History is on our side: the 99% writes back

by Frances A. Chiu

Tag: Sermons to Asses

#Occupy History 1768: Of Overgrown Dukes, Knights, and Super-PACs

“The power of choosing a man to represent a town or country in parliament is lodged in the hands of a few monopolizers of privileges, who, by the weight of their purses, and the power of their interest, can turn the rest as they have a mind.”

If James Murray was concerned with the burdens shouldered by the 99% of his day, he was no less so by the electioneering process—particularly since it was heavily rigged by the 1%. Back in the eighteenth century, the local presiding aristo would make his rounds during election season, urging eligible voters in his county to support his candidate. Indeed, it was standard practice for him and his candidate of choice to go the whole hog, figuratively and literally, throwing great feasts with plenty of booze. If the attendee was lucky, he might put on his wig–before discovering that it had been  “truly oiled with the juice of the grape, and bedaubed with the surcharge of some overloaded appetite.”  And if not, he might suffer a few broken bones or worse. In fact, these affairs could rival any modern day frat house hazing for it was hardly unusual for the local militia to be called in: which is partly why the reformist call for annual elections simply never took off. Take a look at this rendering of an “Election Entertainment” (1755)  from Hogarth:

(original site: http://www.giantratofsumatra.com/2011/04/)

Although Murray was by no means the first to criticize this phenomenon, he was probably the first to address it before a sizeable audience. Civil disorder was only part of a larger problem: namely, the disproportionate influence enjoyed by monied bigwigs, whether they be “dull dukes” or “heavy-headed knights.” It should be plain to see that  “When a man, to whom Providence hath given a liberal share of worldly possessions, and who is able, by the weight of his interest, to weigh down the fourth part of a country, employs that interest contrary to the principles of honesty and virtue,” he is nothing less than “a curse to the nation.” (These are Murray’s italics.)

Now granted, the electorate back then comprised a meager 3-5% of the nation (e.g., those with at least 40 shillings worth of land residing in a town that actually sent MP’s to Parliament), but what good is an election when voters face potential repercussions from their local aristo during a period when ballots were still openly cast? (Hence, the call for secret ballots in the 19th century.) As Murray argues, the entire purpose of an election is defeated when dependents feel “overawed in their voting” by their social superiors, self-important men accustomed to “treat[ing] their dependents like asses, and threaten[ing] them out of their liberty and virtue at once, by the weight of their interest.” It is a sheer travesty when “there is no man free….but men of large and extensive fortunes” and “the power of choosing a man to represent a town or country in parliament is lodged in the hands of a few monopolizers of privileges, who, by the weight of their purses, and the power of their interest, can turn the rest as they have a mind.”

But even as Murray excoriates these elites, he doesn’t let ordinary Britons off the hook. Too many of them are easily enticed by prospects of free food,  announcing  unwittingly to the world that they “are asses, ready and willing to take on any burden.”  Indeed, It is easy capitulation that allows the rich and powerful to manipulate them further, for

what opinion must these gentlemen have of such drunken societies who will do so much for a few days of riot and gluttony, as to sell their liberties, but that they are asses that want to be watered? Can that nation be accounted free, that can be so easily enslaved by drunkenness and bribery? Liberty is but a name, when it can be so easily subdued by such mean gratifications. When men are slaves to their lusts, they will never be free. Men that do so easily sell their souls will not value their country.

At the same time, if some are suckered in by free refreshments,  others are far too prone to obey their social betters  in the misguided belief that, well, they must know better:

The meanness of the greatest number of freeholders in Britain is conspicuous in their stooping down to take on every burden that any overgrown duke or knight pleases to impose upon them. When once it is known what side of the question “his Grace” is on, the inferior freeholders ask no more, but generally say, Amen. They do not consider the qualifications and merit of the candidate, whether he is a wise man or fool, or a tool of the state: if he is such a great man’s friend, that is sufficient.

In the end, of course, this servility could only backfire on poor, unthinking John Bull, dazzled by the jewels and fancy gold-laced duds donned by Lord So-and-so. Little does John guess that “A gentleman may safely sink his estate by procuring an election” enroute to buying “another ten times better than that which he had before.” Such candidates resemble those “other traders, who, when they fail, very often make a profitable composition at other people’s expense, and grow richer than ever they were before.” They are men “who have laid out so much money upon an election, will endeavour to make you pay for it, by joining with some venal ministry in taxing you, for the benefit of a rich preferment.” Yes, that’s correct: you’ve screwed yourself by voting for a man—like so many others before him–who will again vote against your best interests in Parliament when he sides with his rich patrons and buddies.  As Tom Paine would observe a few decades later, the landed elites in the legislature were pretty sly at shifting the burden of taxes to commoners–and even onto the poor.

