Despotism achieves great things illegally; democracy doesn’t even take the trouble to achieve small things legally.—Honoré de Balzac, 1831
We have frequently printed the word democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.
I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Released in the two-hundredth-anniversary year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Paddy Chayefsky’s script for the 1976 film Network finds the outraged television news anchor Howard Beale urging his viewers to rise up in revolutionary protest against a world in which “there is no America, no democracy,” only the vast and inhumane “dominion of dollars.” Beale names the twentieth century’s colossal capitalist cash machine as the equivalent of the eighteenth-century British Empire dominating a world in which the man or woman who would be free must stand and say, “I’m a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.”
The home viewers have been slow in getting to their feet, but as this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly goes to the printer two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, they’re up from their chairs and out in the streets, mad as hell, insisting that their lives—black, white, and brown; young, old, and yet to be born; male, female, transgender, or none of the above—matter. The long-delayed uprising was provoked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, unarmed black man, age forty-six, arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill in a Minneapolis convenience store. A passerby took note of the incident with a cell-phone camera that sees Floyd in handcuffs lying facedown on the pavement. A police officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck holds the position for eight minutes and forty-six seconds; Floyd struggles to breathe until he loses all trace of a pulse.
The video is horrifying because the officer’s face lacks all trace of human feeling or expression. He seems neither to know nor care to know what he’s doing, which is violence being processed into mindless bureaucratic routine. He might as well be stamping an envelope or closing a box in an Amazon warehouse. Survivors of the Holocaust mention similarly empty faces of the Sonderkommando loading Jews into an oven.
The video’s appearance on Facebook prompted the gathering of an angry crowd at the Minneapolis Cup Foods, smashing its windows, setting fire to nearby buildings and automobiles. By nightfall the video had gone viral, and within a matter of hours, revolutionary protests were springing up everywhere in the country, angry syllables of the great word democracy issuing from ten thousand pens, tongues, television screens, and social-media portals.
The protest has been ongoing for the past five months, the enactments, many of them violent but most of them peaceful, occupying the barricades in two thousand American cities and towns. The demonstrations offer a great noise unto the Lord, but where in the confusion is the real gist of the great word? The observers assembled in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly catch glimpses of it in various states of being and becoming a deed, and always the gist is movement, a force of nature wrestling for the pulse of life and the breath of freedom.
The great word comes down to us from the ancient Greek dēmokratía, power in the broken fists of the propertyless many pitted against aristokratía, power in the manicured hands of the propertied few. The old Greeks assumed a state of never-ending war between the rich—the party of the way things are—and the poor, the party backing the hope of things as they might become. Time past and time future grappling for control of time present; the motions of the heart at odds with the pricings of a market. President Franklin D. Roosevelt makes the point in the autumn of 1938, talking to the American people about the big Wall Street money trying to abort the birth of the New Deal:
I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then fascism and communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory republicanism, will grow in strength in our land.
On the day that George Floyd died, the American people had been locked down for three months, sheltering in place from the storm of the coronavirus spreading into all fifty states. The death toll was moving steadily up (100,000 on June 1; 200,000 as of October 1); the economy slowing to almost full stop; 22 million people summarily unemployed; the nation’s churches and schools shut down; sports events, funerals, and weddings canceled; bars, restaurants, public parks, and movie theaters closed.
Liberty, equality, and fraternity being suspended until further notice, citizens of all ages and colors were given the opportunity to feel the loss of their freedoms of movement and thought, the chance to realize that black persons live every day of their lives fearful of venturing into an environment known to be armed and dangerous. Given time for further reflection, the home viewers awakened to the fact of their having been locked down not just for three months but for fifty years—not only under heavy government and Silicon Valley surveillance but also by the colossal capitalist cash machine under the knee of which freedom is a privilege fully available only to those who can pay the going price.
