John Nichols: Adrienne Rich’s Touch Was Political — in The Nation

Adrienne Rich’s Touch Was Political

John Nichols on March 28, 2012 – 10:43 PM ET

Adrienne Rich addresses dinner guests after receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2006 National Book Awards sponsored by The National Book Foundation in New York, Nov. 15, 2006. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson, file)

Adrienne Rich was an exquisitely politically poet—and a politically exquisite poet.

Radical in word and deed, Rich did not play games with politics or poetry. She treated each seriously, displaying a genius first recognized by W.H. Auden in the early days of the McCarthy Era that so horrified them both—and that new generations of readers would recognize across the decades during which she became as definitional as the elder poet who had selected the 22-year-old Rich for the 1951 “Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.”

Dead now, at age 82, Rich will speak on—well and wisely—through her poetry and through the myriad interviews she gave about writing and radicalism. Intensely committed to the causes of civil rights, socialism, feminism, lesbian and gay rights, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, she wrote poems about being an observer, but she was an eternal participant. And that participation was transformational.

“We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed,” she would write, “yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”

Committed to trade unionism, she served on the board of the National Writers Union, as arguably the most honored of its author members. Yet there were some honors she would note accept. In 1997, she famously refused a National Medal of Arts as a protest not merely against right-wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts but against the economic, social and political compromises of the Clinton administration. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” Rich explained. “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage”

A huge fan of “Democracy Now,” and a frequent contributor to The Nation and other journals of the left, she made political media more lyrical. But she also made literary journals more political. Asked in a very fine interview a year ago with Paris Review Daily about the “overtly political” character of her 2011, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve—with its anguished reflections on “Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the ‘renditioning’ of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured”—Rich replied:

I’m not quite sure why you see Tonight No Poetry Will Serve as more overtly political than my other books. The split in our language between “political” and “personal” has, I think, been a trap. When I was younger I was undoubtedly caught in that trap—like many women, many poets—as a mode of conceiving experience.

In 1969 I wrote, “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political” (“The Blue Ghazals,” in The Will to Change [1971]). Writing that line was a moment of discovering what I’d already begun doing. Much of my earlier poetry had been moving in that direction, though I couldn’t see it or say it so directly.

“The Blue Ghazals,” published as an homage to Mizra Ghalib—the 19th-century master of Urdu ghazals who penned a poetry that was free and beautiful in a time of oppressive and cruel British colonialism—spoke of the common ground between love and solidarity as well as any poetry of our time.

What Rich explained in “The Blue Ghazals” she practiced across more than sixty years as as poet who maintained an exceptional level of engagement with the good fights of her times.

Rich was passionate about that engagement. And her poetry challenged others to share the passion.

After the end of the Reagan presidency, she published “In Those Years,”  which always seemed to me to be a fitting extension of Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”

Rich’s poem read:

In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through rages of fog
where we stood, saying I

John Nichols’s new book on protests and politics is Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, just out from Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.

Racism and the War Against the Poor

[On December 17,  1951 William Patterson, National Executive Secretary of the Civil Rights Congress, delivered copies of an historic petition to the United Nations delegation in Paris. Meanwhile, renowned musician and activist  Paul Robeson presented the same petition, which documented the legacy of slavery in America, to a U.N. official in New York.  That document was entitled “We Charge Genocide.”  Quoting the U.N. definition of what constitutes genocide (” Any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, or religious group is genocide.”) the Civil Rights Congress called on the U.N.  ” for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People.”  They concluded that “the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government. If the General Assembly acts as the conscience of mankind and therefore acts favorably on our petition, it will have served the cause of peace.”

Ruben Stacy lynched in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 1935

After the Civil War’s military phase was over, the Reconstruction period established the rule of Wall Street over the South,  followed by the rapid and thorough establishment of sharecropping and peonage in the South.  The lynch law became the leading terroristic weapon to keep these social relations in place.  Thousands of documented cases of lynchings took place from the end of Reconstruction to the end of the second World War. This source notes that in the century after the end of the fighting in the Civil War more than 2,400 African-Americans were lynched, a number that considerably underestimates the deaths.  And while the preponderance of people lynched were African-American, more than a thousand non-African-Americans (“white,” Mexican, Asian) were lynched in the same period.

