May 15, 2011

Constitutionalism and Positive Democracy

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom, Land Reform, Law, Sovereignty and Constitution — Tags: — Russ @ 2:09 am


Before proceeding, a few words about constitutionalism in general. A sovereign constitution is the basic form of the people’s sovereignty. This comprises the principles and practices which define a society, its true character and aspiration. A written constitution is then supposed to be an adequate expression of this sovereign constitution, and from there written laws are supposed to adequately supplement the written constitution in expressing the sovereign. (The distinction between such documents isn’t always clear. Is the Code of Hammurabi a constitution or a list of statues? The Ten Commandments? The Draconian and Solonic Codes? The Codes of Theodosius and Justinian? The synod which compiled the “official” Bible?)
As I’ve written before, by now we know that the only appropriate form of our sovereignty is positive democracy. We’ve learned how politicians, alleged experts and “elites” paid to rule us, are rationally and morally incompetent for this job. We’ve learned how in practice they’ll never do anything but aid and abet our anti-social enemies and commit crimes themselves. We know that the first proper attitude toward politics is to be antipolitician. (That’s a formulation I picked up from a blog post somewhere which I’d link if I could remember where it came form. It’s recommended as a good all-purpose answer to anyone in any situation who asks, “What do you politically believe/want?” To open up with, “For starters, I’m against politicians. Not just the current crop of crooks, but politicians period”, will often bring on agreement from others, which can be a good lead-in to more difficult topics.)
Most of all, we know about all political and economic elites that we don’t need them. We can rule ourselves. That’s the basic imperative of positive democracy: In the modern era, often called the democratic era, humanity has come of age. That is, we’ve achieved our age of majority and ought to be getting out of our parents’ house and into the wide world to find out who we are and what we can do.
But that means the democratic ideology and movement must evolve. We cannot stand still. To remain mired in belief in representatives and republics is really to regress. Belief in these was once a widening of the horizons of political thought, but that has long ceased to be the case. We now know that these are unworthy of us as democratic citizens and human beings, and that they don’t work anyway if the definition of work is that they make permanent progress toward expanding real political participation and broad-based economic prosperity. In the same way that capitalism has been proven to be a lie, since wherever its profit rate began to naturally decline it resorted to feudalist measures to prop it up, so representative government has renounced its role as a regent toward ever-expanding democracy, but instead sought to reinstate age-old authoritarian rule, albeit maintaining the sham trappings of elections, etc.
So we must now establish positive democracy. We owe it to ourselves, to our families and communities, to humanity, to history.
A democratic community may or may not choose to draw up a statement of principles. It would be more like the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man than like the main articles of the 1788 Constitution.
Why do it? If we draw up a New Compact here in cyberspace, it’s really a statement of principles for a new movement, and a proclamation that this movement is continuing the long-neglected work of the original American Revolution (here in America) and a similar democratic revolutionary work elsewhere. (I hope I don’t sound too Amero-centric to non-American readers and participants. I think these principles of democracy are applicable the same way everywhere which has been integrated into globalization. Certainly many of the cultural details will greatly vary, but not the basic anti-elitist imperative.) Even if you don’t personally care about such a statement, it may be a necessary stage of developing the movement consciousness and an enticement (to potential participants) along the road of movement-building.
What are the basic principles/practices? (In positive democracy, there’s never a clear division between principle and practice. There’s no citizenship other than through citizen action. The measure of one’s capacity for freedom is that one acts as a free citizen, as much as possible, and is always seeking to expand the bounds of freedom’s possibility.) Direct democracy, political freedom (meaning the opportunity to meaningfully participate), political participation itself, all of these on an equal basis. Material equality (defined as the absence of class stratification and wealth concentrations) is the prerequisite for equality of political opportunity (remember that anytime you see pseudo-democrats and fetishists of sham “process” rights like Greenwald and the ACLU, who support corporate “rights”, corporate speech, and therefore the total domination of politics by wealth). Food Sovereignty as a political and practical imperative. Land and natural resources are things of nature, and can therefore be the property only of sovereignty itself; Western political theory always recognized in principle with the labor theory of property that to gain a possession right on the land one must productively work the land. The things we call rights and enshrine in Bills of Rights. All of this arising from the people’s sovereignty and therefore the province of human beings only, while by definition other entities can only be servants with responsibilities, never persons with rights.
From there, we can discuss and seek consensus on provisions. The only rule is that every idea has to be pro-democratic and/or anti-authoritarian. Every proposal must head in this direction. The preferred tactic in dealing with all malignities is not to use power to affirmatively destroy them (unless this is absolutely necessary in self-defense), but to negatively destroy them through refusal to recognize or enforce their fraudulent “rights” and prerogatives. To give a clear example, we must declare that corporations are not persons, have no constitutional rights, and that if they’re to be allowed to exist at all, it’s only on what the democracy judges to be good behavior. Charters, just like federative delegates, must be subject to instant recall at all times. (I’m aware that by the time it’s politically possible to enact this as policy, it’ll be possible to simply declare corporations nonexistent, which is what I recommend. But a constitutional provision like this is a good example of the kind of statement of intent which can advertise the movement. At the same time it’ll be clear that the movement has room for more rigorous proposals. The written constitutional aspiration is a floor, not a ceiling.)
Here’s another example of how we seek to dissolve illegitimate power through non-recognition of it, this one not from constitutionalism but from law (but it’s the same kind of concept). I don’t say “criminalize” derivatives in the sense of arresting people and so on; I say outlaw them in the sense that they’re declared to be uncontracts, unenforceable in any court or by any police.
The same process of breaking corporate power and the power of concentrated wealth (and shrinking government in the process) can be applied to most or all things. For example with landed property: The democratic community can defend its own right to be on the land which it productively works. It would refuse to enforce any nonexistent property right on the part of an absentee landowner, who it would recognize as a thief. The community would not prevent itself from putting that land into production on its own, for its own well-being.
Anything which extends government and corporatism is bad. Anything which, explicitly or implicitly, merely wants to maintain these is probably bad, and at any rate is unlikely to be helpful. Every idea and act must have the goal of expanding democracy and shrinking elitist authoritarianism.
So to write a constitution is to perform the act of democracy in the grand sense, and gives a sense of what the democratic movement is about. In its details this can also clarify for ourselves and describe clearly to others exactly what we want to accomplish. This in turn should help clarify strategy and tactics.


