Commercial vs. civic government

Marvin Brown, author of our P2P Book of the Year in 2010, on the recurring, but also twarthed, promise of true civic government:

(context is the experience in the U.S.)

“Do you want a government run by a CEO, guided by commercial interests, that works for the wealthy; or a government run by civic leaders, guided by civic norms, that honors everyone’s basic human rights? We need to understand this choice.Although one finds a civic terminology in the US Declaration of Independence, only property owners enjoyed that independence. Our early government was essentially a commercial government; designed to protect property and not much else. This property included not just land, one’s business, and a worker’s labor, but also a man’s family and slaves, including Thomas Jefferson’s 200 slaves. When people want to return to this early “independence,” we need to remember its actual context rather than some modern fantasy.

Still, in these original documents, there is a civic language that citizens have appealed to again and again:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Our history can be understood as a dialectical movement toward this civic ideal and massive resistance to it. The decisive event, of course, was the Civil War. The war resulted in the recognition of former slaves as citizens (citizenship based on Union membership, rather than ownership). This was followed by the establishment of a Jim Crow régime that remained in place until the Second World War.

In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to citizenship not because they owned property, but because of their basic rights for moral equality and civic participation. This civic development, however, did not result in equal representation in politics or even in business. Instead, commercial advertising created a family mythology based on consumption rather than on equality. This consumer society was interrupted by the depression and war, and then took off again in the 1950s. Only with the feminist movement of the 1970s, did we witness a further development of basic civic rights. The resistance also reacted: a massive effort to persuade us through advertising that human happiness depends on consumption. Again, commercial interests curtailed the development of civic values.

There were other movements toward the civic ideal, more than we can cover here. The rights of workers to organize in the 1930s, for example, gave them civic rights in the workplace. Here again, however, they became mostly interested in commercial interests—wages and benefits—rather than civic values of representation and participation. Still, they continue to represent a community based on civic membership rather than property ownership.

And the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, overt segregation was overturned. We did become a more perfect union. The resistance, however, has been as massive as ever. As the author, Michelle Alexander, has documented in her book, The New Jim Crow, the law-and-order movement has been largely successful in resisting the empowerment of black men and communities through a combination of strict laws and urban neglect.”

For Marvin Brown, this is part of a recurring conflict between civic rights and property rights as dominant paradigm:

“Although there are different interpretations of the conflict that finally caused the American Civil War, I think a compelling case can be made that it was about property and property rights. The confederacy succeeded to protect their right to own slaves. Although the slave states lost the war, many people continued to believe that the purpose of government is to protect the ownership of property, and not to take it away. The fight over the control of property continues . . . in Washington, DC.

The United States has two foundations. One is the notion of a covenant among a people and with their God to live together in a new land. The other is a contract to exploit the new land for personal gain. The second foundation, first embedded in the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, has become the dominant ideology of the nation. It used the Anglo-American ideology of property to justify its taking of land from native Americans, and later used Adam Smith’s conjectural history of the four stages of history (hunters, shepherds, farmers, and traders) to assure itself that a commercial nation based on property rights was the highest form of civilization.

Since the founding of our nation, we have also witnessed the emergence of a civic realm, grounded in human dignity rather than property ownership. In this tradition, freedom is not based on ownership, but on membership. We are all members of this time, of this generation. As members of the same world, we have obligations to each other—civic obligations.

In a sense, the civil war was really a commercial war. It was about ownership. Many southerners, in fact, called it a war between the states rather than a civil war. They at least acknowledged that it was about whether states could protect the property of slave owners. Calling it a “civil war” by Lincoln and others actually supported their idea of the union; that we were all members of the same civic life. Today we have a similar choice. We could see the conflict in Washington as a commercial conflict—a conflict about the rights of ownership and the role of government—or a civic conflict—a conflict among citizens about how to design the systems we need to provide for one another.”

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