May 1, 2012

The American Revolution


In honor of today’s General Strike, I’d like to salute the original American Revolution. This was the first stage which was so quickly put on ice, but which we now have high hopes to resume, in the true spirit of this great democratic revolution.
In school we’re taught that the Articles of Confederation were a hopelessly parochial and unworkable mishmash, and that the 1788 Constitution was a triumph of reason, wisdom, practicality, and morality. The truth is that the Articles were indeed flawed and inefficient, but not in the way the system schools teach. They’re flawed in a very particular way. Namely, they weren’t well suited for the kleptocratic imperial designs of Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, Edmund Randolph, James Wilson, John Adams, and others. 
The Revolutionary War was won, not by generals like George Washington, let alone by banksters like Robert Morris or the already corrupt Congress. It was won by the common soldier. These, the type of citizens represented by the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution* (to the extent this kind of written Constitution can truly represent), fought not just for the merchant revolution the way the Sons of Liberty did in Boston, but for a more democratic and egalitarian economic order.
[*This Constitution still excluded women and implicitly recognized slavery, and still recognized land and resource “property”. But by opening with a Bill of Rights (a despised afterthought in 1788) superior to the 1788 version in several key ways, enshrining universal male suffrage, rejecting central pre-emption, explicitly declaring the people’s sovereignty, explicitly declaring the people’s right to abolish any rogue government, outlawing debtors’ prisons, imposing sunshine requirements for legislation, and in many other ways, it represents a significant step toward full representative democracy, which in turn could be a step toward true positive democracy. Its framers, and the grassroots movement they represented, wanted government to act as a restraint on finance tyranny and merchant greed (the Pennsylvania assembly, in one of the few clear-cut victories the people ever scored against the banksters, revoked the charter of Robert Morris’ bank), they wanted a rational, constructive money supply, they wanted debt relief, and in general they wanted a political system which enfranchised and benefited those who work and which based the economy on productive work and the polity on a democracy of productive citizens. While we may debate whether “government” as the 18th century saw it was ever necessary (it certainly no longer is), there’s no dispute over the fact that if such a government had to exist at all, then the 1776ers were doing their best to make it as representative as it could be.
The 1776 Constitution was on a vector. By contrast, the 1788 Constitution was designed to foreclose any further democratic movement. On the contrary, its main vector was to concentrate power and wealth up the hierarchy, and to help build an empire for this new ruling class.]
The main action of Congress during the war was to issue scrip to pay the soldiers and IOUs to the citizens from whom supplies were often “requisitioned”. These pieces of paper were intended to devalue to near-worthlessness. Then, once speculators had gobbled up much of this paper at often less than ten cents on the dollar, the Congress voted to pay it off at face value. The very citizen-soldiers who had actually fought and won the war and then been defrauded of their wages, and the very workers and farmers who had had their goods taken from them and then been defrauded of payment, were now saddled as taxpayers with a public odious debt to the very con-men who had defrauded them.
Soldiers had been forced under economic coercion to sell all they’d earned at pennies on the dollar, and were often plunged by their war service into personal debt to the very merchants now speculating on their scrip. Congress now turned around and doubly empowered these criminals, as public creditors who could demand that government tax the people (“open the purses of the people”, in Morris’ descriptive phrase) to make good on their speculative bets against the people, and as personal creditors who could demand that government enforce their demand to now be paid in government-issued, specie-based cash, whereas previously debts could usually be paid in real goods. This double assault threatened to dispossess and indenture the very people who had fought and won the war, and on whose behalf the war had been fought in the first place, according to the Declaration of Independence.