For reasons of national security, most of them specious, the government classifies American citizens as prospective enemies, reserves the right to tap everybody’s phone, open everybody’s mail, declare the American people unfit to mind their own business. The capitalist subjugation of democracy makes money the measure of all things, sets the exchange rate for our value as human beings. The terms and conditions of the two witness-protection programs build up in the citizenry a stockpile of fear and resentment akin to the dead trees in a mismanaged California forest. The sight of George Floyd dying in Minneapolis touched off the wildfire of nationwide protest on May 25, 2020. Donald Trump’s tossing a rhetorical match into the same compost heap of fear and resentment elected him president of the United States on November 8, 2016.
The Rebellions of the Hōgen and Heiji Eras (detail), Japan, seventeenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1957.
Trump staked his claim to the White House on the assertion that he was “really rich,” embodiment of the divine right of money, unbossed and unbought and therefore free to say and do whatever it takes to make america great again. He declared his candidacy in the atrium of his eponymous tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in June 2015, there to say, and say it plainly, that money is power, and power, ladies and gentlemen, is not self-sacrificing or democratic. The big money cares for nothing other than itself, always has and always will. Name of the game, nature of the beast.
Not the exact words in Trump’s loud and thoughtless mouth, but the gist of the message that for the next seventeen months he shouted to camera and crowd in states red, white, and blue. A fair enough share of his fellow citizens screamed, stamped, and voted in agreement, because what he was saying they knew to be true, knew it not as precept borrowed from the collected works of Karl Marx or a Ralph Lauren catalogue but from their own downwardly mobile experience on the losing side of a class war waged over the past forty years against the country’s increasingly angry and debt-burdened poor by America’s increasingly frightened and selfish rich.
Trump didn’t need briefing papers to refine his message. He presented it live and in person. Had he the patience for looking into books instead of mirrors, he could have sourced his wisdom to Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who posed the question confronting Roosevelt’s New Deal: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Not that it would have occurred to Trump to want both, but he might have been glad to know that a Supreme Court justice excused him from further study under the heading of politics. In the world according to Trump, the concentration of wealth is the good, the true, and the beautiful. Money the hero with a thousand faces, and all of them the smug and gloating face of Trump, doing what it takes to make the American democracy smaller than himself, discount it in theory, nullify it in practice, reduce it to just another word for loser.
And so it has been for the past forty years. America’s democracy ceased to move forward as a living force with the election in 1980 of President Ronald Reagan that was the dawn of a bright new day for the old-line Tory plutocracy currently managing the country’s affairs with little care for anything other than itself. By the mid-1980s the share of the nation’s income drawn from dividends, interest, and rents surpassed the share earned in wages. In 2020 the fifty richest Americans hold as much wealth ($2 trillion) as the 165 million people in the poorest half of the population. In the time elapsed between the two calculations, governments of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich (Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and Obama’s, as well as those of Bush and son) stepped up the privatization of the public good, enacted more laws restricting the freedom of persons, fewer laws restraining the license of property, let fall into disrepair nearly all the infrastructure—roads, dams, bridges, schools, hospitals, power plants—that provide the democracy with the foundation of its common enterprise. The lockdown of the lion’s share of the American people in the prisons of unredeemable debt has been accompanied by the plutocracy’s product placement of a leadership class that consists of the several hundred thousand bookkeepers who run the corporations and the banks; guide the universities, the think tanks, and the philanthropic foundations; staff the law courts and both aisles of Congress; own and operate the news and entertainment media; assign to money the last, best, and final word on what is done and not done—on earth as it is on television.
With the result that we’ve come to live in a world in which it is the money that owns the people, not the people who own the money—the “this” that maybe the home viewers aren’t going to take anymore—and the ancient and everlasting war between the haves and have-nots takes the form of the struggle between plutocracy and democracy. The freedom of thought and the play of the imagination in one corner of the ring; in the other corner, the faith in money as the father of all things.
America wasn’t founded as a democracy. It was founded, as were Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and Bezos’ Amazon, on the dream of riches, for the purpose of acquiring and accumulating wealth—temporal and spiritual, animal, vegetable, and mineral, terrestrial and celestial. Massachusetts Bay Colony was a capitalist enterprise chartered by Charles I in 1629 to drag a fortune out of the trade in beaver hats, selling in London at the time for prices now being paid for Cartier watches and dresses by Valentino. Before dropping anchor in Salem harbor in June 1630, John Winthrop, first governor of the colony, preached a sermon to the Puritan faithful aboard the Arbella that swept the decks clean of egalitarian heresy. “God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times, some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in submission.”
