- Created: Saturday, 16 May 2009 17:16
- Written by Steve Palmer
‘By freedom is meant, under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying.’
The US bourgeoisie is not sure what to do about the mess it has got itself into. The Clinton Administration of 1992-2000 laid the groundwork: destroyed almost the entire welfare system in the US, helped organize the brutal and rapacious process of primitive accumulation in the ex-socialist countries, consolidated various important trade measures, slimmed down the US military, initiated the reactionary ‘peace process’ in the Middle East and modernized infrastructure needed for the ‘globalisation’ undertaken by US imperialism. Clinton sowed the seeds, but the ruling class needed a more aggressive crew to do the reaping and harvesting. Our US correspondent STEVE PALMER reports.
What it got is the present gang of liars, swindlers, cut-throats, bullies and thieves. Sworn to defend the US Constitution, they shred it clause by clause. Professing patriotism, they betray the mass of the US people day after day. In the name of ‘democracy’, ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’, they spread tyranny, torture and repression wherever they strut.
What frightens the bourgeoisie is these hoods’ dogmatism, inflexibility and greed. They behave like juvenile delinquents. They took the Army out for a long drive and practically wrecked it: it’ll be years before it’s ready to fight another serious war. They snatched the family credit card and went on a wild spending spree, running up the massive national debt to dangerous levels. They line their pockets at every opportunity and raid the budget on any pretext. They’re locked into a war they did not need, do not understand and cannot escape. They’re replacing science, critical to capitalist wealth and domination, with mystical nonsense: global warming is a liberal myth; an ‘Intelligent Designer’ threw the world together in a few millennia. Soon it’ll be a flat earth and a moon made of cheese. They’re hopelessly inept organizers, leaving millions devastated, floundering and helpless in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. With the appointment of the utterly reactionary Judge Alito to the Supreme Court their grip on executive, legislative and judicial power in Washington is total.
The United States was not always a bastion of reaction. On the contrary: the American Revolution in the 18th century was the first modern national liberation struggle: the 13 North American colonies united to free themselves from British rule. English laws tried to restrict manufacture and trade in the American colonies. In the mid-18th century, the English Parliament tried to raise revenue in the colonies to pay its war debts. These exactions, the restraints and the attempts to regulate the colonies more strictly provoked the American Revolution. And so, when, two centuries ago, the US bourgeoisie rose in rebellion and threw off the fetters of despotic monarchy, it did so under the banner of Liberty:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government... Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes...But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.’
US Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776
It was not only ‘the Right of the People’, but also ‘their duty’ to wage revolution to end abuses and usurpations.
Barely had the ink dried on that historic parchment before the US bourgeoisie was reneging on its progressive vision. Having taken power from the English ruling class in 1783, it faced challenges from its subjects. Farmers protested against their indebtedness, culminating in an armed rising: ‘Shay’s Rebellion’ in 1786.
The US bourgeoisie consolidated its power throughout the 13 States by uniting them under a Constitution. James Madison, ‘Father of the Constitution’ warned in the The Federalist, No 10, in 1788, of the dangers of ‘the mischiefs of faction’ – basically, class conflict. Inherent inequalities in faculties between men determine the distribution of property ‘and divide them into different classes’ and interests. Since the inherent causes of class war – private property – could not be removed, ‘relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects’, wrote Madison: ‘the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property’ was ‘the first object of government’.
What if a majority chooses to sacrifice ‘both the public good and the rights [ie to private property] of other citizens’? Rejecting the dangers of ‘pure democracy’ (‘citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person’), which was ‘incompatible with personal security or the rights of property’, Madison argued that it was necessary to establish a republic, ‘by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place...the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest’. Indeed, these representatives may know better than the people what is good for them:
‘It may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves’.
A representative republic of ‘proper guardians of the public weal’ would ensure that ‘a rage 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’. Representative, indirect democracy, argued Madison, would protect private property from the ‘the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority’.