The basic plan of Hamilton and Morris: A strong central government would identify its interests with the creditor class and turn the private accounts of these speculators into the public’s debt, turning itself into the thug arm of this finance scam. (Like I said above, many citizens would thus be doubly on the hook.) This would reassure Old World finance, enabling the new US government to borrow overseas. The US system could use this free-flowing credit to build up its own military, police, and bureaucratic power and to use these aggressively, to imperially expand across the continent and to enforce its prerogatives (i.e., the prerogatives of the ruling class) against the citizenry at home. The American public would have to pay off the debt incurred to pay for this monstrous parasite upon it. Taxation power would be necessary to carry out this function, and would in turn serve as a pretext to further concentrate government power. This hierarchical concentration of centralized government power, along with the double assault of taxation and indenture, would help break the democratic movement. This elite hijacking of a quasi-democratic revolution was a typical imperialist crime. From the point of view of the people, it was another enclosure onslaught, and a war of total destruction vs. local economies and democracies. So the new system began with a massive crime against the people, and against war veterans in particular.   
This was nothing new to the true citizens of the colonies. They already had long experience of such oppression. Prior to the war the people had long engaged in direct action against the oppression both of the British (for example the Sons of Neptune in Boston, after whom the Sons of Liberty were named in part) and of home-grown corruption and tyranny, most famously the Regulator movement in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Now the people of Massachusetts took up the Regulator mantle. In 1786 a spontaneous movement of veterans and workers rose up to forcibly resist debt tyranny and thuggery. This was Shay’s Rebellion. In spite of tremendous good will and courage, this attempt to carry on the principles of the American Revolution fizzled out (as spontaneous peasant revolts usually do) and was followed by the usual repression. It was in this context that the alleged democrat Samuel Adams issued this cry of freedom: “The man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” No neoliberal corporatist of today could sum it up better. 
By 1787 sufficient evidence had piled up that the Articles of Confederation lacked “sufficient checks against the democracy”, as Randolph put it at the Convention. From the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution to the revocation of Morris’ bank charter, from the general difficulties Hamilton was having putting through his centralized finance plan to Shay’s Rebellion and the bad memories of the Regulators it stirred up, the elites knew they needed to radically revamp the government blueprint. They needed a constitution which would centralize government, strongly concentrate it, turn it into a versatile and brutal weapon on behalf of finance assaults, military aggression, and police repression.
From any other point of view, the Articles were fine. That’s why the 1787 convention was undertaken with ulterior motives from its inception. It was sold to the people as just a tweaking of the existing system, not a radical transformation. Only once the Convention was seated did it then set to work devising a fully centralized, hierarchical, top-down, finance-based big government.
Why the 1788 Constitution? Not the vague words of the civics textbooks about the inadequacy of the Articles. No – finance elites and propertied aristocrats were in a panic over how close to success Shay’s Rebellion had come, and over the many other ways in which the democratic movement was striving to continue the American Revolution, to bring its proclaimed principles into practice. With horror they discovered that the existing government wasn’t strong enough. By that I don’t mean strong enough for regular law and order and to organize rational, equitable trade; it was certainly sufficient for those. It wasn’t strong enough to enforce economic tyranny. That’s why they wrote and imposed a new “constitution”. The new order – Hamilton’s kleptocratic plan, and the thug arm to carry it out – was put to the test with the excise tax on whiskey and the subsequent “whiskey rebellion”. While the new central government was still too weak to enforce this tax throughout most of the back country, it was strong enough to do so in one critical territory, western Pennsylvania. That was enough of a show of force to intimidate much of the populace. The central government’s “authority” was now established.
What does it all mean today? We must continue the neglected, derelict revolution. The real fighters for freedom were the foot soldiers of the Revolutionary War, who fought in the spirit and for the ideal of the grassroots democratic activists, from the Regulators to the 1776 Pennsylvania constitutionalists to the Massachusetts rebels for democracy to the backcountry fighters against Hamilton’s taxation onslaught. These, and all true democracy activists since, on up to the Occupy movement of today, and on the grand scale the global Food Sovereignty movement, have been the real heroes of the revolution.
It’s the Spirit of ’76 against the anti-spirit of 1788. Which year rings more true to us today, as we see the full development of the economic and political centralization process enshrined in 1788? There’s only one path forward: We must resume the American Revolution.


