November 18, 2011
We all claim concern with the truth. This is the case even for those individuals dominated by delusion: the delusion exerts a powerful psychological effect precisely because the sufferer believes the delusion to reflect accurately certain aspects of the world as it exists independently of him. And when we speak of political matters, we all maintain that our analysis and prescription for action correspond to the facts. In public life, it is rare that a person deliberately and knowingly lies about a matter of significance over an extended period of time and does so successfully, all the while being aware that his version of events is fundamentally false. The chances of detection are too numerous, especially when there exist a multiplicity of avenues by which facts can reach the public, as is true today with the reach of the internet (at least for the moment, and until the ruling class settles on an effective means of control and censorship). Even in earlier periods, the problem lay not so much with the availability of information, but with how that information was interpreted and offered for consumption. As one example, see the discussion here of the Pentagon Papers, noting Arendt's observation (which was forgotten by almost everyone when they employed the Pentagon Papers episode as a point of reference for criticizing WikiLeaks on the grounds that its releases contained no "surprises"):
What calls for further close and detailed study is the fact, much commented on, that the Pentagon papers revealed little significant news that was not available to the average reader of dailies and weeklies; nor are there any arguments, pro or con, in the "History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy" that have not been debated publicly for years in magazines, television shows, and radio broadcasts.I find one particular demonstration of how long the road before us is to be especially frustrating, even maddening, at the moment. Everywhere you turn, you see repeated invocations of "a return to the Constitution," pleas for the resurrection of "democracy" as envisioned by the Founders, demands that we as a society revive "true Constitutional values." Statements of this kind will regularly be encountered on both the right and left. Among many progressive writers and those who are sympathetic to the Occupy movement, you will often hear such pleas coupled with outrage at the fact that government has been entirely taken over by the wealthiest and most powerful -- and, they will usually maintain, this takeover has most significantly occurred in the last several decades. Thus, the solution to the current calamity is, among other elements, a return to that earlier Paradise, when the Constitution as originally envisioned held sway. After all, why was the American Revolution fought in the first place?
My title is intended as a corrective to this widespread, indeed nearly uniform, delusion. For a brief moment -- a very brief moment -- a "revolution" might have taken place. But the wealthiest and most powerful Americans were not about to let that happen: they saw the chance to enshrine their power in a country all their own, and they took it. What killed "democracy" in America? What gave the government over to the wealthy and powerful?
The Constitution. Of course.
The American Change in Management (formerly known as the "American Revolution," and we should work to make that "formerly" an actuality in usage) surely ranks as one of the more effective propaganda triumphs in history. The Constitution is the sacred embodiment of "government of the people, by the people, for the people..."? The government established by the Constitution was the indispensable means by which the ruling class established its dominion over the new nation and sought to ensure the continuation of that dominion into the future. That government was created by and for the benefit of a very small number of privileged individuals; the vast majority of "the people" were struck from the ranks of those with whom it was concerned in any positive sense.
The Constitution created a government of, by and for the most wealthy and powerful Americans -- and it made certain (insofar as men can make such things certain) that their rule would never be seriously threatened. The most wealthy and powerful Americans were the ones who wrote it, after all.
Yet all our problems would be solved if only we returned to "real" and "true" Constitutional values. I suppose it's a blessing of sorts that I enjoy comedy so much.
The excerpts that follow are from Terry Bouton's Taming Democracy: "The People," the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. The first passages are from Chapter 4, "The Sheriff's Wagon: The Crisis of the 1780s." The similarities to our own time are striking: widespread, systematic foreclosure has always been a chief method by which the ruling class consolidates and expands its power. (In these excerpts, I have omitted footnotes and the highlights are mine.)
When it comes to symbols for the spirit of 1776, Pennsylvania has almost a monopoly. After all, it is home to the Liberty Bell, Valley Forge, and Independence Hall. It was the location of the First Continental Congress and the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence. These symbols speak of the triumph of liberty and democracy and have been celebrated, with good reason, by Americans ever since.And from Bouton's concluding chapter:
There is, however, another symbol of the Revolution that complicates the ending to the traditional story. And although this symbol has disappeared from cultural memory, in the years after the War for Independence, it was to many Pennsylvanians the most potent icon of the Revolution's outcomes. The image was this: the heavily loaded wagon of a county sheriff bearing the foreclosed property of debt-ridden citizens. The power of this icon came from its ubiquity. During the postwar decade, the sheriff's wagon could be seen nearly everywhere. With its load of foreclosed property, it struggled up the narrow gullied roads of the backcountry, groaned along the wide smooth lanes of the Delaware Valley, and rattled down the bumpy cobblestone streets of Philadelphia, the richest city in the new nation. As was to be expected in a largely agricultural society, the wagon made most of its stops at the homes of small farmers. Yet its flat wooden bed was just as likely to hold the confiscated tools of a blacksmith, the grindstone of a miller, or the inventory of a small merchant. Indeed, one striking comparative fact is this: there were more Pennsylvanians who had property foreclosed by county sheriffs during the postwar decades than there were Pennsylvania soldiers who fought for the Continental Army.
