March 23, 2011

The Duty of Civil Disobedience Part 2: Governance in the Larger Sense

Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience" in 1848 and 1849.  One of the main roots of Thoreau's discontent, America's invasion of Mexico, ran from 1846 to 1848.  The spoils of that war were most of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

John Jacob Astor, the first American multi-millionaire, died March 29, 1848.  The first American transcontinental railroad was started in 1863, and finished in 1869.

Apropos Thoreau's other prime example of American governmental immorality, John Brown helped jump start the American Civil War with the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 and the Harpers Ferry raid in 1859.  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President, and on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked a US military installation at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.  Lincoln was assassinated five days later.

Thoreau himself died of tuberculosis in 1862.

Ireland's Great Famine, known here as the Irish Potato Famine, ran from 1845 to 1852.  This famine was probably the source of the biggest voluntary migration to the United States, though one hesitates to call escaping starvation and death completely voluntary.

In January 1848, the very same month Thoreau began delivering a series of lectures that would become the basis of "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience", Karl Marx finished the Communist Manifesto.

I don't have a blackboard, but there are some connections here.

*          *          *          *          *
Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist.  Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers.  As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants.  Not only are they the slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overseer, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.  -- Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party
With Marx and Thoreau, we have historic attacks on what can be called, at their most base and simplistic level (the level on which all public political discourse takes place in this country), both the public and the private sectors.  Following the logic of current political thought, these theories are diametrically opposed, but they do have one thing in common: both are interested in attacking the structures that control and subjugate populaces.

How Marx and Thoreau came up with these ostensibly opposing positions is clear.  Thoreau was living in a brand new country with seemingly limitless land, spaces, resources, and opportunities.  America at the time was certainly capitalist, but since virtually nothing was scarce in the country, the conditions that would later foment Communist revolution worldwide were not yet obvious.  There had been various recessions and depressions, but with the exception of the 1819 depression, most economic problems had been localized and diffuse.  And while there were certainly rich (relatively speaking) men around, there was yet no super rich class (folks along the lines of the Astors), no robber baron class, no obvious gulf between the rich and poor (since most everyone still participated directly in the production of goods).  No, the gods of capital had yet to wrest control of America; rather, it was the government that stood everyone in line and set the stone tablets of moral imperative for the country.  Thoreau, finding that morality lacking, had a clear target.  That target we call today, in our pre-digested and overly simplified way, the public sector.

Marx's target was older and more evolved, but just as clear.  The morality he opposed was indeed dictated by governments, but these governments themselves are controlled by money.  Monarchical and feudal privilege had by this time mostly disappeared and evolved into the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  Marx's Europe was fighting with all kinds of shortages, and in the production processes of the capitalist machine he located the dehumanization of its subjects.  Marx certainly had a beef with governments, but the source of the problem was not there, but in the people who pulled the government's strings . . . and those people were very private.  Or, as we say, the private sector.

And yet, does this public/private dichotomy even make sense?  The forces of control are all public to the degree that they delimit our public sphere; and private to the degree that they are constituted at a level different than the one they occupy (here in America, by the ballot if you are an optimist, and by the checkbook if you are a realist).  Think of governance in a larger sense: who runs your life?

In the end, the whole public/private debate is a red herring: we should think of governance as the monolithic structure that runs our lives.  This structure has its public and its private aspects, and these aspects do not necessarily code out the way we normally think they do.  There is, in this country, an absolute continuum between what we normally consider public and private*, and the struggle is between various ideas of morality, not between ways of executing this morality, which is all that "public" and "private" boil down to.  It is time to dispense, once and for all, the idea that "public" sector and "private" sector oppose each other.

It is not my job here to reconcile Marx and Thoreau; rather, I think that an understanding of each can inform us on governance in the larger sense.  Both Marx and Thoreau are concerned, at their very core, with dehumanization.  And, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how we fight against the dehumanizing forces we face: it just matters that we fight.

*          *          *          *          *

Sometimes, like I said, civil disobedience is a simple thing, if not an easy thing.  It is simple for Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians.  Simple, but certainly not easy.  On the other hand, it is easy for Americans, but extraordinarily complex.   Is there a store that you can buy from which does not, in some way, diminish the rights of citizens somewhere?  Is there a vote for a man or woman who is truly and always just?  Can I breathe, eat, and live without diminishing the earth?  Indeed, to paraphrase Thoreau, how can I make a living without standing on another man's shoulders?

The short answer: you can't.  Failure is the end result of any action we take.  And yet, (once again) from Beckett by way of Zizek, we can fail better.  We can improve.  We can always improve.

And that is the duty of civil disobedience.

*  Two parts of that continuum are capital (money) and the masses (people, or the efforts of the people).

March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday 2

ashes fall
this year
"to dust you shall return"
as if, in deep cold dark
is somehow in question

not much in the way of dust
windows rattle the howl
whistles down between trees
bungalows & shotguns
swirling animate
clacking stick trees
bone chilling

clacking sticks
waving palms
broken body hanging from the tree
Ash Wednesday a taunt
from dust you came
to dust you shall return

Next post: one last visit with Thoreau.  Or one more visit with Thoreau.  Whatever.

