Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Declaration of Interdependence

The coming July fourth celebrations get me thinking that we need to follow it up with another, more pertinent holiday. For a long time, I've thought that we should declare the next day Interdependence Day because, in spite of efforts to sell us the idea that we are all rugged individuals, the truth is that we are dependent for our very survival on each other and on the biosphere that sustains us. Everything we eat, drink, wear, or otherwise use is the product of nature and the labor of many people. Sure, we work hard to earn a living but that too depends on others. For our labor, we receive a government created credit symbolic of a defined value with which to purchase what we need. All material wealth is socially produced even if distributed in anti-social ways. Debt and the collateral, often toxic costs of industry, on the other hand, are socially distributed.

Getting back to celebrating our independence from England and our revolutionary war, an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker recently caught my attention. Gopnik writes, “And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence, disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries.”

This brings me to thinking about the “nation-state,” a relatively recent idea dating back little more than 250 years. This concept emerged with the rise of a wealthy merchant class. Nations at that time were ruled by the Divine Right of Kings. The absolute authority of royalty was increasingly challenged by the the wealthy not just here but in England with the rise of parliamentarianism. The rich wanted a place at the table of power and influence rather than being subject to the whims of royalty. Then, as now, the wealthy were divided in their opinions. As Gopnik writes, “On one side were what he calls ‘authoritarian reformers,' on the other, radical Whigs. This isn’t the familiarly rendered divide between Tories and Whigs; the authoritarian reformers were attached to old English institutions, committed to the Empire and to the reform of institutions that were seen as preventing the Empire from being maximally efficient. They wanted a strong monarch surrounded by a circle of aristocratic advisers; very limited democracy; reform in the Army and Navy; and a tax-heavy system of mercantile trade—all of it intended to make the Empire as profitable as it needed to be. They sincerely believed in 'taxation without representation,' because they saw citizenship not in terms of sovereignty and equality but in terms of tribute received and protection offered. The radical Whigs, though they too, were implanted within establishment circles—were sympathetic to Enlightenment ideas, out of both principle and self-protection, as analgesics to mollify 'the mob.' They represented, albeit episodically, the first stirrings of a party of the merchant class. They thought that colonists should be seen as potential consumers. Alexander Hamilton, back in New York, was a model radical Whig—trusting in bank credit and national debt as a prod toward prosperity, while the authoritarian reformers were convinced, as their successors are to this day, that debt was toxic (in part because they feared that it created chaos; in part because easy credit undermined hierarchy). The radical Whigs were for democratization, the authoritarian reformers firmly against it. The radical Whigs were for responsible authority, the authoritarian reformers for firm authority.”

Gopnik's thesis is that had the radical Whigs not prevailed, our country, like Canada and Australia, would have had a slower, more peaceful departure from British rule and been less on the track of conquest, colonization and nationalism. He gets to the nub of it in describing the nation-state as being all about the rule of the wealthiest in their own interests – that is – to maintain and increase their wealth and influence. Politicians in nation-states are backed by and loyal to corporate interests. I've often thought that they should display the logos of their backers on sports jackets when campaigning. When populists not loyal to those interests arise they are demonized and rejected by political parties and the media. The Trump administration is an extreme version of this, not even attempting to hide corporate rule and conflicts of interest behind democratic processes. Trump is more the ultimate result of this system than he is an aberration.

Regarding the development of the modern nation-state, Israeli journalist Uri Avney writes, “Modern nationalism like any great idea in history, was born out of a new set of circumstances: economic, military, spiritual and others, which made older forms obsolete. By the end of the 17th century, existing states could no longer cope with new demands. Small states were doomed. The economy demanded a safe domestic market large enough for the development of modern industries. New mass armies needed a base strong enough to provide soldiers and pay for modern arms.” The nation-state is a competitive venture vying against other states over control of resources for their most influential industries. This has lead to constant and increasing wars of escalating destruction, colonialism and all the horrific crimes these entail. Nation-states require nationalism and the creation of “enemies” to motivate us to fight for their interests and to divert our attention from more pressing domestic issues. Citizen resistance to injustice, crimes, and exploitation by the ruling elite are diverted and weakened with tribalism, racism and more recently, laws against protest and against exposing industrial abuses. We are more divided than ever against ourselves at this very moment by racism and tribal partisan identity even as it is more apparent by the day that our system is in chaotic collapse.

What should be apparent to all is that the nation-state has become an obsolete and destructive concept, though it was a historically important step toward democracy in breaking from the absolute rule of royalty. We advanced from a rigid class structure of serfdom and inherited power to a looser system of the rule of the wealth based on slavery and later, on wage slavery, colonialism and debt. The history of our country has been one of popular struggle in expanding full citizenship and democracy to the rest of us. It has also been one of brutal expansion. Old Glory is the only national flag designed to change with territorial conquest.

