“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”
That’s implicit aristocrat John Adams himself admitting that 1788 has no inherent authority, but must be judged according to the Spirit of 1776. That’s typical of how the American Revolutionaries themselves, however far they later strayed from this original spirit once power became theirs, retained enough self-awareness and integrity to recall it. In my previous posts
on the Federalist
papers and other constitutional subjects I’ve argued that this primal American spirit is now the authority for positive democracy; that the American Revolution was an integral part of history’s ongoing democratic movement, and that today the ideas and logic of this revolution and of this movement give us the right and the mandate to push ahead to true economic and political democracy.
Today I want to sketch this out further by revisiting three core aspects of democratic philosophy as they developed during the first phase of the American Revolution: representation and consent, constitution, and sovereignty. I’ll again draw on Bernard Bailyn’s great book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
is a brief introduction to my argument.) Bailyn has done a great job of assembling in one place a compendium of revolutionary thought as it quickly evolved in the course of those pivotal years. The best thing about the book is how Bailyn smugly sets out to prove that the US system he knew in the post-war era was the Best of All Possible Worlds and the End of History (his later appendix on the 1788 “Fulfillment” proves this intent), but how he really proves the opposite – that nothing established under the 1788 regime has any intrinsic legitimacy, but must be judged according to the ideals and aspirations of the 60s and 70s. If we look at these institutions, we see how far short they fall of living up to this judgement. We see how the revolution’s task was only partially fulfilled and will not be complete until we have true democracy.
So what does this revolutionary logic say about representative government? Summary: “Virtual representation” has no authority, and nominal representation in Parliament doesn’t necessarily have authority. So there’s no necessary reason any representative form would be authoritative and legitimate. By the American ideology, representative government has no compelling principled logic. It stands or falls according to empirical observation, how well it works in practice.
I’d say we have enough evidence. This form has failed in practice. If it wasn’t enough that at best representative government was a never-ending ordeal of attrition versus corruption, abuse of power, and creeping economic tyranny, we now endure the agony of full-blown kleptocracy. I’d say a system should get only one chance to prevent the cancer of kleptocracy before we judge it a failure.
No one can seriously argue that this government is any more responsive or accountable than virtual representation was in the 1760s. Indeed, things are far worse now. As small as the pro-American opposition in Parliament was, it was still a recognizable, vocal group which forced its ideas into the mainstream British consciousness. Today, is there even a single discernable voice in Congress or anywhere in government on behalf of the people? Let alone a group which has to be reckoned with? On the contrary, this “representative” government presents a united front against the people. When we still see reformists, it boggles the mind how they propose to even start getting “better representatives”. It’s representation itself which has proven to be flawed. And as it turns out we also have the testimony
of the 1788ers themselves
on how they conceived the republican form as a subtle bulwark against the people and in favor of parasite rule. So if you don’t believe me on the inherent anti-democratic nature of representation, will you believe James Madison?
So that’s the summary of how representative government is not an American principle but only a practice; and how this practice is empirically observed to fail. Let’s go over the history.
In America, the transformation in thought occurred very quickly, over the course of two years in the mid-60s during the Stamp Act crisis. (We can look to this example with optimism, as we see how quickly these changes in thought can take place.) Historically the representatives to Parliament were originally delegates sent by localities to petition the King. These delegates, called “attorneys”, were tightly bound to represent only their specific constituencies, which placed restrictions on their authority.
By the 17th century the House of Commons underwent an ideological shift. It now claimed to represent the general interest, with each member representing the empire as a whole. The intent of this was to abrogate accountability and disenfranchise ever greater numbers of people. As democratic ideas spread and the population of the empire increased, Parliament wanted a way to prevent the interests of people and their ideas from getting access to the legislative body. One answer was to deny that representatives actually represent anyone in particular. Speaker Onslow’s proclamation that “Instructions, therefore, from particular constituents to their own Members are or can be only of information, advice, and recommendation…but not absolutely binding upon the votes and actings and conscience in Parliament” was typical of the Parliamentary thought of the era. This was soon elaborated into the ideology of virtual representation. Now even the act of nominally voting for a representative who nominally came from a constituency became incidental. Since each member of Parliament “represented” the entire empire, no one in particular needed to even have a nominal representative. This justified the lack of nominal representation for subjects beyond the home island such as the American colonists.
