© Robert Orwell Hand – (Reprinted with Permission)
In the United States, the political world is superficially divided in terms of the two-party system: Republicans (ostensibly, the defenders of “freedom”) vs. Democrats (ostensibly, the defenders of “equality”).
In deeper and far more revealing terms—terms that include the economic and social, and even spiritual, dimensions of freedom—the political sphere divides not into the interests of the two opposing political parties but into the interests of the powerful vs. the interests of the powerless.Only as political parties and ideologies are analyzed in light of relative power relations can they be adequately understood in regard to the subject of freedom.
While what are called “conservatives” like to present themselves as the champions of “freedom” (especially when it comes to the economics of “free enterprise,” “the free market,” and “free trade”), the political reality is that the freedom they champion is the exclusive property of the powers that be.
Conservatives (virtually all Republicans and various others) avowedly wish to conserve the America of times past: in the words of Donald Trump (adopted by the Republican party since his 2016 election to the presidency): to “make America great again!” This conservative slogan assumes that America has fallen from a state of past greatness to which it can only be restored with the proper—that is to say, with conservative—leadership. The question insofar as freedom is concerned is: What is the relation between the conservative ideal of greatness and the ideal of freedom for all?
The conservative elements of the judiciary (now in the majority of the Supreme Court) generally subscribe to the judicial philosophy of “constitutional originalism,” meaning that the U.S. Constitution must be interpreted according to the perceived original intent of the framers of the constitution. Which, in effect, deifies and consecrates the “intent” of aristocratic white, male land-owners (and, mostly, slave-owners), who inarguably did not approach their task from the points of view of women, slaves, or natives, nor of landless white males for that matter, all of whom were, nonetheless, ideally included in Jefferson’s bold declaration that “all men are created equal.” The founders—all brilliant men of their time and place—naturally approached their task from the point of view of their class (despite the opportunity and encouragement to adopt a more democratic point of view under the influence of Thomas Paine: see his Common Sense and The Rights of Man). Which is to say that their concern with the relationship between freedom and equality seems to have been (in Orwell’s phrase from Animal Farm) that some be “more equal” than others.
Nevertheless, by signing on to the Declaration of Independence, with its “self-evident” assertion “that all men are created equal,” they set a high bar for judging the greatness of the nation. And in that light, it’s difficult not to conclude that the increasing number of federal and Supreme Court judges who adhere to “constitutional originalism” intend to conserve the aristocratic values and, therefore, the power of the owning/ruling class that originally framed the constitution, to the detriment of the framers’ highest ideal of freedom for all.
The conservative vision of American greatness seems best understood in terms of national power, that is, the power to impose “U.S. interests”—typically shorthand for U.S. corporate interests throughout American history—on the rest of the world. After seizing the lands of and subduing its American Indian and Mexican populations, the U.S. government swiftly began to expand its rule off the shores of the continental U.S. and to deepen its rule over Latin America (“rule,” in these cases, being primarily economic but, when perceived necessary, also military). After World War II, the U.S. took the mantle of empire from Great Britain and extended its power into the Middle East and Africa (and elsewhere), becoming the senior “superpower” of the world (the Soviet Union becoming its chief, albeit junior, competitor).
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. remains the only superpower, but its international economic (though not military) power has gradually decreased since World War II. A restoration to the conservative view of national greatness—a view shared by all historical empires—would mean the renewed and expanded subordination of the world to the national interests of the U.S. (And, to be fair, this conservative view has been equally championed by so-called “liberal” politicians, who with few exceptions embraced a militaristic foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st.)
