July 4th commemorates Independence Day in the United States, the day in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed, calling the United States into existence as a new entity, a separate union of people. Unlike much of the might-makes-right-driven history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence really is something to celebrate. The basic message of the Declaration is that the only legitimate reason to have a government is to secure the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the people being governed. If the people being governed decide a government is not fulfilling that sole purpose for its existence, if, in the words of the Declaration,
any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
That is our fundamental right and freedom as Americans – the right to govern ourselves in ways that seem to us most likely to ensure our freedom to create the best, happiest lives we can. And that is something to celebrate. And then put into action.
A failed state
On Independence Day in the year 2011, any clear-thinking, fair-minded assessment of the government we have now, legally authorized by the 1789 Constitution and its subsequent interpretations by the Supreme Court, leads to the conclusion that it has failed in its mandated purpose to secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for a democratic majority of the people being governed.
America is undeniably a plutocracy, a government and society run by and for the wealthy, a minority ruling class that wields and concentrates power through the workings of money (i.e., capitalism). America is not now and probably never really was the democracy demanded by the Declaration. So let’s live the Declaration! Let’s enact the declared right of the people to “throw off” the plutocratic government of the 1789 Constitution, and START ANEW!
Let’s start “laying a foundation of principles and organizing ourselves in ways that seem most likely to effect our safety and happiness” and “providing new guards for our future security.” And the Declaration does not, and indeed could not, put any limitations on our freedom to create new governments, new societies, new ways of life. As the Declaration drafters implicitly understood, our ability to create new ways of life is our fundamental human freedom. Everything else derives from the radical human freedom to create society.
Hit the Reset button
It seems to me there are two basic approaches to creating a more democratic society and government.
One would be “reform” of the current system with a Constitutional Convention aiming to frame a new national government responsive to the needs of the democratic majority, and specifically organized to resist being captured by minority interests or factions. One possible way to do this is through multi-party proportional representation. In a law school seminar called The Law of American Democracy, I developed a modest proposal for a reformed, USA-style government that would be more representative and democratic through (among other things) redrawn federal districts electing representatives with cumulative and instant runoff voting.
But to be honest, I think such reform would be too difficult to achieve because it requires taking power from the plutocratic overclass whose control of our society, particularly through the media, makes that virtually impossible.
Or, just go local
The other, ultimately more promising and more principled alternative is for like-minded people to start creating their own new societies and systems of governance. This approach accords with the forward-thinking character of the Transition movement. Although we can’t know in advance what free people living democratically will come up with, it seems clear that a crucial starting point is establishing democratic ways of life in localized communities that to some significant extent are able to take care of themselves.
Like others, I can envision a proliferation of localized, post-nation-state polities of like-minded people existing amid other such groups as well as the chaotic wreckage of modernity. Some of these will be rural, some urban, some suburban.
I would hope and expect that many or some of these localized democratic communities would maintain beneficial relations with others, and that trans-local communities of like minded individuals would crisscross and create interrelations among local communities. These farther-flung communities of interest will probably include groups akin to guilds that will maintain and develop high-technology tools like computers and the internet that will help tie local communities together into larger webs of association.
No tumbrels to the guillotine
But importantly, this true democracy alternative of proliferating neo-publics is not a state (in the sense of stasis or some particular form), so it’s not particularly helpful to lay out a specific vision of “how things should be.” Rather, true democracy is a never-ending process of people taking responsibility for themselves as individuals and communities and using their freedom to create the best societies and lives that can at any given moment.
That said, the beginning of the path to true democracy, the basic principles that define freedom and responsibility, have been lying in plain view since the time of cave painters. We just have to start living those principles with others forging the same path.
This kind of “revolution” will be more like the end of the Mayan civilization (in which the people dispersed into re-localized communities as the centralized infrastructure that allowed a ruling minority to control society faded away) than the French Revolution (where the rebels chopped off the king’s head and purported to more or less replace him with themselves).
A quiet revolution like this will be rooted in the fundamental freedom of people to govern themselves inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, which is why the Fourth of July – Independence Day – has become my favorite holiday.
— Arthur Martin