By Harold DeRienzo
Government Shut Down; Debt Default; No Rental Subsidies; Food Stamp Cuts; Defund Obamacare; Sequester I; Sequester II. Turn on any news show that is not programmed to mimic Entertainment Tonight and these are headlines. The vast majority of people are suffering (or certainly struggling) and our representatives in Washington dither with brinksmanship and posturing. There is something wrong with this picture. Somehow there is a disconnect between those who govern and those who are governed, a disconnect that not only is anathema to democracy, but may be indicative of the slow death of a nation that still has potential to be the “best hope” this world has to demonstrate that democracy, in the best sense of the word, can work.
Looking at the role and effectiveness of government, it is interesting to look at the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There is much overlap in their theories, but much variance as well, some which are very basic, including how governments form. For Hobbes, man in the state of nature involves a “warre of every man against every man.” Governments are formed because men desire peace and they are willing and able to give up the “right to all things.” Thus societies are formed, and eventually nations, and men may live together peaceably under one form of government or another. For Rousseau, man in a state of nature is rather at peace, concerned only with his own well-being and able to fill that unitary need with little trouble. For Rousseau, governments are formed for one reason – to protect the property of those with wealth and enslave people through institutions purportedly formed to provide liberty:
… the rich man, thus urged by necessity, conceived at length the profoundest plan that ever entered the mind of man: this was to employ in his favor the forces of those who attacked him, to make allies of his adversaries, to inspire them with different maxims, and to give them other institutions as favorable to himself as the laws of nature was unfavorable. All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to foresee the dangers… [Discourse on Inequality]
But both Hobbes and Rousseau agreed that government had a life of its own. Hobbes saw government as an “art of Man,” (just as nature was seen by him as the Art made by God) , stating that “by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a Commonwealth of State…which is but an Artificial Man…and which the Sovereign is an Artificial Soul…” Rousseau made the same case when he said that the “body politic, taken individually, may be considered as an organized, living body, resembling that of man.”
These sentiments seem appropriate to any nation, but particularly for a nation such as ours that is founded on democracy, a word derived from the Greek and standing for the proposition that the power of government rests with its people. And for a democracy to exist in true form, it would seem logical that the general good of the people is a necessary precedent for the creation and implementation of all government action. But what if society becomes irreparably polarized? What then becomes of our democracy? To what extent are we still a nation, united in purpose, resolve, and destiny?
“The life of both bodies (the state and each of its members) is the self, common to the whole, the reciprocal sensibility and internal correspondence of all the parts. Where this communication ceases, where the formal unity disappears, and the contiguous parts belong to one another only by juxtaposition (emphasis added), the man is dead, or the state is dissolved.” [Discourse on Political Economy]
Rousseau further explains nations do not follow these same rules and exist as to one another as men existed in nature – only concerned with their own well-being. But does it not follow that if the constituent parts of a nation (its people) begin warring with one another, a war that manifests through substantial economic inequality, high incarceration rates, increasing poverty, excessive personal debt, lack of economic opportunity, and insuperable political gridlock, then a nation would similarly be comprised of members or groups concerned only with themselves – vitiating the very notion of nation? When such internal physiological strife occurs, a person suffers, and eventually dies. This begs the question of our health as a nation and whether we are a nation ascendant or a nation on the decline, or a nation that is in the process of ceasing to be.