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

As a response to the post-Boston Lockdown euphoria, Andrew Levine writes:

For anyone who watched the World Trade Center collapse on television in the days after September 11, 2001, the repetitive display of pictures of the terror attack on the Boston Marathon was déja vu all over again.

Not having been there, I can’t judge the mood, but reports of the demonstrations after the capture of nineteen year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were disturbingly familiar too. The chant — “USA, USA” — recalled the reaction to the news that Barack Obama’s assassins had finally gotten to Osama Bin Laden and dumped his body into the sea — in time for the upcoming elections.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. As in New York and Washington after 9/11, the crowd was surely expressing solidarity with the victims and also relief that the ordeal was finally over. Civic pride, an estimable virtue, was on display too.

And even if the demonstrations had a jingoistic tinge, people cooped up inside all day watching Wolff Blitzer can justifiably plead mitigating circumstances. It requires fortitude to endure mindless commentary masquerading as journalism — cable news, in other words — and not run amok.

Greek tragedies, those of Aeschylus especially, recount the (fragile) triumph of civilization over primitive longings for revenge. This is the basis for the rule of law and the monumental advances that follow from it.

Too bad for us, and for the world, that, under the leadership of our two twenty-first century Presidents, the Lesser Evil one especially, we Americans seem to be abandoning lessons learned nearly two and a half millennia ago.

It isn’t just the rule of law that George W. Bush and Barack Obama have put in jeopardy. Under their leadership, ours is becoming a “civilization” that, without shame, uses revenge as a pretext for war.

It would be wrong to claim that war-making is the only project at which the United States excels. The United States mostly loses the wars it fights. To be sure, the Pentagon can destroy states and societies. But it leaves wastelands ruled by militaristic kleptocracies in its wake.

And what of Boston today? Levine continues:

An entire metropolis in lockdown? Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of militarized police arrayed against a lone wounded kid who, it turns out, was bleeding almost to death under a tarp covering a boat in someone’s driveway?

Austerity got left behind. Millions for the illusion of “homeland security,” not one penny for anything that actually makes people better off!

Events like the Boston Marathon Bombing and its aftermath are as significant as they are bizarre. They point to a future wherein the security-surveillance apparatus often and openly impinges on America’s somewhat civil everyday life, that is, to a future moment when our inverted totalitarian system becomes an obvious dictatorship. This is one implication that can be identified in the massive official response to the wounded fugitive, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaev brothers were considered members of Boogey Man’s legion. Uncle Sam — Superpower! — had to take the revenge in order to cleanse himself of the stain generated by the bombing. The prodigious waste of money involved was as necessary as the initial dénouement, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture. There is always money ready at hand for such projects, even in an age of planned deprivation.

Recommended: Why the Anti-Mursi Protesters are Right

In a recent article author Ahmad Shokr persuasively argued that the opponents of the Morsi dictatorship are right to oppose his government, his dictatorship and the constitution he and his allies wish to impose on Egypt. Shokr develops his critique by rejecting three common claims made by defenders of and reporters on the Morsi coup d’état. They are:

  • “The rival camps in Egypt embody a divide between Islamism and secularism.”
  • “Islamists are authentic representatives of the majority of Egyptians.”
  • “Mursi has made great strides toward civilian democracy and his downfall would mean a return to military rule.”

The first two claims are internally related. Shokr considers false the claim that most of Morsi’s opponents are secularists bent on thwarting the creation of an Egyptian state which legally expresses Islamic Law (or shari‘a). Morsi’s opponents are, according to Shokr, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, not political Islam as such. The differences between the sides are political, not religious. (Parenthetically, it cannot be stated as a matter of settled fact that political Islam is a kind of anti-democracy or that Islamists necessarily oppose democracy and liberalism. This belief is rapidly becoming a self-serving canard for Islam-haters, and should be rejected as a reality obscuring prejudgment). In other words, the conflict roiling Egypt is not confessional; the opponents are, in fact, Muslims.

It follows, then, that the Muslim Brotherhood are not the authentic representatives of the majority of Egyptians. Their politics does not exhaust the possible forms political Islam could have in Egypt.

That said, the origin of the current conflict ought to be obvious:

By granting himself sweeping powers and rushing to call for a December 15 referendum on the new constitution, Mursi has given Egyptians a stark choice between being ruled by an unrepresentative constitution or by a dictator. Many have refused this kind of political blackmail. Leading opposition figures, many of who were dissidents under Mubarak, have called on Mursi to revoke the decree and open the constitution drafting process to broader input. Egyptian human rights groups have almost unanimously echoed these demands. Tens of thousands who joined the protests that brought down Mubarak are back on the streets. Their fight is not for an ill-defined secularism so much as it is for political inclusion and democracy.

As Shokr points out later on, Egypt is diversely composed, and many components therein have refused to accept the dilemma Morsi wants to impose on them: Dictatorship or constitutional imposition. Egypt’s constitution ought to reflect the existence of this diversity if it wishes to avoid illegitimate government and another revolutionary spring.

