March 10, 2010

To Restore the American Spirit

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom, Relocalization — Tags: , — Russ @ 6:48 am


Yesterday (and in many previous posts) I gave a brief overview of the assault on American freedom. This is no longer “creeping” tyranny; it’s at a gallop.
When we ponder this we must recall how the Founding Fathers saw these things. They too saw freedom under attack. They responded with heroic action. But this action didn’t just spring from nowhere. it was grounded in a firm freedom principle and a keen perception of the basic power calculus of this world.
The Founders’ political philosophy can be summed up as: Freedom is the highest ideal, the core principle which gives value to all others, the reason for living. But freedom is always under assault from power. This is not just because men are greedy and tyrannical, although this is true of many. Rather, power itself, by its very inertia, seeks to engulf and diminish freedom. “Power corrupts”, as Acton was later to say.
The Founders knew with John Adams that political power meant dominion of man over man. There was no other way for it to exist. It’s true that some level of such power and such dominion must exist if we’re to have human society. But this power must eternally be kept under rein by eternal vigilance.
In his great survey The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution Bernard Bailyn compiles many expressions of this theme.

Most commonly the discussion of power centered on its essential characteristic of aggressiveness: its endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries. In expressing this central thought, which explained to them more of politics, past and present, than any other single consideration, the writers of the time outdid themselves in verbal ingenuity. All sorts of metaphors, similes, and analogies were used to express this view of power. The image most commonly used was that of the act of trespassing. Power, it was said over and over again, has “an encroaching nature”; “…if at first it meets with no control it creeps by degrees and quick subdues the whole.” Sometimes the image is of the human hand, “the hand of power”, reaching out to clutch and seize: power is “grasping” and “tenacious” in its nature; “what it seizes it will retain.” Sometimes power is “like the ocean, not easily admitting limits to be fixed in it.” Sometimes it is “like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour.” Sometimes it is motion, desire, and appetite all at once, being “restless, aspiring, and insatiable.” Sometimes it is like “jaws…always opened to devour.” It is everywhere in public life, and everywhere it is threatening, pushing, and grasping; and too often in the end it destroys its benign victim.

These could have been direct commentary on the analysis of the power ideology given by Hobbes, that men must be considered nothing but calculating, power-seeking machines. According to Hobbes, freedom for all would simply render society impossible. On the contrary, absolute tyrannical power must be concentrated in a power structure which he called the Leviathan. Hobbes’ motivation in this was to justify authoritarian power. (He had also been personally discombobulated by the civil war and feared any kind of uncertainty or political disorganization whatsoever.)
It could also be commentary on the relentless inertia of the growth ideology as enshrined in large-scale capitalism. Growth without grounding, profit without purpose, expansion without expectation, all of it simply “appetite..feeding upon itself”, which must inevitable cannibalize itself – by now we know how literally totalitarian in is. As Arendt put it, growth as a violent principle must simply expand “until there’s nothing left to violate”.
These are the forms of the unrelenting assault of power upon freedom. The Founders believed that liberty was the eternal prey always at risk of becoming power’s victim.
Liberty, law, right, are self-evident and do not arise out of power. On the contrary the only way power can ever be legitimate is if it’s grounded in right and law and remains under their command.
Power on the one hand; liberty and law on the other:

The one was brutal, ceaselessly active, and heedless; the other was delicate, passive, and sensitive. The one must be resisted, the other defended, and the two must never be confused. “Right and power”, Richard Bland stated, “have very different meanings, and convey very different ideas”; “power abstracted from right cannot give a just title to dominion”, nor is it possible legitimately, or even logically, to “build right upon power.” When the two are intermingled, when “brutal power” becomes “an irresistible argument of boundless right”, as it did, John Dickinson explained, under the Cromwellian dictatorship, innocence and justice can only sigh and quietly submit.