[I]t is important to pause and consider more closely the people who found themselves foreclosed. A few points deserve emphasis. First, the cash scarcity brought hardship to a wide range of people across the state, not just poor backcountry farmers. Second, although the crisis hurt some gentlemen, most of the pain was borne by those of the middling and lower sorts. And, finally, property redistribution performed by the sheriff ended up greatly widening the gap between the rich and everyone else.
In the end, the unequal distribution of pain translated into a widening gap between the wealthy and nearly everyone else. Although some individuals of the middling and lower sorts may have prospered, the lowest 90 percent of the population lost ground. By 1800, most citizens now possessed far less of the state's wealth -- land, money, livestock, tools, furniture, pots and pans -- than in the past. In Philadelphia in 1780, the lowest 90 percent of the population held over 56 percent of the wealth. By 1789, they held only 33 percent. By 1795, Philadelphia's lowest 90 percent owned only about 18 percent of the total assessed wealth -- a staggering downward shift in only fifteen years.
It was the same story in the countryside.
In the waning years of the War for Independence, many of the gentry began embracing ideals and policies that they had once denounced as British "oppression." Frightened by the upheavals of war and spurred by a heightened sense of social status, many of Pennsylvania's self-styled gentlemen abandoned their commitment to extending political and economic power to ordinary folk. Instead, they adopted a new idea of "good government" based on concentrating both political and economic might in the hands of the elite. They launched a prolonged attack on popular ideals and the democratic achievements of the Revolution, attempting to undo reforms that many of them had helped to create. In this sense, the postwar period was essentially a replay of the 1760s and 1770s, with the revolutionary gentry playing the roles of Britain.Today, many of the people who complain most vigorously about the current state of affairs still clamor for a return to "real Constitutional values" and for the revival of the Founders' vision of the Republic. With very rare exceptions, their efforts are directed to the continuation of the Founders' revised version of "democracy," not to the vision with which the "Revolution" had begun.
And, like Britain had done earlier, the gentry's effort to narrow democracy created an economic crisis and provoked an intense political struggle. Elite policies strangled the economy and led to mass property foreclosures across Pennsylvania. Many people from the middling and lower sorts initiated a powerful defense of popular ideals. They launched a barrage of petitions and tried to elect reformers to office. When those efforts fell short, they used mass civil disobedience and crowd protests to advance their ideals. In this way, the postwar years became a struggle to define whose vision of the Revolution -- and whose definition of democracy -- would reign in Pennsylvania and the new United States.
Genteel Pennsylvanians joined with elite men from the other states to create a new national government designed to be a stronger barrier against democracy. The new federal Constitution removed many economic powers from the states (like the ability to print paper money) and imposed new demands (like requiring debts to be paid in gold and silver), which effectively outlawed most popular reforms. At the same time, the Pennsylvania gentry replaced the 1776 state constitution with a new 1790 charter that mirrored the checks on democracy in the federal Constitution. State leaders then directed this new government toward enhancing the wealth of the elite and dismantling the rings of protection that ordinary Pennsylvanians had built to protect their communities. Ordinary folk continued to resist, even going so far as to close roads across the state. But they remained unable to mobilize in ways that would bring the changes they wanted. In 1794, when western farmers finally began organizing the state to oppose the new order, Federalist leaders became so threatened that they provoked a conflict to prevent ordinary folk from uniting. The final defeats came when armies marched in 1794 and 1799, solidifying a victory for the elite founders' vision of the Revolution.
It would be an enduring victory for the elite.