This shift to unaccountable government in Britain was one of the wellsprings of the American Revolution, as the colonists reacted to this travesty. The colonists “drifted backward” (Bailyn) to more responsive concepts, toward political localization. They considered “virtual representation” top be philosophically offensive. They also developed a rationalistic theory for how closer, more tightly bound representation is better than a far-flung, centralized system. They saw how a faraway central government was more likely to be a taker from than a giver to what was logically an autonomous region. There we have precedents for our own rational assessment of the Washington system (let alone bodies like the WTO to which Washington wants to abdicate). A typical response was the way the Boston town meeting would write detailed instructions for Boston’s delegates to the colonial assembly and demand that these delegates adhere to these instructions.
So the colonists always rejected virtual representation as absurd. A typical reaction was Daniel Dulany’s judgement that it was “of facts not true and conclusions inadmissible.” Their contrary rallying call was, “No Taxation Without Representation.” But this slogan quickly became a bluff, because as soon as the colonists became embroiled in the Stamp Act crisis, they also rejected the prospect of receiving nominal representation in Parliament. They rejected this on the grounds that England was too far away for constituencies to remain in effectual communication with delegates, and because the colonial delegation would always be heavily outvoted. So nominal colonial representation would merely give the British a propaganda victory but change none of the substantive political facts. When Grenville interrogated Franklin and the other colonial agents on whether or not the colonists really wanted Parliamentary representation, the agents admitted that this was a slogan but not a practical demand.
So according to the American Revolution, not only is virtual representation unacceptable, but nominal voting rights and representation also isn’t sufficient to legitimize government. If there’s anything which renders representative government legitimate, it’s not the act of voting. (BTW, let’s remember that the 1788 Constitution doesn’t guarantee any right to vote at all. It only says that to the extent states grant the privilege of voting, they can’t discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and a few other categories.)
In fact, the Americans had no principle of representation, but a purely practical view: Does it protect freedom against the encroachments of power or not. They asked practical questions like, Is there an identity of interests between representatives and people? Some colonists started out conceding that even virtual representation may make sense within Britain itself but could make not sense given the interposition of an ocean. But the consensus quickly moved to calling this absurd, and that representative accountability ought to be the practice everywhere including in Britain.
Arthur Lee called British theories of representation “witchcraft” and scoffed, “Our privileges are all virtual, our sufferings are real.” We should therefore offer up only “virtual obedience”. This sounds topical today. The American position was summed up well by John Joachim Zubly:
every representative in Parliament is not a representative for the whole nation, but only for the particular place for which he hath been chosen. If any are chosen for a plurality of places, they can make their election only for one of them…no member can represent any but those by whom he hath been elected; if not elected, he cannot represent them, and of course not consent to anything on their behalf…representation arises entirely from the free election of the people.
[So how do all our representatives end up representing corporations? And what does this imply about “elections” with extremely low turnout? These both refute the alleged legitimacy of our “representatives”.]
This refutes today’s Senate, at the least. Given the facts of class conflict, it refutes the House and all other centralized legislatures as well. Here we can again consider how well any representative system has worked in practice. We’ve seen little but the endless war of attrition as economic rackets gather power, encroach on liberty and democracy, cause economic chaos, reform wins some victories, and then the racketeers creep back. Reformists and diehard believers in representation want to doom us forever to this permanent war of attrition. Can we call this worthy of human beings? On the contrary, it’s demeaning beyond tolerability. And when we consider that the reformists advocate this endless suffering solely out of solicitude for the continued existence of these criminal rackets, we can see the fundamental evil of it. The historically proven attrition, the Rule of Rackets, examples like Madison’s admission of the structural scam: This all sends us back to the revolutionary principle of concentrated power as the existential enemy of liberty. According to this principle, and according to the historical record, we have the proof that representative government is at least a failure, and usually a scam.