March 4, 2011

Interlude: Thoreau

They who know no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.   -- Henry David Thoreau, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"

March 2, 2011

The Duty of Civil Disobedience (Dedicated to Revolution in the Middle East)

It's hard.  God knows it's hard.  It's hard to do; it's hard to even know what to do, or when to do it.  It's hard to know when to take a stand, and when to let things pass.  Civil disobedience is hard.

Knowing that the time had come was the easy part for the Tunisians and the Egyptians.  The time had long passed; it was just waiting for opportunity, for critical mass.  They had seen the crackdowns in Iran, they didn't want a repeat . . . but when the rumble started in Tunisia, it wasn't going to be stopped.  Yesterday, Tunisia and Egypt, today Angola, Iran, and Libya, tomorrow . . . Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan?  Outside of Israel, is anybody safe?

Sometimes knowing is the easy part.  When things are fucked up, and I mean really fucked up (keep it to yerself, teapartier!), start throwing rocks.  Of course, when the knowing is the easy part, the doing is the hard part, 'cause that means the bosses really have things on lockdown . . . it's a perverted equilibrium: when one thing's easy, the other is hard.  Equilibrium is a funny thing.  Funny, except nobody's laughing.

*          *          *          *          *
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.  Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.  -- Henry David Thoreau, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"*
Sometime, somewhere, you will hear some right-wing pseudo-intellectual start dropping lines from Thoreau to buttress his angst.  Or someone from the talk-show left, for that matter.  Do yourself a favor: read the essay, know the essay.  Don't be lied to.

To start with, since I've already taken a poke at the right wing, let me be clear and unequivocal about one thing: Thoreau is a champion of exactly the kind of limited government the right wing says it desires (of course, as we have seen over and over and over again, what the populist right wing says it wants and what it really wants are two different things).
I heartily accept the motto, -- "That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.  Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have.
Or, again:
Government is at best an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.  [.   .   .]  The government itself, which is the only mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.
It is clear, in the great wide open of the rise of America, that the government (for Thoreau, anyway) is primarily an impediment.

But where exactly does this anti-government impulse originate with Thoreau?  In a word, conscience.  Thoreau believes it is impossible for a government to have a conscience:
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period of time continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.  But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it  Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? -- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?  Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?  Why has every man a conscience, then?  I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.  It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.
And, of course, conscience implies justice: for Thoreau, would-be godfather of the Tea Party, is not establishing his rights as an individual because he thinks taxes are too high**.  He has as the subtext to his entire anti-government tract a deep revulsion to slavery and the Mexican-American war, and this is the very key to the transcendent legitimacy of his rebellion.  Indeed, Thoreau-as-rugged-individualist is much more worried about the collective good than his own rights and comforts.  That is why Thoreau speaks of the DUTY of civil disobedience: it is the duty of free humans to live by their consciences.  This alone separates him from many modern champions of "rights", both liberal and conservative.

There's another thread that needs to be pulled out of the quote above: Thoreau does not equate majority opinion with greater good.  As a matter of fact, civil disobedience has, at its core, the individual conscience's stand against the tyranny of the majority.  It is the state that robs its subjects of their humanity ("The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.  [. . .]   In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or the moral sense . . . ") and distances them from their own values.  Civil disobedience is the individual's last beachhead against against the amorality of the state.

Not that Thoreau would have us all up in other people's moral business:
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.
We can't eliminate all the overt wrongs of the world, much less coerce our fellows into the life that we believe is just.  It is not even necessarily our duty to eliminate wrong.  What is our duty, however, is to make sure that we don't materially support a wrong, even if we do not actively work against it.

At the end of the day, Thoreau's concerns are moral ones, and not in the petty sense of good behavior/bad behavior that so many so easily get caught up in; but rather in the grander sense of good for all men.  Like Marx, Thoreau has at the core of his doctrines a utopian vision for all of humanity, though Thoreau's is clearly of a different kind:
I please myself imagining a State at last which can be just to all men and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.
*          *          *          *          *

So, indeed, we have a duty to resist, or at least refuse material support, institutions that oppress our fellow man.  As Thoreau observed about the culture that spawned his essay to begin with:
Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may.***  I quarrel not with far-off foes, but those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless.
Thoreau focused his considerable rhetorical skill on a United States government that allowed slavery and an imperialist war against Mexico . . . but it's not just about government, or even capitulation to the government, is it?  To put it another way, the Gaddafis and Mubaraks are clear targets, but are they the only targets?
*  Sorry, no page numbers.  I'm working with a twenty-year-old Signet Classics paperback edition of Walden with "Civil Disobedience" thrown in like a bonus track.  I'm guessing there is no correspondence with the pagination of any current editions of Walden.
** Though Thoreau was jailed for not paying his taxes, paying taxes was not the issue he was protesting, but rather he was rebelling against the actions of the government that his taxes supported: "I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject [. . .] It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it.  I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually."  Elsewhere, he cites the bible passage where Jesus looks at a coin and, seeing Caesar's image on the coin, encourages his followers to "render therefore that which is Caesar's unto Caesar".  Expanding on the theme, Thoreau makes it clear that whoever becomes rich in the currency of the kingdom owes the kingdom its tribute (i.e., taxes).
*** By the way: shame on those who decried the overthrow of Mubarak (while admitting that he was a tyrant) because it "wasn't in our best interests".  They are the lowest form of politicians/commentators/idiots.