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Henry David Thoreau Versus the Plutocratic Insurgency

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Henry David Thoreau Versus the Plutocratic Insurgency
 

Bryan T. Baker

 

Introduction[i]

“...the ‘winners of globalization,’ represented by multinational corporations and global elites, are seeking to remove themselves from the regulatory, taxation, and, ultimately, political authority of states. This is done by promoting an extra-sovereign economy: using foreign tax havens, playing states off against each other to maximize profit, being a nonresident citizen so as not to pay taxes, and employing a bevy of lawyers and lobbyists within states to gain special privileges and economic considerations. This is very much representative of a Gilded Age (1870-1900) redux, but at a globalized level. No sovereign authority presently exists to contend with such an insurgent form; one that is an unintended consequence of globalized capitalism and is resulting in growing economic inequalities in Western states, yet has been relatively violence free.”[ii]

 

                                                                                                            -Dr. Robert J. Bunker

Athens was in crisis in 594 B.C. The aristocracy had become increasingly rich to the detriment of the lower classes. Countless Athenians had lost their land to the aristocrats or been forced into slavery to pay their debts. Immigrants had few political rights. As tensions mounted between the rich and poor, the rich did exactly what Louis XVI failed to do in 1789–they agreed to radical change that would ensure greater wealth equality. To achieve this, they gave a poet named Solon special powers to change Athens’ laws. Solon used these powers to free slaves, restore ancestral lands to their rightful owners, and increase political rights for immigrants. Civil war was averted, while the groundwork was laid for Athens’ eventual transition to democracy.[iii]-[iv]-[v]

           

In the world today, eight men control as much wealth as the poorest half of the globe–that’s around 3.5 billion people.[vi] Those 3.5 billion people live in abject poverty and face horrifying human security issues despite over seven decades of “expert” development advice from the West and trillions of dollars in foreign aid.[vii] This profound inequality has existed in the developing world for most of the modern era, but it is increasingly found in the developed world as well. In the United States, the middle class has been in decline for nearly five decades.[viii] By 2015, nearly twenty-five percent of all income in the US was earned by the wealthiest one percent of the population–and this elite group controlled forty percent of the nation’s wealth. As recently as 1990, however, these numbers had been twelve percent and thirty-three percent, respectively.[ix]

 

Some might argue that these successes of the ultra-rich have trickled down to the middle and working classes; the data simply does not support such notions. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz finds that from 2005 to 2015 the income of the ultra-rich increased by eighteen percent, while the middle class saw slight declines in income and men with high school degrees experienced precipitous falls in income. This income inequality is similar to the levels seen today in Russia and Iran. The brutal truth is that most citizens in the United States are doing worse economically year after year, and our income disparity is now on par with authoritarian regimes.[x] What should be concerning to all Americans is the likelihood that this situation continues to worsen given recent developments in the republic.[xi]

Image 1

In 2010, the Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to democracy, while giving a boost to the burgeoning plutocratic insurgency. The Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, “...enshrined the right of corporations to buy government, by removing limitations on campaign spending.”[xii] According to Stiglitz, this is partly the reason why, “...virtually all US senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office.”[xiii] This is plutocracy–government by the wealthy.

 

While this essay may seem like an attempt to vilify the rich, that is not my purpose. Some of those at the top–like Bill Gates–are extremely generous people who are striving to resolve these issues. Others, like Warren Buffet, have publicly recognized the problem:

“There’s class warfare, all right...but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”[xiv]

Those at the top who are not generous or have not recognized the problem are simply human. To desire to hold on to as much of one’s money as possible is human nature. Most citizens would do the same thing if they had been born into the upper classes. Therefore, while I would call on the upper classes to do their part to bring about change in America, I am a firm believer that this Great Divide[xv] can and should be bridged by middle and working-class Americans.

 

Thoreau Versus the Insurgency

 

It is said that when Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall on the last day of deliberations at the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what type of government had been created. The ailing statesman, who had only three more years to live, famously replied: “a republic, if you can keep it.”[xvi] Franklin knew that republics were fragile. A republic could easily become a monarchy, oligarchy, or an empire–as the Roman Republic had. The American people had to remain vigilant, lest some modern-day Caesar take the reins of government and institute tyranny.

 

I will argue that the reason the plutocratic insurgency has been so successful is because the middle and working classes in American have neglected to keep the republic; they have fallen asleep. My idea is not original, however. In the 1840s, a somewhat aloof man living alone on the shores of Walden Pond made similar observations:

“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.”[xvii]

Image 2

For Thoreau,[xviii] to be awake one had to overcome the monotony of daily existence and connect with the poetic and divine. While this may sound overly transcendental, this poetic and divine existence was a search for truth, justice and virtue. Thoreau very practically turned his search into a scathing critique of slavery and the Mexican-American War–the the two great injustices of his time. Americans today must wake up and genuinely search for truth and virtue so that we can recognize current injustices. There are, however, two major obstacles in their way–materialism, and a deeply flawed education system.