If, however, American greatness is understood in terms of the human goal of freedom for all, then making America great again becomes a far more problematic case to make. Americans who take an honest and unvarnished look at American history must struggle with how to reconcile the freedom-for-all ideal of American greatness with the relevant historical facts: African-American slavery (which lasted for nearly the first hundred years of U.S. history, and the legacy of which still beats down African Americans); Native American genocide (in the interest of expanding U.S. territory, eventually subjugating American Indians to relative parcels of their original lands called “reservations,” and ruthlessly suppressing native languages and cultures, the effects of which suppression they continue to suffer); Japanese American internment (during World War II, in which Japanese American families were transferred, in this case by a “liberal” administration with conservative support, from their homes and socially and economically quarantined in detention areas); the Great Depression (among other lesser economic meltdowns before and since, the outcome of unfettered capitalism, that is, the god-like freedom of the corporate powers that be); the McCarthy hearings (aka, the “Communist witch hunt” of the 1950s, in which the U.S. conservative political establishment tried to purge the government of New-Deal liberals, along with silencing the free speech of other leading and liberalizing change-agents in American society); the brutal and bloody states-rights opposition of conservative southern state governments to the Civil Rights Movement (a movement that was steadfastly opposed by conservative politicians, and only reluctantly and sporadically aided, by the then so-called “liberal” federal government). These are among only the more commonly-known historical episodes that decisively refute the claim that the ideal of freedom for all played any part in the conservative vision of past American greatness.
Once the ideal of freedom for all becomes the prism through which American history is viewed, the only way to view America as having fallen from a former state of greatness is to consciously embrace white supremacy and the oppression of the working class and the poor of all ethnicities. By the same token, to remain unaware of the unfreedom that has been perpetuated by the powers that bethroughout American history is to unconsciously align yourself with it.
The American empire that emerged from the ashes of World War II—and, more specifically, from the radioactive ashes of the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan—seems to have been clearly preferable to the totalitarian alternatives, had Germany and Japan been victorious, or had the Soviet Union won the subsequent Cold War. (The term “American empire” may be objectionable to some, but the term “superpower,” which is commonly employed without controversy—or embarrassment—with reference to the United States, is clearly a euphemism for empire: The 800-plus U.S. military bases that stretch across the earth—an open secret seemingly unbeknownst to the vast majority of Americans—bear silent witness to ongoing American imperialism, the economic and military forces of which gradually replaced the British Empire after WWII). But as unspeakably malign and inhumane as totalitarian fascist and communist world empires would have been, the intended worldwide reign of a capitalist empire has not only not furthered but, instead, has repeatedly frustrated the prospects of freedom and democracy for the world, and has gradually assumed a kind of capitalist totalitarianism of its own (which, when practicable, substitutes economic for physical violence—economic violence being better known as “austerity”—while utilizing secretive forms of mass surveillance and media propagandizing).
All of which suggests that a view of American history that foregrounds the American ideal of freedom for all (in the context, especially, of U.S. relations with other world powers) points to the conclusion that World War II was not a conflict between good (in the form of the Allied nations) and evil (in the form of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) but a conflict between (as Orwell pointed out) the lesser and the greater of two evils. And, fortunately—as far as prospects for at least the possibility of international movement toward the goal of freedom for all—the lesser evil won.
Since World War II, the U.S. (in the name of “spreading freedom and democracy,” as well as in the name of “national security”) has invaded and occupied Vietnam and Iraq, starting wars the immorality and stupidity of which are now matters of broad American consensus. The other invasion/occupation was (and continues to be) of Afghanistan—justified by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—resulting in the longest war in American history (if you don’t count the Korean War during the 1950s, a war which was never officially ended).
And what these wars share in common is that none were defensive wars (even the invasion of Afghanistan being a war of retribution for 9/11 that could and would, in the opinion of many experts, have been better handled by policing and intelligence activities). The other common denominator of these wars (besides all the combatant and civilian casualties) is that the U.S. has won none of them, despite overwhelming military superiority.
And now, in the name of America’s “War on Terror,” the entire world has become both a battlefield and graveyard at the hands of American militarism. (The U.S. spends more on “national defense”—a euphemism for U.S. militarism—than the next at least eight nations combined and continues to increase its military spending.)