Maybe this all sounds obvious, but it’s not the way the modern world, or modern government, functions. The power command of money and physical violence have nothing to with law and right, and are their nemeses. On the contrary, since right is by definition self-created, then by definition to be rich and physically powerful, and to seek political power based only on these, automatically rules out the right. Such power usurpers are outlaws. By definition money and physical dominion can rule only as tyranny, never as legitimate power. This is what the Founding Fathers believed.
Legitimate power derives only from the people, from voluntary political and social concord. To conserve this power so that it enhances and preserves, rather than violates, liberty, requires eternal vigilance. Vigilance and the will to fight were at the core of the American Revolution, and have always been the measure of whether values exist at all.
What’s the measure of freedom? Your will to fight for it. Where must we be vigilant? Where must we fight? Unfortunately the front line seems to be everywhere we look. Big banks, health care rackets, Pentagon weapons rackets, Big Ag, and everywhere else. What can we do, beyond protest?
For now the real action isn’t in karate but in judo. We can’t directly smash the big structures. But we can evade them and let their weight undermine them, by becoming a coordinated network of small producers,  building community self-reliance, constructing local and regional economies which are as self-sufficient as possible, and which keep locally produced wealth in the community and fight to keep predatory foreign wealth out. Relocalization in all things, economic, social, cultural, and political, is the only road to freedom.
So we can transpose the ideals and words of the American Revolution, which we were taught as the great shining event of not only our own but of all human history. We can redeem this often hijacked ideal by restoring it to its rightful place, as the fight against tyranny. Today it’s the corporate tyranny we must fight. Relocalization is the strategy and the desired end goal. Most of our tactics will involve it as well. It’s the age’s embodiment of the freedom principle. To go local is to be free.
So we must start with the principle. We Americans must decide who we are. The principle – to be free or to be a slave? And the actions which both define the principle and then follow from it. That defines us all. 


  1. You see, you are in agreement with Ayn Rand (and with me). But what you have to understand is that the tyranny always begins in a spirit of altruism.

    Comment by jake chase — March 10, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    • When I consider history’s tyrannical figures, I find very few whose main mindset wasn’t either cynicism/greed/powerlust (like Stalin, Nero, or even Caesar; and today e.g. Obama and the banksters), and/or a sense of entitlement (most monarchs, and probably Bush falls more into that category; many of the banksters as well). Most are some combo of both.

      But it’s pretty rare to find even a twisted sense of idealism or “altruism” as you call it as a major motivator.

      Comment by Russ — March 10, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    • I just read your Baseline comment, and I thought I’d ask here instead of there, why does everyone, idolators and detractors, agree upon what Rand said, except for you?

      I haven’t read “Atlas”, but I read some essays, and they didn’t seem “individualistic” to me, except in the Blankfein sense.

      How have all those Wall St guys gotten her so wrong, as you say?

      Was Nathaniel Brandon wrong too? I read some of his glosses. I think it was actually in him that I read about corporate-run schools, and how public schools shouldn’t exist at all. (Oh, he was excommunicated, right. But for many years Rand thought his writings were OK. How did she so misconstrue him and what he wrote?)

      I know you say Greenspan was an apostate, but you’re also the only person I’ve heard say that.

      I also saw some really noxious things Greenspan wrote back in the 60s, when she must have read them. Did she condemn him then?

      And what was up with that dollar sign clasp? Satire? Everybody else took it seriously, and she knew they took it seriously. It’s sure repulsive to me.

      Comment by Russ — March 10, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

      • Brandon was a lover who jilted her. A small army of people climbed on her back, took what suited them, twisted it for alterior purposes. She is like Hayek (and Keynes) in that respect.

        In my opinion she is one of a very small number of sound thinkers from the past two hundred years. Others are Henry George, Veblen, Keynes, Hayek. Rand’s philosopy was developed by her family’s experience under Lenin, who you will recall was a darling of the intellectuals most of whom later claimed his vision was subverted by Stalin. What Rand believed was that man lives or dies according to his mental faculties. He is the only animal coming into the world with no tools of survival, no instincts, only a resoning ability. In her view, it was immoral to require one man to become a slave of others. Thus, she opposed a military draft, American foreign aid, government solutions to economic problems. Like Hayek, she understood that the only basis for organization in a free society is private contract, that the purpose of government is to create a legal system in which rules exist for everyone, with no exceptions left to the discretion of politicians responsive inevitably to influence and pull.

