The Death of the American State

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This is the way the world will end;
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
~ T.S. Eliot

The impending death of the Bush empire has been the subject of some recent thoughtful articles. Such a prognosis seems well-founded, but greatly understates the broader implications of our current situation. It is the American political system, itself, that appears to be in a terminal state. Intelligent minds need to focus on the question: if this government collapses, what will be the nature of the social systems that replace it? Will the state, itself, survive and, if so, will it be in the same constitutional form as the present system?

Had the American state initially become a monarchy — as many thought and hoped it might — Americans might have become as conditioned to accept the autocratic power of a ruler as they have to believe in the illusion of a democratically-controlled state. George W. Bush might then have been accepted, in the popular mind, as the continuation of the u201Cfine traditionu201D going back to England’s George III, or even Henry VIII.

But America embarked on a different rationale for governmental power, derived from the liberal sentiments of individual liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Political authority was no longer to be justified in terms of the u201Cdivine rightsu201D of rulers, but only as an expression of a mythical u201Csocial contractu201D supposedly entered into by millions of free persons. Thus was a written constitution crafted as the expression of this alleged u201Ccontractu201D between the state and its citizenry. Governmental power was to be limited, and the protection of individual liberty paramount, as the stated purpose of this constitutional republic.

Such intentions were never taken seriously by most men and women with ambitions over their neighbors, as was evident from the start and continues today. State power has been in the ascendancy, and individual liberty in decline, for many decades. It is erroneous for anyone to blame George W. Bush for this collapse of the constitutional model: he only represents the most recent and dramatic extension of long-unquestioned statist premises. Those who were shocked when Bush declared the Constitution u201Can old scrap of paper,u201D are unaware that he was echoing the sentiments of the Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, who defended the World War II power of President Roosevelt to imprison Japanese-Americans. u201CThe Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me,u201D McCloy declared. Unfortunately, there was no Internet around in the 1940s to make the public aware of the attitudes of their rulers!

If one were to judge the success of the American constitutional state in limiting state power by the same standards we would apply to a medical procedure, or the success of a business enterprise, we would readily admit to its total failure. The American state has evolved into a thriving contradiction of the announced expectations of a constitutional republic. Washington, D.C., has been a combination slave-market, fencing operation for stolen property, and street-corner gang long before the current gang of racketeers took over.

The politically-ambitious want the rest of us to never wake up, but to cling to the remnants of a hazy dream that monopolistic power can somehow be restrained. You will soon hear them chanting their mantra of the need for political u201Cchangeu201D in America. The Democrats will replace the Republicans and the dream restored. What childish nonsense, particularly when decades of such supposed u201Cchangeu201D has brought about no more reform than what was implicit in Frank Chodorov’s characterization of those u201Cwho want to clean up the whorehouse, but keep the business intact.u201D Political u201Cchange,u201D within the confines of the existing system, has never amounted to anything more than bringing in a relief pitcher from the bullpen in an effort to save the game for the home team.

The entire concept of constitutionalism has failed in its fundamental purpose: to restrain state power in order to prevent tyranny from arising. Had more of us been paying attention, we would have understood that this failure was implicit in a system in which government (a) enjoys a monopoly on the use of force, and (b) has the authority to interpret the scope of its constitutional powers. This fact did not escape the notice of Lord Macaulay who, on the eve of the American Civil War, observed that u201Cyour Constitution is all sail and no anchor.u201D A similar insight has been offered more recently by Anthony de Jasay, who noted that u201Ccollective choice is never independent of what significant numbers of individuals wish it to be.u201D

The collapse of the foundations of the American political system has been compounded by the internal failures of Constitutional safeguards: the legislative branch, the judiciary, and the bulk of the American public, went into a simultaneous, collective collapse in the face of George Bush’s grasp for what he has repeatedly expressed as his desire for a u201Cdictatorship… just so long as I’m the dictator.u201D The bulk of the major media — long thought of as an aggressive watchdog of the state — has become, through incestuous inbreeding, little more than a whining, obedient lapdog.

Of course, there will be those who, weighing more heavily the rantings of Faux News babblers over the lessons of history, will be unable to digest the idea that the American state might ever go into an entropic collapse. Like relatives gathered at the bedside of a terminally-ill Uncle Willie, they will prefer to comfort themselves with platitudes that he u201Cwill be up and around in no time.u201D But any system that relies on violence, lies, distrust, and force of arms to hold itself together, has little future.

There is a remote chance of the American political system being able to right itself, albeit temporarily, and return to some semblance of integrity long since lost in years of deception, violence, and deceit inherent in the state. No political system will ever be able to overcome its internal contradictions. But in the short run — which is the only place politicians prefer to play their games — the American state could regain a modicum of credibility among the American people and the rest of the world. If Congress were to impeach President Bush and any other members of his administration responsible for conducting the Iraq war and, upon their removal from office, have such individuals — along with all advisors — arrested and turned over to an international tribunal for prosecution as war criminals, the modern state might retain a sliver of a chance to overcome its present plight. An analogy to Newton’s u201Cthird law of motionu201D might suggest that only an exaggerated response to an exaggerated transgression of propriety by the Bush administration could restore — at least in the minds of the myopic — a limited confidence in the system.

Bear in mind that I do not advocate such an approach: I am eager to see the state collapse of its own dead weight, and prefer no heroic efforts at resuscitation. I believe it is time for humanity to abandon the idea that the institutionalized violence that is the state confers anything of value to mankind. Neither am I anxious to confer super-state powers upon international political bodies. But the course I mention does have a very slim chance of success.

On the other hand, I have no illusions that anyone within the political establishment will ever suggest such a bold proposal. With but a few exceptions, members of Congress are too complicit in the actions which they would be forced to condemn. Nor would members of the political establishment — whose special interests are advanced through the violence, bloodshed, and despoliation by state forces — ever permit any fundamental challenge to its privileges. Apart from a handful of courageous souls — such as Ron Paul or Russ Feingold — there are few members of this body with sufficient integrity to propose a course of action simply on the grounds of moral rightness.

And, so, the upcoming elections will provide us with what prior elections offered: new-and-improved candidates with new-and-improved messages. But, like the selling of detergents or corn flakes, the new product will consist of nothing more than a repackaging of the old, replete with new commercials. What remains of the voting public will be urged — by media parrots and others — to participate in the collective hallucination of voting. Those who refuse to join in this electoral debauchery will be condemned for u201Callowing terrorism to succeed,u201D or for disrespecting u201Cthe sacrifices of the young men and women who died on the battlefieldu201D to protect the u201Cfreedomu201D of Americans to participate in the meaningless ritual of voting.

Two years from now, the media will be feeding us a steady diet of the message that choosing between John McCain and Hillary Clinton will be a watershed event in American history; that the outcome of the 2008 elections will u201Crestore confidenceu201D in the system, . . . this time for sure! The question is whether, by that time, the outcome will really matter.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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