Ancient Outrage of the Commoners

For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.

Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt

Who rightly claims the beating heart of moral imagination, of radical vision? Who feels the throbbing pulse of it in their veins, the flow of vitality in the body politic? Who bleeds when the cut goes deep, who cries out in pain, and who hears it? Who knows this wounding, what it means, what is to be gained? Who holds to this sacrifice and accepts its cost?

Within the broad liberalism of the Enlightenment, there was the reactionary strain of proto-conservative ‘classical liberalism’, as given voice by the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) who gets more credit than he deserves. This early on was preempted by pre-Enlightenment religious dissenters and countered by radical Enlightenment thinkers, from Roger Williams (1603-1683) in the American colonies to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) in Netherlands. We should acknowledge that Williams advocated Lockean-like land rights before Locke and did so with stronger moral force and egalitarian vision. And we should look to Spinoza, godfather of the radical Enlightenment, as a probable influence on Locke who lived in the same city when Spinoza was published, whereas Locke’s own writings only came later.

The more well known and respectable figures of the Enlightenment were being carried by the swift currents that surrounded them and preceded them, going back many centuries. The British Enlightenment didn’t come out of nowhere nor did the radical tradition of revolutionary zeal. Some consider the 17th century English Civil War, or else 14th century English Peasants’ Revolt, to be the first modern revolution based on class conflict (in the same period of disruption, there is also the 16th century German Peasants’ War led by Thomas Müntzer; see The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard). In this largely religious milieu, there arose thought that was proto-liberal, proto-progressive, proto-democratic, proto-libertarian, proto-socialist, and proto-anarchist. But if nothing else, it was often radically populist and egalitarian.

Before the Protestant Reformation, there was the extreme hereticism of another Englishman, John Wycliffe (1320s-1384), who declared all were equal before God, everyone could know God for themselves, and Scripture was accessable to all. He also thought the clergy should take a vow of poverty or maybe be entirely abolished, and he went further in his radical belief that slavery is a sin. The entirety of feudalism was up for doubt and denial. Priests, lords, and kings had no rightful claim over the people and so freedom of the people could be reclaimed. What was to be rendered unto Caesar was not much at all. Such egalitarian righteousness would inspire the Peasants’ Revolt, and it lit a radical fire within the English imagination that never again was quenched.

Following the spirit of that age, Englishman John Ball (1338-1381) as one of Wycliffe’s disciples preached a warning, “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs not gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” This was a demand for equality, on earth as it was in heaven, in the living present as it was at the time of Creation. “At the beginning we were all created equal,” Ball stated with the confident certainty of faith. “If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals.” These words rang true among the commoners for it could not be denied, reading Scripture for themselves, what was found in the Word of God.

The uprising that resulted, although brief, was at times violent in seeking justice and it sent the ruling order into disarray — presaging what was to come. All of that was a more threatening challenge to the legitimacy of hierarchical authority, religious and otherwise, than either Martin Luther (1483-1546) or John Calvin (1509-1564) in the following centuries. These earlier voices of scathing critique, native to England, might be why the Protestant Reformation didn’t have the same kind of impact there as it did in continental Europe, for religious dissent wended its own path on the British isles. The religious fervor, often expressed as economic populism and politcal diatribe, kept eruptng again and again across the centuries. It was the seed out of which the English Enlightenment bloomed and it bore the fruit of revolt and revolution.

There long had been something in the British character that bristled against a ruling elite, maybe the cultural memory of British paganism among commoners in southern England, the Anglo-Saxon gut-level sense of freedom and communal identity in East Anglia, and the Scandinavian stoic but fiercely held independence found across the Midlands, not to mention the longstanding influence of cultural autonomy and at times political defiance from the Welsh, Scots-Irish, Highland Scots, and Irish. In defense against various ruling elites, from Romans to Normans and onward, a tradition of populist resistance and cultural pride had taken hold among regional populations, bulwarks against foreign incursions and centralized control. Attempts to enforce imperial or national unity and identity, loyalty and subservience was a constant struggle and never fully successful.

That particularly fed into the English Civil War (or rather wars) with the rebellious Puritans, pre-pacifist Quakers, the anti-authoritarian Levellers, and the primitive communist Diggers (among many others) who, in addition, took inspiration from the English tradition of the Commons and the rights of the commoners, a precursor to the American Revolutionaries’ invocation of the rights of Englishmen. Indeed, following coup d’etat and regicide (a fine example for the French revolutionaries to follow), many of the religious dissenters escaped to the colonies where they left a permanent imprint upon American culture and the American mind, such as the popular practice of the jeremiad (Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad & David Howard-Pitney’s African American Jeremiad).

