Our Caesar

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

As we can see from the passage quoted above, with respect to the Constitution there exists a political entity that is logically prior and ontologically superior to the written text of the Constitution. That body: The People of the United States. The Preamble tells us that Americans have the authority to make and unmake the Constitution, and thus the laws derived from it. The People can thus wash away centuries of constitutional, common and statutory law; of institutional development and forms of life that make up traditions hardened by time. The People are the ultimate source of every legality known to Americans. They are this source because they are empowered to give themselves constitutions, laws and institutions that endure — or not. The People embodies a natal power. Thus considered, The People is a revolutionary and even a counter-revolutionary entity. It can be both because it has the authority to create or destroy, affirm or deny whatever it wants. Vox populi, vox Dei.

Yet, like God, The People never actually appears as such. It is neither here nor there. It is everywhere but nowhere (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, pp. 126-158). It is real and unreal, active and dormant. It appears in time but is timeless. At best, The People, like God, appears in and can be identified only through the acts of mortal men and women, persons much like members of the ‘natural aristocracy’ that produced the Constitution of 1787. As we know, these men produced a Constitution that reflected the personal and social defects of those who wrote it. We know this because the Constitution defends the prerogatives of the capital owner and of men in general. It placed artificial restrictions on those who would become citizens. A human being living in the United States was not destined to become a citizen. It did not intend to constitute an all-inclusive polity. It produced instead a republic that secured the moral idiocy of individuals who would radically exploit and dominate others without regret or much legal consequence. We know this because it defended slave owners while containing the elements needed to defend imperial expansion, industrial development and the financial supremacy of the capitalist class. The Founders intended America to become the Empire of Liberty. It was meant to be exceptional. As consecrated, it contained within itself everything needed to produce the crisis currently found in the United States.

My point stated in different terms amounts to this: The Constitution of 1787 made a fool and bigot like President Donald Trump both possible and thus actual.

Fortunately, the Constitution also gave posterity some of the resources needed to put down a Donald Trump. And the Preamble gave us the moral authority to abolish the institutional legacy produced by the Founders and their product, the Constitution. We can always begin anew.

That said, the potential power encapsulated in the abstraction we call The People is infinitely greater than any political power a fraction of the people could ever generate to topple a Trump and the capitalist democracy he now leads. Revolutions are rare, after all. They are members of an empty set when we restrict set membership to post-war capitalist democracies. The set is empty because revolutionary movements do not directly issue from conditions of general suffering among the lesser people. If misery alone were sufficient to cause an insurrection to occur, then insurrections and revolutionary situations would be far more common than peace, even in prosperous countries like the United States. But misery offers many lessons to those who suffer. For instance, it can teach obedience to whomever has the ears to receive this message. If one doubts this, one needs to consider only the fact that voluntary servitude is the fate of nearly everyone under capitalist conditions. We moderns know all too well that it is not wholly irrational to prefer one kind or degree of misery (wage labor) to another (destitution). Daily we affirm the belief that it is better to live on our knees than to die on our stomach. Apart from the involuntary servitude problem, history teaches us that insurrectionary political projects can come to nothing or worse. Wanting or needing a radical change does not make a revolution inevitable or even inevitably successful during those rare instances when revolutionary movements emerge. Only a God combines a pure potential with actuality. Human beings, relatively powerless as they are, often lack the resources or opportunities required to realize their collective projects. They may find collective action problems to be unsolvable, their opponents too powerful, the circumstances unfavorable.

We can see from the above that any appeal to the people— or The People — contains within it the use of an empty or floating signifier. These, by definition, refer to words, terms or other signifiers that lack referents. They refer to imaginary beings, products of consciousness and culture encapsulated in and expressed through language or another system of signs. The People is an empty signifier. In the best case, living human beings may invoke it because they have a political project that promotes radical reformist or revolutionary politics as a goal, projects that can be affirmed by any reasonable person. They can lay claim to the natal power of The People. Such a project intends to make the abstract concrete, to make a world better by combining the moral resources provided by The People with the practical activities, plans and experiences of existing persons, members of the people. Such a project would include creating unity from diversity under specific circumstances. In its best sense, The People reflects what an actual collection of reasonable persons, well-informed and humanely disposed could do given the situation they encounter. But an appeal to The People also contains its baser uses. These uses may occlude real differences among the people (asserting a false unity) or uses such differences that may or do exist to exclude some individuals or groups from the domain specified by the term, The People (Juden Raus, Whites Only). Thus, real Americans are never… and do not include… and cannot tolerate… and will never become….