 

Rejecting Materialism

 

Materialism prevented Americans from seeking truth, justice and virtue in Thoreau’s day. He derided his fellow man’s willingness to give the better part of their lives to work so that they could gain ever bigger houses, farms, and always be up on the latest fashions. According to Thoreau, these men were literally plowing their own lives into the soil in exchange for these material possessions:

“But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.” [xix]

The average American today has fallen into this same trap. We enter into mortgages we cannot afford, we keep up with the latest fashions–and go into credit card debt to do so–and we spend $1,000 to get the latest cell phone model, all while sixty-nine percent of Americans do not even have $1,000 in savings.[xx] We aren’t plowing ourselves into the soil anymore, but we are exchanging our time–our lives–for material possessions all the same. The result, of course, is we have very little time to search for truth, justice and virtue; we have very little time to keep the republic. Materialism must be rejected in order to defeat the plutocratic insurgency.

 

Embracing Classical Education

For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.”[xxi]

A lack of interest in learning from the great books of old prevented Americans in Thoreau’s day from taking action to end injustice in their society. Instead of learning from these classic authors–such as Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine–people in Thoreau’s time were satisfied with newspapers and simple novels that did not rise to the poetic or divine. Thoreau responded to this with a challenge that is still relevant today:

“...shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? … His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal to him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them. We are under-bred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsmen who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.”[xxii]

A deep study of classical literature used to be a hallmark of an American education. Our founders‒ nearly all of whom received a classical liberal arts education‒believed that it was essential for Americans to understand ancient Greece, Rome and the Western Canon in order for the republic to be maintained.[xxiii] America, however, has since rejected this sort of education for more utilitarian training. Instead of imbuing our youth with the collective wisdom of the ages‒the wisdom that set the West apart politically, economically, and socially‒we have skipped ahead and focused on making mechanics, accountants, bankers, and medical technicians. We have produced a population that is highly skilled and poorly educated. This must be reversed. I would have a classical liberal arts education for every American. It may sound ridiculous to think of an auto mechanic or a bartender well-versed in Plato. But why? Are these citizens not intelligent? Do they not have a stake in truth, justice and virtue? Are they not voters?

 

Cultivating Philosophers

 

Three years ago, this author left the Army and became a teacher at a classical liberal arts academy (which happens to be a charter school). I have seen students from every socioeconomic background engage with and learn from the classics. My ninth-grade students engage in in-depth studies (we read and discuss works in their entirety) of the writings of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Tocqueville, Thoreau, Douglass, Melville, Twain, Cather, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and King–in Socratic seminars. In these seminars we strive to understand truth, justice and virtue–and what it means to keep the republic. I do not tell my students what to think regarding these writings. Instead, I teach them to think critically by asking them questions. I am–I hope– helping them become philosophers as Thoreau would understand the term:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”[xxiv]

In their next three years my students will engage with Rousseau, Locke, Dostoevsky, Thucydides, Herodotus, Augustine, Plato, Aristotle, and countless others. They will graduate, in my opinion, much better educated than the vast majority of Americans. They are awake. They will keep the republic–but will enough of their fellow Americans do so?

 

I fear that the average American will not engage with the classics. They will not wake up. Not because they are unintelligent, but because they are distracted by the trivial things of life. This must be reversed in the ascendant generation. In his dystopian warning, 1984, George Orwell describes exactly what will happen to a working class–which he calls the proletariat, or ‘proles’–that refuses to wake up:

“Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult...The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principle if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.”[xxv]

Could we not replace Orwell’s “Lottery” with “professional sports,” “reality television,” or “social media” in America today? No wonder the plutocrats are taking over.

 

I am well aware that this essay has lacked in more practical steps that can be taken to tackle the plutocratic insurgency. I hope to follow this essay with one that will do just that. I believe the foundation for any change will be, however, a re-awakening of the average American. It is unlikely the top one percent in America today will be as wise as the aristocrats in Solon’s time.

 

Bibliography

 

"Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations." Bartleby. 1989. Accessed February 17, 2018. http://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html.

 

Bunker, Robert J. "Not Your Grandfather's Insurgency - Criminal, Spiritual, and Plutocratic." Strategic Studies Institute. February 20, 2014. Accessed February 12, 2018. http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/index.cfm/articles/Not-Your-Grandfathers-Insurgency-Criminal-Spiritual-and-Plutocratic/2014/02/20.

 

Bunker, Robert J., and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. "Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 2: 69% of Americans Don't Even Have $1,000 in Savings." Small Wars Journal. February 14, 2017. http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/plutocratic-insurgency-note-no-2-69-of-americans-don%E2%80%99t-even-have-1000-in-savings.

