“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure,” Jefferson famously remarked in 1787. It is perhaps permissible to assume that in “tyrants” Jefferson imagined charismatic figures in the mold of Oliver Cromwell who get corrupted by the power they attain, perhaps initially by legitimate means. I suspect that Jefferson envisioned a less noble George Washington, someone who once elected would not adhere to constitutional processes and willingly relinquish power.
18th century bureaucracies for countries the size of England and France, to say nothing of the US, would not be seen sufficiently large today to govern Nome, Alaska. Power resided with the legislature, the monarch, or the despot, and was delivered to the people via decrees and enforced by fear that when necessary was backed by the points of bayonets. This is the story of the Whiskey Rebellion; Congress taxed, distillers revolted (meaning simply didn’t pay), Washington sent in the troops. Lesson learned. There was no IRS, no ATF, no big buildings with names chiseled in granite.
Under these circumstances, Jefferson, only human after all, could hardly foresee the modern-day tyranny via faceless bureaucrats sitting in grey felt cubicles, banging out rules and regulations from 9 to 5 on weekdays excluding a one-hour lunch break. Perhaps ironically, the first historical figure to understand the tremendous power of bureaucratic tyranny and in fact the inevitable trending of all government (and in fact corporate) bureaucracies to tyrannical behaviors, was no other than one of the greatest tyrants of all time, Joseph Stalin.
It is not clear that Stalin was an avid reader of the Founding Fathers or a big adherent to the idea of liberty, but he was undoubtedly a student of power; how it’s obtained and more importantly how it’s retained. Having finally gotten rid of the ideologically charismatic Vladimir Lenin, whom Stalin considered naïve and in fact dangerous with all his talk of worldwide revolution of the proletariat, Stalin was faced with a dilemma. He well understood that modern societies the size of the USSR could not be managed without an enormous bureaucratic apparatus, an apparatus that was its own creature, with exquisitely fine layers of power and a cutthroat “corporate ladder” that admitted to the top only the most ruthless and unscrupulous individuals. He knew the psychology of these creatures well; he was one himself. In fact, he was the ultimate expression of that particular genus. This knowledge led Stalin to know with absolute certainty that these people, were they Trotsky, or the old Lenin buddies Kamenev and Zinoviev, or later Yagoda and Ezhov, would not stop until they amassed sufficient power to challenge his own.
And yet, he needed them. In fact, he depended on them. He needed Trotsky’s logistical genius to equip and supply the Red Army during the civil war, and he needed the ruthless CheKa sadists, upstarts from nowhere, owing no allegiance to anyone, to orchestrate the brutal collectivization and industrialization via slave labor campaigns. It took a certain kind of people to read Stalin’s orders that for each ten thousand people in a given region a thousand would be shot and two thousand be sent to slave labor camps and recommend by return telegram that two thousand should be shot and three thousand enslaved. It took a very certain kind of bureaucracy to keep leather jacketed executioners with their blood splattered Nagant revolvers and vodka bottles busy in rotating 12 hour shifts and the Gulag’s 30% annual death rate from reducing the number of slave hands digging shipping canals through the permafrost with rusty shovels.
But what to do when they became too big for their own britches? When they started developing ravenous appetites for vintage wines from looted cellars of the nobility and became addicted to small-hour rapes of teenage ballerinas. With THESE kind of warning signs, it wouldn’t take long before they came for him, too. In response to this challenge, Stalin invented the oft-imitated, but never equaled art of the periodic purge. As soon as his apparatchiks came close to completing the task for which they were handpicked, as soon as they became a little too popular with their own organizations, as soon as their debauchery started sending ripples through the public at large, a knock on the door at 3AM; “s veschami!” (bring your things!), a ride to Lubyanka prison in a windowless van, a signed confession, a secret trial, a bullet to the back of the head.
So Stalin survived, only to die on the floor of his dacha, in a pool of his own urine, surrounded by the latest crop of yet to be purged flunkies who couldn’t even master the human decency to call for medical intervention beyond Stalin’s personal physician.
The periodic purges died with their inventor and with exquisite irony that directly led to the demise of the Soviet Union itself. Unpurged, the USSR developed an ossified ruling class, the Nomenklatura, a cadre of hereditary, interbred, and progressively feckless and useless functionaries who only cared about their fenced-in dachas and government limousines, and shopping in special stores with special “money” for Western goodies that no one else could have. The ultimate product of this peculiar class of individuals, Gorbachev, himself too young to have been purged by Stalin, turned out to be the guy who turned out the lights in the Soviet Union, literally, on his way out of it to a life of comfortable exile in the West. His opponents, an old guard of septuagenarian WWII veterans leading a coup attempt, couldn’t even master the will to give their loyal troops the order to fire.
The tyranny of the modern world, the tyranny that all American citizens experience more and more of every single day is not the tyranny of the Western charismatic leader the like of Cromwell or Pericles, or Caesar. No, it’s the tyranny of the IRS, the “intelligence” services, the large corporations. This tyranny is in every way as dangerous and in many ways more pernicious. It is also much more difficult to kill. Its distributed nature, its supposed “lawfulness”, its unprecedented investment in and (ab)use of mass media, its manipulation of the human greed instinct, its exquisite mastery of the oldy but goody one-two punch of bread and circus and divide and conquer, all of this makes modern-day tyranny via faceless bureaucracy all but invincible.
So how are we to “refresh the tree of liberty”? Even if (when) patriots are willing to shed their own blood, whose blood should they add to the mixture? Surely, the Assistant to the Acting Assistant Secretary in the Department of Skulldrudgery should not be shot on her way to soccer practice with her kids. Alas, there is no easy answer and perhaps no answer at all to this question. Our generation values liberty next to last, long after “accessible” healthcare, “free” education, emergency services, social insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and pretty much every other government program. No generation of people anywhere was as easily bought off by bread and circuses than the current generation of Americans.
Trump’s election, whatever you may think of it, pulled the covers back ever so slightly to reveal who today’s American tyrants are. They are the Comey’s, the McCabe’s, the Clinton’s, and the Paul Ryan’s, and the Mitch McConnell’s. They are all married to each other and share the same clients before and after they “enter” and “leave” the “public sector”. They, quite like their Soviet counterparts circa 1975 make laughably low salaries on which living in DC is virtually impossible, but they all own mansions and dine on grass-fed filet mignons every night. They have no “higher loyalty”, except to their bottles of Opus 1 and their five million dollar government pensions.
When President Eisenhower in his farewell address famously warned against the military-industrial complex, these are the folks he had in mind. But it was too late. Since then, the rapid rise of information technology, most of which developed by deep state agencies like DARPA and seeded to the “private sector” has made public opinion manipulation infinitely easier and made it into a source of revenue, rather than expense. The rise of “social media” made privacy, a concept foundational to liberty, a quaint remnant of a bygone era.
Our tyrants know that the American middle class, the split-level ranch with the two car garage used to house the bass boat and the ATV, is their true enemy and being students of tyranny themselves, they periodically purge us with unchecked immigration from the most violent reaches of the globe and with faraway wars in which we have nothing to gain but much to lose. They shed our blood aplenty; now that we know who they are, how do we stop them?