April 23, 2012 in The People's [Censored]
BY DAVID KIRSHNER
Occupy Baton Rouge
Originally published in The People’s [Censored], Issue 2.
Recently I proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to clarify the meaning of “Freedom of Speech” as a way to attack the legitimacy of private funding of public elections.
“Whereas Freedom of Speech is the liberty to express one’s own opinions and ideas without hindrance, and does not include the right to amplify the speech of others, nor to dominate the discourse in political contests; and
“Whereas a number of Supreme Court rulings have interpreted Freedom of Speech to protect the right of private entities to fund election campaigns and otherwise to use private funds to influence public perception of candidates and issues in the context of political campaigns,
“Be it Resolved that neither Freedom of Speech, nor the Right to Petition Government, nor any other existing constitutional principle abridges the complete and exclusive right of We the People of these United States, through our legislatures, to control and regulate the financial resources through which messages with political intent are communicated to the electorate in connection with political campaigns at the national, state, and local levels.”
The right of private entities—individuals or corporations—to give money to amplify the voice of a political candidate (i.e., to fund electoral campaigns) is most often defended as the constitutionally protected Free Speech rights of those entities. But the right to express controversial and unpopular opinions without fear of sanction—the true meaning of Freedom of Speech—has nothing to do with amplifying the voices of others. Nor does it entail unlimited freedom to amplify one’s own voice during a political campaign, drowning out the voices of less well-funded candidates. We need to remove this fig leaf of legitimacy in order to expose private funding of electoral campaigns for what it is: a naked power grab, a way for the ultra-wealthy to ensure that politicians work for their special interests rather than in the public interest.
This raises the question of what role should the ultra-wealthy play in our society? It seems the American public is very much enamored of its billionaires, quite convinced that what they give to society by way of national competitive advantage through the businesses and industries they create entitles them to special privileges, perhaps even justifies their being able to run the show—what is in their interest surely must be in our interest. At the base of this sentiment is a sense of the rights of a “ruling class” that probably traces back beyond the origins of American democracy to the class system of English society. Although the rhetoric of revolutionary America rejected the idea of a class system, we need to recognize that class-consciousness floats just below the surface of our national conscience.
The idea of a national subconscious operating below the level of our espoused ideals may be unsettling. Many of my fellow travelers on this road to political reform take their ideals seriously; they don’t want them sullied by talk of subconscious forces reflecting our true, underlying, mindset. But I do not share this hubris of pure ideals. I recognize in myself anxieties related to class consciousness: In a true democracy, one not dominated by the ultra-wealthy, would we fall prey to high ideals like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” and wind up in a totalitarian nightmare? Would we redistribute wealth to the extent that incentives to industriousness erode, and we become a weak nation? Might we not ultimately be better off with a political system controlled by the wealthy, even if the extremes of financial inequality we are experiencing now seem excessive and unfair?
I wish I could say that I have overcome these fears, answered these questions, and now wholeheartedly embrace the ideals of true democracy. But I can’t. I share in class-consciousness. What impels me forward in the quest for fundamental political change is not certainty that true democracy will save us, but a growing recognition that the ways of the ultra-wealthy will surely damn us. For, what has evolved over the past couple of decades of increasing domination by the wealthy is pushing us away from the gains of the Enlightenment toward a new Dark Ages.
The Way of the Wealthy
When you think about it, the ultra-wealthy have an astonishingly difficult challenge posed to them by democracy. ‘How can we maintain an economy of amazing disparity between rich and poor within a political system wherein any schmo who happens to get elected by the rabble can propose a new tax structure that confiscates most of my hard-earned income and gradually reduces me to the norm of an increasingly mediocre society?’ This anxiety of the ultra-wealthy needs to be recognized as a relentless and ongoing dilemma; it is not a problem that ever can be fully solved. In a democracy, the rabble does truly have the power. Keeping them from using it in their own financial self-interest is a never-ending struggle.