The colony of self-proclaimed saints brought with them the Calvinist notion that wealth is proof of virtue and guarantee of a safe space in heaven. They spend the first years after their arrival arguing the question as to whether money is mortal or immortal, decide to join in “righteous friendship” with Mammon. The shining city upon a hill becomes a palace of wealth, the errand into the wilderness and errand into the marketplace, God’s grace revealed as property, the natural world as a storehouse of “vendible wonders” meant to be sold at celestial prices.
Jonathan Edwards, early eighteenth-century Puritan divine famous throughout the colonies for his fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” confides to his notebooks his vision of the whole earth beatified by the Puritan genius for capitalist enterprise. He speaks of the Puritan talent for business as the greatest of America’s spiritual treasures, of its commerce and technology as vehicles of God’s redemptive purpose, and sets forth, more or less word for word, the doctrine of “philanthrocapitalism” these days being preached by the saintly Bill Gates, noted by Herman Melville saying of the Americans in 1850, “With ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of the earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy.”
The planting of colonies elsewhere in seventeenth-century America conformed to medieval Europe’s feudal arrangement of privilege and subordination. The aristocratic promoters of the projects received land as a gift from the English king; the improvement of the property required immigrants skilled as fishermen, farmers, salt makers, and mechanics. Landlords in the plantation South imported African slaves; developers in the merchant North imported vagrants and bankrupts dredged from the slums of London and obliged to pay their passage across the Atlantic with terms of indentured labor on its western shore. The prosperous gentry already arrived on that shore regarded the shipments of “human filth” as night soil drained from Old World sewers to fertilize New World fields and forests. By the time the colonies declared their independence from the British Crown, the newborn American body politic had been sectioned into upper and lower classes of settler and settlement. At no moment in its history has America declared lasting peace between the haves and have-nots. Temporary cessations of hostility, but no permanent closing of the moral and social divide between debtor and creditor, and no giving up on the thought that some lives matter more than others.
Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.—William Penn, 1693
The notion of a classless society derives its mythmaking credentials from the relatively few periods in the life of the nation during which circumstances encouraged social readjustment and experiment—in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, again in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—but for the most part the record will show the game securely rigged in favor of the rich, no matter how selfish or stupid, at the expense of the poor, no matter how innovative or entrepreneurial. During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first thirty years of the twentieth, class warfare furnished the newspaper mills with their brightest and best-selling headlines—railroad company thugs quelling labor unrest in the industrial East, the Ku Klux Klan lynching Negroes in the rural South.
The living force of democracy comes to America with the pen on the person of Thomas Paine. Benjamin Franklin met the young man in London in the early 1770s and so admired his intelligence and generous nature that he adopted him as a son, urged him to go to America in search of opportunity unavailable in Britain. In 1774, all but penniless at the age of thirty-seven, without formal education other than three years at a rural grammar school, but a voracious reader of books, well versed in life experiences (as corset maker, engineer, tradesman, excise officer, and privateer), Paine arrives in Philadelphia to find work as a journalist. He soon demonstrates an impassioned talent for composing political broadsides, writes one of the earliest essays protesting the denial to women of the same civil rights awarded to men.
To read Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in words simple enough to be understood by everybody in the tavern or the street. Other writers of the period address the well-educated members of their own social rank. Paine talks to ship chandlers, barmaids, and master mechanics.In the spring of 1775, subsequent to the skirmishes with British troops at Lexington and Concord, Benjamin Rush encourages Paine to turn his attention to the as yet undeclared war with England, and on January 10, 1776, Paine publishes Common Sense.
The pamphlet is the founding document of the American Revolution. It was, said Paine, “the birthday of a new world”; the time was at hand to stamp out the “disease of monarchy,” do away with hereditary successions, class privilege, entitled aristocracy. “The strength of government and the happiness of the governed” is the freedom of the common people to “mutually and naturally support one another.”
Common Sense ran through printings of 150,000 copies in six months, roused out everywhere in the colonies the turbulent passion for independence. The raucous proofs of a national resolve persuaded Thomas Jefferson to borrow Paine’s reasoning when he came to the writing of the Declaration in the summer of 1776.