        Remember that government enjoys a monopoly on coercive force. The more pervasive government becomes the more freedom diminishes. It is a simple matter for windbag politicians to turn every crisis into opportunity. Within recent memory we have the crime crisis, the drug crisis, the terrorism crisis, the financial crisis. These days we have the health care crisis, and you can see how that is playing out, with a mandate which will extort money from the healthy to enrich insurance companies which will jack up rates because they will now be ‘compelled’ to cover everyone. Notice how the extortion will spare those with bargaining power, notably those employed by rich and powerful employers capable of negotiating their own deals.

        Consider what has happened to freedom in the 97 years since passage of the Federal Reserve Act, which destroyed honest money for all time. Morgan’s stooge, Woodrow Wilson, used the Lusitania sinking to railroad the country into WWI, creating gigantic windfall profits, a depression in 1921. The Fed gave us a stock market bubble, a crash, a depression, a Fuhrer (FDR) who collectivized industry for the benefit of his patron, Rockefeller, a comprehensive scheme of social and economy planning which failed utterly and was only bailed out by American involvement in WWII, which Roosevelt provoked by his economic measures against Japan. History after 1945 has been a study of monopolies, cartels, gangster unions, banking monopolies, government boondoggles, idiotic imperial wars, financial bubbles and now a crash. All of this has been a consequence of dishonest money and gangster government engineered by swindlers of both parties, and all of it was entirely predictable and in fact predicted by Ayn Rand in her own words, which deserve your attention.

        Comment by jake chase — March 11, 2010 @ 8:20 am

      • I agree with almost all of that as a basic account of the 20th century.

        What I don’t get is how you think it’s possible to want industrialism and “growth” and all the “free market” crap (and I assume no externalities? Rand, you’re saying, said the voluntary participants should pay for ALL costs of the transaction? how are they to be made to pay, according to her?), have there be no non-economic value underlying it (i.e., no steenking “altruism”; anyone who’s motivated by anything other than pure selfishness is a traitor to humanity, according to what I read), and no strong enforcement mechanism to deal with the constant plague of economic criminals anywhere such crime isn’t literally taboo, and yet still by magic everyone will behave as a good citizen?

        Sorry, but whenever I hear that I assume it’s an ideological scam.

        I reject all centralized mass organizations. So it follows I would dispense with things like skyscrapers which only collectivized masses can build.

        When I see someone say things like, “I reject collectivism, but I want skyscrapers”, I know he’s either an idiot or a liar.

        That’s the kind of silliness I expect to hear from liberals. But when a libertarian ideologue says it, I figure it’s the same old corporate scam.

        If you would reply that I’m taking the architect thing too seriously, that it’s just symbolic or something, my response would be, Why an architect?

        Why not a poet or a painter. Then she could have the same exact story about creative ideals, but large sums of money and large-scale organization would never come into it.

        Indeed, if I were setting out to write a story of the lonely creator vs. the death machine, I’d intentionally make him as impoverished and unneeding of money or infrastructure as possible, to isolate the freedom-vs.-tyranny theme.

        After all, as we all know, the more money you think you need, the farther from the pure creative freedom ideal you’re diverging.

        So why did Rand intentionally choose an architect, whose ideal isn’t relocalization through rediscovery of sod huts, but rather the same old pharaonic monumental architecture which has invariably required tremendous amounts of stolen capital and forced labor? It sounds suspicious to me.

        Comment by Russ — March 11, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  2. It’s just a matter of time before the Cass Sunstein brigand brigade shows up and ‘debunks’ your ‘conspiracy theories’ about freedom in America.

    Comment by corrector — March 10, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    • I guess I have mixed feelings. So far I would seem to be too obscure to persecute.

      Comment by Russ — March 10, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    • Russ, you write “What I don’t get is how you think it’s possible to want industrialism and “growth” and all the “free market” crap (and I assume no externalities?”

      Well, I don’t know if it is possible or not. I don’t particularly care about industrialism and growth, and the global variety is the worst kind of trap. What I do know is that the destruction of money and the creation of an all powerful nanny state is not a recipe for freedom but a recipe for pretty much what we have.

      I think you misunderstand Rand’s character, Roark, who didn’t care if he worked in that quarry or designed the buildings he could see inside his head, but merely insisted he would not be a patsy serving the objectives of those who curried favor to get ahead in a corrupt system.

