Ancient Athens has been hailed as the birthplace of democracy, with good reason, as long as it’s understood that it didn’t mean liberty and justice for all. Governance of the City-State represented a colossal achievement in history, heretofore characterized by rule of chiefs or kings. In the ‘Golden Age of Athens’ there were 25,000 citizens. The rest of the population consisted of peasants, trades people, slaves. There was no standing army. Citizens armed and trained themselves for the defense of the state from threats, notably the Persian invasion, thwarted at the battle of Marathon, 490 B.C. When a tyrant usurped the rulership of the governing class, supported by a personal bodyguard, it took a while to throw off the oppressive rule.
Athens was the first state to be ruled by the people. Of course it was restricted to certain people, the wealthy, the influential, the privileged, those able to use the system for advancement. Almost endless litigation went on and the lawyer class was established, sophists able to equally argue both sides of an issue. But people sued each other, instead of killing each other. Without the Athenian innovation of the rule of law for some, the development of civilization could have taken many millennia.
The Roman republic attempted to adapt many of the Athenian examples of governance. But just as Athens succumbed to a policy of conquest and expansionism, so did Rome. The patricians of wealth and power usurped the rule of the Senate, determining policy, foreign and domestic. They allowed a large underclass to pressure the system with unruly demands, that they resolved with bread, circus, or violent suppression. When power was finally centralized in an Emperor, everything else became subordinate to the imperial prerogative. Conquest and expansion built an empire, more civilized than the rest of the world, but autocratic. When overexpansion and many other causes led to collapse, the ‘Dark Ages’ followed, because there were no institutions to take Rome’s place.
Organized civilization began to arise from a period of chaos and disorder, and the feudal system evolved for protection against Viking incursions. Despite the theory of obligations both ways, the demands of those above always took precedence over the needs of those below. Nobles called their underlings for service, which had to be obeyed. When Harold Godwinsson destroyed the Norwegian Vikings in 1066, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, the noble class was so established that they continued a system of obligations to the high-born. The struggle for the rights of the people went on in England for hundreds of years, culminating in a limited monarchy that allowed the people some rights, but governance was still in the hands of the rich and powerful.
Like Athens and Rome, the British Empire expanded through conquest, cloaking many invasions under the pretext of bringing civilization to the natives. The Industrial Revolution put England ahead of every other nation in wealth and power, which facilitated the further growth of the empire. Yet whatever system English masters introduced to their native subjects, it was unacceptable foreign oppression, proven by the rejection of British rule when it could no longer be enforced by power. Yet mechanisms of democracy were left behind, even though they were dominated by the rule of power, wealth and privilege.
The American Revolution, led by a small group of men of wealth and privilege, threw off what had become oppressive foreign rule. They produced what many believe are the most wonderful documents in history, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This unique rejection of monarchical rule, with promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness affected many with the vision of freedom. And the owners of the new nation had only stolen a small portion of the vast continent, mostly from Native Americans, but from anyone else who stood in the path of expansion. But there was room in this new land for common people to blaze new trails, carve homesteads, farms, towns, out of the wilderness, as long as they were willing to kill the previous owners of the land. And they felt independent. Except for slaves, bound people, lackeys, many people felt free. At least until civilization arrived with the demands of law, taxes, military service, which paid for the enormous resources needed to steal a continent.
Then democratic America stole a big part of Mexico. The hunger for land drove people westward and as they had since the first landing on the Atlantic coast, intruded, negotiated, bartered, killed all those who stood in the way of expansion. But the Eastern magnates had grown strong enough to challenge the Southern agricultural barons for control of the nation. And a great divide opened between the owners of the land. The inevitable clash saw the Industrial North master the art of modern war, outproduce the more rural South and beat it into submission.
The end of the war between the states set millions of restless men, tested by the rigors of war, adrift in an unsettled land. The rush to claim farm and ranch land from native Americans led to bloody conflict, small in scale after the ferocious war that devoured the blood and treasure of the Civil War. Settlers paved the way West, supported by the army, in a now unified nation dominated by industrialists eager for new markets, with vast resources yet untapped. Within a few years, Native Americans were reduced to reservations and the land began to fill up. We bought or stole all foreign held land, so the owners of America began to look abroad.
The Spanish Empire was crumbling within and without, so the venturous capitalists daringly turned their sights on foreign conquest and acquisition. With the usual superficial motives to conceal crass greed, war was provoked. Young, energetic America overwhelmed creaky old Spain and not only stole Cuba and Puerto Rico, to dominate the Caribbean, but captured the Philippines, thus becoming a Pacific power, which was linked to the annexation of Hawaii and Guam.