Ida B. Wells,born in Alabama and teaching in Memphis in 1892, had been writing articles in a Memphis paper pointing out the rising tide of lynching and the other practices which

Ida B. Wells

characterized the oppression of Black people. In 1884 she was ordered to give up her train seat and move to another (crowded) car so that her seat could be taken by a white.  She refused, was forcibly removed, and she sued to recover damages (the Supreme Court had, in 1883, struck down an 1875 Civil Rights Law banning discrimination in public accommodations).  A lower court ruled in her favor, but the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against her and ordered that she pay court costs.  She continued to write about inequities and, while away in Philadelphia, her newspaper was burned down.  She left Memphis, lecturing around the world about the condition of Blacks in America, arriving in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair.  Here she and Frederick Douglass campaigned to boycott the World’s Fair (1893) because Chicago had failed to work with the Black community in putting together its representation of African-American life.  20,000 copies of a pamphlet they wrote were distributed.  Wells decided to stay in Chicago and continued her campaign for an anti-lynch law, a campaign which she brought to the President of US (without significant effect).

In 1924 the young Vietnamese expatriate Ho Chi Minh, studying in France,  visited the United States and wrote an article on lynching for the French press (he also made some reports to the international Communist movement on the “national and colonial question”).  This source identifies 2,600 victims of lynching in just the 20 years from 1899 to 1919, and connects lynching to an economic question as well as a racial one.

In the last year, the issue of mass discrimination has entered public consciousness through the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Her arguments on how the proportion of Blacks incarcerated has mushroomed fits neatly into the UN definition of genocide.  Note her comments here on Democracy Now, which among other things shows that the election of a Black president has not mitigated the growing assault on “poor communities of color.”

The March/April issue of Rally Comrades has a different perspective on race and class.  While focusing on the history of the US, as indicated above, the article “New Form of Racism Emerging” locates a nodal point in the creation of a new class of poor, with Blacks at the center of this class.]

New Form of Racism Emerging

We are entering a vast social revolution. Every aspect of American life is being torn apart and something new is being created. America is not going to be recognizable in another 20 years.
Change in social motion is difficult to grasp because the content begins to change before the form. What revolutionaries must grasp is that a new form of racism is developing, directed against an emerging new class that includes the “ghetto blacks,” the “illegal immigrant” and the white, so-called “trailer trash.” In other words, the class and cultural differences with the ruling class, not color, is emerging as the ideological basis for the savage economic assault against the poor.

Everything changes as economy changes

An economy cannot stand alone. There must be a political structure that protects it, including laws, ideas and institutions.  The struggles that are taking place today are over how to guarantee that the economy can continue to develop. All kinds of ideas are created, reshaped or thrown out according to whether they politically facilitate the development of the economy.
The concept of race, like any other political concept, has always served the needs of the economy. It changes with every change in the economy, because the economy demands that change if it is to move forward.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two or three Blacks were lynched each week in the South. Lynching was seldom applied to Blacks until after the Civil War. Up to that time, almost all those who were lynched were white. There were changes in the economy and the Blacks had to be driven back into some kind of semi-slavery in order to maintain the profitability of the southern economy, which was absolutely indispensable to the northern textile industry and the U.S. economy overall.

Racism in America has been directed against the Irish, the Native Americans, the Latin Americans, and the Asians among others. Most of all it has centered on the African Americans because it is a political question. Politics is the art of the class struggle. Nothing could be more artful than to use a myth to convince literally millions of people to do harm to themselves in the interests of the people they are struggling against. Yet this is precisely what has happened in our history. It happened because the American people became convinced that they were dealing with a biological rather than a political question. We emphasize this point because the great economic and political changes taking place are having a profound effect on the politics of race and color.

There was a time when a person’s race depended on where they were born, not the color of their skin. Race became a color question when the African slave trade enslaved all kinds of different nationalities whose common characteristic was their color. This linking of color and race for capitalist exploitation was further consolidated and spread through the worldwide expansion of imperialism.
We also must never forget that the brutality of racism was not always directed solely by color differences. The racist nationalism of the fascist Japanese government against the peoples of Asia, or the slaughter and enslavement of the Slavic peoples by fascist Germany are only recent examples. In history we see racism in a religious garb as well. The thing that is clear is that racism, no matter its veneer, facilitates exploitation and is an integral part of capitalism. Therefore, as the needs of capitalism change, the forms of racism will change to accommodate it.

Not an underclass but a new class

A new social group is forming. They have been driven outside the  capitalist economy, but as human beings they must eat — they must consume. This new class is growing daily through the process of technological innovation. Like anything else, today’s new class developed over a period of time.