  1. Hi Russ,

    Enjoyed the historical analysis; would be more interesting had you included a good bibliography. I am not sure where you hoped this line of thought would go, but, my understanding of the behaviors and customs of the European conquerors/invaders of the 15th century onward leads me to believe that the motivations of the principals were to escape their European homelands and/or to take advantage of less aggressive/talented inhabitants/owners (?) of the frontiers (American continents and surrounding). As those potential/real native adversaries were not successful in their confrontations with the European invaders, they were defeated and subsequently subjugated. So, let’s see now, just who were the ‘good guys’. Oh, I recall they turned out to be the winners (some 0.1% of whom were much more clever than those we now categorize as the 99.9%). Oh well, we are all likely familiar with that situation by now.

    As much as I would like to believe some of the myths of the good old days, good vs bad guys, or whatever theoretical comparison, my suspicion is that such is sort of a way to waste time/effort speculating. I enjoy reading interpretations of ancient/as well as not-so-ancient history, however, it seem that we Americans are living in a world of Empire(s) that may be somewhat reminiscent to that which the citizens of Germany/Japan were depicted (in the movie house propaganda newsreels during WW2) as inhabiting during the 1930s-1945.

    Comment by wilwon3 — May 1, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    • I think these facts have a lot in common with the class struggle today (it’s basically the same bourgeois-feudalism vs. petty bourgeois struggle), and most Americans idealize this period of history. So if both psychology and the historical facts line up in favor of this narrative, as part of movement-building, it would be silly to want to just throw away such a potential tool without exploring its possible uses.

      As those potential/real native adversaries were not successful in their confrontations with the European invaders, they were defeated and subsequently subjugated. So, let’s see now, just who were the ‘good guys’. Oh, I recall they turned out to be the winners (some 0.1% of whom were much more clever than those we now categorize as the 99.9%). Oh well, we are all likely familiar with that situation by now.

      Yes, and reformists like the MMTers are, relatively speaking, among the most ardent defenders of this might-makes-right outcome.

      Meanwhile those of us who fight for Food Sovereignty and positive democracy are trying to abolish the ruins of this historical nightmare and overcome its reactionary attempts to carry itself over into the post-oil age. We’re not trying to “reform” the ruins. We’re trying to redeem many of the ways of those you call the defeated “adversaries”.

      Not that I think many critics actually care about the Native Americans they cite. But just in case, I’ll ask if you know of some truly indigenous set of political tools which can help bring some of the middle class over to the democratic side of the struggle. If so, I’ll happily use it. I’ll ask you the same thing I’ve asked others many times – do you have a better idea for building a historical consciousness? No one’s offered an alternative, but no one’s been willing to argue that we can break all ties with history.

      Unlike most of the radical-chic-liberal blogs, I’m not trying to maintain a secret club in a tree house here. I want to fight and win a political war.

      Meanwhile I can only hope to follow the example of campaigns like La Via Campesina and the MST, neither of whom obsess on the long-dispossessed Incas.

      Here’s some good places to start with that bibliography.



      Comment by Russ — May 1, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  2. I notice that the date of that second constitution is perilously close to the date of the beginning of the French revolution.
    France has always been a rather monolithic, highly centralized nation state, under the monarchy and after the revolution too, of course…
    Intimate ties between French and American intellectuals at the time, and after, I think.
    Under the monarchy, sovereignty lies with the people, too, by the way.
    Government itself makes no sense unless sovereignty lies with the people. Our ancestors were not idiots, despite our incredible ignorance, and hubris.
    No clues about how to foster historical consciousness.
    Some clues about how NOT to foster it, though : a high speed “culture” with no time to reflect back on past actions.
    We have become the slaves of our technologies : the faster we go, the more we are obliged to go faster.
    That does not promote historical consciousness at all… Historical consciousness needs time.
    Come to think of it, yes, I have ideas for building historical consciousness : I am currently reading a book by Ivan Illich with a group of people, “Conviviality”. Get people physically together to read books out loud, stop, and comment on them. That promotes… REFLEXION. It is a first step.
    Rebuild self discipline.
    As always… start with yourself…
    We will not break all ties with history anyway. Snort. Because them thar words… they go back over 2000 years now. THEY… will not let us break all ties with history. THEY lead the dance…
    In a culture which is groaning under more than 1000 years of unremitting WRITTEN WORD, and the necessity of transmitting our so called encyclopedic “knowledge”, we are chafing under the weight of the obligation of transmission, and the impossibility of transmitting.
    We need more ORAL transmission, firmly anchored in physical, and not virtual places.
    And less encyclopedic “knowledge”, too…