Then American democracy tried to digest new conquests, make them part of the nation, even though they were offshore, far away. After all, we grabbed Hawaii and that was offshore, far away. But the Filipinos didn’t want us. Neither did the Cubans. And they resisted the benefits of democracy, at least the capitalist kind, despite benevolent efforts to impose the lot of little ‘Brown Brother’. Only Puerto Rico didn’t fight our occupation, hoping to gain peace and prosperity from imperialism.
It took a while for the owners of America to accept that they couldn’t digest Cubans or Filipinos, or exterminate them, or confine them to reservations. To end continuing bloodshed, independence was promised down the road. We didn’t worry about their future then, because we were adept at promise breaking. But we didn’t know what to do with Puerto Rico, so we left it dangling, with an inconclusive status. Now that we were masters of countries in the Pacific, the Caribbean, we need a bigger navy to patrol, control unruly elements that might interfere with commerce, intrude on our self-proclaimed sovereignty, rebel against our authority.
Our burgeoning industrial might stirred more ambitions. We were too late to stake claims in Africa, already divided among the big dogs of Europe. We were too late to stake claims in Asia, already divided by the big dogs of Europe, as well as Japan, emerging as a power after defeating Russia. So we snuck in with lofty proclamations about an ‘Open Door’, since we weren’t strong enough to demand a share of chunks of China. Yet when the resentful Chinese took up arms agains the sea of invaders, we always sided with the imperialists.
The European powers built great armies and navies to maintain empires and defend against belligerent neighbors. So when Germany, come later to imperial land grab then France or England, ringed in middle Europe by unfriendly nations, was determined to expand, conflict became inevitable. The Generals who planned the Great War were still fighting wars past and did not comprehend the democratic power of the machinegun, which devastated huge armies with countless casualties. And the owners of America watched from the sidelines for several years, while the Great Powers drained themselves on Western battlefields, as well as much of the rest of the planet.
The warring powers, weakened by years of the loss of men and treasure, were finally ready for American intervention. Our troops fought on the great stage and acquitted themselves creditably, but when it came to establishing the peace, the old dogs outsmarted the young pups and we went home seemingly without profit. Yet everyone owed us a lot of money for selling them war materials that they didn’t have the cash to pay for. We cleverly introduced the dollar as the new world currency, replacing the Pound. But we learned how to discard Civil War mentalities of how to fight, and some Generals prepared to fight a modern war.
American corporations thrived in poor Latin American countries, dominating the one product economies with total control, reinforced by the Marines, whenever the locals resented our democratic exploitation. And we watched cautiously as Germany rebuilt and Japan started conquering China, selling them raw materials to nurture their war machines, until their expansion threatened our interests. So after selling Japan steel to build her ships, planes, tanks, we cut off the sale of oil that they needed to run them. This was an almost forgotten episode, except by some historians, some of whom think we forced Japan to attack us in order for them to seize oil fields to fuel their military.
So we fought another great war across most of the earth. After waiting long enough for Europeans to deplete themselves, we responded to Japan’s attack on our territories with the greatest industrial output in history, producing huge amounts of war materials to provide to our military, as well as our allies. At the end of World War II we were the big dog and we briefly dominated the world. When Communism resisted capitalist encroachment and established a rival empire, a competition was born. The ‘Cold War’ stimulated our industry to produce more and more war materials, as well as domestic goods, allowing middle-class luxuries never imagined before and blue collar aspirations for their children to live better.
The owners of America were not content with millions. They wanted billions. But factory workers with salaries and costly benefits, ate into the profit margin. So when the aging factories needed upgrading, they were abandoned, along with millions of workers, for factories abroad, with cheap labor, thus allowing huge profits. Entire regions were devastated by corporate departure, leaving rust belts as a reminder of capitalist selfishness. The American Dream was callously removed from the future of discarded workers and their families.
The ‘Cold War’ was a great benefit to the owners of America. The military/industrial complex thrived to nourish the legions that occupied much of the globe. The technical race to produce superior new weapons brought vast profits to the arms makers. Production of domestic goods poured into every home that could afford them. And more people could afford them then ever before. And education flourished. Thousands of colleges turned out hundreds of thousands of graduates, many of whom contributed to the growth of the economy. Except for a few dangerous confrontations with the Russians that might have incinerated much of the world, America seemed to be relatively safe.
The Vietnam incursions started with a handful of advisors, then grew and grew until it dominated the American psyche. It took a while for anti-war fervor to rouse enough resistance to government policies for the media to turn against the war. Youngsters ‘turned on, tuned in, dropped out’ and wanted to make love, not war. Protestors divided the nation. Yet the owners of America let the war go on until swollen with profits they ended the carnage. But the nature of American life had changed. Patriotism was no longer a dominant force.
