The attempt on January 6, 2021 by an armed mob of domestic terrorists, spurred on by a ruthless demagogue and his corrupt acolytes, to overturn a free and fair election at the Capitol, calls to mind certain of Henry George’s observations near the end of his best-known book, Progress and Poverty, in the chapter entitled “How Modern Civilization May Decline”:
“…[I]n the United States today is republican government running the course it must inevitably follow under conditions which cause the unequal distribution of wealth. As corruption becomes chronic; as public spirit is lost; as traditions of honor, virtue, and patriotism are weakened; as law is brought into contempt and reforms become hopeless; then in the festering mass will be generated volcanic forces, which shatter and rend when seeming accident gives them vent. Strong, unscrupulous men, rising up upon occasion, will become the exponents of blind popular desires or fierce popular passions, and dash aside forms that have lost their vitality. The sword will again be mightier than the pen, and in carnivals of destruction brute force and wild frenzy will alternate with the lethargy of a declining civilization.”
Events since January 6 have further confirmed the prescience of those words. While the inauguration was a hopeful event, both in tone and in having actually taken place, there are signs that our democracy is not yet out of danger. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile,” said President Biden in front of the Capitol building, newly sworn in. He got that right.
It is worth considering just how direct an assault on democracy the siege was. The armed mob that breached the Capitol did not assault that building to stop the vote on some highway funding bill. It was there to stop the counting of a nationwide vote, in order to overturn the outcome of a free and fair Presidential election. Nevertheless, on the eve of the insurrection itself, 147 Congressional Republicans, most of them members of the very House of Representatives that bore the brunt of the attack earlier that day, voted to reject the count of electoral votes, even though by that point judges in some 60 court cases, among them judges installed by Trump, had rejected claims that the election outcome was fraudulent.
Within days of the coup attempt, we began to hear baseless claims from conservative officials and commentators that what happened at the Capitol did not happen the way it happened, that it was a false flag operation conducted by Antifa and not by right-wing extremists, that it was not really an attack spearheaded by white supremacist domestic terrorists. Meanwhile, in the moment when President Biden was speaking of the fragility of democracy, around 20,000 Federal troops stood guard in Washington, D.C. They were needed there to protect his swearing-in and inaugural speech from attack.
On January 13, by a vote of 232 to 197, the House voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting the insurrection. But the politics of today being what they are, only seven Republican senators voted for conviction. Accordingly, although this or that individual rioter may face punishment, it seems unlikely that the twice-impeached and twice-acquitted former President or his highly placed supporters will be held to account any time soon for the insurrection or the false narrative of election theft that fueled it.
Henry George lived through the Civil War, also known as a war of brother against brother – a time when Americans were as divided as any country’s citizens have ever been. He lived through the six-year Panic and Depression that started in 1873, the context for the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which saw widespread rioting and looting and Federal troops and rioters firing at each other. It is understandable that, having lived through such dark days, he might warn of even darker ones to come.
And yet, for all his dire warnings, George was basically an optimist. He saw that the fundamental cause of disastrous societal instability is economic: “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe. To educate men who must be condemned to poverty, is but to make them restive; to base on a state of most glaring social inequality political institutions under which men are theoretically equal, is to stand a pyramid on its apex.” And he believed that such injustice could be overcome.
The source of George’s optimism is the insight that changed his life, turning him into an advocate for reform: the realization that it is unjust monopoly, and primarily the unjust monopoly implicit in large-scale private landownership, that is the great central wrong that causes poverty to persist and deepen as civilizations advance.
Although the coup attempt at the Capitol failed, its aftershocks are ongoing. George’s writings make clear that in order to restore our civilization to the foundational soundness it now so sorely needs we must work to right that central wrong.