ‘consent’. Consent was bunk, despite that it was all in the name of democracy, (We could have skipped Lee Greenwood and Freedom Fries, if not the war.) since the Project For A New American Century had already converted us to raw power. Hitler and his like were wrong; democracy to kill democracy was already part of the liberal program.
Today, ‘consent’ (not just in politics) is the task of a few billionaires to convince us that we’re doomed without their help, or that we’re doomed, either way. They’ve packed Congress -our branch of government- with their Left and Right-brand Guy Fridays who vote in near-solidarity against us. Together, in 2008 they proclaimed the haves ‘too big to fail’, while the people that elected them were bounced from their over-priced homes to sleep under bridges. And yet it took Trump to convince us, ‘consent’ has lost its narrative thread.
A serial transgressor (not just in politics), Trump scored his role because neglected voters came to the profound realization they had not consented to almost all of it, and to profound confusion as to how to react. Worse still, as the space between the haves and nots multiplied, the likely union of poor and oppressed became a rift instead, with half veering far to the right, thanks to a neoliberal (instead of progressive-populist) Democratic party blocking the other path.
And here we are. If Trump is the darkest pit, a year in, I see little serious effort to get past it. I guess we’ll see if Oprah’s self-marketing regimen helps 200,000 deported Salvadorians get ahead in 2020. Otherwise, the Democrat’s ‘Better Deal’ lacks even Trump’s hot-air. As for the Right, any serious White Nationalist should look to a more-prescient Black Nationalist like Malcolm X, than to a suited jack-ass who says he wouldn’t want a poor person (you) running the economy. In Malcolm’s words:
We must understand the politics of our community and we must know what politics is supposed to produce. We must know what part politics play in our lives. And until we become politically mature we will always be mislead, lead astray, or deceived or maneuvered into supporting someone politically who doesn’t have the good of our community at heart.
…Anytime you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that Party can’t keep the promise that it made to you during election time, and you’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that Party, you’re not only a chump, but you’re a traitor to your race.
As for the Left, (and less-astray Right) we can substitute ‘race’ for virtually any word in our lexicon and the same remains true.
…Anytime you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that Party can’t keep the promise that it made to you during election time, and you’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that Party, you’re not only a chump, but you’re a traitor to your ___. (Ballot Or Bullet, 1964)
See? Not so divided after all. One mass-party of chumps. Together, we should spend the next election day in the streets and on their lawns (I have fantasies about a Mar-a-Lago ‘shit-in’) instead of at the polls. Should we still make it to the polls, it won’t matter what we fill in the _. We won’t be traitors or chumps (Trumps) so long as we’re clear that no millionaire can figure out our best interests, even if they want to, nor can they want to if they plan to stay millionaires. We don’t need one to know or understand us, we just need them to expect us on their doorstep Every. Single. Day. Not to exercise our rights, but our power.
James Munson lives in Portland, Oregon. He welcomes your contact at email@example.com