“Tyrant” for hire: Joseph L. Harris assumed unchecked authority in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on 15 April 2011.
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In the first stages of what appears to be a comprehensive campaign of anti-democratic “reforms,” the small, economically depressed town of Benton Harbor, Michigan, last month saw Joseph L. Harris, the “emergency financial manager” appointed by the state and endowed with unilateral powers by Governor Rick Snyder, strip its elected city council of all authority. The council is now empowered to meet, read and take minutes, and adjourn.
Like many municipalities, Benton Harbor was in financial disarray, largely thanks to the ongoing cycle of budget cuts at higher levels of government that have left cities and counties to assume the responsibilities and expenses formerly belonging to state and federal authorities. Using this “emergency” as rationale, Harris has collaborated with Whirlpool Corporation (whose world headquarters are in Benton Harbor), Snyder, developer Harbor Shores and others to seize lakeside beachfront property deeded to the public and formerly used as a public park and convert it to a private, profit-yielding golf course.
This is an aspect of what I’ve described in previous essays as “frittling”: frittering away public funds to whittle at government in the public interest and manufacture a financial “emergency” that can be used to justify power grabs for private benefit.
There is precedent for this, but not in this country or this century. Where this idea came from is instructive to note.
First man: Lucius Cornelius Sulla, depicted in this bust, became Dictator of Rome near the end of 82 BC, retiring in 79 BC.
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In the name of restoring the mos maiorum — the “customs of our ancestors” in classical Rome — and the nominal authority of the Senate, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, made Dictator of Rome by senatorial acclaim under the watchful eyes of his occupying army in the first century BC, similarly annulled the authority of the Tribunate of the Plebs — the nearest thing the republic then had to direct representation of its ordinary citizens. Contemporary humorists said of this act that it left the tribunes of the plebs with the power to assemble and play dice.
(Herein very probably lies the precedent used by Octavian when, after winning the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, he was appointed dictator by the Senate, to which he then restored nominal supreme authority, although it was understood that this was an anodyne fiction; in reality, absolute power belonged to the now Emperor Augustus and would thereafter become hereditary.)
This was one among numerous constitutional “reforms” ordained by Sulla, almost all of them aimed at securing his own power, punishing the followers of his great rival, the relatively liberal seven-time consul Gaius Marius, and advancing the aims of the reactionary Optimates at the expense of the more democratic Populares. The intended effect was to deprive the plebs (the ordinary citizens) of any role in government and consolidate wealth and power in the aristocratic patriciate.
Last hurrah: On 20 April 1945, Adolf Hitler celebrated his last birthday by honoring his loyal Hitler Youth.
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After a populist start in which his party feigned socialist aims, Hitler found his path to power eased by corporate sponsorship. With the full-throated and deep-pocketed support of industrial oligarchs, including the most powerful media corporations of the time, he was able to expand his audience from local rallies to the whole of Germany, although even this was not sufficient for him to win election to the chancellorship until after he’d already assumed power and an uncontested media monopoly. Once in office, Hitler repaid his benefactors by so structuring the German economy that they could rely on unprecedented profits and government suppression of any labor opposition.
As we see, the pattern is not a new one. But its implications for the health of our republic are ominous, given what history has shown us.
Don’t overlook the contentious comments section following this story. In it you’ll see something all too familiar: Corporate-funded “personas” (in this case chiefly “SW Michigan Resident”) posting in stories about politics, economic policy and the environment in an attempt to defuse public alarm about pathological behavior by government and industry. But such astroturfing no longer passes unremarked: Here you will see it laid bare and eviscerated.