June 8, 2010

The New Constitutional Convention


Looks like we’ve been along this way before:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America.

Thus Hamilton opens The Federalist #1, kicking off the most influential series of pamphlets advocating the new written Constitution as a necessary and worthy improvement on the Articles of Confederation, which by then had proven a failure, if the point was to build a country that works.
Today when we reread this, and look at around at our current state of affairs, we have to consider that the existing system, the kleptocracy, is rotten beyond redemption. The issue is to ascertain how much this is the fault of the existing government having run rogue of the Constitution, and to what extent the Constitution itself is no longer adequate to the challenges liberty faces.
That’s the core question for the new constitutional convention we must undertake, at least first in discussion, whether or not we the people can ever sufficiently organize to later in real practice. Specifically, the great evil which afflicts us is the rise of the corporation and of corporate power. The kleptocracy is in brief a government and a system of practices, mores, and memes which have been completely hijacked by corporate organized crime and turned to the exclusive aims of gangsters: to aggrandize their wealth and power.
The framers of the Constitution were aware enough of the potential threat to not enshrine corporations in the document, thereby implicitly endorsing the well-delineated, limited existence such corporations could have and the role they could play. (Why don’t the alleged “originalist” ideologues apply this ideology to corporate power?)
But they weren’t prescient enough to impose specific limits on them, the way they did on the state with the Bill of Rights. So there’s two suggestions for the primary order of business at any new constitutional convention: Explicitly delineate the original, rational, equitable limits on corporate existence (in brief, that they were allowed to exist only for specific purposes, to engage in specific activities, for a limited period of time, and with their shareholders and officers retaining much of the legal responsibilities they’ve today cast off; that’s just to name a few); and draw up a new Bill of Rights to protect the people against corporate power. In many cases, it would be a matter of explicitly applying the existing Bill of Rights to corporations – that they can’t abridge freedom of speech (e.g. with SLAPP suits or by monopolizing media outlets), freedom of assembly (by privatizing public spaces), that they can’t “take” without due process (the way they currently have almost infinite prerogative to do, via their externalizations of every kind of cost, risk, and harm), and many others.
So there’s some ideas I’ve tossed out. When I call for a new convention I don’t propose a break with the chain of the heritage. On the contrary I want to resume the path of freedom and humanity our forefathers first traversed as they embarked upon the American Revolution. This revolution and this heritage have long since lapsed into desuetude. They need new life, new resolve, or else freedom must truly perish out of the world. It makes no difference what a written Constitution says if the underlying people’s constitution and sovereignty no longer exists because the people themselves have dissolved into atoms.
Corporations and tyrannical governments can of course never exercise sovereignty, but they can enter the void left behind where sovereignty has withered and died. Here the measure of life or death is simply whether or not the people still fight for freedom as a people. The existence of that fight or not proves whether or not a people any longer exists.
So let’s recall some of the words of Hamilton and his colleagues. (I cite this as specifically relevant to the American heritage, though I hope the underlying principles are universal even if the specific content wouldn’t always be. So I don’t mean to reprise the tired old idea that America has a mission to save the world, or to imply any spiritual imperialism. We’ve all had enough of that from the pseudo-patriots, neocons and chickenhawks. I hope other peoples look to their own inheritances to find parallel visions, although wherever the universal freedom principle rings forth all people of good will can find it familiar, however exotic some of the trappings may be.)

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made.

Hamilton was only the latest of a long line of freedom activists to see America as having a special mission to establish liberty and political wisdom. This mission was clearly felt and lived going back to the eraliy days of the Pilgrims and their City on a Hill. This ideal was long the common currency of both colonists and thinkers like Locke back in the home country. Nor was it a mere commonplace, but a deeply felt promise and imperative. (Back then “mandate” wasn’t just an empty, sloppy word; the concept very strongly promised a right and imposed a responsibility. Rights are meaningless and indeed pernicious where not preceded and encompassed by responsibilities.)
It impressed itself with all the greater force as the struggle with tyranny was felt to intensify. In the Stamp Act year of 1765 John Adams felt it as he wrote in his diary.

The liberties of mankind and the glory of human nature is in [our] keeping. America was designed by Providence for the theatre on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness, and glory were to exist in peace.

