3000 years ago the Prophet Samuel spent a whole “chapter” – whatever that may have meant in real time – warning the Jewish people against giving their power away, and restructuring their tribal society into a monarchy.
Samuel understood what happens when people surrender their power to others. As humans we habitually surrender our sovereignty to doctors, psychologists, police, councils, employers, governments. We de-skill ourselves and make ourselves passive and sibservient. In I Samuel 8 the Jewish people were taking this self surrender to the next step and writing into their “constitution” as a nation. They wanted a king to rule over them.
Neither God nor the prophet Samuel thought that was a good idea. With a discernible incredulity Samuel explains how this political re-structuring will hijack the people’s labour for the royal elite, how the people’s individual rights will be eroded, what will happen to their access to land (essential for life), how their wealth will trickle up to the crown, and how their young people will be marshalled into wars engineered to serve royal interests and not the common good. God’s word, however, is ignored.
Jesus taught his disciples (in Matthew 20 & 23, Mark 10 and Luke 22) to be a counterculture, living their lives without a hint of the kind of feudalization endemic to wider (his word was “gentile”) society. Chains of command and obedience, authority and subservience, an unaccountable elite and a disempowered serfdom, were not a part of his divine vision for human society. “It must not be so among you,” he told his followers. And in his own fearless relations with the civic and religious social structures of the day, Jesus showed his disciples how that might look.
My study of history began in earnest in high school. Our curriculum began with a look at ancient Britain’s Feudal Order and the Heptarchy. By beginning there our syllabus framed the country’s history as a sequence of tableaux, dramatising the struggle away from feudalism, to monarchy, to constitutional monarchy and gropingly towards other fmore democratic forms and structures.
However feudalist energies and the trickle-up of wealth find ways of expressing themselves in every generation and in every political structure. In the UK and Australia, for instance, many crown powers have long been co-opted to intelligence agencies and to the office of the Prime Minister. In the UK and Australia it is the Prime Minister who will appoint ministers and judges, determine the speaker of parliament, call royal commisions, appoint quangos, in the UK create new “lords”, distribute honours, and take our young people to war, for instance. A decade ago John Howard demonstrated that the Australian Prime Minister can abrogate every Australian legal authority to turn boats around mid ocean in order to avoid observing agreed international law that would oblige us to process the claims of refugees seeking asylum. PM Howard did this by invoking British crown power to trump even the highest laws and courts of Australia.
The financial trickle-up, about which Samuel so graphically warns, can be seen in many streams of economic life. In the USA the average comparison of an employee’s salary with that of the CEO is 1:350. Include USA CEOs and the pay of their offshore sweatshop workers and you will reach mathematics that are hard to fathom -1:50,000 in one well-known corporation.
When captains of industry are spared heavy taxation – or sometimes any taxation – or are legally permitted to move their profits off shore, it is clear that the question of distribution of wealth is as live as ever. In the international trade agreements of recent years, negotiated in secret, national governments have given their power away and have empowered corporations to sue national governments for any actions a nation might wish to take that would impinge on the corporations profits. These agreements raise the stakes to an unprecedented level by redistributing power away from nations to the families who own the major corporations. It is really a theft of power.
Our governments are not protecting us. They are like kings of old paying protection money to the bigger kings. They are like the small business owners paying protection money to the local mafia to be allowed to do business, unmolested, on “their” strip.
One could argue that our national governments are like you, a private citizen, living in your own home on your own land, but having to may money to the larger powers – rates to local council, fees to adminstrative bodies, and tax to national government – in order to be allowed to remain in your own home on your own land, unmolested – ie without being seized and locked in a prison cell. This is not to deny the benefits of living in a society with resources and services provided by tax revenues. But…when your government can unaccountably lose $90 trillion of the people’s tax dollars – without any explanation – and yet you remain without decent roads, clean food supplies or access to healthcare, it is difficult to avoid the question of whose interests are being served by this particular system’s redistribution of wealth.
Whichever metaphor you follow, the small king, the small business owner or the powerless private citizen, the trickle up of power and wealth leads ultimately not to those who govern us, but to the 1% who own the wealth of the major banking interests and corporations. The accountability of powers is clearly as live an issue today as it was 3000 years ago when Samuel sounded his far-sighted and prophetic warning.