When Donald Trump claimed that “…today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People” he spoke nonsense, as he is prone to. Why is it nonsense? For one thing, Trump’s presidency lacks democratic legitimacy. It is true that he won an election, but his victory was the product of a very defective democratic mechanism. He thus cannot rationally claim a mandate democratically derived from the votes cast last November. He cannot because he enjoyed neither a majority nor a plurality of those votes. Most Americans still do not care much for him, as his inauguration and the post-inauguration protests made plain. The Electoral College gave us Trump. The College does not perfect democracy in America, it defeats it, and intentionally so.

Secondly, Trump might want to claim that he is the symbolic representative not just of the people as we know them today but also of The People properly conceived. I will say more about this claim below.

Third, despite Trump’s victory, America retains its political system divided by constitutional law and long practice, one devised to defend capital and slavery from popular influence, one intended to prevent the formation of ‘tyrannical majorities’ that threaten the empire of liberty. Today this system is characterized by national and international institutions that few citizens can influence in any tangible way at all. The elephant mostly goes wherever it wants even though mosquitos would want it otherwise. Put differently, the power realized by these institutions endures whether the people support them or not. This means, sadly enough, popular sentiment in the United States has never tamed the federal government, the nation’s political economy or its nearly autonomous security-surveillance apparatus. Political and social alienation have been the norm and will remain so despite Trump’s vacuous proclamations to the contrary. He is the president; his presidency will not transfer power to the people or The People. He will govern according to his prerogatives, shaped, of course, by his interactions with others in the government.

So, given these three problems, how might Trump’s assertion make sense? It has whatever sense it has when it is construed as Trump claiming he embodies the will of The People as elected by individuals who are authentically American, who, presumably, are white, male, employed, etc. Trump inconspicuously claimed to be the symbolic representative of The People, itself a symbol of sovereign power. It is this move that makes a Trump presidency disturbing. Given his personal habits of mind and body, which is to say, given his megalomania, and given the impossibility of his transferring tangible or institutional power to the people, it is easy to see that Trump proudly stands in the shadow of a specific form of political power and can refer to the power when he makes presidential decisions: The lawless power of The People. As a putative realization of that power in the United States today and as the holder of an office vested with astonishing institutional powers, Donald Trump vested his actions with the authority specific to he who makes every law, whose actions are beyond reproach, whose deeds cannot be nullified except by himself. Lest we slip into complacency here and treat Trump as ranting fool who does not know what he is doing or saying, let us recall the writings of Carl Schmitt: “Dictatorship [of this sort] is omnipotence without law: lawless power” (Schmitt, 2014, p. 110). Donald Trump — a God among men….

Trump is not a fascist. He does not claim to be a fascist and does not promote fascist doctrine. He does not lead a massively popular movement that identifies itself as fascist. Nor does he lead a fascist party. America’s streets lack violent squads. They lack grand marches save for those issuing from the left. Trump does have actual fascists sitting in his shadow. But he does not need to be one himself. Calling him a fascist thus degrades political discourse with hyperbole. But fascism is just one horrible political system among many belonging to the authoritarian kind. Trump is dangerous. He is an authoritarian nationalist, racist and conservative, probably of the neoliberal type. The state he wants to lead, as suggested by his cabinet picks, will likely prey on the American people. Befitting a predator, Trump flouts the law while worrying his opponents with his reckless acts and proclamations. When he took hold of the presidency, he claimed the authority of a sovereign dictator by invoking The People. In this he claimed to have a surplus power invested in his presidency, power that he may realize if he wishes (or can). Because of his pretentions, personal foibles and the circumstances in which he made his claim, Trump stands as a threat to the rule of law (assuming it remains a feature of the American system), liberal democratic institutions (such as they are) along with the health and well-being of most Americans.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Apart from excited Trump supporters, there are few in the United States and elsewhere anticipating his inauguration with hope for the future and gratitude over his success. The fact is, if the United States had had a functioning and rational democratic polity and if the rule of law had been an organic quality of its institutions, then Donald Trump would not be poised to become president of the United States. He would be contemplating a jail term instead. Moreover, at this moment, he is slated to violate the emolument clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8), and willingly so. His willfulness is unsurprising because sleaze defined his business career, vice his personal life. More importantly, we can be certain that a rational democratic polity, namely, a political system in which a well-informed demos could significantly influence the institutions and decisions of the state, would not produce a Hilary Clinton or a Donald Trump as the only feasible candidates for president. This certainty reflects the fact that these candidates were so bad that reasonable individuals would not choose either for president. They would choose instead someone worthy of the office, picking from a candidate pool that offered defensible but different solutions to the problems at hand. How do we know they would make a better choice? We know because we identify someone as reasonable because they consistently act reasonably.

