The Weekly Sabotage: Week 5

The Weekly Sabotage: Week 5

February 3, 2014

The Constitution of the United States of America

It is by now fairly clear that the Congress of the United States is a ‘do-nothing’ Congress populated by 268 millionaires (out of 534 lawmakers).   The job approval rating, depending on which poll we consider, hovers around 9-14%.  This is perhaps hardly surprising given that the Republican Party vowed to sabotage Democratic and presidential initiatives as soon as Obama became President of the United States.  But are there deeper structural roots to this inertia?  Why does Congress seem so incapacitated?  How far and in what ways could we consider the Constitution of the United States an act of sabotage by its promoters?

At first this may seem like a strange question, but if we return to the context in which the document was written we may gain some greater clarity and find out why the federal system of government is hardly responsive to the needs and desires of the majority of American people.  In fact, the Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens found that ‘influence over actual policy outcomes’ in the United States ‘appears to be reserved almost exclusively for those at the top of the income distribution’.  This was not always so, but since the 1980s the United States has, for all intents and purposes, become a plutocracy.

The first thing to remember is that the so-called ‘founding fathers’ were not debating the establishment of a democracy.  Rather, their primary concern was how to found a republic, or a state without a monarch.  According to Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy against Capitalism, the very concept of ‘representative democracy’ that the American constitution eventually guaranteed was historically new and contrary to earlier forms of direct democracy that did not alienate political power.  As she reminds us:

“We have become so accustomed to the formula, ‘representative democracy’ that we tend to forget the novelty of the American idea. In its Federalist form, at any rate, it meant that something hitherto perceived as the antithesis of democratic self-government was now not only compatible with but constitutive of democracy: not the exercise of political power but its relinquishment, its transfer to others, its alienation” (216).

So our question must be why direct forms of democracy were incapacitated and representative democracy on a federal scale implemented?  The answer to this question can be gleaned by considering the social forces at play when the Federalists took up their pens to advocate for federal government.  They were opposed by the anti-federalists who argued that the new constitution would centralize power and jeopardize the rights and liberties of individuals, localities and states.  We also have to recall that there were really two American revolutions – the first was directed at power from above – that is to say, against King George III and his parliament of propertied men.   The list of grievances against the King can be found in the American Declaration of Independence.  Yet according to Benjamin Franklin, one reason stood out (Greene and Jellison 1961: 492).  The main reason for the revolutionary war was not so much taxation without representation but the fact that George III and the Bank of England largely forbade the use of Colonial script – paper currencies popular in the colonies.  The Currency Act of 1764 sabotaged the domestic currencies and apparently caused recessionary conditions in the colonies because it restricted the money supply.   Just over a decade later, leading colonists would form the Continental Congress.  With borrowed money from France and the Netherlands, the rebellious colonists waged war against imperial Britain and by 1783 declared victory.

That was the first American Revolution.

The second American Revolution followed soon after.  It was a counter-revolution directed at the people themselves by the ruling social forces of slavery and capital.  From the perspective of the ruling class, the decades of resistance and revolution generated new threats to the social order from below – threats that made Federalists realize that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate for the task of encoding their power in institutions after the revolution.  The major fear here was that the people had become too involved in their own governance, and often initiated legislation that harmed the minority of affluent property owners.  Debt and tax relief, as well as emissions of paper money threatened the accumulation strategies of wealthy citizens.  And where state legislatures were not responsive to popular demands for relief, aggrieved citizens often took up arms in open rebellion, regularly justifying their resistance by appealing to the language of liberation spawned by the revolution.  What made matters worse, however, was the realization, articulated most forcefully by Madison, that an impending class war was perhaps inevitable.

In devising the national government of the United States, James Madison was careful to inform the delegates at the Constitutional Convention that they were not only deciding the design of republican government, but also its fate.  Whilst Madison identified a number of threats to republican government, he identified and stressed one ultimate danger: ‘the violence of faction’.  For Madison, factions were inevitable if liberty was to be preserved.  He feared, however, that ‘the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority’ might ultimately threaten the rights of the minority.  Whilst he identified a number of sources of faction, he argued that ‘the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property’.  Here, Madison was certainly concerned with the diversity of property ownership and the possibility that there would be conflicts between men of property in regards to policy.  What Madison was more concerned about, however, was the unequal distribution of property and the fact that ‘those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society’.