In terms of the practice of democracy, the defeat helped to confine democracy to forms of political self-expression that did not overtly threaten elite interests. The Revolution had convinced many ordinary Pennsylvanians -- and common folk across the colonies -- that they had a right to monitor the government, to shape policy, and to regulate the government if they believed that their leaders were not responding to the popular will. For these people, politics was not just about casting ballots -- indeed, politics was not even primarily about voting. To them, regulating the government to act on behalf of the governed happened mostly outside the polling place. And "the people" expected to participate not just on Election Day but 365 days a year. Indeed, many Pennsylvanians believed they had a sacred right to regulate their government and that it was their duty to exercise that right to preserve democracy.
The founding elite attempted to obliterate that idea of politics during the 1780s and 1790s and to confine political self-expression within an electoral system replete with barriers against democracy. Undoubtedly, the most powerful barrier was the new federal system that placed a tremendous organizing burden on anyone pushing reforms opposed by the ruling elite.
Along with radically scaling back the practice of democracy, the defeats of the 1780s and 1790s also weakened democracy's meaning -- primarily in the way the elite founders attempted to eradicate the idea that concentrations of wealth pose a threat to the republic. In Pennsylvania, the Revolution had been forged by elite and ordinary folk who insisted that a free government could only survive in a society with a relatively equal distribution of wealth. That belief had pushed the revolutionaries of the 1760s and 1770s to make wealth more equal -- or at least to repeal laws that made wealth more unequal. When many of the gentry decided during the war that concentrations of wealth were a blessing rather than a curse, they attempted to divorce wealth equality from the public's understanding of the Revolution. ... [T]he governments that emerged from the Revolution often fostered massive inequalities of wealth. At the same time, they redefined "democracy" as an ideal that could be reconciled with those disparities. By transforming democracy into a concept that encouraged uninhibited wealth accumulation rather than wealth equality, the founding elite (and subsequent generations of elites) tamed what they could not defeat. They turned democracy from a threat into an asset by making it into a concept that supported their own ideals and interests.
The comprehensiveness of the confusion can be seen even in the writings of those commentators viewed with great favor by progressives and liberal "reformers" (using "liberal" with the generally understood meaning). Appeals to the sanctity of "the rule of law" are indistinguishable from invocations of the "true" understanding of the Constitution -- for within the context of the Constitution as first adopted and the government it established, "the law" is simply another weapon wielded by the ruling class to protect and enhance its wealth and power. And yet Chris Hedges will write:
What we are asking for today is simple—it is a return to the rule of law. And since the formal mechanisms of power refuse to restore the rule of law, then we, the 99 percent, will have to see that justice is done.What we have today is the rule of law -- the rule of law as conceived and implemented by the ruling class. As is true of the State itself, the law will always be conceived and implemented by someone -- and those who conceive and implement it will be those who have the most power. This should not be a difficult point to grasp, certainly not for those who regularly write political commentary.
And we see Glenn Greenwald write this:
The book focuses on what I began realizing several years ago is the crucial theme tying together most of the topics I write about: America’s two-tiered justice system – specifically, the way political and financial elites are now vested with virtually absolute immunity from the rule of law even when they are caught committing egregious crimes, while ordinary Americans are subjected to the world’s largest and one of its harshest and most merciless penal states even for trivial offenses. As a result, law has been completely perverted from what it was intended to be – the guarantor of an equal playing field which would legitimize outcome inequalities – into its precise antithesis: a weapon used by the most powerful to protect their ill-gotten gains, strengthen their unearned prerogatives, and ensure ever-expanding opportunity inequality.The law has not been "perverted." The truth is exactly the opposite. "The law" is serving the precise function for which it was designed -- to serve, in Greenwald's own words, as "a weapon used by the most powerful to protect their ill-gotten gains, strengthen their unearned prerogatives, and ensure ever-expanding opportunity inequality." This is what history tells us repeatedly, as set forth in Bouton's book and other books on the same theme.
Moreover, this must be true if we are talking about "the law" of any State at all. (See "The State and Full Spectrum Dominance" and the detailed discussion here, as well.) It is again the most obvious point that seems to remain entirely invisible: The State and "the law" will always be devised and implemented by those with the most power: that is why they are devising them and not you. To expect the powerful to erect a system that will strip them of every advantage they possess fails to comport with the lengthy testimony of history, or indeed with human nature itself.
So we are left with the calls for a return to the vision of the Founders and to a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" -- by which almost everyone means the vision as embodied in the Constitution, not the vision with which the "Revolution" had begun and which did not survive the War for Independence itself. And, as Bouton explains, the ruling elite has "turned democracy from a threat into an asset by making it into a concept that support[s] their own ideals and interests."
It is an immense triumph of propaganda. And from that perspective, you have to acknowledge: it's fucking genius.