    Comment by Debra — May 1, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    • We have become the slaves of our technologies : the faster we go, the more we are obliged to go faster.

      Well said. It is a constant struggle to slow down.

      No clues about how to foster historical consciousness.

      It cannot be done in all cases. Some people will never care about history. The vast majority will care about history solely to the extent it confirms what they already think they know. Only a very few are interested enough to cultivate historical consciousness, which takes an even greater effort to maintain. My preference is to shake the foundations of what people believe to be true, to encourage them to find their own truths.

      Comment by Tao Jonesing — May 2, 2012 @ 12:15 am

      • I agree. We need to be aware of the ideological prejudices involved in what we tend to consider.. valid history.
        “History” has been lassoed, and corraled into the “scientific” pen. Tss tss.. It used to be a liberal ART.
        Reflexion on our own appreciation of our individual histories, our memories should teach us that, if given the time and occasion, we regularly return to our memories and reinterpret them in the light of our current situation, against the backdrop of our culture.
        Example : at 50 I will not perceive myself, or my parents in the same light as I perceived them when I was twenty. Much water has passed under the bridge between times. Individual incidents take on new meaning, and sometimes even radically change meaning.
        Our social body is constantly reinterpreting our collective… memory at the same time.
        Look at the word/idea/concept… feudalism, for example… 😉
        If some people never care about history, all tend to care to a certain extent about the starting point for history : individual memory.
        We should be aware of the continuity between individual and collective memory.
        And we should not be teaching history as “objective”, thus, solely EXTERNAL/EXTERIOR to us individually.
        That is a way to take it down…
        We need individual REFLEXION to slow down. We need to dig out some of our older words (historical consciousness…), start dusting them off, and using them again.
        Reflexion, she says. And not just the MIRROR kind…

        Comment by Debra — May 2, 2012 @ 3:39 am

      • My preference is to shake the foundations of what people believe to be true

        I just had occasion to think again about how one of our biggest problems is the stuff people “know” that just ain’t so.

        Consider this example:


        It’s a decent partial analysis. Although he misunderstands the fundamental nature of regulatory agencies, he does recognize what he still calls “corruption” as being systematic and structural, rather than “bad apples”.

        But the reason he fails to understand what these bureaucracies truly do, and for example why he still uses a concept like “corruption”, can be found in this sentence:

        Regulatory agencies are created by Congress in order to control some powerful forces in society (usually corporations), which benefit society but which are also prone to abuse their power. The purpose of a regulatory agency is to allow the flow of benefits while straining out the abuse.

        That corporations “benefit society” (my definition of benefit: We’re better off with it than we’d be without it) is a Big Lie which remains conventional wisdom. All the evidence disproves it, yet almost everyone “knows” it.

        That’s how it’s then possible to see regulators as there to allow these benefits to trickle down, when in fact regulators are there to help facilitate the corporation itself (which, by definition, can never “abuse” its power as long as it adheres to the profit imperative).

        It’s odd that this guy was a regulator for so long, and yet he discounts the testimony of the regulators themselves when they openly call the big corporations their “constituency”, “clients”, “stakeholders”, etc.

        For example:


        It seems to me that when someone proclaims a principle, and his actions are then in accord with that principle, and there’s no obvious reason to seek another explanation, we should take what they say at face value.

        Comment by Russ — May 2, 2012 @ 5:24 am

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