To extol the virtues of Lewis Lapham would require an essay of the length and elegance he is famed for, something unfortunately beyond my powers. But I can recognize an artist when I see one, an artist of the caliber to provoke the dear departed Molly Ivins to call him the best essayist in America today.
A large part of what makes him so outstanding is his encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature. Who else can quote Aristotle, Machiavelli, Thomas Paine, and James Fenimore Cooper in addition to the standard Jefferson and Madison interpolations? And he’s not quoting them to demonstrate his breadth of knowledge; rather, he knows them intimately and brings their arguments to bear on current situations, demonstrating in the process the underlying connections between our modern super-society and the original democracy of Athens. Did you know there was, by Aristotle’s report,
…a faction of especially reactionary oligarchs in ancient Athens who took a vow of selfishness not unlike the anti-tax pledge administered by Grover Norquist to Republican stalwarts in modern Washington: “I will be an enemy to the people and will devise all the harm against them which I can.”
What has changed? Mainly the overt nature of the rapine. That was the lesson of the Roman Empire: the head on the throne is prone to roll, while that behind the throne persists. Which leads to the modern notion that if you’ve heard of him — at this point it’s still nearly always a him — he isn’t really powerful. We approach the Zaphod Beeblebrox situation in which the president of the galaxy is chosen because he’s the most outrageous personality in the galaxy, thus fully able to distract attention from the manipulations of those who actually control the levers of power.
But at this point the president still has the ability to assassinate Americans if he as judge, jury, and executioner happens to feel they need it. And he can continue to slant the playing field toward the massively rich who fund his campaign in contradistinction to the massively rich who fund Romney’s campaign. The rest of us, the 80% of the population that collectively hold 7% of the wealth, aren’t even pawns; we’re the board the game is played on. Our wishes, however pacific and generous, are of no count in our governance. Wars are waged despite our vocal opposition. Health care, universal among the rich, is denied us, yet we are required to buy insurance for it, thus enriching the insurance companies without actually providing medical care. Education is put beyond our means, or made to require the kind of debt that used to be outrageous for a house in the Bay Area, requiring decades of repayment and the accompanying servitude to the dollar to ensure the needed income.
The upshot of this division in control as well as wealth is the dissolution of republican democracy in the United States. Since 1945 we have nearly always been involved in at least one undeclared war. Without war our economy collapses, because we make nothing but weapons, drugs, and financial instruments. Along with humongous amounts of media in all its distracting shapes and colors, all conspiring to deny us the participation in civic life that is precisely what previous generations died for in the various wars they fought. Or at least what they intended to die for. What we got as a result of their sacrifice is in fact an oligarchy whose predations range across the globe, making enemies everywhere to ensure that when the current war dries up another conflict will be ready to take its place, another fanatic leader ginned up to represent the forces allied against the civilization we are proudly attempting to shove down their throats.
Enabling all this is a class of leaders whom Chomsky calls commissars because they invent the philosophy, the advertising that sells the regressive ideas championed by the powerful. Lapham calls them "the upper servants of the oligarchy".
Troubled op-ed columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that sets itself above the law.
The upper servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.
Indeed, the upper servants have traded their inheritance of civic participation, what the founders would have called freedom, for purchasing power. The rest of us are constantly tempted to aspire to the same level of power, without recalling the basic truth of democracy: that it positively requires an informed and active citizenry if it is to have a chance of success. Absent that citizenry it immediately descends into plutocracy, from which the society either degenerates into open internecine warfare or is recovered by a citizenry grown once again powerful through knowledge and activity provoked by a sense of being poorly treated.
Democracy in America is a concept like many others in the founding documents, currently unrealized yet still promising a golden age of society should we ever choose to go there. The cost is becoming knowledgeable and active. Or we can continue to buy our way into the reigning plutocracy that is killing the planet.