CXXXI – What Lies Ahead?

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[A]
civilization can be defined at once by the
basic questions it asks and by those it does
not ask.

~ Andre Malraux

There
is a booming silence on a topic of enormous
importance to the entire world. Like friends
and relatives who gather at the bedside
of a terminally-ill person — none daring
to let the word u201Cdeathu201D pass o'er their
lips — there is an unwillingness to openly
contemplate the future of the American state.
There are the inquiries into questions that
have long been rendered irrelevant: will
the Democrats regain control of Congress?
Who will be the presidential candidates
of the two major parties in 2008? But no
questioning that takes one outside the circle
of conventional thinking.

People
will sooner note that their automobile is
in need of a major overhaul or replacement,
than observe that the politically-structured
society in which they live has about run
its course. All of the axioms taught to
us by high school civics class teachers
are being brought asunder by forces we were
assured could never arise in America. Were
we not blessed by the combined virtues of
u201Cconstitutional government,u201D u201Cdemocracy,u201D
u201Cchecks and balances,u201D a u201Cbill of rights,u201D
the u201Crule of law, not men,u201D and, above all
else, the fact that America was God's favorite
country? Didn't our constitution assure
us that we had finally overcome the threat
to lives and liberty that governments have
always posed to mankind?

It
should be evident to any thoughtful observer
that constitutionalism — as a system
for limiting political power — has proven
a failure. What began as an abstract proposition
— an untested theory — has been refuted
by historical experience. It would be a
gross distortion of facts to lay the blame
for such dashed hopes on George W. Bush
alone. His administration is but the logical
extension of the dangers inherent in the
dual proposition upon which political systems
rest: that the state enjoys a monopoly not
only on the lawful use of violence, but
on the power to define the extent of its
authority.

A
major weakness in Western culture is its
preoccupation with abstract thinking. The
Constitution is comprised of words,
the most abstract of our tools. The problem
is that, no matter how much precision we
try to employ, there will always be a gap
between u201Crealityu201D and the words we use to
describe it. As such, language is always
subject to interpretation. Because
of their abstract nature, words can be interpreted
in self-contradictory ways that allow us
to integrate foolishness into our sense
of reality. When we can think of u201Csoldiersu201D
as u201Cpeacekeepers,u201D and the bombing of cities
as the establishment of u201Corder,u201D our minds
are set for the acceptance of all kinds
of delusions upon which political power
rests. The consequence of this was well-noted
by Voltaire: u201CAnyone who has the power to
make you believe absurdities has the power
to make you commit injustices.u201D

No
one has better understood this elusive nature
of words than Lewis Carroll:

u201CWhen
I use a word,u201D Humpty Dumpty said,
in rather a scornful tone, u201Cit means just
what I choose it to mean — neither more
nor less.u201D u201CThe question is,u201D said Alice,
u201Cwhether you can make words mean so many
different things.u201D u201CThe question is,u201D said
Humpty Dumpty, u201Cwhich is to be master —
that's all.u201D

Despite
the gossamer nature of words, most of us
ascribe an almost magical power to their
use. Thus we are able to believe that the
writing of words on parchment can restrain
those who enjoy a monopoly on the use of
force and who, like Humpty Dumpty, are to
be the masters of the meaning of such words.

If
our thinking was influenced more by an experientially-based
awareness of consequences implicit in our
actions, and less by logical deductions
drawn from abstract principles, we might
avoid many adversities that reason, alone,
cannot contemplate. Those who drafted the
American constitution were doubtless as
well-read, well-motivated, and thoughtful
men as one would expect to find in any political
undertaking. Even with the grasping hands
of such men as Alexander Hamilton helping
to weave its structure, the Constitution
was probably created with the best intentions
for which minds, fashioned by the u201Cage of
reason,u201D might hope: a rational means for
limiting state power.

The
framers' dreams of a political system grounded
in the illusion of a u201Csocial contract,u201D
and ruled by reason and fail-safe mechanisms
to restrain power, has morphed into the
realpolitik of the modern state. When the
state is given the power to interpret words
that define its authority, institutional
self-interest will ensure constructions
that serve state purposes.

