Lately I have been digging into Thomas Paine's writing again. He is so often cited and so rarely read.
His most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, opens with his unique distinction between society and government:
Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kinds are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
This was a distinct proposal about the legitimacy of power. Many of the founding generation believed, as many seem to believe to this day, in a natural aristocracy, that people born into wealth and certain networks had best lead the country. Paine is having none of that. He sees a robust civil society consenting, out of prudence, to government for the security of all, since human virtue cannot be counted upon to serve all human needs. As he felt society was too large for direct democracy, and humankind not able to govern itself as yet, he concluded that representative democracy, a democratic republic, was the appropriate form of government as subordinated to the needs of a distinct civil society. His notion of society assumes relative equality of status and wealth, free of oppression: poverty, caused by privilege and wars waged by monarchs, unjust taxation, and so on were not only unjust but unnatural.
By contrast, what notions of civil society prevail today? To what extent do we embrace the idea of living a public life in which our happiness and liberty derive meaning in relation to the happiness and liberty of others? We seem, to the contrary, to be ever more privatized and clannish (sometimes people say "tribal," yet many tribes model society, so I am loath to use it as an antonym).
We are a plutocratic culture, viewing conspicuous wealth as a sign of success and worth. We believe, as many in the founding generation did, that the "well born" are better suited for leadership than those who toil; many of my countrymen would be comfortable with John Jay's old assertion that those who own the country ought to run it. Elections are competitively financed and require candidates who are wealthy and/or elicit large donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, and who seem uncannily to find that the best course for society aligns with the interests of capital and profit.
Over my lifetime, watching politics I have seen the abandonment of every republican principle in the pursuit of raw power, and an insistence by our chief executives - the last three in particular - that unchecked power is necessary for the safety of society.
As Paine proceeds to critique the British constitution for its mockery of checks and balances, I wonder if he could look at our system as it is in practice today and say that our system of checks and balances is less absurd - or that we even operate with meaningful, explicit consent of the governed.
We - speaking here of civil society, the commons, the governed - had better get clear on this. It may already be too late to reverse the courses we seem to be following towards catastrophe, both politically and ecologically. Amid talk of resisting the corporate coup that seems to have seized the levers of the republic, we need to sharpen our analysis, as Paine writes:
...Any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.
He was referring to the British constitution and its flaws. Our own Constitution has flaws of its own, but more to the point we have allowed so many precedents that circumvent the rule of law, in the interest of an economic system that demands the negation of civil society to an extent the founding generation could not have foreseen, that injustice and the thirst for power have bent the very light by which we see. But it is our sacred responsibility - part of the natural order of things, Paine might agree - to discipline government, not the other way around.