America was now coming of age. The great struggle with King and Parliament was not just over an attempt to tax but over the deepest principles of freedom and sovereignty. (Indeed the British soon realized the effort to collect any tax, even if successful, would always cost more than any revenue it could bring in. But they too continued the struggle out of principle.)
As Adams wrote in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law:

It was this great struggle that peopled America…a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy [of temporal and spiritual tyranny] projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.

By the 1760’s the colonists had long felt the irretrievable rot and decadence, spiritual and political corruption, of the old country. It’s a feeling that must be familiar to us today. For just one example, when in the 1730s Lewis Morris had to travel to England to try to attain redress for a fleecing at the hands of the colonial governor of New York, only to find himself further insulted by the arrogance of corruption, he exorcised his disgust in a long poem, “The Dream and Riddle”. While not great literature, the poem’s an excellent cultural and political source document expressing all the themes of old world decadence and incipient tyranny contrasted with the spiritual and material promise of the new world. After much complaint, Morris finds resolve in looking to the new continent. Here’s a short, characteristic quote:

If bound unto that land of liberty
I just described, then know it is not nigh,
But lies far distant from this place somewhere
Not in this, but some other hemisphere.

In 1775, as the crisis was reaching its climax, everyone knew that the time was at hand for the freedom activist to exercise his responsibility, embark upon the ultimate fight, in order to redeem freedom’s promise, the promise as embodied in the ideal of America.
Samuel Williams said it well in 1775.

To our own country must we look for the biggest part of that liberty and freedom that yet remains, or is to be expected….For while the greatest part of the nations of the earth are held together under the yoke of slavery, the North American provinces yet remain the country of free men: the asylum, and the last, to which such may yet flee from the common deluge.

Today the new hemisphere can arise at first only from our minds and souls. It’s true that we must reprise the American frontier, the vision of freedom’s salvation, and so we must look again and recreate our frontier from within. We start by planting the seeds of freedom in our souls.
The path has many travails and pitfalls. Hamilton start by warning us to be vigilant toward ourselves:

Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.

And then moves on to warn of the passions and hostilities of political strife.

So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.
And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.

That reads like a less intense, more moderate version of Thucydides’ famous description in his History of the Peloponnesian War, which I assume Hamilton read, but some searching on my part couldn’t uncover whether he had the passage in mind when he was writing. At any rate, we can consider ourselves warned.
And thus, if we wish to redeem America’s promise of liberty and justice, we must embark upon the perilous path our forefathers traveled. Hamilton and his allies were well-advanced along this path and had already braved its worst dangers when he arrived at the point where he was writing these lines:

I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars: — The utility of the UNION to your political prosperity — The insufficiency of the present Confederation to preserve that Union — The necessity of a government at least equally energetic with the one proposed, to the attainment of this object — The conformity of the proposed Constitution to the true principles of republican government — Its analogy to your own state constitution — and lastly, The additional security which its adoption will afford to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property.

In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention.

Today, on the other hand, if we start with a similar inquiry, we do so only at the threshhold of the burning house from which we rush, carrying what we can. And dodging those flames is only prelude to setting out on a dangerous road at night, heading toward the new homestead.
But we can do so armed with the alliance of those who did so once before and came through it all stronger and happier than before, having fought a righteous fight and won.
The colonists faced the Intolerable Acts with courage and vigor, knowing the final conflict was at hand.
If we substitute today’s kleptocracy and corporate tyranny for England, and the new colonies for the old, we can recite the words of Rokeby.

[A]ll the spirit of patriotism or of liberty now left in England [is as] the last snuff of an expiring lamp [while] the same sacred flame…which once showed forth such wonders in Greece and in Rome…burns brightly and strongly in America.

And those of William Hooper in 1774.

[America] will build…upon the ruins of Great Britain; will adopt it constitution purged of its impurities, and from an experience of its defects will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor and brought it to an untimely end…[In America God himself was] now giving a new epocha to the history of the world.

These weren’t just the words of colonial rebels in a particular place and time. They’re the words and values of all true Americans at all times, if such still exist. And if we remove the specific American details they’re the words and values of all freedom vitalists at all times. (One thing in particular is universal: All people, of any culture, tradition, or creed, face as one the totalitarian tyranny of corporatism. This is universal.)
So let this be a flier for the next constitutional convention, which has already begun wherever Americans have begun to recognize how our wealth, our democracy, our country, our freedom, has been and is being stolen, and wherever we resolve to fight back to reclaim all that’s rightfully ours.


  1. Yes, a flier! Here-here! I will post this to my facebook (as I do with pretty much all your blogs), and I’ll get the convention started in my own little corner of the world.