Consider Trump’s adversary. Just like Hillary Clinton’s preferred opponent, crime and corruption, incompetence and hypocrisy stain her persona, and presumably her soul. Her Foundation functioned as a bagman for the influence she peddled. As the First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, she produced a record composed of imperial war-making and genocide, of rapacious attacks on the subordinate classes and groups, of the transformation of the welfare state into the carceral state and of the waste of capital by Wall Street. Today, Hillary and Bill Clinton, along with Barack Obama, stand before the world as the faces of a country suffering an irreversible decline, and of a state much more dangerous to its citizens and others than any state known to us. It is exceptional only in the dangers it makes real.

Amazing as it may seem, given the power vested in the office they sought, Americans despised both candidates. This hatred included some of their partisan ‘allies.’ At times, candidate Trump appeared as though he wanted to ruin the Republican Party. He attacked his opponents as well as party regulars. Naturally, his party reciprocated. It now appears obvious that a large fraction of America’s security-surveillance apparatus want to destroy him. Likewise, the FBI, or a fraction thereof, attempted to wreck Hillary Clinton late in the campaign. She clearly harmed her party through her tainted primary victory and her decisive loss to a buffoon like Donald Trump. Along the way she alienated the leftwing of her party with her arrogant march to defeat, treatment that continues with the post-election faction battles occurring across the country. And she, along with the party elite, seemed to have learned nothing from their defeat. They blame others (Russia and Putin!) for their failings. They believe they were stabbed in the back by the FBI, Sander’s supporters and Green Party members. They fail to realize that their grafting of neoliberalism and identity politics works well only when the country enjoys a bubble inflating. They have only indifference, patronizing gestures and a mailed fist whenever the bubble deflates. Neoliberalism does not play in hard times. Only a simpleton would believe otherwise. Enriching the already rich, empowering the already powerful — neoliberal nostrums require heavy doses of ideological foolishness, narcolepsy and nativist bluster to swallow, when making ends meet becomes a difficult problem. Even ideology and identity fail when capitalism torments the electorate, who vote with their pocketbook even when they choose to follow this or that charismatic leader. Like any candidate, the neoliberals need voters once they spend their billions on a campaign. They need to offer something to the electorate. They need democratic legitimacy. Even running against a Donald Trump could not put Hillary Clinton in office, she the charmless Princess of negative charisma. As a system politician, she offered nothing but more of the same.

Despite his triumph, most Americans do not care for Donald Trump. Because of this his electoral victory amounts to a personal defeat. He did not win the popular vote, and he lacks democratic legitimacy because of it. He is a populist lacking popular support. His inauguration might become a social disaster. Few wish to attend, applaud and cheer. Musicians break agreements to abandon him. Hollywood ridicules him. His cabinet nominees disgrace themselves when they appear before Congress. The CIA and MI6 collude to spoil his already damaged reputation. He may quit the job, Congress may impeach him or an assassin kill him. The bar is set low.

I suspect that we may be living through a decisive moment in American history. By decisive I mean it is a time pregnant with the promise of radical change. I am not alone in this regard. The duopoly party system that emerged after Watergate, a regime that expressed the neoliberal turn in the nation’s political economy, is all but spent. It never had a defensible moral compass. The needle of its political compass always pointed to Hell. To my mind the Obama administration provided the farcical endgame for this regime. He was a system politician, and for most Americans, that system came to be a source of worry and debt, of a better future that would never come. I also suspect that many Americans believed Obama would deliver a politics that realized the hopes he elicited from them on the campaign trail. He would not be another phony leader. He would follow the path set by Martin Luther King, whose name Obama invoked. His reforms would make their lives better. But Obama was a phony. For Obama, King provided a symbol he cynically appropriated, not a model for a political ethos. He thus gave America another failed presidency, reckless war-making, surveillance and a rawer form of capitalism. Out of his failures and their hopeless some Americans looked towards a Trump, some towards a Sanders. I leave it to my readers to judge whether the sociopath or the fellow traveler would make successful presidents under present circumstances, when radical change confronts us.

Chomsky on state power, domestic surveillance and ‘national’ security

Writing for In These Times, Noam Chomsky offered the following observations about the kind of security sought by the security-surveillance state:

In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.