The power/liberty dichotomy itself contained a half-baked notion which was superseded by the development of the revolutionary consciousness. This was the theory of separation, that power was the concern of elected representatives, liberty that of the represented. This was contradicted even then by the consensus demand for representatives to be tightly bound by their constituencies. Today we know that this separation is unnecessary and illegitimate. It’s neither logical nor practical. The people can and must exercise both power and liberty. There’s no longer to be a distinction between the “representative” and the “represented”.
Similarly, the theory of the “balance of powers” had its basis in the allegedly god-given roles of monarchy and aristocracy, their right to exist and the natural balance between them. The American Revolution definitively rejected king and nobility (the French Revolution went on to call being a king a capital crime), but 1788 retained the Constitutional derivatives of these. President and Congress are the residue of king and nobility. This is really an anachronism. This secularized version of king and nobility has no greater validity, legitimacy, or necessity than the religiously-based king and nobility.
Getting back to our chronology, the colonists moved rapidly from uncertainty over binding their representatives with instructions to assertive affirmation. Arthur Lee declared that only “corruption” denies that representatives are to be bound and must be “trustees for their constituents”. William Wyndham found that this close binding of delegate to community “must have begun with the [primal sovereign] constitution…an ancient and unalienable right of the people”. Constituents have “an inherent right to give instructions to their representatives”. Even future hardcore 1788er and “Federalist” James Wilson said in 1774 that representatives are mere “creatures” who must be held “accountable”.
If we accept this, then logically we have to accept more tightly bound and recallable delegates, if the empirical evidence is that these will be more accountable, while “representatives” are unaccountable. Just as the Americans rejected king and aristocracy, so we must reject their 1788 derivatives and move on to the final stage of democratic evolution, positive democracy. Meanwhile, we have to see a kleptocracy controlled by corporations and the rich as only the most threadbare nominal “representation”. In reality, it might as well be the resurrection of virtual representation as doctrine and practice.
[I’ll add an idea here but leave the development for some other time. As a creature, a representative is an artificial, contingent thing just like a corporation. The responsibility (not right), accountability (not independence) of each is the same and must be enforced, or else the artificial program must be discontinued.]
So it followed that the assembly must reflect those who voted for it, and must change as they change, for example as population rose. Here’s another example of the anti-democratic design of the Senate and bad faith of the 1788ers. In drawing up the scheme for the Senate they were repeating the King’s old refusal to increase the size of the colonial assemblies with population growth. Jefferson and others had considered this a major grievance.
Through all this the American Revolution arrived at a new theory of consent. Locke had said consent only needed to be given on election day (Rousseau scoffed at this), and at the supreme crisis moments of rebellion. But the Americans were working toward a more direct, participatory democracy on a permanent basis. The implicit principle is that direct consent is needed at all times, not just special times. This dovetails well with the power/liberty tension, since the necessary citizen vigilance against power can be maintained only through everyday democratic participation.
The first phase of the Revolution didn’t follow through on these implications, but settled on a concept of representation more accountable than the British concept, but still maintaining it as a “substitute for legislation by direct action of the people”. This implicitly admitted that direct democracy is the ideal, and merely claimed that accountable representation could function better in practice. Therefore representative government is legitimate only if it truly and effectively provides such a substitute. If it is unable or unwilling to do this, it dissolves itself, and we must move on to true, direct council democracy.
Representation was never anything more than democracy’s regent, meant to nurture ever-expanding democracy until this could fully flourish on its own. Today we the people are ready to take the full democratic responsibility upon ourselves, while the regent has abdicated and degenerated into a usurper. For both these reasons, we have and want no other choice but to walk the path of positive freedom and democracy.