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stand up, fight back!

March 11, 2011

I’m not blind. I understand that we have more political freedom here in the US than they do in places like China, Iran or North Korea. I also understand how fortunate I am to enjoy that freedom. But that doesn’t mean that that freedom, which we’ve struggled for over two hundred years to expand and protect, isn’t quietly being eroded away by modern-day Federalists and corporatists in collusion with big-monied interests and large, multinational corporations.

My philosophy of government is fairly positive. The way I see it, civil society is the establishment of a cohesive social structure in which the interests of the community as a whole are weighed against that of the individual in an effort to maintain social stability. Government, then, is the physical manifestation of community interests. It creates stability through the establishment and enforcement of laws, and acts as a mediator in disputes between groups and individuals within the community.

Of course, I think it’s preferable if a balance can be struck where individual freedoms aren’t too restricted and the continued survival of the community is reasonably assured, but allowing unlimited freedom amounts to anarchy and lawlessness, which often leads to increased social conflict and instability. How far the government should go in meeting the needs of the community, however, is an open question.

The problem is that, for the most part, our government is a manifestation of ruling class interests, that is to say, those who own and control the means of production, finance, natural resources, etc., and not that of the entire community. In fact, the interests of the ruling class, the interests of capital, are often in conflict with those of average citizens. But this isn’t anything new.

The state has been skewed in favour of the ruling class from the very beginning. Although some of the Founders, namely Thomas Paine, did advocate for things like the abolition of slavery, free public education, progressive taxation, social safety nets (e.g., old-age pensions), etc., the Founding Fathers, while arguably great men, weren’t fighting for universal freedom and suffrage, they were fighting for the freedom of white, male property owners from the tyranny of the British monarchy.

Like most forms of government centered around private property rights, the basic principle behind the establishment of our form of representative democracy had more to do with the ruling elites wanting to protect the small minority of property owners (including themselves) from the majority of the propertyless than anything else. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, “… the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

The Federalist Papers were a series of essays arguing for the ratification of our Constitution. Federalist No. 10, written by Madison, addresses the question of factions, which he defines as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Believing that an individual’s interest “would certainly bias his judgement, and not improbably, corrupt his integrity,” he saw groups of individuals, or factions, as an even greater threat to individual liberty, even though paradoxically, he saw liberty as the cause by which factions arise. His solution, then, was to try to control the effects of factions within American society. This could be accomplished, he argued, by the establishment of a republic in favour of a direct democracy. And the representatives in this new republic were initially elected by a select few, namely white, male property owners.

While I agree with Madison, albeit somewhat reluctantly, about the dangers of having a majority of citizens who are united and motivated by a common interest who can take away the rights of the minority of other citizens, this can just as easily lead to the reverse, e.g., a minority of wealthy/propertied interests excluding the majority of poor/propertyless from voting, or in the case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, from effectively influencing the political process.

One of the few things I think Andrew Jackson got right (as opposed to his support of slavery and the Indian Removal Act) was his support for expanded suffrage, which at that time meant extending the right to vote to include all white males instead of just white, male property owners. Without removing this form of class antagonism, civil unrest on the part of the poor and disenfranchised could have gotten to the point where revolt was a serious possibility. Removing this restriction, however, allowed more people to become directly involved in the political process, giving them (at least in theory) a more constructive way to address their grievances than violence. It was the first step in the ongoing fight for equality and universal suffrage.

But as a general principle, the ruling class seeks to do as little for the average citizen as it can. It wasn’t until 1870, for example, that African American males were allowed to vote. And women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920. 1920! So what changed? Was it the interests of the ruling class? Perhaps in some cases, but the vast majority of changes came after long, hard struggles by average men and women seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From the abolition of slavery to the right of women to vote to the 40 hour work day, it was due to the bravery of ordinary, everyday men and women who were willing to stand up and fight for what they believed in that we have these things today.

Regardless of where one stands on the left-right political spectrum, I think it can be agreed by the majority who seriously think about it that, part of the reason we’re losing the battle for political democracy in the US is the lack of civic participation on the part of its citizens. People can’t just vote once a year and think that’s the end of their civic obligation. Hell, most of the time they don’t even do that much. Here in Oregon, for example, we can vote by mail. We don’t even have to leave our house to vote and we still can’t reach 100% turnout! Voter turnout for the entire US during the 2008 presidential election — the highest since 1964 — was only 63%. And many statewide elections are decided by even less.

But we need to do even more than that to win and secure our political freedom. We need to call and write our representatives. We need to go to their offices and talk to them face to face. We need to run for office ourselves. We need to organize with other like-minded individuals and push for the policies we want. We need to take to the streets in rallies and protests if need be. I vote, but I’m not under the illusion that my one vote can have as much of an impact as my political activism can. That’s why today, I’m planning on walking 2.3 miles to Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, hopefully arriving by 2:30pm along with everyone else who’s planning to march and gather in support of the students and workers of Wisconsin.

It’s not just about Wisconsin, though. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about Ohio and Michigan. It’s about every city and state whose unions are under attack. It’s about the poor and the elderly who are being targeted to shoulder the burden of tax cuts for businesses. It’s about attacks on everything from public education and PBS, to reproductive healthcare and even democracy itself. I really wish people would start paying more attention to what’s happening in places like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and start fighting back.

We’re spending over $663.8 billion on weapons, overseas military bases and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, but we can’t even manage to fund public schools and care for the elderly here at home. That’s $663, 800, 000, 000! That’s more than Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan and Russia combined, and accounts for 40% of total global arms spending.

I don’t know how many other people out there feel the way I do and are willing to try and do something about it, but I’m tired of reading the news and seeing this insanity become the status quo. If we don’t start taking notice and getting more politically active, we’re going to find ourselves in an Orwellian/Atwood-esque dystopia. Apathy and complacency are the real enemies of freedom in the US, and I hope that at least some of you will join me in trying to put power back into the hands of the people. We need to understand that we’re all in this together; and as the old IWW motto goes, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”


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