Less well-known foreign manifestations of American imperial power include the U.S.-engineered (viathe CIA) overthrows of democratically-elected governments in Iran (in 1953), in Guatemala (in 1954), in Congo (in 1960), and in Chile (in 1973), each of whose governments threatened the corporate interests of the U.S. powers that be (and all being succeeded by brutal U.S.-backed dictators). These are only perhaps the most obvious and undeniable examples of the post-WWII legacy of U.S. power in the world. Included must be the extensive U.S. financial and military support of dictatorships (which are, thereby, employed by U.S. taxpayers—via “foreign aid” used by dictators to purchase weapons from American arms manufacturers—to protect the corporate interests of the American powers that be) all over Latin America and the Middle East. The resulting social and economic misery has driven the ongoing exodus of immigrants to the U.S., which has made it increasingly difficult—and now, under Trump, bordering impossible—for those immigrants to find refuge from their U.S.-engineered social and economic misery.
My father’s military service in World War II, like the service of the vast majority of former and current U.S. soldiers, occurred without his consciousness of the role of that service in extending the power of U.S. corporate interests (which, together with the Pentagon, were called in 1961 by former U.S. general and Republican President Eisenhower, “the military-industrial-complex”) across the earth. (Which is not to say that the international struggle against the powers of fascism was not necessary but, rather, that it —like virtually all wars—produced markedly mixed results.) Like the vast majority of Americans, soldiers have been indoctrinated by the public education system and the mainstream media into the myth of American exceptionalism—more specifically, America’s mission to “spread freedom and democracy” to the rest of the world (indoctrination into said mythology being the unspoken function of public education, which the better public-school teachers have, against the prevailing winds of standardized testing, tried to subvert by instructing their students in how to think rather than in what to think). So many American soldiers are, as was my father, surely motivated by love of country, and increasingly, by the need—among ever-diminishing employment options—to make a living; once they enter combat, their motivation (according to their own testimony) becomes largely the desire to keep themselves and each other alive. And American soldiers bring American wars home with them in forms such as PTSD, brain damage from proximity to explosions, and increasingly widespread instances of depression and suicide.
Meanwhile, a growing number of veterans have come to question the part military service plays in upholding the way things are as orchestrated by the powers that be. And more than a few have come to believe—in the less-than-familiar words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (in 1967, one year to the day before his assassination)—that the U.S. government remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
And so, the conservative call to “make America great again!” amounts to a call to multiply that violence to whatever extent necessary to restore American economic supremacy over the world (thus, Trump’s threats to annihilate North Korea and Iran and to overthrow, by military means if necessary, the government of Venezuela).
The post-World War II experimental blending of capitalism and socialism—most notably FDR’s New Deal, which gave Americans Social Security, and LBJ’s Great Society, which gave Americans Medicare and Medicaid—did inject a measure of working-class freedom (via greater equality) into American imperial greatness: GIs (albeit almost exclusively white ones) were welcomed home from World War II with free college educations and job training and affordable home loans, so working-class families could own homes and look forward to retiring on pensions, entering an increasingly prosperous (though, again, largely white) middle class.
Nevertheless, the very government (New Deal and Great Society) programs that facilitated this relative prosperity were bitterly opposed by conservative politicians, both at the time and thereafter, who began immediately to chip away at the newly-forged political restraints on the power of the owning/ruling class. (The three surviving New Deal and Great Society programs—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—despite their overwhelming popularity among Americans, continue to be undermined by conservative politics.) This period of relative American progress toward freedom for all(albeit largely benefitting whites) began with unprecedentedly high taxation on the wealthy (a 94% tax rate on income over $200,000, equivalent to roughly $3,000,000 today), and it continued thereafter with unprecedentedly strict regulation of big business (neither of which, taxes nor regulations, keeping the rich from getting richer, albeit not fast and furiously enough for most of them). And this period of relative American freedom and equality was already beginning to end with the “Conservative Revolution” of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The freedom-loving Reagan’s theme was that “government is the problem not the solution,” which was a shrewd case of rhetorical misdirection, and which, thereafter, became the battle cry of conservative politicians, who invariably celebrated “the Reagan Revolution.” The conservative effort to “shrink government,” allegedly minimizing its costs to taxpayers, was never applied to the by-far-most-expensive government function, called “national defense”: this has meant ever-increasing tax giveaways to (and humongous profits by) arms manufacturers, whose alignment with the Pentagon has become foundational to the U.S. economy since WWII, fueling the maintenance and expansion of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex.”