The solution that the ultra-wealthy have pursued in recent decades—with amazing success!—has been to exploit the natural fault lines that exist in any society between forces of stasis and forces of change. Societies do not exist in a vacuum, but rather within a physical and social ecology wherein circumstances change, populations grow and shrink, food and energy supplies suffice or are insufficient, neighboring societies are aggressive or peaceful. Societies constantly have to modify themselves, their internal structure, to respond to the changing environment they are part of. Nor is the optimal response evident or even unique. Neither are the impacts of change identical for all sectors of a society. As a result the process of change is one that is fraught with tensions.
An excellent exemplar of such change dates back to the European Renaissance during the middle period of the last millennium. During that time, a scientific mentality was emerging that enabled new technologies that could enhance our utilization of the physical world. However, adapting to these new possibilities required huge changes in the structures of society. Construing the world objectively became a new locus of importance that engaged with individual consciousness. Thus the right to authorize knowledge had to shift from religious institutions governed by subjective matters of faith and observance to secular institutions governed by objective reasoning. This democratization of knowledge was hugely difficult and was met with huge resistance. But undergoing it reshaped European societies as far more viable and competitive, enabling them to grow and thrive in the physical, geopolitical, and economic world of the time. In a similar way, societies always are responding to shifting circumstances which therefore produce internal tensions.
The strategy of the ultra-wealthy for political control centers on forming alliances in relation to social tensions so as to coopt vulnerable sectors of society to support desired fiscal policies. This strategy involves magnifying and exacerbating existing social tensions to create the greatest base of support possible for regressive fiscal policy. That strategy has produced “culture wars” that have become so virulent in the U.S. as to hobble government, and periodically even shut it down.
Although the current crises of government are troubling, the long-term damage to society comes not from decisions made in the heat of the political moment, but from the rebalancing of social strata based on the perceived viability of ideas and policies. Broad shifts in the dominance of ideas and institutions are rarely marked by the elimination of social institutions or the ideas they represent, but by the rebalancing of power in relation to other institutions and ideas. Thus the Renaissance did not see the demise of religious institutions, but rather the shifting of some of their power and authority to secular institutions like universities and governments. These new arrangements of power are not fixed, but remain continually open to revision and refinement as physical, social, and geopolitical circumstances change.
Here is where we can see the destructive nature of the alignment of the ultra-wealthy with religion-based social conservatives. Political victories that support conservative social causes and associated religious perspectives create the illusion that those perspectives are viable and adaptive within the modern world. Thus when the ultra-wealthy move to protect their industrial interests by creating faux-science to raise public doubt about, say, the science of global warming, they not only endanger our planet, they also erode the cultural status that science has achieved over hundreds of years, a status earned owing to the adaptive effects of a scientific perspective; this perspective really does enhance our survival.
That’s where we are now. The stature of scientific knowledge and scientific institutions is in decline. Even though, historically, only a small percentage of the population has understood the culture of scientific objectivity, the institutions of science have enjoyed high status and broad support. But in the current era broad sectors of the public see scientists as serving partisan self-interest, and therefore as untrustworthy and unreliable. The faith that once accrued to science is being redistributed partly to religious institutions, but also to conspiracy theorists, Tarot card readers, and millennialists. The fabric of modernism is fraying as we flirt with resurgent pre-modern sensibilities.
The scale of irresponsibility of the ultra-wealthy in their alliance with pre-modern institutions is too vast to contemplate. If unchecked, what will happen to America is easy to anticipate: we will slip quickly into oblivion as a great world power. We already see tell-tale signs in a 10-year Middle-Eastern war entered into without any rational basis by a president who traded in characteristic American pragmatism and rationality for a delusional confidence in America’s Right and America’s Might. We can’t afford for this mentality to continue to dominate.
Will a true democracy necessarily lead us to a great future? I still don’t know the answer to that one. But I do know that without doing something to break the hold of the ultra-wealthy over our political and cultural life, we will drift into superstition, distrust, and dissension as our standing in the world and our way of life disintegrates.