A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government

Nakae Chomin wrote a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book in 1887  entitled, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government.  Here is the opening.

Master Nankai loves drinking and discussing politics. When he drinks only one or two small bottles of sake, he is pleasantly intoxicated –his spirits are high and he feels as if he were flying through the universe. Everything he sees and hears delights him; it seems unthinkable that there should be suffering in the world.

When he has two or three more bottles, his spirits soar even higher, and ideas spring up, unrestrained. Although his body remains in his small room, his eyes scan the whole world. They instantly go back a thousand years, or else span the next thousand, charting the direction for the world’s course or giving instructions for public policy. At such times, he thinks to himself, “I am the compass for human society. It’s a great pity that the world’s nearsighted politicians haphazardly take control of the rudder and cause the ship to strike a rock or to be grounded in shallow water, thus bringing calamity upon themselves and others. (47)

. . .

After this opening, Master Nankai is greeted by two visitors. One is known as the Gentleman of Western Learning. He is a young Japanese man who has recently returned from studying in Western Europe, as many Japanese men did in the late 19th Century, including the author of this book who was a journalist and a member of Japan’s first parliament till resigning over reasons of conscience. The other visitor is an older conservative Japanese man. He provides balance to the idealistic notions of the Gentleman of Western Learning. Most of the quotes included here, which seem to me to be of relevance to our contemporary world –over a century after they were written,  are from the Gentleman of Western Learning.

If a small nation which is behind the others in its progress toward civilization were to stand up proudly on the edge of Asia, plunge into the realm of liberty and brotherhood, demolish fortresses, melt down canon, convert warships into merchant ships, turn soldiers into civilians, devote itself to mastering moral principles, study industrial techniques, and become a true student of philosophy; wouldn’t the European nations who take vain pride in their civilization feel ashamed? Suppose, however, these great nations are not only unashamed but also stubborn and villainous, and suppose they impudently invade our country, taking advantage of our disarmament. What could they do if we have not an inch of steel nor a single bullet about us, but greet them with civility? If you swing a sword to attack the air, nothing happens to the thin, free air no matter how sharp the sword may be. Why don’t we become like the air?

It’s like throwing an egg at a rock for a small and powerless nation dealing with a big and powerful one to exert a physical force that is less than one thousandth of its opponent’s. Since the opponent takes great pride in its civilization, it cannot be that he lacks the moral principles that are the essence of civilization. Why shouldn’t we, a small nation, use as our weapon the intangible moral principles our opponent aspires to but is unable to practice? If we adopt liberty as our army and navy, equality as our fortress, and fraternity as our sword and cannon, who in the world would dare attack us?

All who possess mind and body are equally human. What is the difference between the Europeans and the Asians, much less between the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians, or between the Indians, Chinese, and Ryukuans? Today we invariably refer to Great Britain, Russia, or Germany, but these are merely the names of the sovereigns’ properties. If, however, sovereignty rests with the people and there is no other ruler, a country’s name simply designates a certain part of the surface of the earth. Therefore, to say that one is a citizen of a certain country ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no border’s between oneself and others and there arises no hostility. Nations with a single master, however, are named after the master’s house. In such a nation, to say that one is of a certain nationality ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no borders between oneself and others. This slicing up of the various parts of the earth, causing divisions among its inhabitants, is the course of monarchy. Democracy! Democracy! Country A or B is merely a division made for the sake of convenience in naming various parts of the earth. These names were not meant to build walls among its inhabitant. Democracy creates a single, large, complete, circle embracing the entire earth by bringing together the wisdom and love of the people of the world.  (75)

. . .

The Gentleman continued. “Democracy is necessary for abolishing war, promoting peace, and making all the nations on earth one family. The theory that all nations should give up war and promote peace was first advanced by the Frenchman Abbe de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century. At that time, very few people agreed with his idea, and many said that it could not be put into practice. Some went so far as to ridicule him as a high-minded ideologue. Even Voltaire, a man of uncommon intelligence who was deeply interested in the progress of society, tried to appear clever by making some derisive remarks concerning Saint-Pierre’s theory. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wielding his mighty pen, completely agreed with the theory, and praised Saint-Pierre’s book as ‘indispensable’. Later, Kant built upon Saint-Pierre’s theory and wrote a book entitled Zun ewigen Frieden, which advocated the necessity of abolishing war and promoting friendly relations. According to Kant, ‘Even if we grant the contention that the desire for fame and love of victory cannot be removed from human beings and that the realization of peace is impossible in our actual world, as long as we value moral principles, we must make every effort to move forward toward that realm. This, and nothing else, is the responsibility of human beings.’ (82-83)

. . .

Today, in the nineteenth century, it is indeed an insane nation which takes pride in military power, makes aggression its national policy, and tries to own the earth, regardless of means, by usurping someone else’s land or by killing someone else’s people. (87)

. . .

Many of the strong nations on earth are cowherds. Fearing each other, they maintain troops and line up battleships and thus fall into danger. Why don’t the weak nations voluntarily and firmly dismiss their soldiers, dissolve their fleets, and choose peace?