      Do you think politicians produced those skyscrapers? They were made possible by technology and private commitment. What politicians produce is the South Bronx, Rumania. The more powerful government becomes, the more individual choices are limited, the easier for big money to consolidate gains, because there is always some scam offering a guaranteed profit to those able to mobilize pull and cheap money supplied by a monopolized banking system. That is why big money participates so eagerly in aggrandizing the state. Hitler was idealized by the petty bougeoisie, but he was bankrolled and propped up by the cartels. Reagan,Bush pere and fils, aggrandized government like the worst Democrat demagogues, justifying their insider looting under the convenient cover of ‘national defense.’

      You clearly believe that without the government Nanny State, four or five big shots would own and control everything. But what you don’t understand is that without the Nanny State (and under a proper system of law) competition would inevitably cut the big shots down to size. Take one day and read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. It really is unanswerable.

      Comment by jake chase — March 11, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

      • When have I indicated that I think a Nanny State is good for anything? I’ve said over and over that the system is beyond redemption and that our only chance is to build informal local economies while the system destroys itself, and try to defend them from storms from above in the meantime.

        I too want a “proper system of law” to exist for these communities. But I include in the definition of proper that the law would be proactive in preventing the feudal nightmare from starting all over again.

        I was recently reading about the tribal custom of potlatch, which among other things periodically dissolved wealth concentrations. (Needless to say, the American and Canadian governments outlawed the custom among those tribes.) That’s the kind of custom we need to revive, if necessary with some help from the law, until it can once again become culturally ingrained. That’s just an example.

        But from everything I’ve ever heard, and it seemed so in what I read, is that Rand and Hayek and the rest would loathe such a thing.

        It’s concentration and size which are the pure evils. In the Baseline comment you said you preferred “anti-monopoly” to “anti-corporatist”; so be it. To me, they’re concepts headed in the same direction. I always say “anti-corporate” because corporatism is the main form of the assault today.

        So I suppose you can say I would use public power to prevent concentration of private power. But by its nature the public power itself can be kept within the bounds of minimum necessity and allowed to go no further, if the people are vigilant on behalf of their liberty.

        That’s the finest strain of the Founders’ thought, as I wrote about in this post.

        What I didn’t get to yet, and where I suppose I diverge from some aspects of the American experience and look more to Periclean Athens, is that a vigilant people, it seems to me, must always exercise their public, positive freedom, as the Athenian citizenry did in the polis (or has been done at times in America in the form of town hall democracy), rather than conceive freedom only in the negative sense. The latter concept and practice leads without exception to the erosion of freedom and its hijacking by the very power-lust and private greed which are always the death of real freedom, as they’ve been in America.

        That’s how America’s freedom and prosperity were destroyed.

        Comment by Russ — March 11, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

      • > But what you don’t understand is that without the Nanny State (and under a proper system of law) competition would inevitably cut the big shots down to size. Take one day and read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

        Thiis is the fundemental naive delusion upon which libertarian is based. All arguing about anything else is pointless, as it comes down to this underpinning from which all the other conclusions flow. History does not support this idea.

        Power consolidates itself. All of history bears this out. From family groups, to clans, to tribes, to kingdoms, to nations, always power consolidates as the more powerful eat the less. Government and private corporations follow the same rules of power. Natural history shows the same principles: the strong prey upon the weak. The only limitations to this is the amount of power able to be weilded, and the consequent ability to exercise it over large distances and large numbers. This is why animal predators do not consolidate beyond a very limited point (but we do see it to a degree in animal societies such as wolf packs, where a large pack may grow more large and powerful than others and dominate them, and conquer more territory). This is why societies with limited technology only organize to a small size, and do not form empires.

        The power genie is out of the bottle, and just continues increasing. In a vacuum left by not having a strong government, it is naive to think corporations would not weild all the awesome power that technology enables them to, and take the place of governments.

        No, the answer is not to weaken government. Again look at your history. Real data is out there. Abuse by corporation is inversely proportional to how strongly government was regulating them at any given time. Look at the data on the concentration of wealth. Our most equitable years, where weath (which = power) was most evenly shared across the members of society, were directly following the changes made by the one you call (weilding rhetoric, rather than argument) “Fuhrer”. It has been downhill since the 80s when the very thinking you espouse (“less government control, let the fair hand market competition do its work”) became dominant and began dismantling and subverting what had worked so well since FDR. And look where we are now.

