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Beware of Harvard's "Radical Fix for the Republic"

by John Spritzler

June 24, 2012

As a retired employee of Harvard University I get their magazine, which has the original and creative name, "Harvard Magazine." This July-August issue has a cover with a drawing of the Capitol Building breaking apart, the American flag half-smudged out, and the text: "America's Damaged Democracy: on compromise, the franchise, and campaign cash".

Inside the feature article is titled,"A Radical Fix for the Republic." It is about the views of Lawrence Lessig, a legal scholar based first at Harvard and then Stanford, and now back at Harvard where he directs the Safra Center for Ethics, is a professor of law and leadership at the Harvard Law School and "investigates the American government and what ails it." He recently published Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It.

Lessig writes that the corruption is systemic and systematic, pointing out that lobbyists in 2009 alone spent $3.5 billion, or $6.5 million for each elected member of Congress, and Members of Congress now spend 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising. He adds, "money guaranteed that single payer health insurance was not on the table."

Harvard--the epitome of an institution serving the strategic goals of the ruling class--has now begun saying things that a short time ago would have marked one as a crazy radical undeserving of respect. This reminds me of what I read happened in Spain in the years leading up to the 1936 outbreak of the Spanish anarchist-led revolution. As the Spanish working class and peasantry grew more and more explicitly revolutionary, the liberal pro-capitalist politicians' rhetoric also grew more revolutionary because it was the only way they could maintain any credibility.

So what does professor Lessig propose? What is his "radical" solution? He proposes a Constitutional Convention be held (something the existing Constitution provides for) composed of delegates randomly selected from the voter rolls, and pledged to change the Constitution "to provide that public elections are publicly funded; to limit, and make transparent, contributions and independent political expenditures, and to reaffirm that when the Declaration of Independence spoke of entities 'endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,' it was speaking of natural persons only."

In his Republic, Lost, Lessig proposes giving every citizen $50 as a voucher to give to his or her candidate of choice, with a limit of $100 that a person could give. But he says this should apply only to those candidates who "opt in" and other candidates would be free to take money from super PACs, corporations or industrial lobbyists.

No doubt the Big Money folks want us to perceive these proposals as "radical," but they surely know that they are nothing of the sort. The word, "radical," means getting at the root of things. A "radical" solution solves a problem at its root. The root of the problem of our lack of democracy is that our society is based on money, private ownership of what is rightfully public wealth, and capitalist relations that legitimize inequality and de-legitimize mutual aid, all of which inevitably concentrate wealth and hence power into the hands of a few.

As long as there are billionaires in a society where most people's net worth is minuscule in comparison (or even actually negative because they owe more than they own), those billionaires will have the real say in society, not ordinary people. No amount of clever laws will change this fact. Every law can be gotten around by those with lots of money. This is as true as the fact that the water of the Mississippi River will eventually flow into the ocean no matter how many dams people build to try to stop it. Just as the waters of the river might vary their route to the sea, the billionaires will vary their means of wielding the power of money.

Lessig himself provides an illustration of this. He notes that when he interviewed the convicted lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist described how offering a Member of Congress or a staffer a job on K-street (where the big lobby firms locate) was, "in effect, a way of hiring them on the spot. They may be two years from the end of their terms, Abramoff said, but from that moment--with no money down--they are, in the back of their minds, working for their future employer."

The other important way in which Lessig's proposal does not get to the root of the problem is that it leaves in place a hierarchical central government by which a relatively small number of people in Washington D.C. (the Members of Congress, the President and nine Supreme Court justices) are, collectively, a dictatorship. Whatever laws they pass the rest of the population is required to obey or go to prison. This hierarchical basis of social order is virtually designed to enable a small group--be it billionaires or the top leaders of a Communist Party or the high priests of some religion--to dominate the population. All that is required is to persuade a critical mass of the population that it is morally obliged to obey this dictatorship. The reason given for why people must obey can be any one of a number of things: "There were elections" is the reason used by rulers of the so-called "democracies." But "The rulers are closer to God than ordinary people" may work too in some places. The Communists prefer "Only highly trained Marxists can guide the people to communism."

The truly radical solution to the problem of our lack of democracy is twofold: 1) Reject the hierarchical principle and replace it with the principle of voluntary federation as the basis of large-scale social order: Only local bodies, at which all those who support equality and mutual aid and democracy may attend and have an equal say, can make laws. These bodies send delegates to "higher" level bodies, and those in turn to higher level bodies, but these delegates craft proposals, not laws. Local bodies implement these proposals only if they wish to; no "higher body" can order a local body, or people, to do anything. Social order is the result of negotiated agreements, not commands from above. (The exception is that if people somewhere egregiously violate the principles of equality and mutual aid, then other people always have the right to forcibly prevent it. This is what revolution is all about.) 2) Abolish money and the capitalist system and economic inequality and replace them with a sharing economy based on the principle of, "From each according to ability, to each according to need." (See Thinking about Revolution for more discussion of these ideas.)

The Harvard elite are hoping to deflect attention away from the need for a revolution to get to the root of the problem. If public awareness of how fundamental the problem is keeps growing, I expect we'll hear increasingly "radical"-sounding rhetoric from not only Harvard professors but also politicians doing the two top priority things that politicians are paid to do: #1) prevent revolution and #2) don't forget #1.


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