July 14, 2010

Federalism and the Corporate Gangs (Madison’s Federalist #10)


AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.

So James Madison kicks off Federalist #10, one of the core statements of federalism. Specifically, what’s the best form of government to forestall the danger of tyrannical faction.
As I discuss this I’ll be guided by the following concepts.
1. The number one problem we face today is the existence and depredations of the corporate faction.
2. Madison tends to emphasize the notion of a tyrannical “democratic majority” faction. But today the corporate gangsters are this rioting, looting faction.
So in a sense I read and rewrite from the point of view that just as the original federalist writers sought a replacement for the faltering Articles of Confederation and wrote The Federalist and other papers to champion a new union concept as this replacement, so now this system had failed, has fallen terminally into faction, under tyranny of the corporate faction, and has failed the way the Articles did. So today we too seek a new way. (I won’t speculate on the intentions of Hamilton and Madison, although they’re often accused of having desired exactly this end. I’m content to say that by now their recommendations are proven wrong. The point is what’s useful today.)

The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it.

That’s our mission.

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.

Throughout it’ll often be Madison’s (and Hamilton’s) tic that the threat is most likely to come from a numerical majority, but whether or not that was sensible at the time, we know by now the opposite proved to be the case.
Madison asks, how much is government at fault, versus its subversion by faction?

[I]t will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.

To put it in today’s terms, the government was corruptible and became corrupted. Madison says the Articles allowed a mob-like faction to run wild. Today we deal with a different sort of mob, but the result is the same. By his own logic Madison would have to endorse ours: This union has ended up no longer “well-constructed”, but so neglected, stripped, and gutted to the point of dilapidation and infestation, that the “dangerous vices” of faction has proven to be its propensity, this government is in such a way unstable, the public good is disregarded as he described, and measures are always decided not by justice “but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing”, not majority, but a small gangster minority of such concentrated wealth and power as to be able to make the bid for tyranny. These are our legitimate complaints, and Madison would agree that we must seek “a proper cure for it.”
Madison defines faction.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

What can be done about it? Madison says there are two possibilities; remove the cause of the faction, or mitigate its effects. He sees two ways to remove the cause: “destroy liberty”, which he calls a cure worse than the disease, or indoctrinate everyone such that factionalism will wither. This is really just a slower version of the former.
Since where it comes to political liberty he sees the removal cure as worse than the disease, Madison rejects the removal of causes as a valid solution. Phrased that way, we certainly agree with him.
But here we’ll have to modify Madison’s analysis, since his mindset remains focused on primarily political (or at least politicized) factions, fighting it out in the political arena. He seems not to have anticipated purely economic, anti-political gangs which would seek as their mode of “expression” to purge all politics, to destroy all public spaces. Since the Constitution is not a suicide pact, we have no obligation to honor the rules of political engagement where dealing with those who seek to destroy all politics. Therefore in our case Madison’s belief that the first method of removing the cause, “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence”, is unacceptable, is superceded. To keep going Madison’s way lies the logic of Citizens United, of “corporate personhood”, that corporations have “rights” to free speech and such. Freedom-loving Americans reject such a slander of our Constitution and of our humanity. We can indeed go right to removing the cause of this faction.
Therefore we can dispense, morally and conceptually, with Madison’s development of his point that faction is latent in human nature and that its cause cannot be removed, since however true that may be of human nature, here we’re not dealing with human nature. Nevertheless we have to discuss it for a moment, since Madison does seem to give a surface account of what we’re up against.

But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

But this is part of how, right from the start, Madison assumed that a particular faction is a law of nature. He’s claiming the divisions and discords indicated are inherent to civilization. So he wants us to consider them facts of nature (and of “human nature”), and from there the only question is domesticating them.
In the wider passage Madison portrays a potentially attractive world of positive democracy and the Greek agon, the contest; but he also depicts it as frivolous and wanton. Either way, he implicitly suppresses the fact of systematic tyrannical faction, the same thing they just went through a Revolution to destroy.
In the course of the American Revolution, where the colonists battled the king’s power faction, did they wrongly “destroy its liberty” as Madison describes? No – they eradicated the faction completely by the act of declaring and winning independence.
So we’re already at the point of seeking removal of the cause of faction. But let’s move on to Madison’s second discussion – controlling the effects of faction. He starts with a good description of the problem, asking whop can impartially judge among the factions?

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good.

Madison himself implicitly admits the government itself is potentially to be captured once and for all by faction. But he concludes, as we already saw, that we cannot remove the causes of faction but only ameliorate the effects. But as we said, he only implicitly smuggled in as an unproven assertion the proposition that the corporate faction would have to exist at all.
Now we get to the part where we must dispense with Madison’s terms “majority” and “minority”, and instead substitute “corporate gangs” and “the people”. (By the people I include all the political agonism Madison describes in the piece and to which his analysis remains applicable. But our concern transcends this given the anti-political enemy we face. Madison’s world of politics couldn’t even begin until we purge the corporate poison.)
He blithely disposes of what’s supposed to happen if the troublemaker is a numerical minority.

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.

