Following the election of Donald Trump, there are multiple calls for change being issued regularly. Yet despite this desire to change the system, it is slightly bemusing to me that quite a few people have no familiarity with anything written about governance prior to the birth of Marx. I understand that reading materials authored by slave-owning sexist genocidal aristocrats like the Founding Fathers might seem a tad reactionary but it actually is useful to know some of this. This in particular is one thing I felt was missing from Steve Early’s recent Counterpunch column.
I would like to highlight for consideration a little ditty known as Federalist Paper No. 10. This particular piece is worth contemplating because it speaks to the phenomenon we in America call the two-party system, the duopoly. My Penguin Classics paperback includes a useful paragraph in the Introduction written by Isaac Kramnick:
The Federalist was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, who enlisted James Madison and John Jay in his journalistic effort to persuade the voters of the New York State ratification convention that they should ratify the new Constitution of the United States. For the next ten months, with but a two-month break in the spring of 1788, two and sometimes three times a week a new number of The Federalist would appear in as many as four New York City newspapers. “Publius,” the collective pseudonym used by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, would produce some 175,000 words in defense of the new federal Constitution.
No. 10 is a paper that deals specifically with the notion of factionalism. Those of a more Marxist inclination might be intrigued by how, like in Das Kapital, James Madison uses the notion of property as the basic kernel upon which society is built. From here he discusses the idea of political factions and how to guard against them exerting too much power even if in a majority.
This is a fascinating document because it, like the Constitution, predates the proportional representation system described by John Stuart Mill that defines the European parliamentary model. As such, it has a different set of rules and logic to it. Mill in fact said in his Considerations on Representative Government that “It is an admitted fact that in the American democracy, which is constructed on this faulty model, the highly-cultivated members of the community, except such of them as are willing to sacrifice their own opinions and modes of judgment, and become the servile mouthpieces of their inferiors in knowledge, do not even offer themselves for Congress or the State Legislatures, so certain is it that they would have no chance of being returned.” This is important to grasp as Mill did. The duopoly is not just a symptom of capital or greed, it is built into the system.
The Founders understood quite clearly what they were doing when they wrote the Constitution. They knew that they wanted to have capital behave in a certain way to maintain a semblance of domestic tranquility. The desires and interests of capital would polarize and its constituent owners would congregate on one side or the other. From there they would both work to come to a consensus on how to best wage class warfare against the working classes, which in turn would polarize and divide based on interests correlating with what they required as their means of production, namely urban industrial or rural agrarian needs.
The selection of a President itself is just part of this larger system of class warfare. Thom Hartmann has described it as the “first to the pole, winner-takes-all” electoral college. It is designed intentionally to not allow the functions of a coalition government or a shadow cabinet. As a direct result, you have another bifurcation, the winners and the losers. This is why America has never been able to break out of the two-party system, though it tried.
Consider these examples for proof.
First, you have the Whigs, who used to oppose the Democrats. By 1854, they had collapsed under their own contradictions into a left wing of anti-slave industrialists and right wing nativists called the Know-Nothings. Within seven years, the left wing of the Whigs would form a big-tent party that included Free Soilers, abolitionists, and other radicals so to elect Abraham Lincoln. The Radicals in the party, clustered around men like Thaddeus Stevens, were calling for every freeman to be given 40 acres and a mule. Yet within 14 years of the Confederacy’s defeat, Reconstruction was abolished and the road to Jim Crow laid. Why? It is because the system is designed not to serve the people, it is designed to serve capital. Even with a whole army overseeing martial law and African elected officials, it was not enough in comparison to the might of America’s capital system. While the racist Dunning scholars argued for a generation that Reconstruction went too far, the real failure is that they did not go far enough.
Second, consider the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer Labor Party, which for all intents and purposes is just a constituent of the Democrats. America’s heartland has been de-industrialized and eaten away by big agriculture, leaving the union worker and the farmer so desperate the difference between Clinton and Trump’s vote tally was 43,946. How can this be? Madison provides a clue in a final passage of No. 10:
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States: A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the National Councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State. [Emphasis added]
The DFL Party mimicked its northern neighbors in Canada when it was founded and tried to be an advocate for the common man. But this passage makes it clear such a project is antithetical to the basic logic of the American project, namely the protection of capital in the guise of parliamentary politics. Why is this so?
The reason is quite simple and returns to what Madison points out when he defines the kernel of society as being based on property. Land ownership laws in America and England are fundamentally different and were a key element that defined suffrage in the first years of the republic. In England, the common man lived as a rentier on land owned by the Lord. But owing to the fact America had no aristocracy or monarchy, suffrage was granted to land-owning white men.