        Broadly argued pro- and con- big, powerful government is nonsense. (And let’s dispene with empty rhetoric like “nanny state” shall we?) The devil is in the details. Government needs power to be effective, the important thing is who is guiding that power. That is what the problem is. It has become less and less the people, and more and more corporations. It is also a naive dream that with the passing of peak oil, the power we have will diminish, and consequently power can become smaller. This too is a naive dream, short of some argmeddon that puts us back into the stone age. Power is out there, and the only way to keep the few from using it to dominate the many is if the many (not as individuals, but collectively) have that power. That doesn’t mean weakening our government, it means taking back control of it.

        Precisely HOW to enable the people to actually control their government, is of course a tricky difficult thing, and we have lots of examples of that going wrong. But devising a better HOW is where we should be spending our energy, not arguing about any other course, because history shows us there IS no other course. And the fact that we’ve lost sight of that, and and spend all our time arguing about things we should have already learned from history rather than this, is a big part of the problem, and why our government has gotten so off course.

        Comment by Eric S — July 25, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  3. Powerful stuff.

    Man, if we could only get posts like this distilled for consumption by working moms & dads for prime time TV.

    How powerful would that be? Esp. B. Bailyn & “The one was brutal, ceaselessly active, and heedless; the other was delicate, passive, and sensitive”, etc.

    Comment by chas — March 10, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

  4. Thanks Chas.

    Here’s something else from yesterday which resonated.


    Comment by Russ — March 11, 2010 @ 4:37 am

  5. Kant discussed the impossibility of determining empirically whether someone does something for the sake of principle or for some other reason (see the groundwork at least although he may have brought it up elsewhere as well; I am not well versed in his work but I have read some of that). The same analysis applies any time the altruism vs. self interest debate comes up. The debate can’t go anywhere because each side can claim that people act according to that side’s pet principle. The argument stubbornly continues partly because there is no prospect of “proving” the point. Ultimately the topic distracts from substantive matters.

    Discussion should focus instead on the real issues at hand, which are actually fairly easy to discern. Basically, everything is about who gets what. Do the workers get the stuff they produce or don’t they? Capitalism rests on the distinction between owners who don’t produce and producers who don’t own. Given that, the altruism/self interest dichotomy crumbles into irrelevance. Of course people are interested in providing for themselves! And of course people also orient toward others (we talk, don’t we? the fact of language indicates a strong evolutionary trend toward sociality, at a minimum). As far as self interest goes, the question is who will be able to satisfy theirs. Under capitalism, owners get to run the show for THEIR benefit. Whether owners accomplish their ends by way of the government is a detail that indicates HOW owners impose themselves in the ontology outlined above, but it is erroneous to assume there is an Ideal government that can be analyzed outside the specific circumstances of a particular government. Likewise, if we are to contemplate how workers might meet their interests the result might be something that we would recognize as “government”, but any judgment of the outcome should be based on the facts, not on what amounts to little more than metaphysics.

    In the end I largely agree with Russ, particularly when it comes to analyses of what is going on and why. Most of what I disagree about relates to the form any solution would take.

    Comment by James — March 11, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    • You’re right, James. While gutter egoism is easy enough to identify, since there’s no such thing as pure altruism, and in the end any altruism has to be mixed with some level of egoism, there’s likely to be endless cui bono debates if that’s the way things are framed.

      But the incontrovertible fact that men could never have survived even as hunter-gatherers without cooperation proves the falsity of the pro-selfishness argument.

      Indeed that kind of argument is a particularly absurd luxury of socially- and especially oil-generated wealth. (While the conduct and attitude may have existed prior to the fossil fuel age, the ideology never did. You always have to laugh at oil parasites, which all of us in Western countries are, blathering about how “I” accomplished this or that.)

      (In saying all that I’m not saying that’s what I think Jake believes. But most Rand afficionados do believe that, usually aggressively and obnoxiously so. Jake says they all misunderstand her.)

      So we can go with the obviously true baseline that, short of the individual literally trekking off into the wilderness alone and naked, man must socially cooperate at least to some extent. From there it’s purely a question of strategy and tactics. What works best to acheive the most broadly beneficial and productive outcome?

      (I know that last question begs some questions as well, but at least it’s narrowed the scope of the argument.)

      Comment by Russ — March 13, 2010 @ 1:59 am

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