    Loved this, “Today the new hemisphere can arise at first only from our minds and souls. It’s true that we must reprise the American frontier, the vision of freedom’s salvation, and so we must look again and recreate our frontier from within. We start by planting the seeds of freedom in our souls.”

    Excellent start, Russ!

    Comment by Bloodgroove — June 8, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  2. Thanks, JD. We’ll see how these Federalist consultations work out.

    Comment by Russ — June 8, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  3. Yes, finally!

    And good work.

    I suggest a three tier abstract; basic abstract, a bit longer, and a bit longer as I think it would help move the concept along the net.

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

    Comment by i on the ball patriot — June 8, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  4. Thanks i ball. And thanks for the organizational suggestion. I do want to have a clear itinerary for this series of posts, but I’m not sure yet what it should be.

    My basic idea is to either go chronologically, trying to tie the ideas to topical examples, or jump around based on where the topics come up, so that for example I used the Kagan nomination to start with #78, revisiting Citizens United and expanding on corporatist aggrandizement through judicial activism.

    Or maybe some combination of the two.

    And hopefully along the way core themes will emerge and constitute the real narrative of the posts.

    Well, we’ll see. It’s a work in progress.

    Comment by Russ — June 8, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  5. Thank you, Russ. I haven’t read the Federalist Papers since I homeschooled my kids. I have a Great Books CD designed for Win3.0 that won’t play on WinXP, but I found them online. Will reread.

    I disagree on one point and that is your decision to use the word ‘hijacked’ in paragraph 3. I do not believe our government was hijacked. As a young woman I served on the board of a private foundation. I was surrounded by heads of Fortune 500 companies and local and state politicians. The politicians used to make me cringe. They passed around WAM (“walking around money” their term and not mine). Largesse with public money with the intent of self aggrandizement. Public money buys power just as you claim that private money buys power. At least three of the politicians that I knew were not above taking and/or soliciting bribes. One went to jail, twice, for taking money from waste disposal companies; another left office because of scrutiny; a third was misusing House of Representatives’ funds and, after multiple ethics violations, was convicted of voter fraud. The ‘bribor’ and the ‘bribee’ are equally guilty in my mind, whereas, the ‘hijackee’ is a victim even if he is stupid and driving in a bad neighborhood.

    Comment by Jessica — June 9, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    • Oh, I agree completely. I’m not representing the corporate lobbyist as necessarily the “active” one and the corrupt politician as the “passive” one. By now they’re all the same aggressive criminals.

      But on the largest scales (most obviously the Bailout, the GWOT, weapons procurement, Big Ag subsidies, the health racket bailout; compared to those the rest is chump change) it’s done for the benefit of corporate rackets (the corrupt politician, however actively corrupt, is offering his services as a bagman and law-shredder for them), according to their coordination.

      (I have read that under Delay the Republicans wanted to switch the relationship somewhat and become the dominant partner with some of the weaker rackets.

      But that wouldn’t change the power dynamic where it came to the most powerful, Wall Street, the weapons rackets and so on. Anyway, according to what I read Delay’s attempt failed and simply encouraged more donations to the Democrats.

      But I don’t know alot about that particular detail.)

      I agree that they’re equally guilty. And they’ve collectively hijacked the government.

      The hijackees, the victims, are we the people.

      Comment by Russ — June 9, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  6. The only new thing in political corruption is the scale of the damage on US soil. It makes you believe Plato was right about democratic government (he was against it). What we really need is noblesse oblige. Don’t suppose we have much chance of that.

    Comment by jake chase — June 10, 2010 @ 7:37 am

    • Jake, I’ve outlined a post I’m going to write within the next few weeks to sum up my ideas on what’s the difference between a “normally” corrupt system as the US system used to be, as opposed to the full-fledged kleptocracy we have now, and how the transformation happened. I know you think there’s no such distinction, but we’ll see if I can change your mind.

      For now I’ll ask, as an analogy (though also as a closely related example), do you think there’s no such thing as a difference between normal authoritarianism and Nazi/Stalinist totalitarianism? or is the latter just vaguely worse than the former?

      As for noblesse oblige, or in Obama/Reagan’s version, “trickle-down”, no, I don’t think there’s much chance of that either. Especially since it’s already been proven a Big Lie.

      Comment by Russ — June 10, 2010 @ 8:01 am

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