Finally, it cannot be said that Morsi’s actions were meant to secure Egyptian democracy against a military apparatus wishing to directly rule the country. Nor can it be said that the Morsi government gained an electoral mandate to impose its will on the country. What can be said, according to Shokr’s analysis, is that the Muslim Brotherhood has already collaborated with the military to secure the military’s prerogatives under the constitution and to protect the military by providing a buffer zone between the military and Egyptian civil society. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government are collaborators with institutions which pose intrinsic threats to Egyptian democracy and the rule of law.

The stakes are high, and can be encapsulated in this predicament: Will Egypt complete the transition from Mubarak’s authoritarian regime to a consolidated democracy or will it eventually — soon — produce another authoritarian regime, this one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, its allies and the military?

As of this moment, Egypt’s military has already suggested that “disastrous consequences” (read: martial law) may result if the conflict continues. To be sure, this tacit threat benefits Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

Birth of a dictator

It has been widely reported that Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has claimed new and extensive powers, doing so, it has been stated, in response to impasse of Egypt’s Second Constituent Assembly and to persistent street violence. An English language version of Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration can be found here. His subsequent explanation for his deed: “He told… [his followers] he was leading Egypt on a path to ‘freedom and democracy’ and was the guardian of stability.” We should interpret his actions while remembering that coups affirm neither democracy nor stability. They do, however, affirm the coercive power of the state.

Morsi’s auto-golpe will replace the rule of law with rule by decree and, to be sure, Egypt’s transition to democratic governance with a putatively limited dictatorship. Obviously, secularists and those groups who wish for or need social and political pluralism fear the instauration of a constituent dictatorship serving the interests of Egypt’s Islamists or the sectarian interests of the Freedom and Justice Party. Some have already taken their opposition to Morsi’s recent coup to the street. We should recall here that Egypt’s revolution originated in a divided society and that Morsi gained the Presidency with a thin victory margin in a runoff election. He has, at best, only weak popular support, although we might suspect that the recently purged Egyptian Armed Forces affirmed the November 22 coup. So far, the United States has only faintly criticized the coup.

Situations like this can end badly, as recent history has so often demonstrated.

The well-armed DHS

The Department of Homeland Security, another dubious post-9.11 artifact, recently ordered 450 million rounds of .40 cal. hollow-point bullets from the defense contractor ATK. The quantity ordered is massive when compared to the current population of the United States (estimated to be 309M as of 2010), and immediately raises questions about the purposes to which this ammunition will be put.

The quality of the item purchased is also questionable because these bullets serve only one purpose: To efficiently kill human beings. Because this kind of bullet is so destructive and deadly, the Hague Conventions of 1899 banned its use in international war.

David Lindorff asked some of the relevant questions generated by this disturbing news:

First of all, why does the DHS need so much deadly ammo? Are they anticipating a mass surge over the Mexican or Canadian border that would require ICE agents to slaughter the masses “yearning to breathe free”? Are there so many terror cells in America that they feel they need to be ready for a mass extermination campaign? Or are they worried that eventually the quiescent and submissive US population will finally decide it’s had it with the crooked banks and insurance companies, and are going to start taking the law into their own hands, so that the government will have to institute martial law and start gunning down masses of citizens?

If not any of the above, it seems to me that the order for 450 million rounds of ammunition, hollow-point or not, is pretty wildly excessive.

But secondly, I’d suggest we need to rethink this domestic obsession with killing. In the U.K., police are not routinely issued hollow-point rounds. Many other foreign police agencies also do not use them. Here in the US though, they are standard-issue for cops on the beat.

Finally, when it comes to Homeland Security, the situation is really different [than the kind of situations faced by most law enforcement officers]. Most of the gun-toting officers working for Homeland Security are not in the business of chasing down vicious killers. They are ICE officers who are going after border crossers, TSA personnel who are patting down air travelers, and the Federal Protective Service, who are really glorified building guards tasked with protecting federal property.

The work these armed personnel do can on occasion be dangerous, I’ll grant, but for the most part their work does not require killing people or dodging bullets. Do we really want them shooting to kill with hollow-point bullets?

The DHS has yet to publicly defend its purchase of this product. While its silence is unsurprising in the current political situation — which is defined by excessive governmental secrecy, global war-making, expansion of the security-surveillance apparatus, prosecution of whistleblowers, erosion of civil and political rights, suppression of popular dissent, etc. — it is disturbing in its own right, for a federal agency quietly and unnecessarily arming itself to the teeth provides just another data point among many which shows the United States abandoning the rule of law, a modern public sphere and a modern civil society.

Is it too soon to identify the government of the United States as a terrorist state?

Related articles

A dictatorship gestating

Reuters reports that (h/t to Glenn Greenwald who wrote about this matter):

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

And:

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.

Keith Olbermann on the Debt Deal

N.B.: The United States is not a dictatorship — yet.