It’s hard not to smile condescendingly today as if anyone would be blind enough not to see through Lord 1%’s ploy. We pride ourselves on living in a real, honest-to-goodness democracy where each citizen has one vote. Not to mention that our 21st Jill and Joe Blows are smarter and much better informed in the age of the internet….right?

Hmmmm.  The fact is, little has changed since then. For the better part of our own history, the rich have long enjoyed disproportionate influence by making large contributions to their candidates of choice, under certain limits, of course. But with the 2010 rulings on Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC , these limits have been eradicated, allowing the wealthy to exercise even more influence by means of the super-PAC, a supersized pac, if you will; as Rick Hasen notes in his blog (Jan 18, 2012), what was once of illegality or dubious legality in regard to independent contributions is now “of fully blessed legality.”  This brings us back to 18th century Britain, where there were no limits either.

So who are some of our “overgrown dukes and knights?” On one hand, we have the bewigged (or betoupe-d?) “You’re-fired” Donald openly endorsing Mitt “I-like-being-able-to-fire-people Romney. But there are some slightly less visible, hovering dimly in the background. Of course, by now, we’ve heard of the Koch brothers:  founders of the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, organizers of the various Tea Party outfits (Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, etc.), and supporters of union-bashing Scott Walker.  We may also have heard of Foster Friess, backer of Santorum (i.e., “Red, White, and Blue” super-PAC);  union-busting Sheldon Adelson, backer of Gingrich (“Winning our Future”). Then there’s the super-PAC, “Restore our Future,” organized by a few of Romney’s aides,  whose donors include former Bain colleagues and John Paulson, the hedge-funder who famously earned billions betting against the housing market. Even Obama, who criticized the Supreme Court for their decision in 2010, is now (reluctantly?) relying on Priorities USA Action super-PAC. (See also http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/superpacs.php?ql3)

Of particular danger to our 99% are the wealthy donors behind the GOP leaning super-PACs. As Blaire Bowie and Adam Lioz have recently observed, they  hold significantly different ideas on the economy. More are concerned about the deficit than unemployment. What is striking, however, is the divergence between their own social ideas and that of their conservative base.  David Koch, for instance, supports gay rights, stem-cell research, and along with his brother, the ACLU.  It is worth pointing out that Friess had no qualms about supporting Alfonse D’Amato even though the latter had only rejected the GOP position on gays.  As such, what squarely unites many if not the vast majority of wealthy donors behind the Republican agenda is opposition to reforms on Wall Street and unions–which in turn helps explain why they also contribute to a hostile media that panders to the views of the Tea Party and their ilk even if they don’t necessarily share their social prejudices.

What were Murray’s solutions to these “monopolizers of privilege” and what key do they hold for us?  Stay tuned.

#Occupyhistory 1768: Preaching to Asses

“We read of the asskind preaching to mankind; and why may not men preach to asses?”

Thus declares the preface of what is possibly the most incendiary set of sermons from 18th– century England, Sermons to Asses (1768). Though largely forgotten today, Asses delivered one of the first populist wake-up calls.  Drawing unprecedented attention to the dismal conditions faced by impoverished Britons and the influence wielded by landed elites during elections, James Murray (1732-1782) would urge his countrymen to ditch their political apathy, speak up, and vote responsibly–because “You will stand recorded for asses to all generations, if you do not assert your liberties when you have it in your power.”  Not surprisingly, these sermons attained great popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, with 7 editions issued in 2 years; no doubt the colonists were thrilled, if not inspired by his criticism of Parliament and tacit message of rebellion. But it is not surprising either that the powers-that-be and their supporters quietly allowed this Newcastle minister and activist to sink into oblivion after his death.

Murray begins effectively enough in the first of four sermons by invoking the tribe of Issachar, (son of Jacob and Leah, Gen. 30:16-8)  portraying it in such a way that ordinary Englishmen could immediately recognize as a portrait of their nation:

The tribe of Issachar were an inactive, slothful, and sluggish people: they loved rest more than liberty, and chose to be slaves, rather than exert themselves, and assert their privileges. There was a reason for it. Issachar saw that the land was good, and rest pleasant for him, and agreeable to his slothful, and sluggish disposition–Self interest prevailed more with him than public welfare and national happiness. There are many such asses as Issachar that prefer present ease and advantage to public liberty and national freedom.

In short, the average John Bull was sitting a little too comfortably on his ass–or rather, arse—oblivious to the injustice and inequities surrounding him:  not unlike the average American today (Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding) more preoccupied with the events played out on American Idol than on the political stage. Quite plainly, the placid Englishman lacked the willpower to contest “two burdens of civil and religious oppression.” Despite whatever grumblings he might utter, he dutifully paid high taxes on his basic necessities and conformed to the Church of England.  Little wonder that conditions for ordinary Britons were far from tolerable.