  1. I’m a born again anarchist who discovered you through your posts at NC.

    I’d suggest a couple of things for this discussion:

    1) After reading through the very interesting thread that followed the last post, some detailed discussion about “providing for a common defense” might be in order. It’s not easy since most of us recoil at the idea of violence, especially organized violence. That’s natural since our goal is a peaceful and free society and the means must reflect the ends. But the 20th century is full of examples of extensive anarchist experiments that were conquered from the outside: Catalonia, Makhno’s Urkaine, Kronstadt. If we are about the business of creating little enclaves of freedom and democracy, are there ways we can go about this that minimize the chance that success will bring repression?

    2) I haven’t had a chance yet to read your archives, so I may be recommending something you’ve already discussed. I saw in the last thread a mention of Michael Albert and his writings on participatory economics. I’d also suggest David Graeber’s “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” and his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value. The former is available online here: abahlali.org/files/Graeber.pdf.

    Staughton Lynd has some very helpful ideas about local organizing as well. Wobblies and Zapatistas with Andrej Grabacic is a good place to access some of those.

    I’m glad to have discovered this place and look forward to participating.

    Comment by Goin' South — May 15, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    • Hi, Goin’ South, glad to have you aboard.

      You’re right that the defense issue is an important one. I think most people dislike violence and wouldn’t make it their first choice, but are nevertheless not pacifists. That includes most anarchists.

      Community defense is a citizen responsibility. The American revolutionaries rightly abhorred the very concept of a standing army, and resort to a mercenary army has always been a sign of decadence throughout history.

      So I think that just as able-bodied adults have an obligation to contribute to the work, so they have an obligation to train for the defense. A citizen militia is the right model, both negatively (for defense) and affirmatively (as a democratic exercise).

      So there’s my preliminary suggestion on that.

      Thanks for the recommendations. I don’t recall that we’ve discussed those.

      Comment by Russ — May 15, 2011 @ 9:59 am

      • One thing I’ve noted in your NC posts and what I’ve read here is an emphasis on a idea that I find very attractive: prefigurement. It seems that we are in a time when that is appropriate both as a way of demonstrating that humans can live together in peace without hierarchy and because our times require banding together for survival. The problem is how do we locate and structure such communities that they don’t become targets? How can we teach others and organize while minimizing the additional risks such outreach inevitably bring to such communities?

        I’m not naive enough to believe that confrontation with the existing system can be avoided, but it would be nice to build some strength before that comes.

        Also, my typing leaves something to be desired. It’s Grubacic.

        Comment by Goin' South — May 15, 2011 @ 10:13 am

      • What’s Grubacic?

        You’re right that we need to build a movement which can withstand repression. We can’t expect that we’ll just be left in peace while we try to build the new world within the old.