It
is neither abstract principles nor reason
to which we ought to refer in assessing
the shortcomings of u201Cconstitutionalismu201D
and u201Climited government,u201D but to historic
experience. Long before George W. Bush came
on the scene, Abraham Lincoln had demonstrated
that the constitution was no barrier to
tyranny in America. FDR was another major
contributor to the expansion of governmental
power, with the participation of the Supreme
Court. Following landslide election returns
for Roosevelt in 1936, coupled with his
proposal to enlarge the membership of the
Court in order to get more favorable decisions,
the Court rolled over, in 1937, to accept
the u201Ccommerce clauseu201D as a vehicle for virtually
unrestrained federal authority.

Nor
can we overlook the fact that Mussolini
governed under a constitution in Italy;
or that Hitler came to power, through democratic
means, under a German constitution. Spain
had a constitution, at the time of its civil
war, which did not prevent Franco from seizing
power. Nor ought we to forget that the Soviet
Union had a constitution — adopted in 1936
— that bore remarkable similarities to the
American version. Constitutions, in other
words, do not have a favorable history in
limiting state power and assuring individual
liberty.

Borrowing
from Oliver Wendell Holmes' classic observation
that u201C[t]he life of the law has not been
logic: it has been experience,u201D the realities
of the twentieth century, alone, should
have taught us what abstract reasoning was
unable to teach the Founding Fathers. Institutional
interests produce a dynamic of their own
that cannot be channeled by words. Anthony
de Jasay grasped this point quite well in
noting that u201Ccollective choice is never
independent of what significant numbers
of individuals wish it to be.u201D Herein lies
the Achilles' heel of constitutionalism.

The
American state does not reflect the image
we have been conditioned to see. The political
system and its processes are under the control
of major corporate interests, whose ownership
of major media outlets propagandize the
public on behalf of such narrow interests.
The appearance of a democracy collapses
into the reality of a one-party system —
the u201CEstablishment Partyu201D — which, election-after-election,
provides voters with choices between Tweedledum
and Tweedledummer. So-called u201Cpopular democracyu201D
long ago faded into a plutocracy,
with only the independently wealthy having
a realistic chance of getting elected to
high office. Nor did the election returns
of 2000 — in Florida — and 2004 — in Ohio
— instill confidence in the voting process
itself.

That
corporate interests might take over the
state apparatus was considered, by the framers,
less of a threat to a free society than
was the fear that the electorate might become
mobilized to despoil the rich of their wealth.
Just such a concern underlay the Supreme
Court's 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison,
in which the court crafted, wholly out of
air, its power to pass upon the constitutionality
of acts of Congress. Reason, combined with
justifiable fears arising from the French
Revolution, led thoughtful minds to distrust
a democratically based electorate.

Experiences
garnered from the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, however, revealed an opposing
threat to liberty. Centralized state power
was more of an attraction to those with
concentrated economic interests —
e.g., corporations — than it was to those
whose interests were more diffused
— e.g., consumers. If, for example, the
federal government was considering a measure
that would raise the price of milk by ten
cents per gallon, a family that drank one
gallon of milk per week would end up having
to pay $5.20 more for milk each year. Even
if householders were aware of such a proposal,
they would have little incentive to oppose
it, as any such effort would cost them more
than the planned price hike.

For
milk producers, however, the incentives
for political action are quite different.
If Americans drank, let us say, three billion
gallons of milk per year, this government-mandated
price increase would enhance their revenues
by some $300,000,000 per year. It is the
nature of the state — which centralizes
authority in vertically-structured power
systems — that explains the phenomenon of
corporate domination of government. With
the courts giving expansive definitions
to state power, and restrictive definitions
to individual liberty, those with concentrated
economic interests will enjoy an advantage
over those with diffused interests.

Whether
the framers ought to have foreseen the symbiotic
relationship between concentrated political
power and concentrated economic interests,
need not concern us here. It is sufficient
that history has revealed this lesson to
us, and demonstrated the fallacy of relying
upon a faith in abstract principles to override
self-interested ambitions. We have the benefit
of empirical evidence to inform us that
constitutionalism has been proven a functional
failure in limiting state power.