In this context, we do well to recall that Madison and others not only had access to political theory, but also the historical experiences of other class divided societies.  In designing the constitution, Madison realized that whilst the present distribution of property in the United States bore directly on the design of the national government, the future was perhaps more important.  He remarked that whilst ‘the United States have not reached the stage of Society in which conflicting feelings of the Class with, and the Class without property, have the operation natural to them in Countries fully peopled’, the future would be different:

In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of, property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty, will not be secure in their hands: or which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side.”

Thus, whilst the special circumstances in the thirteen newly independent states served to suppress ‘conflicting feelings’ that were ‘natural’ to the propertied and propertyless, Madison certainly anticipated a future were these conflicts would inevitably surface.  However, in perhaps one of the most telling passages in the records of the Federal Convention – records that were not released for public scrutiny until 1840 – Madison admitted that the germs of class conflict were already blossoming in post-revolutionary America:

“It ought finally to occur to a people deliberating on a Government for themselves that as different interests necessarily result from the liberty meant to be secured, the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority. In all civilized Countries the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors and debtors, farmers, merchants and manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction of rich and poor. It was true as had been observed, by Mister Pinkney, we had not among us those hereditary distinctions, of rank which were a great source of the contests in the ancient Governments as well as the modern States of Europe, nor those extremes of wealth or poverty which characterize the latter. We cannot however be regarded even at this time, as one homogeneous mass, in which everything that affects a part will affect in the same manner the whole. In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this Country, but symptoms, of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters to give notice of the future danger. How is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles? How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded against?”

What this passage reveals is not only a concern to secure the minority against the majority in the present, but also in the future.  In other words, the politico-strategic rationality that informed the constitution was not a provisional consideration of the present but a going concern to be operationalized in the very design of the national government.  Given the likelihood of a protracted class war and the possibility that more propertyless people would be enfranchised over time, answering the question of how to guard the minority of property owners against the majority of propertyless became the ultimate security problematic.  Indeed, as one student of the Constitution has noted:

“…the original focus on property placed inequality at the center of American constitutionalism.  For the Framers, the protection of property meant the protection of unequal property and thus the insulation of both property and inequality from democratic transformation…Effective insulation, in their view, required wealth-based inequality of access to political power…The inherent vulnerability of all individual rights became transformed into a fear of ‘the people’ as a threatening propertyless mass whose power must be contained (Nedelsky 1990: 2).”

Building on his theory of inevitable class conflict, Madison argued that only a larger political union could suppress majority rule and protect what he called the ‘public liberty’.  As many Anti-Federalists recognized, this was a complete reversal of republican political theory which argued that only small governmental units could protect the liberty of the people.  With the experience of some of the state legislatures in mind, Madison, however, reasoned that small governmental units were vulnerable to majority rule and factious combination.

As Holton (2005) has suggested, Madison’s strategy was to divide the population by extending the scale of government so that the minority, who could more effectively organize around issues and candidates, could rule it.  In this way, Madison argued, ‘a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project’ would be frustrated by the electoral system spanning the entire voting population.  However, the attempt to drown out popular voices was only one way of answering the question of how ‘interested coalitions to oppress the minority’ could be guarded against by a national government.  Another mechanism which proved to be of crucial importance was the creation of a national army to suppress rebellious activity domestically.  For the early liberals that informed the American political debate, standing armies were always identified with despotism.  But a standing army is exactly what the men of property wanted.    Today, they have the largest military force on the planet.

In this light we can assess the constitution of the United States – particularly given that there were more democratic options.  We can suggest that the constitution was not designed to facilitate democracy. It was designed to incapacitate it.  It is not that democracy was a threat to property per se.  It was more the case that democracy was a threat to radically unequal property and therefore radically unequal political power.

Today, 1% of citizens in the United States own 35.4% of all net worth.  The next 19% own 53.5%.  The remaining 80% collectively own 11%.

In other words, about 45.6 million adults own 89% of all the wealth in the United States.  The remaining 182,545,600 adults have 11% to split between them.

With this in mind, we might conclude with the progressive historian Vernon Parrington’s apt observation:

“…the drift toward plutocracy was not a drift away from the spirit of the Constitution, but an inevitable unfolding from its premises; that instead of having been conceived by the fathers as a democratic instrument, it had been conceived in a spirit designedly hostile to democracy; that it was, in fact, a carefully formulated expression of eighteenth century property consciousness, erected as a defense against the democratic spirit that had got out of hand during the Revolution, and that the much-praised system of checks and balances was designed and intended for no other end than a check on the political power of the majority–a power acutely feared by the property consciousness of the times.”

Some of this post is excerpted from my ‘Empire of Liberty and Domination’ now published in Gill and Cutler’s (eds) New Constitutionalism and World Order.