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Thursday, 2 June 2011
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American principles of representation and constitution were revolutionized over the fifteen years leading up to the War Of Independence. In both cases, the underlying principle was the vector toward democracy, while the practical manifestation was a more practical, empirical view of the institution; its validity was contingent upon its service to the democratic imperative. This principle of democratic practicality, in other words the fact that democracy is our only principle, while all else is to be judged only according to this measure, is the primal American mindset we must recover today if we’re to redeem our citizenship.
(The same democratic movement is playing out over the rest of the world, although the historical details will of course differ. As I said earlier, I think the ideals discussed in these posts about the American Revolution can be taken up and adapted to other places as well. Indeed, there was a time when liberation movements wanted to look to the ultimate revolutionary exemplar for guidance. Alas, the criminal leadership of the US chose to betray those hopes as it chose a counter-revolutionary mission. It was this abdication, betrayal, and void, more than communism’s inherent appeal, which left the path open for communism to become the most vigorous revolutionary force. Imagine if America had instead lived up to its original history and original principles?)
The same principle was developed in the case of sovereignty.
1. Sovereignty is mutable through history. Concrete institutions don’t embody it, but are only representative of it.
2. The American Revolution accelerated an ideological evolution of the concept, and the view of where sovereignty reposes, going back to the 16th century in Europe. The final recognition was that sovereignty reposes neither in King or Parliament, or necessarily in any governmental institution, but only in the people.
3. So today’s governments are to be tolerated or rejected at the people’s will, as they are nothing but servants of the people’s sovereignty. (Meanwhile, corporations and globalization cadres are non-sovereign in principle, and must be eradicated as they are invariably anti-sovereign in practice.)
The basic idea of sovereignty is that there’s an essential authority in the polity which is above and beyond temporal authority and law and is the source of these, the yardstick by which they are measured. Otherwise these would be purely arbitrary and autocratic. In Britain, a century of thought from the 1500s through the upheavals of the English Revolution and restoration culminated in the ”final” concept as enshrined in the Glorious Revolution: Sovereignty was absolute and reposed in Parliament. Since it was universally agreed that there had to be an original arbitrary power somewhere, elites decided the safest place was in the large body of Parliament. (Being elites, they of course didn’t want to find this power in the people themselves.)
So this was the framework for the British view of the colonies: They were implicitly under Parliament’s absolute sovereignty. The crisis would come when the British tried to assert this absolutism in practice. The great question for America would be how to respond to this.
In historical practice most authority in America was localized. Except where it came to the affairs and maintenance of the empire itself, the Americans were self-sufficient in government. The implication was that their sovereignty was with them. Overseas “sovereignty” in Britain was an obsolete technicality. (So it is with us today. By definition kleptocracy can never partake of sovereignty, just as corporations, sociopaths in principle, are by definition anti-sovereign. Meanwhile we the people already work for ourselves and govern ourselves in all necessary ways. Just as the original Revolution came to reject as illegitimate any British prerogative which served no purpose but the existence of the empire, so we must keep in mind that any prerogative, job, etc. which has no necessary purpose but exists only to maintain capitalism, corporatism, the system in general, has no inherent legitimacy or right to exist. Any defense of these is necessarily circular and question-begging. Just as much as the original colonists, we who are colonized today are actually self-sufficient and can assert our own legitimate sovereignty any time we choose.)
So America’s position within the empire was anomalous. The British Parliament claimed absolute sovereignty in principle but hadn’t exercised it in practice. In the 1760s, Parliament now tried to assert itself in practice. The Americans knew immediately and intuitively that this was illegitimate and must be resisted, but it took time for them to come up with the ideas adequate to the struggle. James Otis again formulated the basic idea for future development, that in principle sovereignty can repose ”in the whole body of the people”. But he ended up claiming that in practice Parliament was the absolute expression of this people’s sovereignty, so the practical result was the same as what the British claimed (although they rejected his theoretical claims about the people).
Subsequent American writers, while continuing to grant in principle that Parliamentary sovereignty was absolute, sought to set practical limits to it (that is, to place aspects of colonial life outside it). So at first just implicitly, they were actually questioning Parliamentary sovereignty itself.
