June 2, 2011

American Revolutionary Principles (3 of 3): Sovereignty


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. 


  1. Good evening,

    It makes sense that we should have to consent to be governed and without that consent that the government itself is thrown into question. I hope more people realize this.

    Loving the 100% or nothing distinction. The conversations I’ve had with most people seem to think compromise when it comes to representational democracy is appropriate because that is how we come together and make decisions. Unfortunately the scaling really makes the votes we cast ineffective in developing any political sovereignty.

    I was speaking with my Christian friend about what allows a community to maintain its integrity and he was suggesting that it needs to be one focused on God. Now, I suggested to him that the idea of each individual being sovereign and there being appropriate values to man was as good a focus as god was for a community, if not better. Precisely because if we were all focused on god, then it would be much easier for a hierarchy to develop. However, if we are disparate communities focused on our own freedoms, then it seems we would be much more resistant to amalgamation of individual power.

    Have you given much thought to the idea of god? The framers seem to have thought him mighty important from what my limited understanding of them is…

    Another question I have been thinking of lately is how a community of anarchists could survive without either defaulting on their values as the generations pass or being colonized by some bigger, better equipped military nation.

    Have you read much or had any thoughts on this?

    Comment by Strieb Roman — June 2, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

    • I think for the most part we overstate the competence of Western professional military forces. The conflicts over the last couple of decades have borne witness to the fact that Western militaries are now almost entirely run by profiteers and professional bureaucrats. They’re far more interested in enriching their contractor buddies, so they can have a turn on the corporate dole, than they are in suppressing a bunch of off-the-grid weirdos.

      My feeling is that internal security forces will be far more threatening than military force could be, barring Spanish-style open civil war. I wouldn’t be surprised if a successful anarchist community got the Waco treatment. Hell, squatters in Baltimore got firebombed by police there in 1985- they burnt down 60 homes to firebomb these guys: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MOVE.

      It’s not clear to me that provoking a violent reaction from the security apparatus actually does that much to radicalise people in the West anymore, especially if the victims can be written off as terrorists, cultists, militias, racists, whatever. We need places where people can get out of the cash economy and learn to sustain themselves, places to train organizers and activists, etc. If those are under constant attack, it’s impossible to get anything done. So practically, we need groups which are legitimate enough or invisible enough to not draw notice while supporting mass organization and activism.

      Comment by paper mac — June 3, 2011 @ 1:03 am

      • That’s part of why I think Food Sovereignty can be a winning idea. It’ll be hard to depict as terrorists people who want nothing more than food freedom.

        But you’re right, the enemy will certainly try.

        Comment by Russ — June 3, 2011 @ 6:39 am

    • If a community didn’t allow greed and sociopathy to become materially powerful so that it could engage in corruption and violence, then it’s unclear how such rancid propaganda could get a grip.

      I haven’t thought much about religion yet. The democratic movement doesn’t want to dump one set of elites to replace it with another, and god(s), let alone religious hierarchies among people, isn’t a progressive notion.

      But I’m willing to make all necessary tactical alliances.

      Comment by Russ — June 3, 2011 @ 6:35 am

  2. I dunno. A lot of what you’ve been talking about derives ultimately from the concept of “natural law,” that Locke promoted. I’ve come to believe that Locke himself was a lackey (perhaps unwittingly) of the power structure, that he promoted an argument for accepting tyranny sugar-coated with what passed for “reason” in the Age of Reason. I think that Jefferson and Hamilton both derived their points of view from Locke (Hamilton did not seem Hobbesian). Where they differed was in their political economy: Jefferson the francophile was a Physiocrat, and Hamilton was a mercantilist (which makes him distinctly contrary to neoliberal thought, as much as he was just as elitist).

    For whatever reason, as much as I instinctively believe in the strength of unity and, therefore, a State bound by a social contract, I find myself leaning towards humanist anarchy (if there is such a thing). The social contract ultimately gets broken at the behest of sociopaths who don’t know not to shit where they eat.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — June 3, 2011 @ 2:45 am

    • +1 for humanist anarchy

      Comment by Strieb Roman — June 3, 2011 @ 2:47 am

    • Humanist anarchy is what I want too, and I’ve tried to describe how these ideas all trend toward it. I never said anything about a social contract, except insofar as the elites bind themselves wherever they presume to exist. I don’t seem to be explaining myself very well, so I’ll probably let this lie fallow for awhile.

      It seems that Locke started out with humanist ideals but became a typical case of selling out as he aged. For example, he started out saying only working the land can give one a property right in it; later (and once he became a stockholder) he invented rationales for absentee landlords and such. I’d say the former ideal is the real Locke (and thus I’d judge Western property regimes according to it), while the latter is clearly the corruption of senility and the senility of corruption.

      Comment by Russ — June 3, 2011 @ 6:26 am

  3. Hi Russ (All),

    I did a quick Google search for the definition of humanist anarchy. Nothing popped up for a short and concise explanation of the term. I could use some mutual aid. Can anyone here on this forum provide a brief one page description of the definition of humanist anarchy? It would be most appreciated.

    Thank you

    Comment by William — June 7, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    • Hi William, I’ll think about it.

      Comment by Russ — June 8, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  4. […] Revolutionary Principles” parts One and Three, respectively on representation and sovereignty. (Part Two is on constitutionalism and rights.) These three posts get a steady trickle of hits […]

    Pingback by The 2015 Blogging Year, and An American Revolution Reprise | Volatility — December 31, 2015 @ 6:42 am

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