For Reagan, then, government surely was the solution—via military spending—to the problem of Communism; moreover, he didn’t hesitate to use government to subsidize corporations, in the name of “tax cuts.” Where government needed shrinking, according to Reagan, was in the New Deal and Great Society programs that had benefitted the powerless, and in the taxing and regulatory functions that had been providing Americans with some relief from the socio-economic and environmental ravages of capitalism.
The truth is that government will always be problematic as far as freedom is concerned because its role is always to decrease the freedom/power of some in order to increase the freedom/power of others. As such, it is a tool. The question is in whose hands the tool of government belongs.
In the hands of the powers that be, government will be used to decrease (and, if possible, eliminate) the freedom, by blockading the power, of the people, in the interest of upholding the powers that be and expanding their power. And conservative politicians do this by means of an incessant rhetorical assault on government itself, identifying “government” not with the military spending and corporate subsidies (aka, corporate socialism) that inflate the profit margins of their corporate masters, but with the very New Deal and Great Society programs that provide an increasingly limited economic relief to—in the interest of increasing the freedom of—the powerless.
In the hands of the people, by comparison, government is a tool, at least, to limit the freedom of the powers that be to oppress the powerless, and at most, to equalize power relations in the interest of a society in which all are equally free. A government truly of, by and for the people would certainly protect, for examples, consumers from false advertising about products and from toxic substances in food and drugs, and all members of society from polluted air and water. (The passing and enforcing of legislation for these purposes in the wake of the people’s uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, mitigating the physical and environmental assaults of capitalism, resulted in unprecedented progress toward the ideal of freedom for all; since the “Conservative Revolution” of the 1980’s [and subsequent corporate deregulation] unleashed the pent-up rage of the capitalist powers that be, the adverse effects on public health have been increasingly self-evident.)
But a people’s government would not merely protect workers (who, again, comprise the vast majority of “the people”) from wage and workplace exploitation, as well as racial and sexual discrimination and abuse. A people-powered government would advance worker-owned-and-operated businesses (the success of which, where currently allowed, has been remarkable and undeniable, the best-known example being Spain’s Mondragon; in 2017, the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives reported that over 350 worker co-ops exist in the U.S., with a workforce of almost 7,000 and a total gross revenue of over 400 million dollars).
Reagan called government “the problem,” not because it was an instrument in the hands of the powerful to lessen the freedom, by restraining the power, of the people, but because he believed that government’s taxing and regulatory functions were lessening the “freedom,” by restraining the power, of the powerful way too much. And, of course, he proclaimed that corporate tax cuts and the corporate profits they multiplied would eventually “trickle down” to the benefit of workers/consumers. The fact that no evidence exists to support the “trickle-down theory” of economics has not kept conservative politicians from repeating that Reagan mantra up to the present day.
The brief period (1930s to 1970s) of government-supported freedom and equality in America occurred only in response to the bottom-up pressure of the theretofore powerless, organized in labor unions and independent political parties, all of which have since been virtually squeezed out of existence by the powerful, working through the U.S. government. However, before and since the New-Deal/Great-Society period when government participated in progress toward the freedom-for-all ideal of American greatness, moments of people-power greatness, usually in defiance of the government, have occurred: the movements for the abolition of slavery, for the eight-hour workday and for the prohibition of child labor, for women’s right to vote, for African American civil rights and subsequent movements (like the Feminist and the American Indian and the Gay Rights movements) for minority rights that extend to the present day.
Which is to say that America’s greatness has never been orchestrated from the top down—bestowed by its government leaders on its people—but, instead, always erupts from below, from the demand of the powerless for freedom, that is, for their share of the power.