Together with the other fifty-five signers of the Declaration, Jefferson shared Paine’s distrust of kings but not his trust in the common man. Maybe in the eyes of God and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all men were created equal, but not in the fields of Jefferson’s plantation at Monticello. Traveling to Philadelphia in 1775 as a new member of the Continental Congress, Jefferson arrived in the city in a handsomely gilded coach attended by three of his slaves dressed in ornamental French brocade, wearing white silk stockings and powdered wigs.
When it came time, eleven years later, to write the Constitution, the prosperous and well-educated gentlemen acquiring their newfound American estate didn’t want anything to do with Paine; they looked upon him as a troublesome idealist on too-familiar terms with the lower orders of society and therefore not to be trusted with the task of dividing the spoils.The words for their enterprise the framers borrowed from the English philosopher John Locke, who had declared his seventeenth-century willingness “to join in society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name property.” Having in mind a beloved capitalist community not unlike the Puritan earthly paradise or our own latter-day gated communities of saints in Palm Beach and Palo Alto, Locke could not conceive of freedom established on anything other than property. Neither could the framers of the Constitution. By the word liberty they meant liberty for property, not liberty for persons.
They shared with
John Adams the conviction that democracy “will infallibly destroy all civilization,” agreed with James Madison that the turbulent passions of the common man lead not only to revolution but also to the “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.” Together with Aristotle the framers believed that the best government incorporates the means by which a fortunate few arrange a distribution of property and law to the ignorant and less fortunate many. They envisioned a wise and just oligarchy to which they gave the name of a republic, to be owned and operated by men like themselves.
Mrs. Schuyler Burning Her Wheat Fields on the Approach of the British, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1852. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, bicentennial gift of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Schaaf, Mr. and Mrs. William D. Witherspoon, Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Shoemaker, and Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr.
A democratic society puts a premium on equality; a capitalist economy does not. From their reading of Plutarch, the framers understood that oligarchy was well-advised to furnish democracy with some measure of political power (the failure to do so likely to lead to their being roasted on pitchforks), and so they designed a contrivance to accommodate the motions of the heart as well as the movement of a market. The Constitution provides checks and balances between different forms of property. It doesn’t offer the same terms of collective action on the part of persons without property. The propertyless remain free to fend for themselves with the blessing of the Bill of Rights, an implement on the order of an ax or a plough meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. The Constitution is means not end, serves as the premise for a narrative, not a plan for an invasion or design of a monument. The narrative was always plural. Not one story, many stories.
America’s democracy is geared to the hope of the future. We are a nation of parvenus looking to find a seat at the table or a place in the sun. The American democrat is always on the way to some undetermined future in which all will be well, and when meeting a stranger on the road, he or she begins at once with a summary of the story so far—youth and early sorrows, sequence of exits and entrances, last divorce and next marriage, point of financial departure and estimated time of spiritual arrival, the bad news accounted for, the good news still to come somewhere over a rainbow or around the next bend in the river. One pilgrim talking to another, aiming to exchange notes and compare maps; the different destinations matter less than the shared hope of coming safely home to a land of the heart’s desire. Our common ground is a unified field of emotion; our moral code is political. We protect the other person’s liberty in the interest of protecting our own, and our virtues accord with the terms and conditions of an arduous and speculative journey. It isn’t easy to be an American, and if we look into the mirrors held up by our prime-time situation comedies and our best-seller lists (invariably topped by memoirs and travelers’ tales), we see that we value the companionable virtues—helpfulness, forgiveness, kindliness, above all tolerance.
If democracy means anything at all, it is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are beautiful or rich or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens, and to know what they say and do is taking part in the shared work of the imagination among a multitude of voices, talents, quirks, colors, interests, and generations. The labor never ends, entails the ceaseless making and remaking of customs and laws, of matinee idols, equations, and songs.
Democracy allies itself with change, proceeds on the assumption that nothing is final, that an old order will be carried offstage every twenty years. Freedom of thought brings to society the unwelcome news that it is in trouble, but because all societies, like all human beings, are always in some sort of trouble, the news doesn’t cause them to perish. They die instead from the fear of thought and the paralysis that accompanies the wish to make time stand still.
