On the day that citizens of the United States celebrate the founding of our republic, it is good to take an objective look at this institution we refer to as American democracy. The nation founded in 1776 (11.476 EE) is very different from the United States in 2018 (11.718 EE).
In 1776, the United States had a population of 2.5 million people. That’s smaller than the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago today. The population of the US in 1776 would be the equivalent of the 24th largest metropolitan area in the US today, right behind the metropolitan areas of Salt Lake City , Sacramento, Charlotte, and Pittsburgh. As a state, it would rank 36th out of 50, just ahead of New Mexico and behind Kansas. The estimated US population today is 329 million–more than 130 times larger than the republic at its founding, and the third largest nation in the world. While there is a lot of merit to the durability and relevance of the US Constitution, it is hard to imagine its framers envisioning the society in which we live today, with its size, scale, technology, and horrifying destructive power.
It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape by which our lives are governed. During its development, the number of people employed by others surpassed those who had been self-employed, and even to this day, only one in ten US citizens are self-employed. This means that the vast majority of people are subject not only to the laws of their government, but the dictates of their employer.
The US Constitution is the basis of the relationship between citizens and their government. The government, at different levels, may govern a few aspects of the relationship between citizens and their employers. But for the most part, the employer has all the power. As such, the employer can dictate how a person dresses in public, how they wear their hair, and how they spend their day. Free speech usually does not exist in the workplace, except in whispers at the office and rants outside the workplace. While some freedoms to organize to redress grievances may exist, the reality is that in both the government and the workplace, those in power may ignore those grievances without consequences to their power. Indeed, despite laws dictating otherwise, the government and the employers frequently punish those raising such grievances, or even contemplating doing so. And today, they have within their power an arsenal of tools for surveillance and punishment that deter all but the most courageous people wishing to improve their working and living conditions.
Furthermore, economic incentives push employers to put profits before people. The publicly-owned corporation—a misnomer given that very, very few people actually are able to exercise the privileges of such ownership—has built-in financial incentives designed to maximize profits at any cost (including costs inflicted on others and on the environment) and maximize financial return to shareholders. Those who own privately owned corporations have more freedom to maneuver; nevertheless, such freedom is only available to the owners and/or top managers themselves, who may use their power for the public good but are free not to do so.
This concentration of economic power at the top influences the social sphere at all levels. Most candidates for elected officer are dependent on their donations in order to be elected, and when elected, they will, in turn, do their donors’ bidding while part of the government. Non-profits are dependent on these donors’ largesse in order to continue to exist and thrive. As such, donors have an enormous impact on social policy which becomes more of a reflection of the donors’ biases than an actual instrument of public good. Non-profits who focus on the latter do so at the risk of being underfunded and they often have minimal impact. Even cooperatives, who theoretically operate at their members’ behest, are capable of developing classes of technocratic managers indifferent to the needs of those whom they are supposed to serve. The lust for power and status seems to be embedded in our human DNA.
This power structure that exists in what most people still call democracy, remains unaccountable to those who elect them or who buy their products. The citizens are then often confronted with faceless bureaucracies that show indifference to their needs, or law enforcement that exerts its will and even terrorizes and kills with impunity. This impersonal, impenetrable wall is then given a human face by the mass media, which cultivate public personalities that become the smiling face of this machine. This human face creates an illusion of popular control, while untold numbers of abuses that happen behind the scenes occur. Women, people of color, religious minorities and other non-conformists often bear the brunt of these abuses, and have done so since long before the founding of the republic. Outside the republic, this machine has trained killers that wreak havoc and misery on millions of people in a number of nations overseas. While there are a handful of brave, religiously-inspired people who make small differences in their resistance to this machine, religions have often twisted the teachings of their founders to suit the agenda of this machine, making Karl Marx’s remark “religion is opium” to be self-evident.
This system, however, can crash down due to a number of internal weaknesses. The chief reason is that this system has become overly dependent on increasingly scarce fossil-fuel energy to power itself. No combination of alternative energy sources exists that can even come close to the efficiencies of fossil fuels—even as those efficiencies have been rapidly decreasing. A return to more primitive technologies characteristic of the early Industrial Revolution and before is inevitable. The future is a big question mark.
In many ways, it almost doesn’t matter when this collapse happens because the future is now. We can shape it by turning to those around us, those in our neighborhoods, towns, villages and cities, to create community self-sufficiency and resilience, and return real human faces to that which governs our daily lives. Mass communication and propaganda is inherently weaker than the relationships between family, friends and neighbors. Neighbors, friends and local businesses can cultivate a local-based economy and society with locally-based solutions to local problems. The tentacles of the machine can and do, of course, interfere with such efforts and deprive people of resources and some communities of the ability to forge an independent course. Sometimes the communities that have been the most deprived of resources are able to do the best job in reaching out to one another. Doing the best we can to help our community, and learning from our own efforts and from neighboring communities can help us resist this machine and make it increasingly irrelevant in our lives.
And when it crumbles, as it inevitably will, the infrastructure we create for ourselves will be in place to continue to sustain us, physically, emotionally and spiritually as we transition to a post-technological society. We still have a long way to go in order to become a mature human race, and the transition will give us the opportunity to rediscover our humanity, learn from our mistakes, and grow spiritually as a whole.