After two years teaching at a small college in North Carolina, I moved to Curry College in Milton in 1969, retiring in 2012 (though I still teach one class a semester). My career teaching history and politics spanned events that fundamentally changed American society: the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Reagan, globalization, the fall of the USSR, the internet, 9/11, Obama’s presidency and more.
What I can say now, reflecting on more than 50 years spent in the academy closely analyzing historical trends, is that we live in perilous times. Right-wing political movements in Hungary, Poland, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere are in power or gaining power. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. In America, a gilded 1% callously manipulates government policy and popular opinion to its advantage.
It feels as if we’re going down a dark but familiar path: fascism on one side, civility, diversity, morality and free expression on the other.
Clearly it is time for a revival of democracy, a groundswell movement. But will this latest brand of aristocrats–call them the global elite–understand that this is in their best interests as well?
One might think that the French and American revolutions had settled, once and for all, the issue of aristocratic dominance of societies. But reflecting on the political economy of the United States in 2019 tells me that would be naïve.
This circles back closely to my early teaching career. At first glance the courses I initially taught do not have a clear thematic connection: American government, 20th century Chinese history, and Gandhian nonviolence. What connects one of the most important advocates of nonviolence (Gandhi) and one of the most violent revolutionaries in history (Mao Zedung)? And what connects them to America?
What unites them is the quest for democracy in the face of elite (aristocratic) power. Gandhi’s anti-imperialist nonviolence was democratic to the core. He democratized the thoroughly elitist Congress Party. His inclusion of women, untouchables, and adherents of all religions was truly revolutionary (tragically, many Muslims did not trust that his promises of religious tolerance would be upheld by his successors, with the result being the horrible violence of India’s partition). Since the British left India, it has, with one brief interlude, remained democratic, a rarity for former colonies.
Mao was a genius in mobilizing peasants against the Chinese aristocracy in the name of democracy. (Of course, once the Communist Party took power, any democratic façade was quickly destroyed by his megalomaniacal personality cult.)
Later in my career, John Adams and Adam Smith were foci of my research and teaching. This might seem like a sharp break from my earlier interests, but it was not. While Adams and Smith were both establishment stalwarts, they had distinct anti-aristocratic streaks. Adams vigorously opposed aristocrats, not out of animus, but because of their excessive political power. He wanted the different classes to be balanced and was clear about the potential of all classes to subvert democracy. Adam Smith’s critique of mercantilism included sharp words about the dominance of businessmen in parliament. His thought was egalitarian, but he also saw value in a class system (see “Adam Smith and Fake News,” Public Humanist, June 21, 2018).
As my career progressed, I learned that a yin-yang approach to life was much closer to reality than a dialectical approach. That is to say, balance is preferable and more realistic than choosing either-or. For example, the either-or electoral propaganda of the Jeffersonians in 1800, who claimed that Adams wanted to replace our democracy with an aristocracy, was an unfortunate distortion of Adams’ writings. Adams’ argument was that all classes had strengths, but that any class could dominate the others, and thus a balanced polity was needed (see “John Adams & Why Fake News is Nothing New,” Public Humanist, April 10, 2018)—yin-yang.
Adam Smith is best understood through a balanced lens. His nuanced approach to the market economy emphasized the value of competition within an ethical framework, not the radically individualistic, amoral market economy that exists today.
In short, both Adams and Smith had a “both-and” approach in their analyses of societies, not an “either-or” approach. This type of thinking carried me through the rest of my career.
So what’s the upshot? What does all this mean in terms of our current situation? History provides multiple examples of elites (aristocrats) dominating economic and political life, only to be met, eventually, by violent revolution. The French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions are only a few examples of such regimes that were violently overthrown. But the revolutions failed to bring relief to the masses; one group of elites replaced another.
Gandhian non-violence seems to me a preferable approach. India’s Independence Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States show a better way to resolve macro-political-economic dysfunction. Recent statistical analyses of non-violence by Erika Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have demonstrated the superiority of non-violence. Their work shows that nonviolence actually has greater success in resolving issues.
That’s my suggestion for responding to the perilous times we live in: a wave of nonviolent, democratic action. Now we just need the aristocrats to do their part.