Whenever I hear someone, whether on the right or left, say, “We have to overthrow the government!” I have to ask: just which “government” are you talking about, anyway?
There are, after all, several “governments” that exert some kind of control over our lives. Imagine, if you will, a diagram of three circles. One is what we might call “the nominal government”: our elected and appointed officials and the bureaucrats they serve—I mean, that serve them—at all levels, from the local community to the country as a whole. This is the kind of thing most people are referring to, of course, when they talk about “overthrowing” government. (Usually, it’s the Federal government they’re talking about, but given recent events in Pennsylvania, New York and California, that might start changing.)
But there is also the “government” of the ruling classes—the business managers and executives who tell us how to behave and what kinds of things we can do while we are at work (which takes up a huge percentage of our waking hours). Their decisions control many parts of our economic lives—the kinds of products that are available, our workplace conditions and the day-to-day look and feel of our society—to an even greater extent than government. Their reach also transcends mere national borders.
Finally, there are what I call the “institutions of influence”—which include the media, the various parts of the educational system and organized religion. These not only strive to shape our behavior, they determine the categories and concepts—indeed, the very words—that we use to reason, feel and communicate.
These circles, of course, overlap, and the boundaries between them are semi-permeable membranes. People cross over from one to the other on a regular basis, and each one exerts varying degrees of influence on the others. Maintaining a healthy balance among them is critical to keeping a well functioning democracy.
The important thing to realize is that each one of us is, to a greater or lesser extent, subject to all three. Talk of “freedom” that focuses only on lessening the impact of one of them on our lives does little to actually make us “more free.” Indeed, it may enable the others to exert even more power.
So, for example, the folks at the September 12 “Tea Party” marches and rallies in DC and elsewhere had a great deal to say about the “nominal government” on the Federal level, but not so much regarding the executives and corporations whose malfeasance led us into our present economic difficulties, and who continue to skew the political process for their own benefit. They criticized some parts of the media, while appearing quite willing to accept uncritically the pronouncements of other parts of that same media establishment.
And I have to wonder why those folks, who are supposedly deeply concerned about any kind of “one-world government,” weren’t anywhere to be seen on the streets of Pittsburgh during the recent G-20 conference there. International financial institutions like the WTO and IMF, after all, can already trump national sovereignty in the interest of corporate profits.
Populist movements like the Tea Partiers can bring about positive social change, or they can be led by demagogues to become unwitting shock troopers for the powerful. If they are brave enough to look deeply, question all the “governments” that seek to control them and resist the temptations of easy targets, they might really help the expansion of freedom in the world. If not, they will find themselves the worst kind of slaves—slaves that don’t even know which “government” actually enslaves them.