A new breed of citizen opposed government and corporate actions that hurt the people, the environment, cause after cause, issue after issue, disrupting the tranquility of the lords of profit. With so many alienated from ‘traditional’ values, the middle-class agitators became dispensable. The blue collar class, the only group that fought the bosses, was deaccessioned first. The factories that hadn’t closed or moved abroad, turned to automation, which removed human jobs, increased profits by eliminating costly labor and depleted the unions until they could no longer demand, only request benefits from the bosses.
Large segments of the middle-class were no longer needed, since they didn’t comply with the objectives of the owners of America, whose capital was so diversified that they were no longer dependent on domestic consumption for their profits. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., American investors filled many gaps that the Soviets could no longer afford. But enemies were always needed to justify maintenance of the war machine and stimulate patriotic loyalty in support of one’s country. Cuba no longer stirred the people to anger, since without Russian missiles it was merely a semi-tropical backwater. But the Middle-East was ripe for exploitation.
The only way a dominant military could benefit capitalism was if it made war, necessitating all the costly materials of war, as well as selling materials to friends and enemies. So we invaded Iraq in a massive campaign that didn’t change anything, but generated huge profits. Not all our citizens seemed to realize that as the self-appointed policeman of the world, we only patrolled certain beats. We continued making big bucks supplying arms to our allies, South Korea, Japan, others, keeping potential future customers, Vietnam, The Philippines, for another day. The Asian market was relatively profitable and stable, so Europe and the Middle-East were priorities. We welcomed new members to N.A.T.O., and their business, also continuing tensions with Russia as we encroached on her old empire and resources.
We conquered Iraq again, then saw the country dissolve into warring factions. Then we did the same thing in Afghanistan. Critics argued we were failing at state building, but stable regimes were never the goal of capitalism rampant. Chaos and war is much more profitable. At home, a vocal minority, in defense of democratic values, objected to government policies with little lasting effect. The blue collar class was virtually powerless and could only support the bosses, though not overtly, or see their remaining factories immigrate to a more profitable clime, Much of the middle-class was becoming expendable, since enough wealth was concentrated in the 1% that a large consuming class was becoming obsolete. As income declined, less was spent and small businesses and stores began to close.
The ascension of President Obama filled the liberals with hope, but they never inquired where half a billion dollars came from to elect him. He was probably the least experienced candidate in our history, but he did a credible job, continued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent tendrils into Syria, maintained tensions with Russia and China, kept the wheels of business and industry turning. And if Republicans were outraged at his health care act, their outrage kept many focused on a domestic issue that mattered little to the owners of America, as long as the public didn’t meddle in net profits and foreign affairs.
Historians may wonder one day how the most unqualified candidate ever defeated a slew of Republicans all more experienced and qualified. Then, with the help of Russia and the F.B.I., Trump defeated the most qualified candidate since George W.H. Bush. Trump’s character and pronouncements outraged a lot of Americans, who protested volubly, a few violently. Many intelligent citizens joined demonstrations opposing objectionable policies. But in America, the rule of law is controlled by the system, regulated by elected officials indebted to their funders, so their obligations to the people are secondary, if they want to continue in high office, the cost of which is paid for by the owners of America.
For a short time after World War II our people were lulled by comforts, at least some of them, since capitalism requires a poverty class to exploit as needed. The children of the parents of comfort actually believed they were democratically entitled to resist the abuse of power by their government. Objectors were so busy protesting the war in Vietnam that they didn’t notice the removal of the industrial heart of America, which went abroad. When citizens finally realized their children would not lead better lives then their parents, many resigned themselves to diminishing opportunity. The Information Age is not for masses of the population. The Service Industry is the future for many. Only strong pressure on the owners of America can compel the trickle down of material prosperity. Only well-paying jobs can restore a prosperous middle-class. Unless there is a new, innovative age to gainfully employ many, the American Dream is rusting away.
GARY BECK has spent most of his adult life as a theater director, and as an art dealer when he couldn’t make a living in theater. He has 12 published chapbooks and 2 accepted for publication. His poetry collections include: Days of Destruction (Skive Press), Expectations (Rogue Scholars Press). Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions, Fault Lines, Tremors and Perturbations (Winter Goose Publishing) Rude Awakenings and The Remission of Order will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. Conditioned Response (Nazar Look). Resonance (Dreaming Big Publications). Virtual Living (Thurston Howl Publications). Blossoms of Decay and Expectations (Wordcatcher Publishing). Blunt Force will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. His novels include: Extreme Change (Cogwheel Press), Flawed Connections (Black Rose Writing), Call to Valor (Gnome on Pigs Productions) and Sudden Conflicts (Lillicat Publishers). State of Rage will be published by Rainy Day Reads Publishing, Crumbling Ramparts by Gnome on Pigs Productions and Acts of Defiance by Wordcatcher Publishing. His short story collections include, A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications) and. Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing). Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines. He currently lives in New York City.