Snowden elaborated that “The public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.”

The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle.

The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined — severely so, as officials assert.

There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it’s almost completely predictable: When a government’s act is exposed, the government reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information.

A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes that “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting 54 terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason.

“This was a lie, however. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.”

A similar conclusion was reached by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, established by the government to investigate the NSA programs and therefore granted extensive access to classified materials and to security officials. There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness — namely, security of state power from exposure.

The basic insight was expressed well by the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington: “The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”

Indeed, power does decay when made public, and we may recall here that Huntington was a leading figure of the excess of democracy movement (1970s) which sought to rehabilitate and secure state authority after federal institutions had weathered poorly the many political crises of the 1960s. American democracy was thought to be a burden for those governing America, according to these analysts. The governors could not govern if the governed refused to affirm governmental power. Today, on the other hand, the ‘excesses’ of an energetic civil society do not trouble much America’s national political institutions. The latest crisis of American democracy has another cause:

Is there a new crisis of democracy? Certainly, the American public seems to think so. Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.” By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

With trust goes authority. When trust is lacking, when citizens no longer believe their representatives, the wielders of power necessarily find themselves placed on a slippery slope with illegitimacy sitting at the bottom of the plane. If the American democracy is now in crisis, this crisis would have little or nothing to do with democratization efforts originating from below. The crisis is not a by-product of the Tea Party or Occupy movements. Nor has it issued from anti-system tendencies within the duopoly parties or from an emerging anti-system party the existence of which effectively threatens the American political system as such. Rather, the crisis originates instead in the anti-democratic qualities which now define governmental institutions in the United States, qualities which elicit mistrust in the governed. The federal government is neither responsive nor responsible, neither accountable nor transparent. Its failures are many, sometimes obvious and often painful for its citizens as well as for others subject to its operations. It has earned the mistrust it enjoys, for it is more akin to an automaton than a place where citizens gather in order to govern themselves.

updated 3.11.2014

America’s democracy deficit

It is reasonable to expect the democratic mechanism — the vote — to produce results which reflect the aggregated will of the electorate. In the United States this goal is rarely achieved because of the majoritarian, winner-take-all system (plurality) commonly used therein. A system of proportion representation better captures the diversity of active political positions in a society. The United States, of course, has a plurality system, and one notable feature of this kind of voting system is its propensity to produce a two-party system. Such a system limits feasible voting strategies to choosing candidates from one of the two major parties. The United States today has a party system that can be characterized as a party duopoly. Moreover, this duopoly has degenerated to such a degree that America can be reasonably characterized as an inverted totalitarianism, an apolitical system in which policy outcomes reflect an elite consensus about what is to be accomplished. The demos typically lacks the capacity to use the democratic mechanism to alter policy. It merely provides a paper thin legitimacy to whatever government holds power.

Bearing the above in mind, consider the following data from the recent election:

  • The House Republicans now have 234 seats while House Democrats have 193. As of this moment, the Republican Party has a 41 seat edge over the Democratic Party.
  • The Republican Party tallied 53,822,442 votes in the recent House elections; the Democratic Party tallied 54,301,095 votes. The Democratic Party thus generated a 478,653 vote edge over the Republican Party.

The House was meant to be the people’s chamber…. Although candidates could seek only some House seats in the recent election and the results could change, I find it difficult to conclude that the next House will actually represent the will of the people in the government.

Food for thought

Food for thought

The political philosopher Andrew Levine recently addressed the nearly lifeless condition of democracy in America. The condition he discussed hardly affirms America’s self-identification as the world’s oldest, freest and most democratic country. Yet this sour claim resonates with the experience of many, and has real material and systemic causes which cannot be separated from the institutions which self-satisfied patriots affirm without thought or irony. These causes include a duopolistic party system with nearly unscalable entry barriers; the strongly anti-democratic features of the 1787 Constitution; the vast sums of money now spent on electoral campaigns, monies which mostly spring from the coffers of the better-off, the massive corporations and the obscenely rich oligarchs; the social, economic and political powers embedded within private institutions; and the enormous size, complexity and diversity of the American social system. These factors affect the quality of American democracy, as Levine points out:

Despite what students are told in civics classes (where they still exist) and what normative theories of democracy propose, democracy in America today has almost nothing to do with rational deliberation and debate, and very little to do with aggregating preferences or reconciling conflicting interests. It is about legitimating government of, by and for the corporate malefactors and Wall Street banksters who own Congress and the White House along with an obscenely large chunk of the nation’s wealth.

