Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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October 01, 2008
Can "any" cook really govern?

Now = even a better time than 4 yrs ago to wonder about it all.

C.L.R. James's essay took seeming pains to explain that he wrote neither in praise of merely any old cooks, any old government, nor any old society. He had one era of ancient Athenian democracy in all its specificity in mind.

Example of a specific: the uniquely Athenian concept of personal individuality:
The Greek democrat achieved this extraordinary force and versatility because . . . in the best days of the democracy, he did not understand individualism as we know it. For him an individual was unthinkable except in the city-state. The city-state of democracy was unthinkable except as a collection of free individuals. He could not see himself or other people as individuals in opposition to the city-state.

Another example: the Athenian notion of law. James quotes Pericles' 431 B.C. funeral oration:
We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect. . . . [W]e obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

The full text of Pericles' speech, based on the translation that James apparently used, is here.

Another example: the immersive, all-surrounding tendencies of Athenian democracy at its best. James describes the Athenian check against the power of military leaders:
The essence of the matter is that the generals were so surrounded by the general democratic practices of the Greeks, the ordinary Greek was so vigilant against what he called "tyranny," that it was impossible for generals to use their positions as they might have been able to do in an ordinary bureaucratic or representative form of government.
(emphasis supplied)

The overall picture here seems to be of a totality, which somebody once defined (herein) as "a total social situation caught up in the process of historical change" -- a totality unlike any existing today.

& the Athenians' came from where? James notes:
The Greeks did not arrive at their democracy by reading the books of philosophers. The common people won it only after generations of struggle.

What kind of "struggle"? A recent article in Reconstruction by Manuel Yang (a hilarious capsule bio of whom is on this page) describes how, in the modern context, James's JFT group (note: not the same group as JFA) would have had in mind
the micropolitics of slow-downs, absenteeism, strikes and other myriad forms of reducing or refusing alienated work.

Same old questions, we suppose. "Any cook can govern." Perhaps. But govern what? Under what circumstances? How successfully? Who or what defines "success"? Govern what kind of system or machinery? To what ends? Genuinely govern or merely ornament? Who governs the governor? How transparently? For the benefit of whom? And so on.


TiR observes that, per das Google, the phrase "Andrew Jackson in lipstick" seems not yet to have been coined -- or thankfully (for multiple reasons) even attempted. Yet.