In a post yesterday I drew upon the words of the patron saint of conservatism, Edmund Burke, and the powerful progressive voice of Theodore Roosevelt in 1910. Without expressly using the word "posterity" both of these men extolled the concept and the role it played in maintaining a healthy democracy.
Burke, the 18th century political philosopher, wrote of posterity as the glue that connects future generations to the past but also the present:
All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust.
...one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.In Burke's view, each generation has a life estate in our land but no more and that life estate, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, is in the nature of a trust. We are trustees of the land for the generations that will follow us. I would like to think he had the current neoliberal contagion or something like it in mind when he writes of "floating fancies or fashions" that undermine the continuity of the commonwealth and prevent one generation from linking with the other.
Roosevelt wrote of "skinning the land."
I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children. That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children, leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation.I'm sure he was speaking plainly and pointedly when he spoke of one generation robbing future generations, skinning the land and leaving it worthless to those who will follow. I wonder how he might have phrased that in this, the age of climate change and the threat of mass extinction?
It was an excellent series that Bill Moyers produced for PBS several years ago that focused my attention on posterity and the little appreciated role it played in maintaining a modern society. Moyers consulted a variety of sage minds to explore how posterity had been discarded in the modern (neoliberal) mode of governance and whether and, if so, how it might return. Again, that was before we understood the fact and ramifications of climate change. I've tried to track down a copy of that series but, to date, with no luck. I shall not give up, not yet.
There is an interview that Moyers conducted in 1988 with the late American historian, Henry Steele Commager, that touches on the central themes of that elusive series. I'll not add the weight of additional paragraphs to this post but instead present Commager's comments excerpted.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve written that “Great things were won by the generation that won independence and wrote the Constitution. Great things were accomplished by the generation that saved the Union and rid it of slavery. Great things were won by the generation that defeated the fascists in World War II and then organized the peace that followed, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the planting of democracy in Japan.” What are some of the issues, do you think, we can’t run from now as we approach the 21st century?
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Well, there’s a great crowd of them. There’s a throng of them pressing on us. The first and most urgent and universal is the environment. Everybody talks about the environment, but we don’t do much about it. We talk about acid rain and sign this treaty with Canada, but we don’t enforce the treaty. We’re polluting the seas, we’re polluting the inland waters, we’re polluting the soil, we’re destroying the forests. We don’t think of our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; we’ll be lucky if they have a country to live in in three or four generations. I think the failure to — the basic failure to think of posterity and to live for posterity the way the framers, the founding fathers, did, to always look a thousand years ahead and think what would be for the benefit of posterity, that has disappeared.
BILL MOYERS: What does it reveal about a president’s mind, when he asks us to think about posterity?
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Well, the most elementary fact, of course, is to preserve the natural resources and to preserve the welfare and the health and the wisdom, take care of the health of human beings and children, and end poverty — all of these things, if we think of posterity. But I think the commonest attitude is, what has posterity ever done for us?
...BILL MOYERS: How much of this is attributed to the fact that we seem to expect less of our leadership today than we did, say, in the founding era? We have, you said —
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Leadership.
BILL MOYERS: The founding fathers, you said, had this idea of honor.
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Our leadership today is business leadership, it’s financial leadership, it’s not political leadership. Our best people don’t go into politics, it’s too expensive for one thing, and we tolerate that. There’s no reason why we should tolerate these vast expenses for elections, no one tolerates it in European countries, but Americans think nothing of spending $50-100 million on an election.
...BILL MOYERS: If I can’t have a better life, my children will have a better life.
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: Yes, that’s true. This was the great thesis, of course, of the early fathers. Equality was a great word, and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America really was “Equality in America, ìthatís what he wrote about, this extraordinary phenomenon, the only country in the world that had equality. And he thought France would have it in time, England would have it in time, but he also saw the danger. What was the great danger that Tocqueville saw? It was what he called “the manufacturing aristocracy,” which was his phrase for a wealthy upper class that made a great deal of money. He said if that ever gets control, democracy may be the most tyrannical form of government ever known by man, and he feared that it might be true. What he called a manufacturing aristocracy, by which he embraced banking and so forth, he’d seen this in England and was afraid of it, and he thought it might destroy American democracy.