Nor is Trump alone in his self-glorifying contempt for democracy. The attitude is shared by his antagonists in the media and Congress who have been seeking his removal from office since his first day in the White House. By any lying or underhand means possible, whatever it takes to make themselves great again. The result is a dysfunctional Congress on the verge of the November election that cannot pass legislation providing economic relief from the effects of the coronavirus, will not spend money without which many more millions of the propertyless many will sink into the sloughs of poverty, sickness, and despair. The markdown of human value is bipartisan and deliberate.
So also Trump’s rival plutocrats happily embrace his policy of breaking up the democracy’s unified field of emotion into polarized fields of fear and resentment grouped around the signposts of race, class, ethnicity, and gender. The scare tactics sell newspapers, boost ratings, gather votes. God forbid that the unified emotion of the propertyless many should shape itself into a political force capable of restraining the arrogance and privilege of the propertied few.
Capitalism and democracy are both forces of revolutionary change, and during the first half of the nineteenth century, they struggle for possession of the American soul. The United States in the years prior to the Civil War lacked both strong central government and a national currency. The people had little choice but to do for themselves what they now look to government to supply on the silver trays of subsidy and entitlement.
Alexis de Tocqueville, French politician and aristocrat still thought to be the chief anatomist of America’s antebellum body politic, makes the grand tour in 1831–32, traveling on horseback and steamboat from the Atlantic Seaboard west into the Ohio River valley, south with the Mississippi River to New Orleans, north by northeast to New York City. Wherever and whenever he stops in small and remote communities, he finds democracy the work in progress along the lines envisioned by Paine—the people mutually and naturally supporting one another, forming voluntary associations to hold fetes, build bridges and roads, dispatch missionaries, set up churches and schools. “They do good,” says Tocqueville, “just like God himself, without self-interest…The beauty of virtue is almost never promoted. It is considered useful, and this is proved daily.”
Tocqueville concludes that American democracy isn’t “a sham,” that there is something in it “deeply felt and truly great.” The observation doesn’t blind him to the American passion for money. Everywhere he goes, in small towns as in big cities, he finds the citizenry as devout in their worship of Mammon as were the Puritan faithful in seventeenth-century New England. “In democracies,” he says, “nothing is greater or more brilliant than commerce. It attracts the attention of the public and fills the imagination of the multitude.”
Jefferson had reached the same conclusion in 1810. Retired to Monticello after his second term in the White House, he writes to a friend, “Money, not morality, is the principle of commerce and commercial nations”; shortly afterward, in a letter to Pierre-Samuel du Pont: “We can never get rid of [Alexander Hamilton’s] financial system…It mortifies me to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious, but this vice is entailed on us by a first error.” Jefferson’s idea of government aligned, as did Paine’s, with the idealism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Hamilton’s system was attuned to the capitalist dynamic driving the satanic mills of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, a dynamic that Abraham Lincoln in 1859 describes in a letter to a friend as heartless: “The democracy of today holds the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing when in conflict with another man’s right of property.”
Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.—Oscar Wilde, 1891
In the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the forces of American democracy win civil service reform in the 1880s, stage the Populist Party uprising in the 1890s, advance the Progressive movement in the 1900s at the direction of presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but it is the stock-market collapse in 1929 that equips the country’s democratic emotions with the power of the law, and during the middle years of the twentieth century, America accords with Albert Camus’ notion of a place “where the single word liberty makes its hearts beat faster.” The living force of democracy sustained FDR’s New Deal, fielded a citizen army to fight and win World War II, pressed forward into the 1960s with the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, passed LBJ’s Civil Rights and Economic Opportunity Acts of 1964 and his Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But that was long ago and in another country, and in the hearts of our plutocratic gentry these days, the word liberty slows the pulse and chills the blood. On the eve of November’s election, afraid of a world their money can’t buy, our well-groomed talking heads look down on the sound and fury in the streets and wind their fears into funeral wreaths, pronounce the American democracy lost in the shuffle, lying dead in the grave.