        So our strategy and tactics will have to include camouflage, evasive action, civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance. (For as long as the kleptocracy’s intact, I doubt any violent tactic could ever be effective.)

        Comment by Russ — May 15, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

      • Andrej Grubacic, Balkan anarchist and co-author of Wobblies and Zapatistas.

        Camouflage is what I’m talking about. Is it better to build such communities in urban or rural settings? Should participants be concentrated in one place or is it better for them to be dispersed? Should language be “camouflaged” as well when teaching and organizing?

        Comment by Goin' South — May 16, 2011 @ 8:51 am

      • I think as much of this as possible should be in the full light of day.

        This is because:

        1. We should be making an open appeal to democratic principles and practices. There’s seldom a reason for these to conceal themselves (only under conditions of extreme repression).

        On the contrary, their self-evidence and fully sunlit honor are part of their moral authority.

        2. Non-violent direct action works best under conditions of full publicity.

        In both of these cases, the onus must be on would-be tyrants to oppress such clearly democratic action.

        By camouflage I was referring to some aspects of our necessary actions which may skirt or break the bounds of the kleptocracy’s rigged laws. Who knows what new laws and interpretations of law the criminals may come up with to assault the informal economy?

        But here too, the default should be open civil disobedience.

        On urban and rural settings, we need to do both, and action is already proceeding where it comes to both. The hardest part will probably be coordination between the two, given the levels of mutual misinderstanding and sometimes mistrust.

        Paper mac, a regular commenter here, thinks a lot about that issue. I don’t have the solution thought out yet.

        Comment by Russ — May 16, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  2. Has true reform as you describe ever come without violence? (This is a real–not rhetorical–question.)

    The folks currently in power are, like all folks in power, happy to use violence to prevent their being overthrown. Jesus, they’re happy to use violence just to maintain the profitability of their corporations!

    Mao is said to have THANKED the Japanese for their occupation of China because, horrific though it was, it created the preconditions for the (violent) overthrow of a 3,000 year system.

    Comment by godfree roberts — May 15, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    • Where it happens all at once, it’s usually a violent process. I’d bet the power structure will be willing to use any level of violence to maintain its position.

      The questions are, will it be intrinsically able to hold itself intact? And, is there any level of tyranny where the people will finally refuse to stand for it?

      I think the answers to those will decide how much violence they’ll be able to inflict.

      Comment by Russ — May 15, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

  3. Well said.

    I think this exercise is so crucial that we shouldn’t think of it as a one-off event but one that we all engage in to continually renew our political sovereignty; to remember that how our society is organized is up to us and to remember where we all come from. I’m alluding to the teachings of the Tao Te Ching here and how stepping outside of ourselves and our systems is a necessity for true human flourishing.

    In that sense, it could be one of our very first traditions that meaningfully allows the spirit of the revolution to express itself.

    Comment by Strieb Roman — May 16, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    • One of the pro-democratic things Jefferson said in private letters (but not, apparently, in public) was that in a perfect world there would be a constitutional convention every generation; this would keep the essence of participatory democracy alive.

      You make an excellent point. As we try to sow the seeds of a democratic movement, the exercise of democracy in itself may be one of the most fulfilling and confidence-building actions, even if to start out its power doesn’t extend beyond our own words and local deeds.

      Comment by Russ — May 16, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

  4. Russ:
    What’s going on here? You are an admirable and articulate provider of ideas, action lists, and critiques. However, I think it is time to start organizing… the theorizing is interesting. I’ve been accused of doing too much of it myself.

    I think the system is really getting close to crisis, and we really need to start organizing real people in our own communities to prepare for what is coming, and teach them how to take a stand and resist the depredations.

    Who is the “we” you are talking about in this post? Whoever it is, “we’d” best start acting and organizing locally, and use forums like this to share ideas and resources, and waste lest time in theoretical arguments. The Middle Ages provided much time to worry about theological niceties and conundrums… our era, less so.

    Also, it’s time to really hit the garden hard…

    Comment by Publius — May 17, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    • The we is anyone who wants to take back sovereignty from the criminals and redeem our human freedom and democratic prosperity.

      I’m sorry ideas bother you, but they’re going to be an important part of building a movement. As history proves, pure ideas are at least as powerful as the more practical ones, and the latter, no matter how obviously rational, seldom get far without the assistance of the former.

      I want to do both here. Maybe the post I just put up will be more to your liking, as it tries to integrate the two.

      Comment by Russ — May 17, 2011 @ 1:57 am

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