BILL MOYERS: But in this country, it’s driven the economy that has enabled the boats to rise.
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: So far it’s worked. It worked when we had enough land for the thousandth and thousandth generation, it worked when everybody had an opportunity.
BILL MOYERS: And today?
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER: It doesn’t seem to be working now.---
In 2009, I lamented the extinction of posterity in our politics and civil society.
Posterity doesn't fit into our economic model of production and consumption because it creates a fetter on both. We have lost our understanding of the importance of posterity to our society, to our country. We no longer plan today for generations to come far in the future. We no longer look much beyond the next electoral cycle.
Protecting posterity is an act of collective consciousness and will. It is acknowledging that we're entitled to our fair share and no more. We can't have it all without depriving future generations of their fair share.
To try to understand the idea of "fair share" imagine if our great, great, great grandparents had followed our path.
Imagine if our ancestors had two things - the ability to consume everything they could get their hands on and a blind indifference to the day when it was our turn to populate this country. Imagine if two or three generations had gone on a rapacious binge gobbling up the world's resources; going into serious deficit on renewables (emptying the oceans, logging off the forests, transforming farmland into desert) and fouling the environment. Then consider how their depredations might impact on your life today. I think that's beyond the imagination of all but the best science fiction writers but that's of no real matter. It's enough in any event to make the case for posterity and the concept of "fair share."It was at this juncture, when developed nations were reeling from the Great Recession, that The New York Times looked at Norway, a nation that had never expunged posterity.
The global financial crisis has brought low the economies of just about every country on earth. But not Norway.
With a quirky contrariness as deeply etched in the national character as the fjords carved into its rugged landscape, Norway has thrived by going its own way. When others splurged, it saved. When others sought to limit the role of government, Norway strengthened its cradle-to-grave welfare state.
And in the midst of the worst global downturn since the Depression, Norway’s economy grew last year by just under 3 percent. The government enjoys a budget surplus of 11 percent and its ledger is entirely free of debt.
Norway is a relatively small country with a largely homogeneous population of 4.6 million and the advantages of being a major oil exporter. It counted $68 billion in oil revenue last year as prices soared to record levels. Even though prices have sharply declined, the government is not particularly worried. That is because Norway avoided the usual trap that plagues many energy-rich countries.
Instead of spending its riches lavishly, it passed legislation ensuring that oil revenue went straight into its sovereign wealth fund, state money that is used to make investments around the world. Now its sovereign wealth fund is close to being the largest in the world, despite losing 23 percent last year because of investments that declined.
“The U.S. and the U.K. have no sense of guilt,” said Anders Aslund, an expert on Scandinavia at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “But in Norway, there is instead a sense of virtue. If you are given a lot, you have a responsibility.”
Eirik Wekre, an economist who writes thrillers in his spare time, describes Norwegians’ feelings about debt this way: “We cannot spend this money now; it would be stealing from future generations.”Norway powerfully demonstrates that posterity is prosperity because it binds us, from generation to generation, to the same common purpose, our collective welfare - past, present and future.
What would be the ultimate act of posterity today? What else could it be but to salvage as much as we can of the environment for future generations? We have, to use Roosevelt's term, "skinned" the land they will inherit. And we're going to continue to diminish their world, the world of the future, in our pursuit of comfort, ease and immediate gratification. We are degenerate.
Can we restore posterity to Canada's politics and our society? That's extremely unlikely. Our very model of governance is rigged. Getting the support of just shy of two out of five voters is enough to cement powerful majority rule over the majority of the voters whose democratic voice is nullified by this contrivance. Imagine three out of five voters sidelined, shoved into a corner, their wishes without expression. The beneficiaries of this corrupt system, primarily Liberal and Conservative, shamelessly pretend that these false majorities are a great thing and contend, through some perverse notion of electoral Darwinism, that their rigged system ensures we are
You'll get no posterity, not out of those two roving gangs of blackguards and reprobates. The thing they fear most is that all Canadians should have a voice in their Parliament. Who knows where that might lead?