The 40-some years of progress (between the New Deal and “the Reagan Revolution”) toward socio-economic freedom and equality in America was gradually yet decisively undermined and overturned by a conservative movement that deconstructed—always in the name of “freedom”—the system of government taxation and regulation that protected Americans from the corporate powers that be. American corporations have historically exercised their “freedom”—besides to provide a dazzling array of products for those who can afford them—to pollute the earth, air and water (profiting the American fossil fuel industry and all its dependents); to corrupt financial markets (profiting big banks, which get bailed out and become bigger whenever they return America to recurring economic meltdowns); to imprison masses of black and brown Americans (profiting all the industries that provide services to federal and state prisons, as well as the private prison industry); and to inflame international tensions (profiting American arms manufacturers). And these are just a few of the more obvious examples of the way conservatism has represented and furthered the interests of the powerful in America, all in the name of “freedom,” all at the expense of the people of America and the rest of the world. (Today, in its denial of the scientific consensus regarding global warming, observes Noam Chomsky, political conservatism in the form of the Republican Party poses the primary threat to human survival on the planet.)
All of which is to say that when conservatives cry out for“freedom!” they are calling for the removal of restraints (in the form of taxes and regulations) from, and therefore, the full restoration of power to the traditionally powerful in American society. The fact that this full restoration of power to the already powerful in the name of “freedom” has been resulting in a continuing reversal of whatever freedom/power the people acquired during the 1960s and 1970s is, of course, an indispensable part of the plan. This is because the more power to the powerless many, the less power for the powerful few, and vice versa. The result of the ongoing conservative movement to fully restore power to the powerful few is the increasing disappearance of freedom, that is, the restoration of freedom to the invisibility of the way things are as orchestrated by the powers that be.
The conservative argument is that the notion that “all men are created equal” means that “all” should be equally free—that is, left alone by the government—to use their ability and property (their power) as they see fit. Sounds like freedom for all.
But the conservative argument studiously ignores the fact that people are born into vastly unequal circumstances as far as power is concerned. And that the precious few born into socioeconomic power (i.e., members of the owning class) are thereby securely positioned—by nothing but the luck of being “high-born”—to go on to use whatever gifts and skills they may have—or may buy—to maintain and expand their power. And they do this, of course, at the expense of the many, who are born into relative degrees of powerlessness and, therefore, whose gifts and skills can typically only increase their awareness of their powerlessness. As a variety of historical figures have been given credit for saying: nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.
This has been the rule in American history. The rags-to-riches mythology of American capitalism is pure propaganda, actual examples of which being the extreme exceptions that prove the rule. Being born into power or, even more so, rising to power is confined to a chosen few, purely—even for the most gifted and skilled—a matter of time and chance. Which leaves the many stranded, to varying degrees, in powerlessness. And for the powerless, “freedom” is a mirage, a magic word that conjures up socioeconomic hopes and dreams that, for the vast majority, remain forever, frustratingly and heartbreakingly, out of reach.
The “baby-boom generation” (born between WWII and the late 1960s, and of which I am a part) grew up in the America of the New Deal and the Great Society, naturally assuming that the middle-class comfort that the (white) majority of us enjoyed was “America,” the way it had always been and would always be. (Our parents knew better, of course, having experienced the Great Depression.) Now increasingly the elders of American society, a good many baby-boomers look back on the America of their youth as the “great” America (even some who agreed—and may continue to agree—with the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s).
It’s anything but obvious to many baby-boomers that this “America” only shortly preceded their birth and began withering away in their earlier adulthood, and that the voices that are calling so loudly for the restoration of the greatness of America, in the name of “freedom,” were crying out equally as loudly against the New Deal and Great Society programs (which those voices indignantly, and accurately, called “socialism”) that redistributed the power (moving closer to the freedom for all) that produced that middle-class prosperity that we grew up with. (Of course, the vast majority of the African and Latin and Native Americans of the baby-boom generation tend to have no such illusions about American greatness, as America has never been so great for them.)
Conservatism, in sum, has always aligned itself with the traditionally powerful and, therefore necessarily, against freedom for all—i.e., people-power/democracy—throughout its political history, being the advance guard for the protection of Madison’s “minority of the opulent.” All, of course, in the name of “freedom.”
The question remains, then, who in American politics stands for the powerless and against the powers that be? Who among them understand American greatness in terms of freedom for all?
(And, however regrettably, the answer is not, generally speaking, the Democratic Party.)
(Next: Understanding Freedom: Freedom and Politics-Part 2)