If the  hardship suffered by the common Briton  was sufficiently trying, it was much worse for the poor. Unlike many then (and now) who preferred to blame poverty on the alleged character flaws of the poor (e.g., lazy, feckless, and wasteful etc.), Murray commiserated with the indigent. Wasn’t it a shame that they were “obliged to couch down between two burdens: one of taxes, and another of artificial scarcity of provisions” : a scarcity that flew in the face of abundant crops?  Especially in a prosperous nation?  Observing that “All asses are not equally strong” and ought to be “burdened according to their strengths and abilities,” he urged that “meat, drink, and clothing should be made as easy as possible” because “the poor cannot well live with less necessary food than the rich”; the fact that laborers did not possess “the power to raise their wages or lower the price of goods” made matters all the worse.

But more worrisome was the overall lack of concern for the poor.  If they complained, local and national governments tended to ignore them. And when the poor resorted to stealing and rioting, they faced dire consequences:

If they complain, they are not heard; if they resist, they are belaboured like ASSES: or if, through hunger and want, they should be compelled to rise up to relieve themselves, then they must wait the issue of a trial in some court of justice….Merciful Lord!  would any people rise in mobs to disturb a peaceable nation: if they could kep it? Nay it is pinching hunger that is the cause of it.

The government’s inaction, then,  is the very cause of disorder and chaos.  Something is terribly wrong when the representatives and the people “are like the fishes of the sea, the great devour the small;–only with this difference, that we are devoured by LAW.”  It’s hard not to conclude here that government of, by, and for the great and powerful is hardly viable.  Considering that a revolution was about to take place across the Channel some 23 years later, propelled by a people fed up with paying exorbitant prices for bread and disproportionately high taxes, Murray’s remarks were quite prescient.

Before turning to his discussion of corrupt electioneering and the exorbitant influence of monied peers in another post, I’d like to reflect a bit on poverty here today,  nearly 250 years after the publication of Sermons to Asses.  First of all,  what is particularly striking today is a return to the general conditions of the late eighteenth century–in spite of the fact that agriculture is no longer the chief mainspring of our economy.  Although it could be argued that the poor today enjoy higher standards of living in comparison with their counterparts from 1768, could it not also be said that class inequities and privileges remain as stark as ever, particularly with the decline of social mobility over the last few decades?  (Ironic how the New World has traded places with the Old in this respect as the US lags behind even the UK.)

According to Mingay’s classic study of the 18th-century English landed elite, the titled nobility (e.g., dukes, earls, counts, etc. ) comprised slightly less than 1% of the nation but earned 15% of the national income (mostly in the form of rent): a statistic that mirrors that of the 1% in America. Likewise, the remaining 19%  of the landed interest (gentry and wealthy farmers) earned nearly 50% of the national income–again, much the same as our top 20%: a remarkable affinity considering our generally improved levels of literacy (near 90% vs. 60%).   And just as 50% of Murray’s population lived at subsistence levels,  nearly 1 out of 2 American families today are either low-income or poor.  Moreover, if the wealthiest landowners acquired even more wealth (particularly with the rapid enclosure of the commons) while the wages of the poor and laboring classes declined towards the close of the 18th century, the trajectories of the wealthiest 1% and the lower income families have also widened at the close of the 20th century.  Could it be that the present gap in America between the haves and have-nots has met or even exceeded that of the 18th century?  A scary thought indeed: but not quite so scary as some of the general attitudes variously displayed by members of our state and federal government.

For we too continue to face the challenges addressed by Murray. As Jesse Jackson has observed in words reminiscent of our feisty Newcastle minister,  too many of those in power–like Romney–“are woefully silent about the predicament of the poor.”  Given the broad reluctance to raise taxes on the wealthiest whether on a state or national level, the brunt of a recession inevitably falls on those with lower or fixed incomes as monies for food, health care, and energy are reduced.  If anything, these “safety nets,” so complacently assumed by Romney, are far from guaranteed, especially with the ever lurking possibilities of food inflation (as in early last year)  and spikes in gas prices.  For instance, even though Obama promised in his state of the union speech of 2011 that he would not balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, he  nonetheless proceeded to slash funding for community service block grants, food stamps, and Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) by 45%.  In Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett made noises about removing people under 60 from food stamp rolls if they had more than $2000 in their savings account  (and $3,250 if they were over 60). Fortunately in both cases, there was sufficient opposition to stem some of these  drastic cuts.  But all in all, the general insensitivity to the plight of the poor is only barely more compassionate than a call for the return to Dickensian child labor.