However, in the 240 years since 1776, American history has been an ongoing series of populist uprisings that have continuously fought to expand the umbrella of suffrage. Every decade has seen a movement for social change fighting for greater access to the ballot, whether it was for slaves or women, and then the ability to take on an economic dimension enabling a political career. Yet again and again it is always as it is intended to be, capital maintains its paramount position despite any efforts. What makes Donald Trump therefore so undeniably American is that his retrograde utterances and policy desires, not to mention the veritable rogues gallery of neoconservative third string players he wants to put into his Cabinet, are exactly at home in a system that was designed by eighteenth century land-owning genocidal gentlemen. Sorry liberals, but he actually is your president.
It is not that the Greens and Libertarians, like the Radical Republicans and Farmer Laborers before them, are doing something wrong. It is that the entire edifice of the electoral system, including the electoral college, is designed to always safeguard capital from any efforts within the population to break its hegemony. The system was designed with self-activating mechanisms within it, like booby traps in an INDIANA JONES film, to prevent any inroads against capital from being made. Therefore, anything at all that tries to make an assault on capital through the venue of federal electoral politics is doomed to failure because of how rigged the system is to prevent this.
Why did they do this? It is pretty simple for those who have read Gerald Horne’s work and are not beholden to Old Left Popular Front schematics of the American Revolution as a step towards progress. In the late 18th century, capital recognized very clearly that the epoch of absolute monarchy was coming to an end. The imperial system, loaded with contradictions and brutalities, was going to be the death of the British, Spanish, Dutch, and French systems and the constitutional monarchical system, with its democratically elected parliaments of common men, was a serious threat. And so like a big-time political player today who donates to both parties in an electoral contest, it hedged its bets. The Founders used the American Revolution not to make further inroads against capital but to further preserve it using a Constitution that created the illusion of parliamentary politics while actually maintaining a feudal system without those bothersome aristocrats and their inbred family dramas.
Adolph Reed touched on this last summer in an interview by Benjamin Dixon when he argued that a lot of radicals are simply mistaken about the nature of neoliberalism. He explains that the truth is that neoliberalism is not an aberration. Instead, the welfare state, the epoch spanning from the New Deal until the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the actual anomaly. If one looks back at the real things Franklin Roosevelt said in public and puts aside the apocryphal stories about him being a closeted admirer of the Soviet Union who counterfactually would have never gotten us into the Cold War, he was actually a fiscally conservative person who was opposed to social welfare spending. This makes his infamous Roosevelt Recession, when he tanked the stock market by cutting New Deal programs suddenly, seem like it was not because he was a genial but rather clueless drunkard (although he was those things when it came to economic policy) as much as because he was desperately opposed to what was a populist grassroots revolution, led by radicals of all stripes, which was courting a genuine proletarian coup against capital.
Ergo, the welfare state as we known it over the past 75 years has been nothing more than a peace offering to placate the masses while capital regrouped and reformulated their tactical strategy while knowing all along that the American Constitution itself, the very foundation of our political order and therefore the worldwide imperial system, was written to protect their interests without any doubt. This is why Mill’s parliamentary proscriptions have been allowed to pass in the rest of the world except America and why the Chinese Communists have behaved as they do since Mao died. Imperial capital, focused in the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate) at this moment, knows that as long as the American Constitution is in place, Wall Street is protected forever from any electoral politics doing it serious damage because Madison himself said so in Federalist No. 10.
And so we yet again turn to the son of a Russian public educator and echo his famous question, what is to be done? Surrender to the lesser of the two evils and try to get as many black and brown faces in high places as Chomsky, Reed, and others argue?
First we need to emphasize one point here regarding the election. Anyone with a shred of objectivity at this moment, which is pretty rare right now, can walk away from the past 18 months and say that a massive boondoggle unseen in American history on this scale has just taken place. One party, the Democrats, in coordination with a tremendously irresponsible and absolutely biased media, carried out the most profoundly stupid series of moves one could imagine. They quite intentionally and knowingly behaved in a way so that the Republican Party would nominate Donald Trump, a man with zero experience in any form of governance at all. That itself is an act that defies the logic of a grade schooler.
Then, these very same two groups, the Democrats and the media, did everything to piss on not just the most likely winner of a face-off with Donald Trump, the contemptuous and cowardly Bernie Sanders, they more importantly pissed on his voter base. When that happened, a significant number of his supporters in key swing states made the completely understandable kamikaze-style “all-or-nothing” decision to vote for the guy who conned half of America into thinking he was going to pull off an economic miracle while backstage he was lining up for a transition team and cabinet positions the absolute worst freaks and kooks from the previously-discredited neoconservative wing of the GOP. Now the media, in the name of presenting the Democrats, who have just gotten us into this mess, as saviors who will get us out of this mess, are quite intentionally and without a shred of decency scaring the ever-living shit out of the vulnerable and marginalized people of this country who if anything need to be getting very solid advice that any rational adult would argue should include putting the people in charge of these groups, the media and the Democrats, into the friggin’ guillotine. And also the lords of capital.
I say guillotine because that is where we need to go to actually go to change things. Slavoj Zizek, who prior to the election like most of the sane world thought Trump had no chance, said it best, “[H]is victory would have created a totally new political situation with chances for a more radical Left—or, to quote Mao: Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”