Beyond enjoying hot dogs, beer and family in celebration of Independence Day, we need to consider the dangerous and threatening obsolescence of the nation-state model in an increasingly interdependent world. Nationalism is not the same as patriotism, rather it is a toxic form of militarized, paranoid tribalism. The opposite is internationalism. We can and should be proud of who we are culturally and as a country but it doesn't have to be competitive. Internationalism is about recognizing common interests and the equality of others. It is about working together for our mutual benefit. Internationalism is the basis of the United Nations and the European Union. Even our United States reflect the idea of states working together under a larger umbrella without sacrificing a degree of sovereignty and identity. A new international effort is taking place as I write this.

China is currently constructing a new economic belt designed to boost inter-connectivity, infrastructure and economic cooperation between countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The “Silk Road” initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping is about international cooperation. Beijing hosted the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation from May 14-15, representing a significant boost to this project. This important event saw 28 heads of state and governments come together to reach a consensus regarding the development and implementation of the project, launched by China, but open to the whole world. Though this effort could improve the economic stability of the region, it is also about mutual cooperation in addressing climate change. Of course there are predictable obstacles.

Nationalism comes into play as the biggest obstacle to cooperation as it raises its ugly head in different places. In India, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had expressed support for the Silk Road project but with the ascension of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, an “India First” policy may stall or limit their participation. Sound familiar? Britain's exit from the EU came out of similar nationalist resentments. The rise of Trump's (and Bannon's) “America First” nationalism is harming our international relations and fomenting global instability. The drumbeat by our neocons, CIA and Democrats for war with Russia on a questionable basis to feed our military economic base employs nationalism against our interests as well. Had we cooperated with Russia on our common interests, we might not still be at war in Afghanistan and increasingly, Syria, and we would not have the resulting refugee crisis.

The nation-state is a dangerous and obsolete fiction in an interconnected world where power, vested in multi-national corporations and global organizations operates globally. Borders only exist for working and poor people, not for banks, multinational corporations and the wealthiest. The division of the world into random fragments locked in a state of perpetual mistrust and ever-shifting tensions toward one another is an obstacle to peace and progress in the 21st century. Nothing makes this more obvious than the climate issue.

From Trump's rejection of the Paris climate agreement my own state of Virginia where all our legislators get campaign support from Dominion Energy, fossil-fuel industry influence and the corporate ownership of politicians are the prime obstacles to addressing climate change. I'm glad that Governor McAuliffe recently placed new limits on carbon emissions, joining with other states in a carbon “cap and trade” system. But he still supports fracking, offshore drilling and he recently dropped water quality impact analysis for streams and wetlands near the proposed Atlantic Coast and the Mountain Valley gas pipelines. Mayors and state leaders are reacting to Trump's intransigent withdrawal from the Paris agreement but they too are largely limited by corporate influence. We must demand better, and we can.

Thanks to the efforts of Activate Virginia 57 candidates have taken a pledge not to take campaign support from Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power. Rejection of corporate backing and subsequent subservience is a growing political phenomenon as people recognize and reject the big money dominance of our political system. It's not just Bernie Sanders anymore, though he has set a strong example with candidate crowd-funding initiatives. As local journalist Steve Early wrote in Portside, “Last November, progressives gained an unprecedented “super-majority” of five on Richmond’s seven-member council—despite more than a decade of heavy spending against them by Chevron Corp. and other big business interests. For 12 years, Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates have distinguished themselves from local Democrats by their lonely, Bernie Sanders-like refusal to take corporate contributions.” Other candidates, including Ralph Northam should take a lesson from this.

If we are to seriously address the existential threat of climate change, the nation-state construct based on the rule of money must be abolished. Instead we need to move toward organizations of global cooperation based on internationalism, shared values and mutual interests. This doesn't require giving up our national and cultural identities. They are really more threatened by nationalism and virulent xenophobia. International and global cooperation are our only chance of effectively addressing climate change and ending the economic injustice of World Bank debt colonialism.

We must progress to a system based on authentic representative democracy, human rights, local autonomy, cooperation and equitable global distribution in the public interest. In the short term, we can stop needlessly antagonizing Russia and work with, instead of against, China. We can reduce our global military presence and our nuclear arsenal. We can set an example for human rights at home in order to have the moral authority to criticize others. We must initiate electoral reforms that get the money influence out of our national politics and break the control of our own elite oligarchy so we can elect people who actually represent us. Beyond corporate political parties, we need strong organizations of working class citizens committed to moving beyond nationalism, recognizing our interdependence, and working to create a more cooperative, socially just and livable future. One such effort, started by the Rev. William Barber who led the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina is the new Poor People's Campaign. This could be a catalyst which brings us together in the struggle for social and economic justice. In focusing on poverty, class and opposition to the corporate dominance of our country and of our lives, we can begin to liberate ourselves from what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism, shifting, as he stated, from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. Authentic, bottom-up working class democracy, like life on earth, is ours to have or to lose. The choice is ours.

So let's continue our holiday by celebrating July 5th as Interdependence Day. Let's leave our own partisan and cultural tribalisms behind and begin to work together, rejecting the rule of money and continuing the revolutionary tradition of our national origins by committing ourselves to replacing the failing paradigm that is impoverishing and killing us with a common-good focused internationalism.