Saturday, February 04, 2017

Down with Kings and Inherited Power

Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. 1

Down with monarchy, argues Paine as he continues in Common Sense, for all humans are created equal and only afterward are divided up into rulers and subjects. He rejects monarchy and hereditary succession in particular.

Inherited power does nothing to ensure wisdom or goodness, and opens the door just as easily for the unprepared, the foolish, or the jackass to assume power.

In our plutocratic culture, many are persuaded to the idea that wealth is equivalent to merit, as when people affirmed that they voted for Donald Trump because they perceived him to be a successful businessman; whereas in fact, although Donald Trump has been involved in a number of business ventures, his wealth was inherited and given his business record, without inherited wealth we would not know who he was and he certainly would not have ascended to the presidency. In our time, inherited fortunes convey liberty, opportunity, and power to any fortunate jackass without regard to merit or virtue. Another way to "inherit" the nexus of wealth and power is to assume leadership in the apparatus of big business. Popular culture consistently portrays the wealthy as better connected and best fit for power, glamorizing the idea of a ruling class.

From among these [capitalists and managers], the few tens of thousands who sit on two or more boards form a pattern of interlocking directorships among the major banks and nonfinancial corporations. This network, together with the top-level political and cultural leaders aligned with it, can fairly be called the ruling class.

...The ruling class is bound together into a coherent social force by common networks and institutions that allow the ruling class to rule - to give strategic guidance to society. Thank tanks, elite university research and policy centers, exclusive social and political organizations, media and cultural institutions, all interact to create an environment in which debates lead to policy formulation and political processes that broadly reflect the corporate interests at the center of the network. 2

One way people improperly try to "claim" Thomas Paine for their ideological projects is to assume where he would stand on current affairs. I am wary of such misuse of him, but I can easily imagine things he might say about the character of power in our time, not to mention the expansion of executive branch powers, at a later stage of capitalist development, simply by applying his principles to present-day institutions.

For instance, he easily dismisses normative claims about "constitutional monarchy," the idea of a parliamentary legislature and monarch as the executive. Paine simply looks at history and asks whether Locke's promise was fulfilled, whether this led to rule of law rather than rule of the tyrant. The answer is not ambiguous.

I write this on the very day that a new, autocratically-minded president has been actively (and quite purposefully) working to de-legitimize any checks on executive power, from the press to the judiciary. The way has been paved by past presidents widening their authority, much in the way Paine saw constitutional monarchs gradually extending their power so as to circumvent checks and balances on them.

When the executive disciplines the republic instead of the other way around, we are bending the republic - and it will break.

1 From Common Sense, Thomas Paine, 1776.
2. From The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Michael Zweig, 2012.

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