Saturday, January 3, 2009

Approaching a Political State of Nature

In 1774, in September, on the second morning of the first meeting of the Congress of the British states in America, Patrick Henry shocked his colleagues with an observation. He stated that the colonial societies represented in that Congress had returned to a state of nature.

In political theory then, as now, a state of nature did not refer to living harmoniously with the ecosystem. It meant that the bonds of government, and even of society, were dissolved. It meant anarchy, as was most notably examined by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. It was generally regarded as a bad thing. What good people were supposed to do when they found themselves in a state of nature was create a new social order including a government to their liking. Thomas Hobbes liked monarchs, but English society favored a republican form of government with a limited role for the monarch.

Patrick Henry was an interesting guy. He is best known to American's for crying, "give me liberty or give me death!" He owned a bunch of slaves at the time, so "me" should be emphasized. He did not want freedom for all. He wanted the liberty to own slaves, in which he felt he would be hampered by the Somerset Decision of the English court. However, he was consistent about keeping government close to, and controlled by, the (white male) people. He did not want to replace a tyranny based in London by one based in some American national capital.

What was probably most shocking about his statement that the colonies were already in a state of nature, was that it was not really true. The colonies were not in a state of anarchy. They were not exactly in a state of rebellion. The leaders of the colonies did not like taxes and they did not like their own power being limited by the British government. But life went on in 1774 in a manner little different than it had in 1770.

Henry was opening the door to a more subtle argument. He was giving a philosophical ground for the idea of a change of governments. He did not believe that you should have to pass through a state of anarchy to get to a new, improved government.

Anarchy and anarchism have the same language root and are often confused in the public mind. Anarchy is the absence of government. Anarchism is the political theory that society can be well organized without a government. In other words, anarchists believe that the "state of nature" can be transformed into a cooperative, peaceful society. In fact, they argue that government, even in its republican form, tends to become organized crime. Anarchists believe that governments do not prevent violence, they cause it. Most anarchists a peace-lovers.

I want to raise the question in your mind: are we in, or moving into, a state of nature in the United States? I thought we might be moving rapidly in that direction during the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Now it looks like the government and economy will muddle through, for the time being. But even the muddling through has greatly increased popular discontent. Why were bankers saved, and automobile executives and workers, while other businessmen and workers were given no help at all? Why spend so much on useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when the money is needed in the United States? Why help spendthrifts who bought McMansions, but not those who saved up 20% down payments to buy modest houses?

If Barack Obama's campaign did nothing else, it raised popular expectations. He promised everything to everyone. If he even delivers on the minimal promises, by the end of the first year of the Obama administration the national debt will have risen by over 2 trillion dollars from where it stood before the election campaign season began. Nothing is planned to stem the growth of the population of the United States or the world; global warming will continue; the fish in the sea that have not been caught, will be caught soon enough.

I believe we are, for all practical purposes in a state of nature. We have the right to set up a society and maybe even a government that suits us. California, in particular, needs a whole new government, including the complete destruction of the Democratic and Republican parties. We need to annul many of the stupid, in fact reckless, policies that have been forced on us from Washington, D.C.

If Obama and the new Congress do the right things, then anarchy and global ecological collapse might still be avoided. I'll believe it if I see it.

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