The entire Constitution is architected along these lines: the President was indirectly elected, via an ‘Electoral College’; the Senate appointed by the States, and the Supreme Court appointed by the President. Only the House of Representatives was directly elected. States already had property restrictions on voters. Consequently, women, black people, propertyless men and Native Americans on tribal land were voteless in the new Republic. A 20-year prohibition on immigration restriction was a typically genteel way of preserving the slave trade without saying so. African Americans – predominantly slaves and described as ‘all other Persons’ – only counted as three-fifths of a white man in the Constitution of the new United States. And so on.
The Bill of Rights – the ten amendments which guarantee individual rights, such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment – was only introduced as an afterthought, after the Constitution was finished, when it became clear to Madison that full ratification of the Constitution could fail without it.
In short, in various ways, big and small, US revolutionary democracy was trimmed to suit the needs of US capitalism. This trend has continued through the whole history of the nation and intensified at every crisis of the Republic. Such rights and freedoms as exist have been won only as the result of popular struggle.
The US Civil War of 1861-65 was not a struggle to free the slaves but a war to replace slavery with wage-slavery. The Northern states were the seat of a vigorous, intensive, expanding capitalism which needed free land and free labour to increase profits and accumulate capital; the Southern states sheltered the sluggish and extensive system of plantation slavery which could only lazily increase wealth by sprawling its plantations westward and enslaving more labour. Western expansion from the eastern seaboard was underway; despite its economic power, the Northern bourgeoisie’s grip on political power was still feeble; the Southern states seceded and a fight to the death between the two systems was inevitable. Freedom for slaves was simply a by-product of the struggle for freedom for capital. As President Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley:
‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it’. (22 August 1862)
Even the emancipation of slaves was only intended as a tactical threat to pressure the rebellious Southern Confederate states back into the Union: freedom for slaves was to be confined solely to those States still in rebellion against the Union after 100 days had elapsed. The Civil War was about ensuring that US capital could maintain expansion without obstruction.
Any time the ruling class has thought itself to be under threat, it has thrown the Bill of Rights into the trash can. The Espionage Act of 1917 was used to criminalize opposition to the First World War and imprison socialists, including Eugene Debs, the founder of the Industrial Workers of the World – the Wobblies. When some anarchists bombed the home of the Attorney General A Mitchell Palmer in June 1919, he rounded up thousands of immigrants who were beaten and forced to sign false confessions. The 1940 Smith Act was used in 1949 to jail members of the Communist Party. President Roosevelt authorised the internment of 110,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II, most of them US citizens. During the Cold War, Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hounded Communists and progressives for their views, jailed them and had them blacklisted from jobs. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI operated the COINTELPRO operation to spy on the Black Panthers and other progressives and engage in provocations. The US bourgeoisie only conceded civil rights to African Americans in the 1960s when they were afraid of black rebellion and insurrection in their cities. And so on and so forth down to the so-called PATRIOT Act, terrorising legislation which limits countless rights enjoyed by US citizens, and the vast surveillance operation conducted by the National Security Agency against millions of US citizens.
The behaviour of the Bush administration keeps creating new problems for the bourgeoisie and undermines its legitimacy. What is special is the degree of lying, incompetence and cronyism and the elevation of contempt for the law to a principle. Every week there are fresh outrages: torture, violations of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the ‘outing’ of a CIA agent for political reasons. Currently it’s internal surveillance by the National Security Agency, bribery by lobbyists and bringing the Supreme Court under conservative control, threatening abortion rights, civil liberties and any legal redress against capital. Next month, it’ll be something else.
The Democrats whine and indulge in hair-splitting arguments about whether the next outrage is legal or not. But what else can they do? They’re part of the same ruling class. They know that they would have done the same things, except a little more politely and diplomatically.
Clearly, with the Bush administration, the ruling class scraped the bottom of the barrel for someone to take care of business. The problem isn’t the legality or illegality of the policies, whether they are carried out crudely or with finesse or ‘without alienating allies’: there just isn’t much left in the barrel to choose from. The US ruling class has been in steady decline and is approaching its final nadir. The exhaustion of its historic mission is measured by its inability to do anything but to try to delay the inevitable crisis, that moment when we are again duty-bound to exercise our revolutionary right.
FRFI 189 February / March 2006