Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reader Response: Thomas Paine and Government

The birthday of Thomas Paine (in 1737) approaches, and earlier this month we also observed the anniversary of his most famous pamphlet, Common Sense. It was this pamphlet that fanned the flames of independence in the American colonies.

In my post about Common Sense, I wrote:

Many of those who now attempt to claim Thomas Paine as an ideological ally have never read him. For instance, I have read some people who position themselves on the libertarian right who think Paine is one of them because of his lusty cry of "freedom!" yet do not seem familiar with his argument that society is necessary and that a need for government, in some measure, inevitably arises for the maintenance of a healthy society. The Reaganauts were fond of quoting Paine's line about the best government "governing the least," but Paine was not arguing that "government is the problem," he was arguing for a balance of power between government and society. It is right there in Common Sense.

Some of my friends and fellow board members of Thomas Paine Friends, Inc. attempted to leave comments in response to this post. For some reason, on that day, the comment interface was not working, and my friends could not contribute their thoughts. I am saddened, since this is the sort of interchange I am always hoping for on this blog.

Martha Spiegelman sent along her own response and I now yield her some space to respond, on the recent anniversary of Common Sense and passing of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Your words about "Common Sense" (at its 236th anniversary and 275th anniversary of the birth of its author) are right on the mark, Algernon D'Ammassa, pointing to the fundamental argument of the pamphlet, that is, government is necessary--because of the vices of the powerful in society. The right wing, tea party, oligarchs, corporate moguls, military-industrial complex, modern aristocrats, anti-taxers, profiteers, buccaneers, banksters, power-brokers---in other words, all who hold that "it's every man for himself", that profit rules, that government should be strangled---want it both ways: government when it's "good for us" (laws against abortion, against unions, against free assembly, etc., etc.) and no government when it "limits our freedoms" (taxes, regulations on corporations, etc., etc.). Thomas Paine knew better. Yes, society is positive, it unites our affections. Government is negative, it checks our vices. And, BECAUSE of our vices, government is NECESSARY---being negative it can be called an evil, but a NECESSARY one. And why necessary? BECAUSE "every man for himself" does not a good society make.

Paine did not oppose government---far, far from it---but he did find many forms of government inimical to the best interests of society, such as all monarchical and aristocratical governments. And what are we on the verge of today? Aristocratical, oligarchical rule, by the few not the many, by the 1% not the 99%. Paine would say, I think, take back our government. OCCUPY!

He did say, self-government is our right. And he did say, we have equal rights, and the right to vote prime among them. So let us take up the political task, to ensure a government that will do its very best for all, and that will be called good when the poor, the afflicted, the old and troubled have a decent measure of support in our society, when wars are not constantly threatened, when our environment has a chance to survive, when justice prevails.

Today on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we can say, with him, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". And, "Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream".

[Photo: How would Thomas Paine be received today by those who try to claim him on the right? This is one of many political cartoons that assailed him during his life.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo Algernon for your terrific post on the anniversary of Common Sense and wonderful response, Martha!

I'm glad both of you are emphasizing Paine's affinities with OWS rather than the Tea Party. Funny thing is that if the Tea Party were around back in Paine's times, they'd probably be busy burning his effigy as part of the Church and King mobs in Britain: mobs which, incidentally, were supported by the local gentry, and magistrates (not to mention, of course, PM William Pitt!) just like the Tea Party is by a number of corporate sponsors (e.g., Koch brothers).

It's worth noting, btw, that anti-tax sentiments in Britain and America during the 1760s-70s were genuinely radical and fueled from the "lower orders"--rather than the elites as is the case with the GOP and Tea Party. Men like Paine were most likely already influenced by other radical writers (e.g., James Murray) who complained that taxes were disproportionately burdensome on the poor. They asked why was it that windows, salt, and other necessities were taxed exorbitantly when "banks, bawdy-houses, and brothels" were not? And why was it that aristocrats were believed to be naturally adept at governing when they couldn't even run their own families while busy wasting government funds on expensive booze and bimbos? In short, the predominant idea is that a smaller and less wasteful government--one that wasn't squandering precious dough on the king and the landed elites running Parliament--is best for the common man.

Then in 1792 when Paine published Part 2 of Rights of Man, he realized that a small government was not enough in itself; what was needed was a small government and a scheme of maximizing benefits for society as a whole. Government ought to be "a delegation of power for the common benefit of society" and "the public good"--in short, for the 99%. This is partly how he arrived at an early vision of Social Security and how he came to be branded as a "leveller": the late 18th century equivalent of "commie" and "socialist."

So how did this change in the 1980s? What Reagan cleverly did in the 1980s was to spout this radical rhetoric while carefully turning its benefits to the corporates and wealthy families of his day.

Paine was the modern Prometheus who lit the fires of revolution. He brought politics to the 99%--and was punished by the powers that be for his boldness. Today, if anyone can claim Paine, it is the union workers in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. The protesters in the Middle East. And yes, Occupy Wall Street with its counterparts across the globe. Paine, like OWS, celebrates the 99%. And like OWS, was of the 1% brave enough to confront their respective Establishments.

Frances A. Chiu