Those
who doubt this verdict on constitutional
government need look no further than Washington,
D.C. for confirmation. A president lies
with impunity in order to rationalize his
predetermined goal of attacking Iraq, a
country that had neither harmed nor posed
a threat to America. He has admitted violating
a federal statute banning surveillance of
American citizens, and expresses his intentions
to abide by only those laws he regards as
useful to his ends. He has violated international
treaties, and his administration continues
to defend the u201Crightu201D to engage in torture
or to hold people in prisons for months
or even years without trial or other recourse
to the courts. He rules by whims reflective
of the interests of his masters, and justifies
his actions in terms of the u201Cinherent powersu201D
of the presidency, authority that is nowhere
spelled out in a constitution of supposedly
u201Cspecifically-enumerated powers.u201D At various
times, Mr. Bush has expressed his preference
for being a u201Cdictator,u201D comments that have
generated almost no concern. In his allusions
to being God's choice for the presidency,
this man conflates Louis XIV's view u201CI am
the state,u201D and Hegel's proposition that
u201Cthe State is god walking on the earth.u201D

What
has been the response of the legislative
branch of government? The framers intended
Congress to be the locus of sovereign authority
in the constitutional scheme, and yet —
with few exceptions — this body has proven
itself little more than a round-heeled collection
of hand-puppets. Shortly after 9/11 — and
at the behest of the White House — Congress
enacted that most expansive source of domestic
power, the Patriot Act, voting it into law
without waiting for the language to be drafted,
without reading the entire text, and without
the benefit of committee hearings. Matters
have gone downhill ever since.

With
the exception of a few people of integrity
— such as Sen. Russ Feingold, and Reps.
Ron Paul, John Conyers, Barbara Lee, and
a few others — most House and Senate members
exhibit the liveliness of the clientele
of a cryonics facility! Do you understand
why the British Member of Parliament, George
Galloway, was inundated with requests to
move to America to run for the Senate, following
his impassioned public dismantling of Sen.
Norm Coleman and his committee? The contrast
between Mr. Galloway's energized spirit,
and the whiney, wimpy Sen. Joe Lieberman
— who epitomizes what most of Congress has
become — tells you much about the collapse
of representative government in America.

Perhaps
no clearer example of the moral and intellectual
bankruptcy of Congress has been exhibited
than in the response of most members of
that body to Sen. Feingold's bill to censure
Pres. Bush for his admitted crime of violating
a federal statute prohibiting the wiretapping
of Americans without a warrant. His bill
has received very little support even
from Democrats. The Democrats minority
leader in the House, Nanci Pelosi, said
she u201Cunderstands Sen. Feingold's frustrationu201D
about the surveillance program not being
disclosed to Congress. Instead of being
incensed at a president who openly defends
his violation of a statute, Ms. Pelosi can
do no more than understand the u201Cfrustrationu201D
of those who take their legislative roles
seriously.

Even
the media — once regarded as the watchdog
over government — has turned into its lapdog,
eager to sit up and beg for whatever
morsels of information the state wishes
to make public, and to roll over on command.
With the exception of a John Stossel, a
Chris Hedges, or a few others, the major
media is lacking in vigorous, truth-seeking
journalists. Most honest journalism is performed
by largely independent chroniclers of events
such as Seymour Hersh, John Pilger, Alexander
Cockburn, Amy Goodman, and Robert Fisk.
The Internet is rapidly replacing print
and television news as a source for truth.

This
is what so-called u201Cconstitutional governmentu201D
in America has become. It is commonplace,
among professionals in Washington, that
going before Congress with pleas grounded
in constitutional principles is pass. The
days of Jefferson and Madison are far behind
us, and the specter of autocratic rulers
who listen only to voices they like to regard
as God, now rule by their sense of u201Cdivine
right.u201D

Whether
we shall enjoy liberty in America, or whether
we shall continue living under a system
with no more elevated purpose than the employment
of unrestrained violence in pursuit of the
materialistic ends of those enjoying such
power, is a question individuals will have
to ask of themselves, . . . and soon. We
can no longer afford the absurd delusion
— brought about by our efforts to reconcile
the contradictory nature of the political
system — that the Constitution is what keeps
the government from doing all the terrible
things it does.

At
some point, Americans will — like most members
of a lynch mob – become aware of just
how foolishly they have behaved since 9/11.
Even a drunk eventually sobers up and assesses
the damage he inflicted while in his besotted
mind. In doing so, the nature of the political
system that has long ruled this country
must be examined. At a time when decentralizing
forces are bringing about the collapse of
vertically-structured institutional systems;
and when horizontal networks of spontaneous
and autonomous order are emerging, the corpse
of constitutional government needs to be
laid to rest.

But
such an effort will require moral and intellectual
courage and integrity on the part of individuals.
We must begin to ask the kinds of questions
we have been trained not to ask.

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