Later in the discourse Master Nankai mildly rebukes Mr. Gentleman by saying that the time was not ripe for global democracy –at the end of the Nineteenth Century –but suggests that after another century the seeds that were sown then would be ready to bear fruit.

I tell you, Mr. Gentleman, ideas are seeds planted in the field of the mind. If you truly love democracy, talk about it, write about it, and sow its seeds in the minds of people. Then, in several hundred years, democracy might flourish all over the country. Today, the plants of the sovereign and the aristocrats are still rooted  in the public mind. Isn’t it wrong to try to gather a rich harvest of democracy immediately, simply because the seed of democracy has sprouted in your own brain?

“The public mind is a storehouse for the ideas of the past. All social undertakings are expressions of past ideas. Therefore, if we wish to build a new enterprise, we must first plant the necessary idea in the people’s minds, so it, too, can someday become an established idea –an idea of the past. Why? An action always bears fruit in the present, but an idea always has its roots in the past. Mr. Gentleman, please read your history. What has occurred in all nations is a result of the ideas of those nations. But ideas and actions do not align themselves in neat rows; they form a crooked line –and this the history of all nations.

. . .

An age is silk or paper, ideas are colors, and great projects are paintings. A society of a given period is a painting that has already been completed. Mr. Gentleman, is it not madness to paint a picture of the future on a piece of paper called the present with pigments which are not yet completely ground? If you make diligent efforts now to refine your ideas or grind your pigments, a hundred years later the colors will pour richly onto the palette of society. At that point, if someone paints a picture on the piece of silk or paper of his present, the radiant colors you have mixed in his past will dazzle the eyes of all spectators, who will admire and praise the painting as a masterpiece surpassing those of Rubens or Poussin.

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Howard Zinn’s vision

 

From the chapter, “The coming revolt of the guards,” in Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States.

Let us be utopian for a moment so that when we get realistic again it is not that “realism” so useful to the Establishment in its discouragement of action, that “realism” anchored to a certain kind of history empty of surprise. Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all.

The society’s levers of powers would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state –giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need –by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country –to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most. We would start on our neighborhoods, our cities, our workplaces. Work of some kind would be needed by everyone, including people now kept out of the work force –children, old people, “handicapped” people. Society could use the enormous energy now idle, the skills and talents now unused. Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods. Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and be available –free –to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods –a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.”

People in time, in friendly communities, might create a new, diversified, nonviolent culture, in which all forms of personal and group expression would be impossible. Men and women, black and white, old and young, could then cherish their differences as positive attributes, not as reasons for domination. New values of cooperation and freedom might then show up in the relations of people, the upbringing of children.

To do all that, in the complex conditions of control in the United States, would require combining the energy of all previous movements in American history –of labor insurgents, black rebels, Native Americans, women, young people –along with the new energy of an angry middle class. People would need to begin to transform their immediate environments –the workplace, the family, the school, the community –by a series of struggles against absentee authority, to give control of these places to the people who live and work there.

These struggles would involve all the tactics used at various times in the past by people’s movements: demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience; strikes and boycotts and general strikes; direst action to redistribute wealth, to reconstruct institutions, to revamp relationships; creating –in music, literature, drama, all the arts, and all the areas of work and play in everyday life –a new culture of sharing, of respect, a new joy in the collaboration of people to help themselves and one another.

There would be many defeats. But when such a movement took hold in hundreds of thousands of people all over the country it would be impossible to suppress, because the very guards the system depends on to crush such a movement would be among the rebels. It would be a new kind of revolution, the only kind that could happen, I believe, in a country like the United States. It would take enormous energy, sacrifice, commitment, patience. But because it would be a process over time, starting without delay, there would be the immediate satisfactions that people have always found in the affectionate ties of groups striving together for a common goal.  (638-640)

What would Howard Zinn have to say about new possibilities for global revolution now that the world has changed so much since Zinn’s death about a year ago? I think he would expand on the vision articulated above, applying it to global networks of local communities, pointing to the joy and community spirit felt in Tahrir and other squares where people stood together in solidarity as examples of how new kinds of struggles can lead to new mentalities of cooperation.

Bertolt Brecht’s interpretation of “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.”

Bertolt Brecht‘s poem, “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House,” relates a parable of the Buddha’s, found in the Lotus Sutra, to not fearing the changes which a revolution would involve.

Guatama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and advised
That we shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
“What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us would
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation,
When you lie in water, your body weightless, at noon,
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket,
Going down fast –whether this nothingness, then,
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothingness of yours is more nothing, cold, senseless and void.”
Long the Buddha was silent, then said nonchalantly:
“There is no answer to your question.”
But in the evening, when they had gone,
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree and to the others,
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:
“Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that he’ll gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say.” So Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission,
Rather with that of non-submission, and offering
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
To shake off their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the rising bomber squadrons of Capital go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that,
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers after a revolution
We have nothing much to say.

This was published in 1949 in “Kalendergeschichten”, a collection of stories and poems which Brecht had written while in exile during the war. In English, “Tales from the Calendar,” translated by Ivonne Kapp and Michael Hamburger, London: Methuen, 1961.