Choose your government: Civic or Commercial
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.
In the 2010 election in California, we had a clear choice between a commercial and a civic government in the choice between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown. For a variety of reasons, Brown became our governor. Still, he governs in a state largely controlled by commercial interests and faces stiff competition from other states that offer businesses advantages without any civic obligations.
If one considers the resistance to civic values in our history, optimism seems almost utopian. Still, the civil rights movement has had its moments. Whether it emerges again in 2012 is our choice.