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, the Constitution tells us that a political entity that is logically prior and ontologically superior to the written text of the Constitution exists. That entity: The People of the United States. The Preamble informs 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 as defined is 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 can perfect its country. It 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 at the time of the founding was not destined to become a citizen. The Constitution was not meant 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 Constitution was consistent with genocide. The Founders intended America to become the Empire of Liberty as they conceived it. The United States 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 erupt, 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 through our actions 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 to radically change the world 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, thought with being. 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. Making a revolution is risky, and human beings tend to be risk adverse.

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. It may refer to every actual American existing at a given time. But, its extension is much greater than that. 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 use 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. This too is nonsense. 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. The elite circulate, money purchases influence, generals and intelligence operative make plans. Politicians respond not to the discourse of their constituents, but to the cues and dollars of the lobbies and political investors who they relate to. 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 merely the president; his presidency will not transfer power to the people or The People. He will govern per his prerogatives, shaped, of course, by his interactions with others in the government and the economy.

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 raving 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…. Such a man does not need to know what he is doing. He merely needs to know that he is always authorized to do as he pleases.

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, a party-army, a fascistic aesthetic. They mostly lack grand marches save for those originating on the left. Trump does have actual fascists sitting in his shadow, persons who identify themselves as such. And he certainly embodies the Führerprinzip in speech if not in deed. But Trump and his supporters lack too many of the defining elements of the fascist political kind.

If Trump is not a fascist, calling him one degrades political discourse with useless hyperbole. But we do not need to call him one to make a point about his dictatorial inclinations. 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. He shares features with the fascists. But his nationalism is not an integral nationalism, his racism dependent on a multiethnic society, essentially divided society. Despite his claims to the country, the Trump administration will not serve the interests of the American people or even The People. The state he wants to lead, as suggested by his cabinet picks, will likely prey on many if not most Americans. His political economy looks poised to confiscate wealth from his base to transfer it to select capital owners. It might generate another economic disaster.

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 sought invest his presidency with a surplus power, 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.

Americans possessing good sense and good will need to oppose him in nearly every instance.

Quote of the day

This one comes from the word processor of the late Peter Mair:

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.

The quoted passage can be found in the opening paragraph of Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. Although his book addresses this phenomenon as it can be found in the Western European democracies, I believe that one can successfully argue that the epitome of democratic elections without significance lies in the United States. The last election which posed candidates that were clear alternatives to each other: The 1972 contest between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. And Nixon wins any comparison made with Barack Obama! Democratic accountability, and therefore political legitimacy, always eludes America’s national politicians, especially presidential candidates and winners. Because of this lack of accountability, it would be accurate to claim that America’s political elite represent the federal state to civil society and to America’s citizens in general. The happy relationship has these politicians representing civil society and the citizenry at large in the state. The founders did not care much for the common folk; they thus refused to constitutionally secure the direction and telos of this relationship such that it promoted representative government.

Quote of the day

Serge Halimi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, wrote:

Some revelations come as little surprise. It’s not really news that some politicians love money and like to spend time with those who have lots of it. Or that they sometimes behave like a caste that is above the law. Or that the tax system favours the affluent, and that the free circulation of capital enables them to stash their cash in tax havens.

The disclosure of individual transgressions should lead to scrutiny of the system that created them. But in recent decades, the world has been changing at such a pace that it has outstripped our analytical capacity. With each new event — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), technological advances, financial crises, Arab revolutions, European decline — experts have fallen over themselves to announce the end of history or the birth of a new world order.

Beyond these premature birth and death notices, three main, more or less universal, tendencies have emerged which warrant initial exploration: the marked rise in social inequality, the disintegration of political democracy and the decline of national sovereignty. Every new scandal is like a pustule on a sickly body: it allows us to see each element of this trio re-emerge separately and operate together. The overall situation could be summed up thus: governments allow their political systems to drift towards oligarchy because they are so dependent on the mediation of an affluent minority (who invest, speculate, hire, fire and lend). If governments balk at this abandonment of the popular mandate, international pressure from concerted financial interest ensures they topple.

