I just finished reading Howard Zinn's Declarations of Independence, an excellent and fine and very readable history book. In the first part of the book, Zinn addresses the root structure of political power in America and the world. Zinn then employs examples in history, often "alternative" history, and writes about the true nature of political change and how it comes about. The American political landscape is filled with a common language that is chuck full of truisms. Such as the very fact that we live in a democracy, that we possess certain inalienable rights, that we have a system of one man, one vote and that the ultimate power rests with the people, who can remove those from office who do not represent their interests.
But Zinn questions each of these assumptions and a great many others, clearly showing that representative democracy under a two-party system is not very representative at all, Our rights are subject to what the courts at any one time or in any particular state determine them to be. In example after example he shows that even when laws are clearly on the books -- often the result of huge battles to get legislation passed to protect or defend a people or an environment -- this offers no guarantee they will be enforced by authorities appointed by those whose economic or ideological interests they serve. There are not laws saying the law must be enforced, there are only people: the courts at any time or place to enforce them, and if they choose not to it's pretty hard to force the hand of power to act against what it considers its reason for being.
Do we live in a system of one man one vote when slaves and women got no vote, or when the top wealthiest 500 people control $200 billion and the bottom 60 million Americans have no assets at all?
In fact, Zinn argues, the entire system is rigged and behind it lies a class system that perpetuates itself largely by taking extreme measures in controlling what gets taught and what gets published and what gets recorded historically as constructive popular opinion in a giant effort to convince the rest of us of the legitimacy and inevitability of the status quo. But in fact this status quo rests in a very tenuous balance between the coercive institutions of our culture: the police, the prisons, the "intelligence" agencies and the military and the will of people who have historically determined they will no longer submit to an unjust rule and have taken the popular culture with them. These have been the abolitionists, the countless white and black workers of the civil rights movement, the women's organizations who have transformed the role of women and the gay rights organizers who have stepped up to the challenge of Stonewall all the way to winning recognition of domestic partnerships.
Zinn argues finally that the main force of these changes have not been through voting or lobbying our (non) representative government or by petitioning the courts but rather by non-violent direct action: by people deciding themselves what they want society to look like and then taking action, often against prevailing law and popular consent to bring it about. It is a view of history that does not worship great men, but lays bare the tenuous and often very fragile state of what is and how the particular present has come to be and encourages the reader to bring forth the vision of what freedom and justice may actually look like with the grit and power of one's own hands. It is an excellent read, that brings the force of history into and understandable and contextualized present.