I recently watched the film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness, whose mighty screen presence aptly portrayed Oliver Cromwell and King Charles 1st respectively. What interested me about this piece of English history was the nature of the source of the power used by both in their in dire opposition to each other.
On the one hand you had a monarch who shared the same beliefs as his father, who once described kings as “little Gods on Earth” chosen by God to rule in accordance with the long held belief in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ making them only accountable to God for their actions. Here religion was being used as a means to power, something many have practiced over the centuries with great success, including the church.
Cromwell on the other hand was a deeply religious man who reacted against the unregulated power used by Charles, driven by a compassion for the common man (and woman) who were on the receiving end of this abuse. The sheer arrogance of the King incensed Cromwell and other members in the contempt with which he held parliament, because of his belief in his ‘divine right’ to rule.
Indeed, he twice sacked parliament and ruled uncontested on the second occasion for 10 years. This belief in his ability to exercise absolute power saw him further antagonise the country by taking a Catholic wife, thereby constantly threatening the power of the Church of England.
We all know the outcome. Cromwell fought relentlessly to uphold the rights of the common man and a democratically elected parliament, taking the country into two civil wars and Charles was eventually beheaded.
From this we can draw similarities with a despotic King John 300 years earlier, who’s abusive intolerance of his people led to rebellion and the introduction of the now world famous Magna Carta bill of rights to protect the common man from oppression. (Cromwell referred to it as Magna Farta!)
In spite of this, Magna Carta has become the rallying cry for all efforts to manage the misuse of power. It was an influencing factor in the American Constitution and during the Cold War between America and Russia we saw the birth of “This Universal Declaration of Human Rights” pushed through the United Nations in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt to champion the common man (and woman), extolling amongst other things that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. (Edward Snowden and Julian Assange ring a bell!)
What all of these solid charters identify is the ongoing problem we, as a species, have with power. Human fallibility succumbs to the trappings and status of power and from this abuse quickly follows.
Often power stems from traditions that are not encapsulated in the written word. They are simply beliefs and their vagueness allows and encourages abuse. That a King (or Government) may collect taxes for the upkeep of their country is a given but how that money is applied is the stuff of countless rebellions across the centuries.
Hence Magna Carta. Here what the King could and couldn’t do was put down on paper to identify and contain his powers. The American Constitution and many others followed suit, all of which have failed to be maintained and abided by. Writing it down is one thing but putting into practice is something we, as a species, have not yet mastered.
In this 21st century we are experiencing a new phenomenon as the abuse of power is now coming, not from religious belief in the divine right of kings but a belief in the divine right of profit. No longer is the abuse contained within a realm, it is manifesting internationally.
Its growth has been fuelled by the decline of traditional religious institutions who have lost credibility in their outmoded teachings, resulting in their subsequent loss of power. These traditional beliefs have been replaced by financial values and beliefs, which although more tangible for us to see touch and understand, lack any depth or compassion in valuing and respecting human life and this planet.
Capitalism preaches that the only merit is in PROFIT and this narrow yardstick is now used in how we handle and manage our lives. The abuse comes from the current unassailable right of corporations and banks to mismanage their own money with impunity, taking our money to subsidise their own misdemeanours, whilst penalising and controlling us financially and morally with odious debt and personal discredit through dubious credit ratings.
The raw power of Capitalism does not deal in morality and therefore allows, indeed encourages unmitigated abuse, including the abolition of democracy. With no constitution that can be meaningfully applied to constrain this growing abuse we are being driven to our own destruction, taking the perpetrators as well!
It was our ignorance in the past that fuelled our apathy at the constant mistreatment of the many by the few. We are now beginning to wake up and are no longer the ignorant serfs of just a century ago.
By looking beyond what is actually happening to us and becoming aware of the nature of what we are dealing with we are achieving understanding and with that understanding will come change.
Until the next time
Thinking from his Book: Global Magna Carta. Returning Power to the 99% . . . If They Want It! By J T Coombes