Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is much admired in the US and beyond, and for good reason. Without his contributions it’s hard to imagine how the American system of “democracy” would have evolved.
I’ve always admired him a great deal, too, although for somewhat different reasons than most. Yes, he was critical to the development of democracy, but what was so brilliant about this is that democracy is arguably the cleverest tool for the oppression of the masses ever devised.
This assertion no doubt comes as something of a shock to The Average American, who tends to get all sniffly about the majesty of his “freedoms” every 4th of July as he sits in his local park watching pretty explosions in the sky and listening to the facile, self-deluded patriotism of Lee Greenwood yowling from the PA. I won’t get into the minutiae of the things the poor sap is free to do (short version: shut up and buy what you’re told), nor will I waste your time with a laundry list of the things his community could better spend the fireworks budget on, lest I risk being branded a “liberal,” a charge which would compel me to waste a half-hour rolling on the floor with a crippling fit of laughter.
Like a good many other things I can think of, The Average American is wrong on this point. The unfortunate fact is that, Horatio Alger fantasies notwithstanding, America is like every other culture in history in a number of important ways. It has distinct and powerful class structures and the ability to climb the economic and social ladder is a far rarer thing than most imagine. Further, people in America are more like people everywhere else than they’d like to admit – those that have wealth, power and influence are strongly predisposed toward keeping it, and wealth, power and influence are precisely the resources needed to maintain the status quo. No one gives away advantage, although the smart “have-more” makes a grand show of appearing to do so on occasion. It’s a marvel that a culture will credit the existence of self-interest when it seems ennobling and then pretend that its dark side doesn’t exist, especially in the face of so much evidence.
The genius of Jefferson’s vision (well, part of the genius, anyway; it’s genius from one end to the other) is in its ability to make those class distinctions more or less invisible to the rabble. Overt markers were eschewed (no kings, dukes, etc.) and a great fuss was made over the idea that any man could rise in station according to his ability and willingness to work (a myth gleefully propagated by the Church), all of which made the playing field seem far more level than it actually was (and is). When you factor in the fact that The Average American will see the one-in-ten-million exception and convince himself that it’s the rule (hope triumphs over the intellect, especially in anti-intellectual societies – again, kudos to the Church), there’s really very little left for the would-be overlord to do except count his money.
So, back to Jefferson. Few people understand what a truly complex thinker he was (detractors may feel free to substitute “conflicted,” “confused,” or “contradictory” if they like), a fact that owes largely to their never having actually read him. On the one hand, he truly felt the nobility of “liberty.” On the other hand, let’s remember that this new system of freedom extended to every land-owning white man in the country. On its face, the new republic was a de jure plutocracy (which has nothing to with the planetoid or the Disney character). Let me restate this to make sure my meaning is taken, since I know that most of my readers were educated in American schools: the American system was constructed so that only rich white people had a voice in government.
This is why I laugh when I hear people criticizing Bush, Cheney and their friends for trying to “steal” all the power for the wealthy elites. “The system is broken,” they wail. Please. The system is working precisely as designed. Bush and Cheney are not stealing power, although I might entertain the argument that they’re stealing it back.
If I make it sound like Tom was trying to construct a system of tyranny, I apologize. That wasn’t his goal at all. One evening a few months before the Philadelphia Convention he and I were having dinner and a few beers at John Harvard’s place in Cambridge. After his third stout he got pretty romantic about “liberty” and started spouting some of the most wonderful nonsense (really, stuff that was on a par with what you hear at political rallies these days). I listened for awhile, trying not to laugh too hard, and finally said to him what I said to you above: Tom, you are in the process of devising the most powerful and deceptive tool for the oppression of the masses in history. He looked at me as though I’d rogered his mother.
Of course, I’ve always had a talent for foresight that he didn’t. Given his context he could barely have imagined the Industrial Revolution, and if you had a time machine and could have shown him the America of today his skull would have melted. So to some measure he can perhaps be forgiven for not quite grasping the implications for what he and his fellows were setting in motion. (It was about this point that George Mason stumbled in, ordered a meat pie and a lager and started taking notes.)
In essence, I explained that this new system, once you stripped away the utopian rhetoric surrounding it, was nothing more than an innovation in elite rule, more like the monarchy in England than it was different from it. The brilliance of it, though, was that the rhetoric was bound to inflame the hearts of those who weren’t rich white landowners, and that in time more and more groups would agitate for and gain the franchise. “Imagine those slaves of yours lining up to vote for one of their own,” I said.
But, as the vote diffused through the society, a development that would appear to be bad for the elites, the actual result would be a strengthening of plutocratic control. “So long as they buy the Libertarian ideologies of our recording secretary here, they’ll believe themselves more powerful than they are, which will make them even easier to control than if you had a garrison stationed in every home.
“You’re still missing something, though. If they find you out, they outnumber you, and every damned one of them has a musket.”
By now Jefferson’s eyes had completely glazed over, but Mason had this thoughtful look on his face. And by 1791 they had their answer, codified and ratified. Mason had realized that too much activity on the part of the “governed” could be a problem, and his solution found its way, via Madison, into the 1st Amendment: free speech, free press. This established the idea that speech equaled action, which stands as the greatest lie in the history of politics. People were free to talk, gather, argue, print, and petition “their” representatives, and this invited an unusual amount of what my business colleagues these days call “buy-in.” There was no need to take up arms and man the barricades. They were already in control of the government because they had freedom and the vote. In essence, they were the system, as far as they could tell.
Over time the media-driven political landscape we see around us inevitably evolved, a world where the actual needs and wishes of the “electorate” are paid massive lip service at every turn and then ignored when actual policy is made. Officials will campaign on a single issue, be elected to change it, and then when they get in office make no changes (perhaps they will even make that situation worse by acting directly counter to the wishes of their consitutents). And then, remarkably, those same people will re-elect them the next time they get a chance.
Of course, The People are perfectly free to speak, write, criticize, agitate, and when they’ve had enough, to finally elect “reformers.” These reformers are selected from among the class of people with sufficient wealth and connections to be able to afford to mount a campaign, which means they need millions of dollars for advertising and highly paid consultants. (By the way, you can’t believe how hard it is to find a good consultant in Hell during an election cycle.)
Beautiful – truly a marvel of oppression. The Marxist term is “hegemony,” the process by which the people accept and acquiesce to their own exploitation. In the American system, though, the people don’t just accept their condition, they hold parades celebrating it.
As I said to Tom as I helped him back to his room that night, the real question is how long it will take before The Average American realizes the exquisite genius of the bill of goods he’s been sold. I’ve seen the future, and my money is on “never.”