The Occupy movement has driven this point home, but it was widely appreciated long before Zuccotti Park entered the national consciousness. Why then is there no legitimation crisis here in the Land of the Free? The answer, in short, is that we hold competitive elections and, for the most part, abide by their results. Evidently, that suffices.

Thanks to centuries of struggle, we are all today at some level democrats, no matter how removed our political system is from anything like real democracy — rule by the demos, the popular masses (as distinct from economic and social elites). Democratic commitments run so deep that almost anything that smacks of real democracy becomes invested with extraordinary powers of legitimation.

This is why competitive elections have the power to legitimate even regimes like ours in which elites plainly do rule a disempowered ninety-nine percent plus of the population. Competitive elections embody a shard of what real democracy is supposed to be, and that evidently is good enough for us.

The United States of America — a land with a deep and intractable legitimation deficit (due to its democracy and accountability deficit) but no legitimation crisis to speak of, a country where the well-off and powerful fear the latent power of lesser people and where the relatively powerlessers have little input into the system which governs them. Common Americans mostly obey the laws made for them while meekly meeting the needs of their betters, a feature of the American system which affirms the status quo. The public face of this paradox will be on display this election year. One need only juxtapose presidential Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to sense the absurdity of this electoral contest, the completion of which will legally but not popularly legitimize the government thus elected. We have government with only barest consent of the governed.

This condition, ironically enough, may be compared to one which could be found in the various countries which composed the Warsaw Bloc prior to the Velvet Revolutions of the late 1980s. There one could find a depoliticized and seemingly cowed population, one which endured the policies and intrigues of an elite which they could not hold accountable in any way. Only a popular refusal to submit to authoritarian governance, when coupled to the dissolution of the Soviet imperial system, put these regimes into their well-deserved graves. Neither the Tea Party Movement, the two legacy parties, the Pentagon and the security-surveillance apparatus in general nor the coequal branches of the federal government embody the spirit of the American Revolution. That is, they are not agents of radical democratization. In the United States today, that honor today belongs to the Occupy Movement, for democracy in America can be found only when it is put into practice on the streets of its cities and towns.

As a matter of fact, the Tea Party Movement, the legacy parties, the security-surveillance apparatus and the coequal branches of the federal government are committed opponents of the democratization of the American political system.

The Congress keeps on sinking down

According to Rasmussen Reports:

Just six percent (6%) of Likely U.S. Voters now rate Congress’ performance as good or excellent, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Last month, Congressional approval ratings fell to what was then a record low with eight percent (8%) who rated its performance good or excellent.

Sixty-one percent (61%) now think the national legislators are doing a poor job, a jump of nine points from a month ago.

The demos does not care much for each party:

Most voters don’t care much for the way either party is performing in the federal debt ceiling debate. The majority of voters are worried the final deal will raise taxes too much and won’t cut spending enough.

Only 11% of voters believe this Congress has passed any legislation that will significantly improve life in America. That ties the lowest ever finding in nearly five years of surveys, last reached in January 2009. Sixty-nine percent (69%) think Congress has not passed any legislation of this caliber, a six-point increase from June and the most negative assessment ever. Nineteen percent (19%) are not sure.

And:

With divided control of Congress, neither party’s voters are very happy. Eight percent (8%) of GOP voters give Congress positive marks, compared to five percent (5%) of Democrats and six percent (6%) of voters not affiliated with either of the major parties.

The report does not reveal a population without a distorted picture of Congressional politics (“Forty-five percent (45%) of voters trust Republicans more when it comes to handling economic issues, while 35% put more trust in Democrats.”), but it may present an omen of an upcoming electoral upheaval, albeit an electoral watershed that would pass through the Party Duopoly filter.

Capital’s iron fist

After reading the transcript of Obama’s 7.11.2011 Press Conference, I would normally feel the need to say something snarky about lesser-evil voting and the ‘pragmatic attitude’ which motivates the left to throw its lot in with the Democratic Party. But there is no reason to do that now. Obama has shown himself to be such a tool that only those leftwingers who refuse to see something so plain and obvious as him would continue to support him and his party.

I suppose we can be grateful for one thing. The Democratic Party, thanks to Obama’s brutal economic project, can no longer pretend to be the party for the rest of us. It today stands tall as capital’s naked iron fist. The Republicans should stand in awe of what Obama is now proposing, of what he wants to accomplish.