This incited the religious protest of those like Roger Williams, upon finding in the colonies yet more authoritarian rule and churchly dogmatism. But it wasn’t only the religious dissenters who left England for the New World. Many Royalists on the other side of the English Civil War headed to Virginia and, in the case of Thomas Morton (1579–1647) with Merry Mount, caused trouble further north in New England. The Puritans, for different reasons than their treatment of Williams and Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) along with the troublesome Quakers, hated what they perceived as paganism in the uncouth behavior of Morton, a man from Merrie Old England in the Devon countryside with its paternalistic populism and rural folk tradition, along with the libertine influence of the London Inns of Court, but also a place of organizing for the dissenting Lollards following John Wycliffe.

There were many distinct varieties of English hereticism and rabblerousing, all of which clashed as part of a creative flux of free-wheeling public debate and often scandalous rebellion, giving fruit to social reform and political idealism. It’s true that John Locke was part of this mix as well. Though not necessarly an advocate of slavery, neither was he a strong critic and opponent. His patron put him in the position of writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony that upheld slavery. In that founding document of violent oligarchy, based on his belief that such social compacts were immutable and eternally binding, he wrote that “every part thereof, shall be and remains the sacred and unalterable form and rule of government, for Carolina forever.”

The oppressed slaves, indentured servants, destitute laborers, and evicted natives were seen as trapped in a permanent underclass, a caste of untouchables for impertuity, no generation henceforth having any moral claim for freedom or justice. Dissent was denied any validity and so tacit assent was assumed as an article of faith of the elite-sanctioned moral order. It was a hermetically-sealed philosophical dogmatism and ideological realism. Public debate was declared ended before it began. This was a constitutional spell as binding word magic.

“And to this I say,” declareth John Locke, arbiter of truth and reality, “that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, cloth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.”

This was not an auspicious beginning for this particular American experiment. Yet Lockean ideology is held up as an ideal and standard of political thought in the modern Anglo-American mind of the propertied self and privatized capitalism. Among many, he has been deemed and esteemed as a founding father of respectable thinking. Lockean rights impinges an absolute claim on who is welcomed into the circle of privilege and who is excluded by decree. Ths is a non-negotiable conviction and certitude, a newfound set of Holy Commandments brought down from the mountain top of the rational intellect by the enlightened aristocrat as divine prophet.

That was one element, sometimes referred to as ‘liberalism’, that was woven into American political thought and quite influential, unfortunately. Although never having traveled to, much less glimpsed, the New World, Locke boldly envisioned it as a place akin to Eden, as had many other Europeans — he wrote that, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” That meant it needed to be tamed and civilized with the Whiggish vision of patriarchal progress and imperialistic expansionism, white man’s burden and manifest destiny that was to bring forth moral order to the world through not only slavery but also genocide, conquest, and assimilation. This was the orignal liberal elitism, in all its paternalistic glory, that one hears so much about.

That authoritarian impulse remains strong within the ruling order and has informed the longstanding reactionary fear of populist uprising and democratic demand. With the imperialistic pseudo-Federalism of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, the rot of authoritarianism had tainted the seed of freedom’s promise from the moment it was planted in the fertile soil of shared hope. Counter-revolution gained power within the American Revolution, which has ever since caused a conflation of anti-democratic rule with pseudo-democratic forms and rhetoric. This is how we’ve come to the point of a banana republic being called a democracy and used as proof of the failure of democracy by those who have done everything in their power to prevent and frustrate democratic aspiration at every turn.

In our collective miseducation and historical amnesia, many Americans can’t distinguish between democratic self-governance and anti-democratic oppression — causing moral injury, a schizoid wounding of the body politic resulting in spiritual malaise and psychosis. Even when diagnosis of what afflicts us rightly points to this unhealed trauma, the scapegoating of the democratic impulse becomes a sad charade that causes impotent despair and palsied cynicism. Amidst the throes of propagandistic infection, these fevered nightmares mock us in our still juvenile aspirations. We are meant to be shamed in our crippled and fumbling steps, to be trampled down by our own heavy hearts. We are judged guilty in the sin of our perceived weakness and failure. We are deemed as unworthy and stunted children who are a danger to ourselves and to society.