The great pundits are too quick with their coroners’ reports. What they take to be proofs of death are signs of recovering life, an awakening to the fact that democracy is by definition uproar and tumult, conflict not only the normal but also the necessary spark of its existence. The American experiment with the volatile substance of freedom corresponds to the design of a suspension bridge, dependent upon the balance struck by countervailing forces. The experiment fails unless the stresses oppose one another with more or less equal weight, unless enough people let go the wish to be cared for, take hold of the will to act, have enough courage to sustain the argument between rich and poor, government and governed, capital and labor, man and woman, matter and mind.
What we have been seeing in America this past summer is the democracy seen by Tocqueville, the common people mutually and naturally supporting one another, staffing the hospitals, policing the streets, and farming the fields, driving the trucks and trains, keeping on the lights, bringing in the bread and the wine, caring for others, not the opinion of others. Doing good without self-promotion, just like God himself, because it is useful.
And as usual in times of trouble (in Periclean Athens as in eighteenth-century France) it is the dēmokratía, not the aristokratía, that shows up at Ground Zero. The rich move to safe spaces in the country, phone in their condolences, deliver via Zoom monologues heavy with sympathy and grief. The poor can’t afford the luxury of self-pitying terror alerts. The American philosopher William James took note of the difference a distance makes while teaching at Stanford in 1906 when earthquake and fire overwhelmed San Francisco. He finds among those present (on day one in Palo Alto, a few days later in the ruined city) “cheerfulness,” “a tendency more toward nervous excitement than toward grief,” and “not a single whine or plaintive word.” From sympathetic friends back east in Harvard Square, James soon received letters “ringing with anxiety and pathos”; they convinced him of “what I have always believed, that the pathetic way of feeling great disasters belongs rather to the point of view of people at a distance than to the immediate victims.”
Nayarit ceramic model of a village scene, Mexico, second or third century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the Collection of Nina and Gordon Bunshaft, Bequest of Nina Bunshaft, 1994.
Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, had learned the same lesson, that it is not the “feeble spark of benevolence” in the human heart that prompts men to aid and abet one another in the throes of disaster. It is the recognition of their being part of the collective and therefore immortal life of mankind that induces “a more powerful affection” than self-love, which, like Trump and CNN’s synods of self-righteous scolds, is always small-minded, grasping, and sordid. The stronger feeling draws men to “the love of what is honorable and noble, of the grandeur and dignity and superiority of our own characters.”
A fact of which
Walt Whitman was daily reminded during his three years as a Civil War hospital volunteer, attending to sick and wounded soldiers both Union and Confederate. He notes in his diary that he sat next to the cots of as many as a hundred thousand young men, talking to them at length, distributing gifts of writing paper or tobacco, a stamped envelope, an apple or an orange, small pieces of money. From his experience with others like him on his hospital rounds, he learns “one thing conclusively—that beneath all the ostensible greed and heartlessness of our times” the generous benevolence of men and women in the United States, remains constant. “Another thing became clear to me—while cash is not amiss to bring up the rear, tact and magnetic sympathy and unction are, and ever will be, sovereign still.”
If I hear him rightly, Whitman is answering the question he poses at the head of this preamble, saying that the real gist of the great word is love, not money. I don’t doubt him. But democracy without money can’t run a government or save the world. The Declaration of Independence and The Wealth of Nations both come into the world in 1776, but their revolutions turn in different directions, one toward a world made for machines, the other toward a world fit for human beings. The trick is the one made possible by the Constitution of the United States, which is the yoking of two forces of revolutionary change, two forms of uncivil liberty, to the same chariot of fire. Money in and of itself is lifeless abstraction, and the worshipping of the God in the colossal cash machine is sterile idolatry. Employ money as energy made by mortal men for the use of mortal men—as the active and productive wealth underwriting FDR’s New Deal—and money enlarges the sum of man’s humanity to man. Money is power worth having, but without the greater power of thought, it amounts to little more than the temporary dominion of a bully.
Over the course of time, it is the freedom of mind and the play of the imagination that shapes the clay of civilization. Cynicism maybe runs the world; idealism changes the world.
This essay appears in Democracy, the Fall 2020 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The issue is made possible by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.