Commonwealth Spirituality

Here in northern Wisconsin, on Tuesday night, August 15, 2023, the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors defeated, by a vote of 13-9, a resolution calling for a county-wide referendum on the funding of the county-owned nursing home, Pine Crest. Over one hundred people—many of them elderly, some in wheelchairs—were in attendance in the big room where supervisors meet. Over half-a-dozen citizens spoke, all in favor of the resolution, including one man who pointed out that a ten-year $8 per month price tag (the property tax increase) offered an astonishingly inexpensive insurance policy for permanent disability or old age infirmity, not to speak of the collective ethical benefit for the community as a whole and an inexpensive way to feel good about ourselves.

The dominant rebuttal from the righteous thirteen who voted down the resolution was taxpayer protection. We can’t afford it. We’re already overtaxed. One supervisor, barely into his twenties and already an ambitious Republican assemblyman (in Wisconsin it’s legal to hold both positions simultaneously) gave a standup speech in which he blamed the Democratic governor for steering the biggest chunks of state nursing home money to two or three big counties that vote Democratic. This young man failed to mention the $7 billion surplus fund the Republican-controlled legislature refused to use for social and healthcare programs.

Most people, it seems, have never heard of Grover Norquist. He was a powerful Republican strategist who, back in the 1970s, concocted a cunning strategy buried in a witty political aphorism about shrinking government to such a tiny size you could drown it in a bathtub. (I once was present when I saw this peculiar psychology at work in a novel way: a library board member vociferously opposed a proposed enlargement to the library board by fiercely asserting “There’s already too much government in our lives.” What does one say to such a perverse understanding of the relationship between citizen participation and a public oversight body?)

I have no idea whether Grover Norquist thought himself an anarchist; but as I try to place his perception of government in historical perspective, I can’t help recalling late nineteenth-century anarchism. Kill the state. Freedom from government. (And then I remember Ronald Reagan’s famous sarcasm: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” That from the President of the United States!)

But here’s the underlying problem: civilized governance for almost all of the last five thousand years was synonymous with aristocracy. Kingship. The divine right of kings and therefore the divine right of an aristocratic ruling class to extract tribute from the commoners, mostly peasants, out of which a chief extractor inevitably emerged. A king at the head of a civilized empire or nation-state. In that world there was no democracy as we now use the word.

Democracy is a long-term project, beset with manufactured confusion and cynical misrepresentation, by which commoners are working to achieve communal self-regulation by cultural custom and historical understanding—that is, by the lawful reshaping of institutions that require economic concentration.

The increasingly powerful merchant class violently displaced the ancient aristocracy in the centuries after the Protestant Reformation. That merchant class never relinquished a shared presumption with aristocrats about earned and achieved entitlement. The primary element of this entitlement is the fierce conviction, enshrined in civil law, that the private accumulation of wealth is to have no limit and that all attempts to socialize by taxation these vast accruals of wealth are to be resisted and, if possible, prevented. Insofar as taxation is to be allowed, it is only to provide infrastructure (roads, canals, harbors, etc.) to support free trade and liberated commerce. In a word, capitalism: industrialized and globalized capitalism. Such concentrations of current wealth—many individuals are nearly trillionaires! —would make a Hapsburg sick with envy. To be sure, a rich artistic culture accompanied traditional aristocracy with the finest of almost everything. Everything except sharing and knowing when enough is enough. Our commercial neo-aristocracy, alas, has almost no interest in culture. They also have little interest in sharing or in knowing when enough is enough.)

So, the righteous thirteen who voted to protect the supposedly overburdened taxpayers are, for the most part, in Grover Norquist’s plumbing business: they have a thing about bathtubs, an obsession about shrinkage, and dark fantasies about drowning.

But let’s go back to the nineteenth-century anarchists. Those guys and gals were peasant intellectuals, working-class thinkers, whose sense of politics was overwhelmingly shaped by centuries of aristocratic oppression. And since aristocrats ran the state, to get rid of the aristocrats was to get rid of the aristocrats’ cruel extraction machine—the state. Pretty simple. Not very smart. But pretty simple.

Below the aristocratic class were the commoners who, except for a few middle-class retainers with an itch to join in the prerogatives of aristocracy, were either peasants under the jurisdiction of aristocrats or indigenous people who had not yet suffered conquest. Folk cultures were either fully self-governing (the Indigenous) or partially self-governing (the peasants). The aristocratic state kept peasants poor and, if they could, the indigenous powerless. The new industrial neo-aristocratic capitalist state has only with great reluctance and resistance allowed increased taxation of private wealth for purposes of public welfare. If you got it you get to keep it. Unlimited private property.

The current worldview being broadcast by Fox and all the little foxes is a peculiar mix of nineteenth-century anarchism with a hidden agenda of upper-class wealth protection. It intentionally and effectively pits Red against Blue, white folks against everybody of darker skin, economic freedom against wicked socialism. This political propaganda deliberately serves to obstruct a united folk citizenry who, were they united, could and conceivably would achieve communal self-regulation of cultural customs and spiritual behaviors, reshape civil and criminal law, and redesign for common usage institutions requiring economic concentration.

The folk have never yet run the state, and it’s obviously a long, drawn-out process to get there. Democracy is the multigenerational effort to achieve not the end but the beginning of folk self-governance, a degree of popular control that would transform aristocratic selfishness into commonwealth sharing. Democracy is a long struggle to enable and control the state to provide a calm, peaceful, healthy, contented, ethical, and ecological commonwealth of many cultures that mingle and interact and make babies—and who collaborate democratically in the humane reshaping of overarching institutions.

On Tuesday, the aristo-anarchists won by a vote of 13-9. They said the common folk could not vote on the future or disposition of the county-owned nursing home. They said they’d been elected to protect the taxpayer from the state. They told the old and disabled we can’t afford to take care of you.  We’re sorry for your misfortune and we wish you well, of course. But it just can’t be helped.

These anarcho-aristocrats have a severe case of political schizophrenia. Well, no wonder. They’re neo-aristocrats pretending to be peasants. Pretending to represent and protect peasants. But long before we were modern taxpayers we all were peasants or indigenous. The development of democracy means that the state and all its operations belong to us. The state’s not our enemy, and we’ve got to quit thinking of it as our enemy or acting as if it were our enemy. Thinking of the state as our enemy allows the aristo-anarchists to win.

The state’s a huge heap of perceptions, attitudes, laws, and institutions in sore need of wholesome folk yeast by which the whole assemblage gets leavened into uses fit for communal self-regulation. What happened the other night, by a vote of 13-9, was yet another obstruction in the way of the determined unfolding of folk commonwealth spirituality, a political spirituality that believes in a gospel of servanthood and stewardship. That yeast is by no means finished with its levitational leavening.