Oligarchy, Halimi suggests, is scarcely incompatible with a modern democracy. Both can coexist within a social system. This point, the uncomplicated compatibility of oligarchy and democracy, has slowly moved to the forefront since December, 1991, the moment at which Bush the Elder’s New World Order emerged in its purest form. Our modern oligarchs rule indirectly, by capturing a political elite which, although elected by the demos, depends on the former for resources and guidance. The oligarchs thus rule because of the political power generated by their enormous wealth.

The United States, of course, provides a special case of this general condition. Today it is the only global empire, an unmatched military colossus and a country which sits beyond the rule of law, according to its self-understanding. It also remains exceptionally wealthy and provides the world with its commonly used reserve currency. Sheldon Wolin depicted it as having an inverted totalitarian system, that is, as an ‘as if’ democracy embedded within an empire and a stagnant economy. Democracy in America today produces results that mostly affirm oligarchic demands, a system of markets strongly distorted by finance capital and the prerogative powers of the security-surveillance apparatus. A political commitment to economic austerity and massive wealth inequality, to the imprisonment of the poor as a means of social control and to imperial domination at home and abroad makes the United States a leader among the many countries committed to this kind of democracy. Democratic elections remain in effect. They are, however, ineffective mechanisms for holding the powerful accountable. They are, instead, noisy spectacles which generate a weak kind of political legitimacy for the governed and a politically effective legitimacy for the social system as a whole. This system legitimating originates in the common realization that little to nothing can be done to successfully resist the irresistible force which is society.

Americans ought to consider these points before they vote, whenever they listen to their political leaders and when they wonder how they can make it through the year.

A council appears and speaks

The document found below the break was authored and democratically approved by the NYC General Assembly, the political body which originated in the #occupywallstreet protest. So that there is no mistake about this matter, I wish to point out that the appearance of this document should not be construed as a response to those protest critics who assailed the protest for lacking focus. Rather, the Declaration of the NYC General Assembly should be identified as the product generated by a movement-in-formation and by a direct form of democratic will-formation. Neither conform well to soundbite journalism that is common today. Members of the press will fail to appreciate the nature of this kind of popular politics if they compare it to the many well-organized and scripted events produced by Astroturf organizations. As Gil Scott Heron memorably put it: “The revolution will not be televised.” It will not because television can only record the effects a revolution produces, not the revolutionary event itself! The revolutionary event merely refers to the gathering of and communication between like minds who will no longer tolerate injustice.

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Quotes of the day

These issued from Noam Chomsky’s pen:

Support for democracy is the province of ideologists and propagandists. In the real world, elite dislike of democracy is the norm.

And:

It is normal for the victors to consign history to the trash can, and for victims to take it seriously.

Noam Chomsky at the World Social Forum in 2003...

Chomsky at the World Social Forum in 2003

Bankers running amok

Economist Dean Baker points to the world-befouling relationship between a modern and minimalist democracy and a modern central banking system:

The worst part of this story is that these fundamental decisions about economic policy are made by a small, secretive clique operating largely outside of the public’s purview. Central bank decisions on interest rates are likely to have far more impact on jobs and growth than any of the policies that are debated endlessly be [sic] elected parliaments. Yet, these decisions are made largely without democratic input.

In fairness, politicians bear much of the blame for this situation. They established institutional structures that largely place central banks beyond democratic control. There is probably no bank that is as insulated from the democratic process as the ECB, in large part because of its multinational structure, but all the central banks in wealthy countries now enjoy an extraordinary degree of independence from elected governments. In many countries they are even more independent than the judicial system.

Even worse, the politicians have actually mandated many central banks, like the ECB, to pursue an inflation target to the exclusion of other considerations. This gives the central bankers a license to throw millions of people out of work in order to chase their obsession with inflation.

Giving the central bankers free rein to chase inflation targets could perhaps be justified if they had a track record of success, but they don’t. The world economy stands to lose more than $10 trillion in output because of the central banks’ failure to stem the growth of the dangerous housing bubbles.

Baker’s story identifies more than a democracy deficit. It also points to a multifarious accountability deficit. Who, after all, policies the world’s central bankers? Anyone? They are not even constrained by the markets they would govern, at least they ignore the market system in the short-term. Over the longer-term….