Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Revolution Will Be Narrowcast

Thus, it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is larger, and stronger, if possible, than both other classes.
Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, Chapter 11

Tyrants rely on the most basic and irrational of human emotions, fear and greed, to gain and stay in power. Chaos and Order are their brands, thugs intellectual and real are their pit crews, and the tyrant immediately seeks to raise the stakes of allegiance, or the lack thereof. They are doomed to operate on secrecy and bluff. Bluffing raises the stakes and clears the conservative players who feel they have weak positions out of the way. On the one hand, they must punish often enough to make their threats credible. On the other, they must dole out and share enough riches to ensure the loyalty of their enforcers and defuse the unrest of their Young Turks. To achieve maximum effect, the punish/reward functions must sometimes be conducted blatantly in the open.

If you're not with the tyrant, you're against them. It's Closed-Source government. This is why they are the source of such confusion, this is how they lie their way into wars, this is why they must spy and surveil on their own, pay out Byzantine bribes, and make constant announcements that anyone who opposes them places themselves in peril. Having gained power through dishonest or thinly supported means (and particularly when squandering their power through bad decisions), tyrants must devote the bulk of their attention to preserving power. At some point, they begin to tread on liberties which were once assured, and to grab for more power even as they begin to lose their hold on it. That's where the trouble really starts.

Consider the time preceding the American Revolution. King George and a complicit Parliament increased control of trade in a way which treated the Colonists unequally. They had assumed themselves to have the rights of Englishmen, and when it became apparent they did not, they began to plot how to recover those perceived rights. There was much debate and any number of attempts at reconciliation and compromise, but the basic position was returned to again and again: the Colonists were second-class citizens in an Empire, and when they contemplated their children's future, they saw them being increasingly subject to tyranny. There was no legal structure to stop it, and no one in England seemed to know how to craft one, or to want to.

The Colonists were far more interested in achieving fair due process than they were in conducting a revolution against the most powerful country on earth. Few felt they could militarily win, and most saw taking up arms as a continuation of protest by other means. They simply felt they had no alternative, and saw their real battle as one against an unequal relationship which had already led to small tyrannies and which guaranteed yet greater tyrannies. Their literature is replete with that particular word, tyranny, and while I believe they used it seriously, there is much reason to believe they employed it to illustrate a principle. But where did they get off, exactly? Why did they believe in the principle so deeply?

Because of their enterprise, one of settling and governing what to them was virgin territory, the Colonists had already devoted no small amount of thought to institutional theory as it existed in the early 18th century. Their minds were prepared for chance to favor, you might say, and a survey of the literature commonly available to the Founders, almost all of whom read and discussed the same works (sometimes from the same libraries), would reveal a central theme: examination of a theory that all forms of government naturally corrupt and devolve. The phrase "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" can be traced back to this body of literature. Combined with the situation, the literature kicked off a tremendous amount of intellectual debate in letters, salons, and in public houses on how to deal with the devolution of the Kingly system into tyranny, which they believed was happening on their watch, and what kind of system might well resist that tendency. As it happened, they had read the moral philosophers who would almost write the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for them.

The Founders, then, were essentially conservatives who kept looking back at the hand they were dealt, saw it was strong, and were unable to fold despite the most violent bluffs of the card sharp who was also their host. Circumstances radicalized them, and had they not in reality been dealing with a tyrant, things would've turned out much differently. While looking at their winning hand, they were also working out the consequences of it, and saying things like, "Hmmm. The bastard ups the ante again. Doesn't he know when to quit? I'll raise, I guess. Well, we won't want a powerful central government of thugs like this asshole has. And we can't have a strong military, either, they'll just turn on us out of boredom. And like Aristotle says, we have to put our strength into a middle class, even though Hamilton will kill me for saying so. I'll mollify him and Adams by fully agreeing with their self-interest spiel."

Remind you of anything going on today? There are those who say Americans are dissolute and lazy, that there is no opposition, and the opposition which exists is either cowed or bought off by bread and circuses. That the press is a bunch of robo-journalists with cabbage for brains. That you can't speak your mind in public anymore. That the elites have been co-opted. All true, and I raise my hand as guilty except for the elite part. Nonetheless, a new country is being built right under the King's coke-burnt nose. He doesn't understand it, and it wouldn't interest him if he tried to. It speaks in code, and its core principles go back to Christ and the Magna Carta. It has a founding body of literature, has its Cato, its Paine, and its Franklin, it's largely hidden and non-hierarchical. And it's not bluffing.


Bruce said...

excellent. I love your last paragraph. I'm going to have to blog it.

MarcLord said...

Thanks, bruce. Flattery will get you everywhere. Welcome to the Hordes. What really got me going on this was going to the Portable Media Expo outside L.A. this past weekend. Podcasters galore, you never knew who you'd run into next. Very hi-tech Wild West. I'd been thinking about what Tim Berners-Lee, Linus Torvald, and 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' authors are really after, and it's just about the same thing as the Founders were.