(This is one issue of a subseries; see U.S. vs. Democracy for a list of all issues in the subseries.)
First, some background on the Bill of Rights:
Most of the main body of the current U.S. Constitution pertains to the organization, operation, and powers of the central government. The new central government defined by this Constitution was among the thirteen founding States (Virginia, New York, and so on), not among the people themselves. However, the various states were concerned about the power of the central government, and would not ratify the Constitution without its clarification by the addition of ten amendments, collectively called the “Bill of Rights”. (I say “clarification”, because many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought that these amendments were not necessary, since those delegates considered their limitations to be obvious and redundant. Other delegates thought the matters not so obvious, and demanded the amendments to make it clear what most of the delegates were already thinking.)
In the beginning, the Bill of Rights was not meant to limit the power of the States themselves. For example, an individual State was not prohibited from restricting speech, from having an official church, or from exacting cruel and unusual punishments. Despite this, most States were roughly in agreement with its basic principles, and some went further. On the other hand, the Bill of Rights didn’t protect Indians, slaves – mostly Black – and others, such as Chinese or “Mexicans”, who often were considered to be less than human.
Although the Bill of Rights supposedly protected, to greater or lesser extent, most people outside these “subhuman” groups, the governments themselves – of the States and the central government itself – were controlled by a minority of those people to whom the Bill of Rights applied. Those without property, without real estate, were mostly prohibited from voting. Nor was the franchise extended to women. On the whole, the government was controlled by men of property. It was these men, a small minority of the population, who ran the show. There is an important sense in which the Revolution of 1776 didn’t change much of anything for most of the people living in the Thirteen Colonies. The Revolution largely removed the British from the system when it came to the activities of the propertied, but the life of the typical citizen wasn’t much changed. A free citizen of one of the States woke up after the Revolution to find himself subject to the same laws, the same State and local governments, and mostly the same conditions which applied to him before the Revolution. For most people, the central government wasn’t much felt. There was not even national citizenship: you might be a resident of Pennsylvania or of North Carolina, but there were no U.S. citizens. The term, “United States”, was used in the plural: “the United States are...”, not in the singular.
Then came the a convergence of processes of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The U.S. Civil War, often portrayed simply as a war between northern and southern states, was in fact a war between the southern states and the central government supported by the northern states. Regardless of its causes – slavery, states’ rights, economics, and others – it had among its consequences a consolidation of power by the central government and by propertied economic classes. Although the franchise, the vote, was extended to more people, at least theoretically, most of the people lost power and freedom. In essence, more people got the vote, but the vote was cheapened and worth less.
To see this, imagine that the U.S. consisted of one southern plantation, with a few (white) hired overseers and with (black) slaves doing most of the work. Then along came the so-called Civil War, the 13th Amendment (which nominally eliminated slavery), the 14th Amendment (which extended the Bill of Rights so that individual States were bound by those guarantees), and the 15th Amendment (which granted the vote to former slaves and others). Most are taught that the former slaves are now free, that they have civil liberties, can vote, have due process rights, freedom of speech, and so on.
However, what is taught is wrong. Although the freed slaves might have gained civil liberties, they owned very little of the land, water, and other natural resources. For food, building materials, clothing, transportation, and other necessities, they found themselves dependent upon their former masters. In other words, the emancipation of the slaves was only partial. What kind of freedom do you have if you are required to work for someone else, under conditions over which you have no control, for poor wages? If the landowners decided to plant cotton and not to plant food, then food might be scarce. If the landowners decided to sell only poor land, then a new farm would not be very productive. If the rail and ship owners were to charge high prices to take goods to market, then there might be no profit remaining for the freed slaves. In other words, it was an incomplete freedom.
Compared with the lot of the newly-emancipated slaves, the situation of already “free” people differed mostly in degree. In other words, very few of the non-slaves were or are completely free either, nor were they ever. It has always been the case that a minority has owned almost all of the property in the U.S., and a very small number have controlled more than half of that property. We have never been a completely free people. The current economic regime, capitalism, is in fact a kind of neo-feudalism. Instead of hereditary titles (kings, barons, lords, and so on), we have hereditary wealth without formal titles. (Most wealth in the U.S. is inherited, and the single best predictor of a person’s wealth is the wealth of his parents.) Instead of concentrating most of the power and wealth into an aristocracy, we concentrate it into an economic oligarchy. Instead of the taxes, rents, and surplus going to the aristocracy, profits, rents, and surplus accrue to the capitalists. There are, of course, exceptions: just as a very few can rise from lower to upper classes, a few rose in mediæval times to become lords or even kings, but the exceptions have always been unusual. The broad rule is the same: the many serve the few.
This concentration of wealth renders democracy impossible. A discussion of the reasons will be in the next issue of this series.
The “rights” which we have are incomplete, in that a complete bill of rights would include at least a right to the resources to support one’s self without mandatory service – a kind of slavery or serfdom – to another. This does not mean a guaranteed income or welfare, but rather access to what is needed to grow one’s own food, to build decent shelter, and to create the other basic necessities of life. Of course, this access to basic resources must be meaningful: it won’t do if the materials are inaccessible, or if necessary transportation is lacking. These things, also, I shall consider later.
I shall refer to this currently denied right as “the right of individual material independence”.
There are some profound consequences to individual material independence. These will be discussed more later, but consider as an example how different the newly-freed slaves would find life under those circumstances. Those slaves would be free to refuse offers of employment from their former masters until such time as those would-be employers were to agree to reasonable wages and working conditions. They could hold out indefinitely, making for themselves the basic necessities of life, until such time as the plantation owner might offer them a better situation. They would, in that respect, no longer be slaves. In the same way, they could pool their resources, voluntarily, and form their own plantation or other enterprise.
Although Americans usually don’t acknowledge that basic human decency requires this right, other people have often, though perhaps implicitly, done so throughout history. For example, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the institution of “common land” or “the commons” was widespread in the British Isles, so that everyone in a village or town had access to land for a garden, pasture for livestock, and woodlands for fuel. Biblical laws require that those with farmland leave some of their crops unharvested, so that they might be gathered by the poor. Nowadays, however, greed takes precedence over charity and capitalism has priority over democracy. The discussion of these matters will continue in future issues, after we consider why the current situation makes it impossible to have a functioning democracy.
(1) The term, “feudalism”, is imprecise. A variety of systems, with some diversity, are commonly called “feudal”. However, their characteristics as highlighted in this issue are similar to one another to the extent to which they are described.
(2) Along with other phenomena, the elimination of the common land and other common resources facilitated the rise of the capitalist system. This process was called “enclosure”, since it often involved fencing in or enclosing common land to keep the “commoners” out. When common people no longer had a way to support themselves, they were forced to migrate to cities and to seek employment in factories. Because of the level of desperation and poverty, due in part to enclosure, capitalists had little or no incentive to offer fair wages or decent working conditions.
(3) There is commonly circulated a bit of incorrect history regarding the commons. It is sometimes claimed, wrongly, that commons don’t work because they are abused and there is little incentive to care for common property. For example, it is asserted that, with common pasture land, people would overgraze and this destroyed the value of the pasture; eventually, these kinds of abuses destroyed the commons system. In fact, however, the people set rules for common property and enforced them. If you abused your grazing privileges or exceeded your allotments, you stood to forfeit your cow or other livestock. Popular management of common property often provides good examples of effective democracy. Those historians who observed the collapse of the commons didn’t go far enough back into its history: they observed the phenomenon in the context of failed democracy.
Thursday 2018.05.17 — Initial release.
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