August 30, 2011

'I have seen the future and it doesn't work'

Truly liberal friends and followers of this blog will recognize the header of this post as a riff on the most famous utterance of muckraking journalist and later general radical Lincoln Steffens: "I have seen the future and it works."

Steffens, for those who don't know, was a mentor of sorts to John Reed, and was uttering the phrase, which he never disavowed, after a trip to Russia/the pending USSR shortly after the November Revolution. And, despite others on the left in America seeing through Stalin years before Steffens died, he held on to his true belief?

Why? That's part of what's discussed in "I Have Seen the Future," a great new bio of Steffens by Peter Hartshorn.

Steffens had seen through greed, graft and corruption at the local, state and federal levels by, as we would say today, both halves of the bipartisan duopoly. He had seen, at the same time, that the best grafters, at the city level at least, sometimes were important indeed for how a city was run.

And, he had seen Yanqui imperialism "hit the fan" during the Mexican Revolution, in which he was not only a reporter, but an unofficial mediator of sorts between U.S. President Wilson and Mexican President Carranza.

So, he was prepared to accept an undemocratic, even antidemocratic strongman running a post-revolutionary country, for some time if needed. And, I can accept him hanging his hat on Lenin. But, even though Steffens died before Stalin's 1930 purges came to light, his witchhunt against Trotsky and other things were evidence in plenty against Uncle Joe.

So, why?

From the book, and my own insight, he really thought the sham that's called democracy in America was that fucked up. And, it's hard for me to disagree with him about his observations of a century ago, or our current status today, hence my post title.

As Steffens wrote, from the days of the Puritans and their selective freedom (and, not mentioned in the book nor focused on by Steffens, but Jamestown being founded by a corporation) America hasn't really been that democratic. The Constitutional Founding Fathers created a republic, not a democracy, to boot ... and in the light of things like Shays' Rebellion, did that deliberately.

We need to be more self-informed, if we're not, on America's early history, starting with the founding history of the various colonies, as Steffens surely was, besides the Pilgrims and Massachusetts Bay.
1. Virginia... founded by British businessmen in a joint-stock organization
2. Plymouth... Religious dissidents, seeking freedom for themselves, not necessarily others;
2A. Massachusetts Bay... Ditto in spades
3. Maryland... Land-grant favor to Britain's top Catholic noble as a personal favor
4. South Carolina... Royal colony
5. Connecticut... Royal colony
6. New Hampshire... Royal colony
7. Pennsylvania... Land grant as repayment of royal debt
8. New Jersey... Royal colony
9. New York... Royal colony after seizure from Dutch
10. North Carolina... Royal colony
11. Delaware... "breakaway" from Pennsylvania, royal colony
12. Georgia... penal colony, officially royal colony
13. Rhode Island... freethinkers' haven, and piracy haven

So, the pre-Revolutionary history of America wasn't necessarily that democratic. That's not to discuss at all the issue of slavery.

That said, Andrew Jackson's people's democracy hinted at something more, but not really. Jackson himself had moved, in a more mobile frontier southwest, into the upper classes. Lincoln's Homestead Act portended something ... but don't forget that he liked the Union Pacific so much in part because he owned land in downtown Omaha. The Gilded Age came after his assassination, but had he lived, he might have been part of it.

TR? Steffens himself doubted the depth of his commitment to reform. Rightly so. Wilson? Had he done more to keep us out of WWI (more on that in a moment) maybe the light of democracy would have shone more, but Steffens saw problems with Wilson before then ... and certainly in his dealings with Russia, had clear personal evidence that Wilson intended to passively accept European imperialism, even if he wouldn't do it himself.

By FDR's time, Steffens had despaired not just of FDR, but of Upton Sinclair and most socialists. He actually hoped Landon would win in 1936 in the hopes it might start a revolution.

Realistically? In TR and Wilson's time, "democracy" did about one-third better than in its long-term previous history. In FDR's time, with the idealism of dollar-a-year men, maybe half better. But, that had faded away before Ike warned about the military-industrial complex, and never to return.

Steffens, while focused mainly on graft and other domestic policy issues, saw in the Mexican Revolution confirmation of how the U.S. had no problem being an imperialist power, and again, how both parties participated. Again, little has changed.

While I'm a social democrat, not a true radical, unlike Steffens, nonetheless, it's clear to me, too that both sides of the duoploy are just as corrupt as they were a century ago. So, that's why I continue to urge voting Green for the foreseeable future.

Look at the widening rich-poor gap. Look at the widening opportunity gap. Look at how much of organized labor ion the U.S. has been so non-radical (even before the second red scare) that it's almost laughable if not tragic. Steffens saw would be third-party progressives like La Follette try to do something and get boxed in. And, we've had only one progressive third party "splash" since then, in 1948.

So, maybe Steffens was right in looking toward the east. That said, today's post-USSR Russia is more capitalist-infested than America. Ditto for China, as income inequality widens by the day, and the only way the "proletariat" improves its standing is through actual or threatened labor actions, with violence if necessary.

Maybe Steffens was right. We know he was right about the future not working here. We've had 90 years since his praise of Russia to see that.

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