Six thousand years ago, in the arid plane between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some folks figured out that if they could be good at math and engineering, if they could figure out when the rivers would flood and how to construct a complex network of levies and irrigation canals, they could retain the floodwaters and delay their return back to the riverbeds for long enough to yield fantastically rich crops of wheat and barley and other edibles that would feed the humans and their livestock alike. With that discovery, starvation, a constant condition for humankind everywhere ever since there was humankind, was no more. For the first time ever in human experience, everyone had enough to eat.
But there was something else they discovered; they found out that people who have never experienced real hunger, people who own things like their own land and their own tools and animals with which to work it become much more averse to risk than their ancestors had ever been. They discovered that the ability to perform complex calculations and the mindset required to engage in repetitive tasks such as digging irrigation ditches, planting, and sowing were not commensurate with the mentality of fearless warriors. So when the fierce goat herders came down from the mountains just at the moment when the harvest was complete and the barns were filled to the brim, they could do nothing but watch the hard-won fruits of their labor being carted away together with their young daughters.
And thus came the epoch of the Kings. The King was simply somebody who proclaimed: “if you follow me and reward me well enough, I will risk my life and with my followers defend you and your possessions from all enemies.” The idea of a powerful Warrior King at the head of a standing army capable of providing for the common defense must have seemed truly miraculous to the ancient Sumerians, because they spoke of it as the highest and most sacred gift ever bestowed by the gods on mankind.
Image by Carla Tavares
But who was this King? How was he selected? Throughout civilization, now roughly six thousand years old, the answer is, for the most part, surprisingly simple. The king was a guy, in rare cases a woman, who simply said: “I will be your king, and if anyone has any other ideas let him come and knock me off my throne.” From Gilgamesh to Stalin, from King David to Mao Tze Tung, there was not really much more to it than that. Of course, kings needed flunkies and flunkies formed themselves into bureaucracies and sometimes these bureaucracies wielded the real power behind the throne, mostly when it was occupied by the less capable and worthy heirs of the original king and mostly in times of peace and prosperity. But the principle remained the same; a powerful king, surrounded by a more or less capable bureaucracy and a more or less capable army were in charge of the high risk high reward game of providing for the common defense. The rest of the population, the vast majority of the people, lived lives that were sometimes full of hardship, but devoid of risk. They were exempt from making life or death decisions for themselves or their compatriots, exempt from following through on the consequences of these decisions, and that’s just how they liked it.
Like everything else in life, however, this removal of personal responsibility and personal risk was not free. It had a price, some would say the ultimate price: the removal of personal risk implied the surrender of personal freedom.
For several millennia, this political model originated nearly simultaneously in the valleys of the great rivers where civilization began, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in China, and in India was the only model that was commensurate with existence outside of the subsistence farming and hunting gathering models of tribal societies. But then, in the rugged mountains of Greece, only twenty-five centuries ago something happened. The unique landscape and climate of that country supported the rise of agriculture and animal husbandry that did not require tremendous organized labor. Olive groves and vineyards and small plots of legumes on the valley floors did not require more than the labor of a single family. Sheepherding, on the other hand required from the herders resourcefulness and the ability to protect their flocks while alone and far from home base. The narrow valleys and steep gorges were easily defensible even with just a few well-trained men (300!), so no large armies were needed to provide for the common defense of the small Greek towns and villages. Benefiting from the tools of civilization such as writing and arithmetic that were first developed in the large kingships of the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta, Greece became a collection of small polis (cities), which themselves were collections of families headed up by well-educated and well-informed patriarchs. These men knew how to farm, but also how to fight. They owned the means to produce olive oil and wine, but also the means to kill intruders. They were owners of stuff, but also had the courage to defend it themselves.
It was these men that first rejected the prosperity for freedom bargain struck by all civilized humans before them.
They wanted a better deal, a deal in which they kept their prosperity and their freedom alike. The name of this deal is what we know of today as democracy. A government by the people for the people. The word people, however, meant something different than what it means today. It meant free men who controlled their own destiny and who owned property, and who knew that it would be they and nobody else who would be called upon to take up their swords and their shields and risk their lives as the consequences of their decisions unfolded. And what was the most consequential decision that they would ever make? Needless to say, it would be the choice of a first among equals from their rank, their leader.
The seed of representative democracy jumped across the Adriatic Sea where it took root in the small hilly province of Latium, bearing the fruit that became known as the Roman Republic. It was there, in the more hospitable, lusher, Italian peninsula that the power of representative government was first given the space to grow and grow it did. Rome became the leading power across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. But soon the riches that flowed in form those far-flung provinces changed the risk-reward calculus of many Roman citizens. Suddenly, they had too much to lose. Suddenly, the old no risk no freedom deal didn’t look so bad. So the Romans sold their freedom for free bread and circuses and most importantly for the removal from them, the citizens of Rome, of the burden of military service, outsourcing this function to the Germanic tribes that would not long thereafter sack Rome and put a stop to the first global experiment with elected government.
Ironically, it was the same Germanic tribes, the Danes, the Angles, and the Saxons, living in small communities in the inhospitable coastal planes of Northern Germany that just like the Greeks organized themselves into communes of rugged men who cherished their freedom above all else, while at the same time understanding that common leadership was needed to provide prosperity and security for all. The British and American representative systems of governance have the DNA of these rough, brave, and resourceful men deep in their bloodstreams. But has this DNA outlived the men themselves? America was founded by men like these; enterprising, fearless, but not reckless. They were the ones that from a continent inhabited by hunter gatherers gave us the world’s premier civilization and the second flowering of a representative system of government.
Today, the men and women who still value their freedom elected a man who is the distillation of the Western ideal of a free and prosperous citizen to be their leader in the United States of America. Not many presidents were so representative of this ideal: Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan. But all, with the glaring exception of Barack Obama had traces of it. It seems though that the election of President Trump has exposed a deep rot in the Second Rome. The rot is not new; it’s the same old allure of cushy slavery that is again raising its ugly head. The American bureaucracy has been growing largely unchecked for many decades and it was busy working on the old Faustian bargain: just surrender your freedoms and you will never have to worry about anything, it says. You will have guaranteed income, and housing, and healthcare, and whatever else you want, just don’t worry about it!
The American coup d’état that has now been potentially foiled, though the final tally hasn’t been made yet, is without precedent in human history because enormous bureaucracies the likes of the American deep state usually only exist in totalitarian regimes the likes those of China and Russia, where there is no representative government and so any coup would by necessity be internal to the governing bureaucracy, simply replacing one ruling faction or leader with another. In America, for the first time in human history, a full-fledged eastern-style totalitarian oligarchy has been hatched in the very heart of a constitutional republic. In a manner reminiscent of the Alien movie franchise, this creature is now, as I am writing these lines, splitting the ribcage of the American Republic and emerging into the May sunlight, gnashing its teeth and copiously drooling.
Image by slowking4
Something went wrong, however. It would seem that the alien creature is a bit premature; not quite ready for prime time. It seems it needed a bit more gestation, a bit more chaos had to be sown, a little more “free stuff” had to be given away, a few more constitutionally guaranteed freedoms shaved away to nonexistence. Now, all we need is Dirty Harry with his big .44 magnum and the steely glint in his squint to deliver the coup de grace. The original Dirty Harry may be retired in Carmel, but on the opposite coast another guy, a guy who is directly descended from those fiercely independent Norsemen who have been carrying the torch of freedom for the past half millennium is about ready to do the job.
Image by DonkeyHotey