Thursday, May 31, 2007

Class politics

I've been reading Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason (2007). I'll do a fuller review of it later after I've actually read the whole thing.

But, as impressed as I am with Gore in general, even I was actually stunned to see how drastic his diagnosis is of the current dilemma of American democracy. And this is certainly not the usual politician's book. Even though Gore knows that every single word is likely to be picked over by both the Republican noise machine and the exotic group we call our "press corps", he's taking a philosophical approach that is by no means a simple stringing together of familiar phrases.

The book's third chapter is on "The Politics of Wealth", in which he addresses class issues in a way American politicians rarely do these days.And he also discusses how the tension between democracy and capitalism - yes, he talks about it that explicitly - was handled during the early decades of the Republic. And he refers to his predessor as Tennessee Senator and Presidential candidate who won the elections but had the elections stolent from him by the economic royalists (yes, he uses that FDR term, too):

Lincoln's transcendent victory for the freedom of the human spirit [winning the Civil War] saved the Republic. But in order to win the war, Lincoln was forced to rely on corporations that produced munitions, transported troops by rail, and focused the industrial strength of the North against the largely agrarian economy of the South. In the process, Lincoln removed many constraints that had kept the power of corporations in check during the first seven decades of the Republic.

Thomas Jefferson had expressed concern about what he saw as the encroaching danger in 1821 — more than a decade after he left the presidency: "Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence. The engine of consolidation will be the Federal judiciary; the twoother branches the corrupting and corrupted instruments."

Echoing Jefferson, President Andrew Jackson warned against the dangers of too much corporate power, saying that it raised the question of "whether the people of the United States are to govern through representatives chosen by their unbiased suffrages, or whether the money and power of a great corporation are to be secretly exerted to influence their judgment and control their decisions." (my emphasis)
I also like the fact that he doesn't try to idolize Lincoln. What he states about Lincoln's facilitating the closer connection of state and business power is true. And it's something Lincoln himself recognized.

Gore quotes this passage from a letter of Lincoln's in late 1864. One that I predict you will not hear quoted by any of the 2008 GOP Presidential candidates:

We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. ... But I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the future of our country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and a era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggragated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions will prove groundless.
Gore doesn't quote the following passage from Lincoln, at least not in the part I've read so far. But here's a passage from Lincoln's first State of the Union address on 12/3/1861 that's even less likely to appear in a Republican candidate's speech today:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. (my emphasis)
Yikes! That would still be enough to make the hair of any good Republican plutocrat stand on end.

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