 

Cartledge, Paul. "History - Ancient History in depth: The Democratic Experiment." BBC. February 17, 2011. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/greekdemocracy_01.shtml.

 

Easterly, William. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group, 2016.

 

Hardoon, Deborah. "An Economy for the 99%: It’s time to build a human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few." OXFAM Briefing Paper, January 16, 2017. doi:10.21201/2017.8616. https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/an-economy-for-the-99-its-time-to-build-a-human-economy-that-benefits-everyone-620170

 

Howe, Daniel Walker. "Classical Education in America." The Wilson Quarterly. December 19, 2014. Accessed February 17, 2018. https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/spring-2011-the-city-bounces-back-four-portraits/classical-education-in-america/.

 

Martin, Thomas R. "The Reforms of Solon." An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0009%3Achapter%3D6%3Asection%3D25.

 

Orwell, George. 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2015.

 

Stein, Ben. "In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning." The New York Times. November 25, 2006. Accessed February 23, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/business/yourmoney/26every.html.

 

Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2016.

 

"The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground." Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. December 09, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2018. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/.

 

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Solon's laws." Encyclopædia Britannica. February 09, 2018. Accessed February 18, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Solons-laws.

 

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1986.

 

End Notes

[i] I am extremely grateful for the editing and insights that Ryan Adkins and Elisabeth Baker provided during the development of this paper. Any remaining errors are my own. This paper does not represent the views of the aforementioned individuals or any organizations with which they are associated.

 

[ii] The Plutocratic Insurgency was first conceptualized by Dr. Bunker. This quotation was taken from: Bunker, Robert J. "Not Your Grandfather's Insurgency - Criminal, Spiritual, and Plutocratic." Strategic Studies Institute. February 20, 2014. Accessed February 12, 2018. http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/index.cfm/articles/Not-Your-Grandfathers-Insurgency-Criminal-Spiritual-and-Plutocratic/2014/02/20.

 

[iii] Martin, Thomas R. "The Reforms of Solon." An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0009%3Achapter%3D6%3Asection%3D25.

 

[iv] The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Solon's laws." Encyclopædia Britannica. February 09, 2018. Accessed February 18, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Solons-laws.

 

[v] Cartledge, Paul. "History - Ancient History in depth: The Democratic Experiment." BBC. February 17, 2011. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/greeks/greekdemocracy_01.shtml.

 

[vi] Hardoon, Deborah. "An Economy for the 99%: It’s time to build a human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few." OXFAM Briefing Paper, January 16, 2017. doi:10.21201/2017.8616. https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/an-economy-for-the-99-its-time-to-build-a-human-economy-that-benefits-everyone-620170

 

[vii] Easterly, William. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group, 2016.

 

[viii] "The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground." Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. December 09, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2018. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/.

 

[ix] Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2016. 88

 

[x] Stiglitz 88-89

 

[xi] The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houel, watercolor, 1789. This painting is in the public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prise_de_la_Bastille.jpg

 

[xii] Stiglitz 92

 

[xiii] Stiglitz 92

 

[xiv] Stein, Ben. "In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning." The New York Times. November 25, 2006. Accessed February 23, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/business/yourmoney/26every.html.

 

[xv] This is the title of Joseph Stiglitz’s book that is cited extensively in this essay. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Divide-Unequal-Societies-About/dp/0393352188

 

[xvi] "Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations." Bartleby. 1989. Accessed February 17, 2018. http://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html.

 

[xvii] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1986. 134

 

[xviii] Portrait of Henry David Thoreau, by Benjamin Maxham, 1856. This image is in the public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10285

 

[xix] Thoreau 47-48

 

[xx] Bunker, Robert J., and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. "Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 2: 69% of Americans Don't Even Have $1,000 in Savings." Small Wars Journal. February 14, 2017. http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/plutocratic-insurgency-note-no-2-69-of-americans-don%E2%80%99t-even-have-1000-in-savings.

 

[xxi] Thoreau 146

 

[xxii] Thoreau 152

 

[xxiii] Howe, Daniel Walker. "Classical Education in America." The Wilson Quarterly. December 19, 2014. Accessed February 17, 2018. https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/spring-2011-the-city-bounces-back-four-portraits/classical-education-in-america/.

 

[xxiv] Thoreau 57

 

[xxv] Orwell, George. 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2015. 71 and 85

 

About the Author(s)

Bryan T. Baker is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He also teaches Humane Letters - with an emphasis on American history and literature - at a classical preparatory academy in the Phoenix area. Bryan holds a B.A. in Political Science and History from the University of Arizona. He is currently completing a M.A. in International Security through the same institution. Follow Bryan on twitter @therealbbakes - The views represented in his articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of any government or organization with which he is associated.