They were feeling their way toward the basic concept of federalism, that governmental institutions can only be strictly limited manifestations of the underlying people’s sovereignty, and may have power divided amongst them. Today we know that the proper distribution of real power is that 100% or close to it must be held by the people themselves in democratic councils, with only some provisional and recallable delegation upward through confederation.
The first distinction colonial thinkers came up with was between powers rightly exercised by Parliament as “external” to the colonies, as opposed to the “internal” affairs of the colonies which could properly be governed only by the colonists themselves. This distinction had the virtues of adhering to the long-established practice and of using long-established terminology. Stephen Hopkins was influential in applying the distinction to the Stamp Act. Raising revenue in such a way was clearly the internal affair of the colonies, and Parliament could never legitimately impose such a tax. This led to the famous distinction between “internal”, revenue-raising taxation, and “external” regulation of trade including imposition of trade duties, which was at first conceded to lie within Parliament’s prerogative.
This distinction proved to be inadequate in thought and unworkable in practice, since the British could repackage the same actions within the terms of this concept of externalism. Meanwhile they continued to take it for granted that sovereignty itself was indivisible. The very idea of a divided sovereignty was considered a fallacy, the famous “solecism” of imperium in imperio, absolutism divided against itself.
This kind of logical scholasticism couldn’t withstand common sense. American writers began to think out concepts of divided sovereignty. John Dickinson finally broke with all the old ideas, completely jettisoned distinctions like internal vs. external, and declared that Parliament has no right to tax the colonies period. An empire was different from a nation. It could encompass multiple nations. Parliament, as executive of the empire, could regulate trade, but it had no sovereignty over the American nation. Only the king had that. In practice, this meant that the empire was really a confederation based on trade and nominal loyalty to the king, but each nation within it was de facto sovereign within itself.
Subsequent American writers developed this idea, while the British and their colonial flunkeys tried to combat it. Their position was clear if impolitic: Parliament is either 100% sovereign or else 0%. Eventually they’d help convince the colonists that this was correct, and that the answer must be zero.
By 1774, although the Continental Congress officially adopted the Dickinson formulation, most delegates already considered it to be outdated. The sense was that Parliament had no sovereign authority at all, although they still claimed publicly to believe that the king had this authority. The British and the loyalists kept calling this a solecism. (Joseph Galloway called an independent government within a principal government “a monster, a thing out of nature”. While he was wrong in applying this to America as a whole, we can consider how it applies to Madison’s later desire to set up unaccountable forces within yet outside the polity (Federalist #51), or to corporations.)
The Americans now moved on to the concept of a confederated empire, with multiple sovereignties under one king. James Iredell argued that the solecism concept was itself a fallacy where applied to federalism. The only thing standing in the way of a full declaration of independence was sentimental attachment to the monarchy, and George was daily diminishing this with his bullheaded words and actions. By now the Tories themselves were reduced to arguing for the Dickinson concept that Parliament is sovereign but is limited by the internal colonial powers. Too late, they were trying to salvage something out of the breakup.
Finally the only possible American course of action dictated the final form of the principle. Sovereignty resides only in the people, and its delegation is to be distributed on a federal basis. The only measure of the validity of this distribution of power is the evidence of practice. Today we know that delegating most of the real power upward fails to further the causes of democracy, freedom, and prosperity, but only subverts and destroys them. Following through on the original spirit and logic, we must arrive at a true federalism of the soil, all power exercised where its exercise belongs, the ground level of participatory council democracy.
This is toward the question I’ve been asked before, how is this stuff applicable to anarchism? The answer is that if we learn about the history of the American Revolution and its ideas on power, liberty, representation, consent, constitution, rights, and sovereignty, we find an overwhelming impetus in the direction of democratization along with a will to measure all temporal forms according to their fidelity to democracy and how effective they are in expanding it. The great implication of it all is that we must now embrace positive democracy.
I’ll add that these thoughts are part of the working out of the revolutionary process, including doing all we can within the contexts we find ourselves. These ideas are part of the political evolution. They’ve been potent before, at every major step. So I assume their final logical step (which I described in these posts) will be part of the final logical step of the evolution of democracy itself.
Filed under: American Revolution, Anarchism, Corporatism, Freedom, Sovereignty and Constitution — Tags: federalism, James Madison
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