To assent to such a damning accusation is to accept defeat, but this demiurgic rule of lies fades before the revelation of ananmesis, a gnostic unforgetting. From religious dissent to radical rebellion, the burning ember of revolution within the Anglo-American soul never dies out, no matter how it gets mislabeled, misunderstood, and misdirected. The ancient outrage of the commoners, of the dirty masses and landless peasants, will continue to rise up like bile at the back of our throats, sometimes causing blind rage but at other times bursting forth with the clear sight of radical imagination and inspiration, commanding us to stand up in our full stature and stride confidently forward on a path that is set before us by an ancestral instinct, an awakening knowledge of the world before us.

We’ve been here before. It is familiar to us, the primal terrain of moral imagination, the living God whose indwelling authority speaks to us, we the living generation who carry forth a living vision, the ember setting tinder to flame to light our way. This is our inheritance, our birthright, the burden we carry and the hope that lifts us up. In the words that inspired revolution, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Every moment we awaken to is pregnant with promise, something ready to be born in spirit and baptized in fire. The revelatory and revolutionary truth of the demos is all around us, for those with eyes to see. The liberation of the soul, the refutation of enslavement, the casting away of shackles — in this, we are already a free people, if only we would claim it, take hold of it and wrestle the dream down to the ground of our shared reality, in our common purpose, through our collective action.

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Matthew 6:24

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,

Matthew 21:12

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Matthew 19:21

* * *

The above is a very loose and indirect response to what is found below — basically, modern democracy as an expression of the ancient demos, We the People, is not so easily dismissed:

Will Democracy’s Myths Doom Liberty?
by James Bovard

Americans are encouraged to believe that their vote on Election Day somehow miraculously guarantees that the subsequent ten thousand actions by the president, Congress, and federal agencies embody “the will of the people.” In reality, the more edicts a president issues, the less likely that his decrees will have any connection to popular preferences. It is even more doubtful that all the provisions of hefty legislative packages reflect majority support, considering the wheeling, dealing, and conniving prior to final passage. Or maybe the Holy Ghost of Democracy hovers over Capitol Hill to assure that average Americans truly want every provision on every page of bills that most representatives and senators do not even bother reading?

A bastard cousin of the “will of the people” flimflam is the notion that citizens and government are one and the same. President Franklin Roosevelt, after five years of expanding federal power as rapidly as possible, declared in 1938, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” President Johnson declared in 1964: “Government is not an enemy of the people. Government is the people themselves,” though it wasn’t “the people” whose lies sent tens of thousands of American conscripts to pointless deaths in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton declared in 1996, “The Government is just the people, acting together—just the people acting together.” But it wasn’t “the people acting together” that bombed Serbia, invaded Haiti, blockaded Iraq, or sent the tanks in at Waco.

President Barack Obama hit the theme at a 2015 Democratic fundraiser: “Our system only works when we realize that government is not some alien thing; government is not some conspiracy or plot; it’s not something to oppress you. Government is us in a democracy.” But it was not private citizens who, during Obama’s reign, issued more than half a million pages of proposed and final new regulations and notices in the Federal Register; made more than 10 million administrative rulings; tacitly took control of more than 500 million acres by designating them “national monuments”; and bombed seven foreign nations. The “government is the people” doctrine makes sense only if we assume citizens are masochists who secretly wish to have their lives blighted.

Presidents perennially echo the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to “the consent of the governed.” But political consent is gauged very differently than consent in other areas of life. The primary proof that Americans are not oppressed is that citizens cast more votes for one of the candidates who finagled his name onto the ballot. A politician can say or do almost anything to snare votes; after Election Day, citizens can do almost nothing to restrain winning politicians.

A 2017 survey by Rasmussen Reports found that only 23 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has “the consent of the governed.” Political consent is defined these days as rape was defined a generation or two ago: people consent to anything which they do not forcibly resist. Voters cannot complain about getting screwed after being enticed into a voting booth. Anyone who does not attempt to burn down city hall presumably consented to everything the mayor did. Anyone who does not jump the White House fence and try to storm into the Oval Office consents to all executive orders. Anyone who doesn’t firebomb the nearest federal office building consents to the latest edicts in the Federal Register. And if people do attack government facilities, then they are terrorists who can be justifiably killed or imprisoned forever.

In the short term, the most dangerous democratic delusion is that conducting an election makes government trustworthy again. Only 20 percent of Americans trust the government to “do the right thing” most of the time, according to a survey last month by the Pew Research Center. Americans are being encouraged to believe that merely changing the name of the occupant of the White House should restore faith in government.