Friday, March 05, 2010

Reflections in a Dark Room – Part 3

Obama is not the problem – we are.

I’ve been re-reading the “Anti-Federalist Papers” trying to get a feel for what the FFs were thinking as they gathered in the spring and summer of 1787 to hammer out a constitution. One pleasant surprise is that James Madison, acting as scribe and reporter of the various players, was possessed of a very trenchant wit. His sly observations on the speakers and their opining liven up what might easily have been a lugubrious exercise.

Three things come across, very clearly:

These were men who had thought long and hard about the issues being raised. Many of them warned against exactly the condition of corruption of the body politic we find ourselves in today.

They were men in and of their time. That is, they were aware of history and were glad to take example or make example of historical solutions to the problems besetting them.
By the same token, they were not able to see themselves clearly, in situ, nor were they aware of what was to come. (Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”)

..and fourth, Jefferson was in Paris. A tragedy in my opinion, we would never have had to make the first ten amendments had he been present, for one thing, and I can’t help but think that the Constitution would be a much better document than it already is.

Two things should be taken into account when thinking about this time, these men and the work they wrought.

First, the context of the time. That context comes in several flavors depending on what we’re looking at.

Politics: the French Revolution hadn’t happened yet. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were still blithely coasting along with le Ancien Regime, unaware of the gathering storm. Marat, Danton and Robespierre were just dots on the political horizon, Napoleon was undreamt of.

Economics: The Industrial Revolution in England was just picking up steam [heh, heh!] and the textile mills were beginning Great Britain’s voracious appetite for raw materials which would lead them to found the greatest empire ever known (southern American cotton fields were part of the mix that fueled the American Civil War in the next century).

Legal: American jurisprudence was still based, in large part, on English Common Law. This ancestry was the story of a seesaw class battle (in Marxist terms) between the peasants (now the proletariat) and the Upper classes (in the person of the King). Nowhere in this mix was any consideration of, or thought given to, the corporation.

All of which leads us to my next point:

It was not possible for the framers, given their milieu, to comprehend, much less anticipate, the mind-numbing reach and power that would be amassed by deathless, faceless, amoral, avaricious, irresponsible corporations.

Neither could they have anticipated the nigh-logarithmic advances in science and technology that have occurred over the last 221 years. James Watt had received a patent on his steam engine only 8 years earlier, Morse’s telegraph (the first global internet) was 50 years in the future.

The point is that we have gone into legal/political/moral territory that constitute another dimension insofar as an 18th century viewpoint is concerned, enlightened as they may have been. We may not be their equals but I think we’re at a point where we have no choice but to try.

We need to take this system apart and glue it back together again, with a few improvements. Until recently I thought that a third party (and a 4th and a 5th party) would be enough to upset the duopoly that now exists but the corruption has spread too far and too deep. With the system as it now stands no individual can remain uncorrupted, no new party can be effective against the power now entrenched. Good luck to the Tea Party, btw, I’d love to be proved wrong on this.

What we need now is a reset - a full stop, down tools, wildcat strike, to hell with the bosses and the union reps too kinda reset. The US has run for 221 years on a pretty good set of rules but times change and so does circumstance. The visionaries who created the US Constitution were, frankly, a lot smarter and wiser than anyone I see around today but even they couldn’t anticipate the kinds of changes that have taken place in the intervening two centuries. We face a lot of the same threats they faced then but we also face some they could not have dreamt of. Corporate structures vaster and more powerful than nation-states: accountable to no one. Weapons that threaten life over the entire planet. Forget the weapons: deliberate actions by individuals and groups that threaten life over the entire planet. Crazed religious fanatics, within and without, who would kill every last person on earth who refuses to accept their creed… hmmm, well I guess they were familiar with that one.

Obama is not the problem – we are.

There is a well-trodden path for the kind of political train wreck we’re experiencing: a nation-state with a claim to some kind of democracy representing all or most citizens begins to experience broad-based stress. This can take the form of attack from without by other nation-states, economic difficulties deriving from any of a number of circumstances, internal strife created by opposing ideologies, deliberate sabotage by interested parties, general or specific corruption of internal control agencies by bribery or blackmail. Usually it is a combination of several or all of these ills that eventually breaks the system down. Inevitably, as frustration levels skyrocket, violence breaks out – which is what the saboteurs have been waiting for: some sort of insurrection begins to form and whoever is in control of the military moves in and declares martial law, massacres their enemies, sets up a tinpot dictatorship and goes merrily along their way. Alternately, there is a civil war and the victor declares martial law, massacres their enemies, sets up a tinpot dictatorship and goes merrily along their way. Or there is a general breakdown of society from, say, a biological attack and the nearest military force declares marital law… well, you get the idea.

Think of it, aside from the American revolution, just about every political revolution in the last 200 years has worked out this way: the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution (the second one), several of the so-called ‘communist’ revolutions – they all devolved into savage dictatorships unrecognizable even by their most devoted followers. There’s no compelling reason why we won’t head in that direction as well.

How do we avoid this trap of history?

We need to start seriously thinking about convening a constitutional convention.

Article V of the US Constitution:

“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” [my emphasis]

I know that ‘constitutional conventions’ (CC) sounds almost funny, like we should dress up in periwigs and frock coats, but it’s a legitimate process that we have the right to use. There are, however, some very serious questions to be asked first:

Why propose this path?

Because it’s the only thing left that will forestall the slide into insurrection/dictatorship.

Can we do it?

Maybe, the first option provided by Article V is closed to us, I don’t see any way that Congress would agree to opening a Constitutional Convention when it’s obvious that we mean to deprive them of their money and their power. On the other hand, once you convene an Article V CC, all bets are off. I notice that there several proposals in Congress purporting to deal with the ‘Dred Roberts’ decision – all of them strictly adhering to that single issue. I think they’re (justly) terrified of what would happen if the ‘people’ ever got their hands on this process.

How would we do it?

Go through the state legislatures, there may still be enough uncorrupted folks at that level to see the value and necessity of a CC. Try to do it as a simultaneous effort in all the states so as to vitiate the tons of money that will be thrown against the idea.

How do we keep out the wingnuts – from both wings?

We can’t, they’ll be there in force and will try to co-opt the process for their own ends. This means ‘we’ must be organized to prevent this kind of takeover, especially from the corporate fascists, this is just the kind of opportunity they think they can take advantage of.

How do we keep out the money?

Ah, there’s the rub: the transnats will see this as an opportunity to twist the laws to their own ends and will release a tsunami of money in order to do so.

What’s the real danger here?

Once you open up a CC, it can pretty much do whatever it wants. We could end up with President-for-Life Obama – for real, or a true corporatist/fascist state like the Randites and other nutjobs want. If it gets too wacko some MacArthur wannabe could declare martial law…[see above]. We might actually start the civil war we’re trying to prevent.

So, this could be dangerous, couldn’t it?

Yup. But I think it’s become abundantly clear that we’re going to have to take some kind of risk. If we stick our heads in the sand now, it’s quite likely that we’ll end up with a true corporate/fascist state run by Hank Paulson, Bernie Ebbers, Jeffery Skilling or one of their clones.

What do we want out of a CC?

We want to update the Constitution to deal with 21st century problems.

Howinhell do we do that?

See Part 4

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