This prognostication has obviously proven false, as the corporate coup is well advanced, and in plain sight. Meanwhile Madison again postulates the populist majority as the real threat, and disparages pure democracy as an untenable political form.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Based on this assertion, he endorses a republic as the best form of government.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

Today, is his recommendation holding up?
Madison claims a republic works this way. Elected representatives are expected to be wiser, more prudent, morally better than those who elect them. In case they’re not, the larger the electorate the allegedly better, and only a republic (not a democracy) affords great geographical extension. He asserts that the more citizens there are, the less likely any faction can take over. From there he argues for a bigger republic rather than a smaller.

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

He claims that the smaller and more homogeneous the electorate, the more likely for tyrannical faction to take hold. But the truth is that the less ferocious the class struggle, the less scope there is for tyranny. Madison has described exactly how a party system can become tyrannical, yet he says that’s more characteristic of small, economically more equitable communities, than of big, brutal, clamorous economic machines. It seems that he reverses the truth because he ideologically denies the class war. Therefore he thinks what’s more likely to foster tyranny is actually less likely, and vice versa.
From all of the foregoing, from his perception of the failure of the Articles and his hopes for centralization, Madison comes to champion the federalist system. In the same spirit, we who ponder the wreckage of the American promise must perceive the terminal failure of this system. Perhaps it had a good run, maybe Madison was right for awhile, but it’s reached the end.
To recap, the flaws in Madison’s scheme going forward are that he implicitly calls the empire of rentiers and gangland creditors a law of nature, when it’s just a politically entrenched monstrosity; and he systematically elides the creeping kleptocratic faction, precisely the kind of creeping tyranny the American revolutionaries had fought so hard to overcome.
Today the question is: What kind of political and economic life will empower us to destroy this faction and prevent it from ever arising to rob and terrorize us again.
I think the key, in any future constitutional convention actions, must be to compel defederalization along with the explicit purging of the corporate monster. The Republicans had the idea of starving the beast, although they wanted to do so in order to open up the field of fire for the corporate criminals. We instead must seek to starve the corporate parasite by starving the highest level of federalism, the central kleptocratic rogue government.


  1. The source of the problem remains an addleheaded majority lost in a fog of trickle down propaganda, a sea of individualists determined to rise by their own bootstraps on the basis of moral force, physical force, and increasingly, by chicane. Only a small minority has any faith in collective action, and the faith of a greater part of these faithful is premised on a further faith that in the resulting collective, they will be the ones in charge.

    Nothing will save America but noblesse oblige. What are the chances of that?

    Comment by jake chase — July 14, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  2. Well, plenty of times in history things have looked bad, but sometimes people have found a way.

    I’m sorry that you’ve given up, but I’m going to try. The only thing that matters is how many people of good will are willing to try.

    Comment by Russ — July 14, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    • I haven’t given up. I just see struggle as an individual matter. The Federalist and all that Eighteenth Century stuff always struck me as bullshit. Hamilton’s schemes created an immediate plutocracy of speculators who used gigantic profits on the Federal assumption of state debts to buy up choice public lands and hitch the actual settlors to the debt wagon. The railroad schemes did the same thing. When all the land was grabbed they created the Fed. Wilson was a Morgan stooge. That got us into WWI. Everything since was more or less inevitable.

      Roosevelt was a Rockefeller man, which explains both his villification of Morgan and Wall Street and his oil embargo of Japan, precipitating WWII.

      David Rockefeller was behind OPEC, which leveraged banking profits by a factor of ten.

      Have you read The Blood Bankers, by James Henry? If Henry is remotely correct at least half the foreign lending of the past fifty years was simple looting.

      Comment by jake chase — July 14, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

      • Of course I mean precipitating US entry into WWII. We owe the war itself to Versailles, the determination of Europe to make Germany pay and the refusal of America to open its markets. I suppose Hitler was an accident. I have no idea how to explain him. Apparently there were no other German Nazis except the twelve convicted at Nuremberg. Everyone else was rehabilitated by John McCloy and reimbursed by the Alien Property Custodian.

        Comment by jake chase — July 14, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

      • I’m clearly not holding a brief for Hamilton and Madison, as you must have noticed.

        I’ve already written my outlines for the next three posts on this, where I’ll be even more combative with Hamilton.

        But as I said above, I’m not interested in a grand unmasking. I’m looking for political tools that maybe can work now. So I basically want to cite the federalists’ proclaimed spirit and many of their arguments against the failure of their own structure, on the assumption they’d have to agree if they were sincere when they said those things.

        Whether or not they actually were sincere isn’t my concern. I’m not an antiquarian.

        So I’m content to detach the original ideological claims to be seeking freedom and broad-based prosperity, which I still find inspiring, especially those pre-1776, from the way the thing played out historically. I’m calling that a hijacking.

        As for crypto-Hobbesian individualism, unfortunately many of us will have to engage in it to some extent. But I want much more than that, and I’ll do whatever I can, whatever I can come up with, to try to foster real democracy at the decentralized level.

        That’s the point of this blog. (I suppose I should update my “goal of the blog” page. What’s there now isn’t obsolete, but my focus is more refined.)

        Comment by Russ — July 15, 2010 @ 4:42 am

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