Robotics entered industry at the lowest and simplest level. Its first victims were the unskilled and semiskilled workers. Part of the legacy of slavery was that after emancipation a huge section of the African American work force remained tied to the land. Tractored off the land after the development of the cotton-picking machine, they were the last section of the rural population to join the industrial work force. They were concentrated in that sector — the unskilled and semiskilled sector — that was first attacked by the robot.

The Black poor were hit first and hardest. The Black bourgeoisie fled their traditional sections of the city as soon as the ink was dry on the laws allowing them to do so. Holding stable jobs, a section of the African American workers also moved from the inner city into much more stable neighborhoods.

With the factories shutting down, the land around these factories quickly lost their value. Taxes fell, maintenance dwindled and the combination of the American form of apartheid, plus the liquidation of jobs, created a new type of slum: the black, permanently destitute, rotting inner core of the formerly central working-class area of the city.

The economists, their social vision distorted by racist ideology, were unable to understand the difference between the reserve army of unemployed created by industrial capitalism and the structural, permanent joblessness created by robotics. They only saw a growing mass of African Americans outside the labor market. They eagerly embraced the term “underclass.”
Those who coined the term “underclass” perhaps thought here again was a group unable to keep up, and once falling behind and supported by welfare, consciously accepted an existence outside the capitalist relations of worker and employer. They were presented as a subclass of Blacks, reliant on welfare, who had lost the work ethic. Worse, they were creating a subculture of immorality and criminality in the midst of a great national expansion of wealth and productivity.

A more concrete look showed something different. The new productive equipment has polarized wealth and poverty as never before. Absolute wealth in the form of 145 billionaires and absolute poverty in the form of some eight million homeless and absolutely destitute were new to our country. The increase in production was accompanied by an increase in unemployment and joblessness.
Since that phrase “underclass” was coined, the process of social destruction has continued. We can see now that this new group of permanently unemployed is not the result of the welfare system or of some “racial inferiority”, but of the new means of production and the destruction of jobs.

The effects of robotics on the white unskilled and semiskilled workers were not so easily seen scattered as they were, and still are, throughout the general white population, especially in the rural areas and in the suburbs. The African Americans were highly visible, being concentrated in a relatively small urban area. Also, the percentage of Black laborers among the African American population was higher than white laborers among the white population.

Racism against Blacks provided the form, but the content was the beginnings of a social revolution. The first expression of that revolution was the wrecking of the economy of working-class Black America. That revolution is now wreaking its havoc against the formerly secure sections of the blue-collar, white-collar and lower management levels of the white workers.
Today, almost nine in ten Black youth ages 16 to 19 are unemployed. There is a steady increase in Black teens murdered. Black families on average hold one-tenth the wealth of white families. HIV, a disease of poverty, disproportionately affects Blacks. There is a disproportionate number of Blacks in prisons.

This dangerous situation facing the African American poor is not happening in a vacuum. It is part of a process that is pulling millions of all colors and nationalities into poverty. Today, the economy is losing millions of jobs. Nearly 50.7 million Americans, or one in six, are without healthcare. An estimated 50 million people struggled to put food on the table last year. The demand at food banks is up. One in four children is hungry. Growing numbers of Americans are going without other necessities such as water and heat in their homes.

But it is not simply the growth of poverty that is significant today. And the results of the process are broader than the social problems caused by racism. It is acknowledged now that, in fact, the so-called white underclass is larger and growing faster than the Black. What we are dealing with is not an “underclass,” but a new class. Today, this new class has already formed a new economic section of the working class and it is in the process of creating a new social and political entity.

Class-cultural division

The concept of race based on color has to go out the window, just like the concept of race based on geographic locale had to go out the window.  It is not possible to have a Black president and sustain the idea of color-based racism.

But we do have racism. But it’s more and more being shifted into economic status. More and more if you are part of the America where your parents didn’t have a job, you don’t have a job, you went to a school where you can barely read and write – you might have the same skin color, but you are not the same as others who are not in that situation.
The cultural divisions within Black society have been developing for some time and are almost complete. There has been a selective “cultural integration” taking place. If an African American will think, talk, act and have the same motivations as the members of the ruling class, the doors are open to them. The scores of Black generals, admirals and CEOs of big corporations, the Black politicians and government bureaucrats all testify to this. Today, there are literally hundreds of Black millionaires. Below them is a growing layer of Black professionals who have practically no connection to the strivings and aspirations of the mass of African Americans.

The tendencies of cultural division within white society, although always underground, are now becoming visible. Increasingly, lower-class whites have more in common with the lower-class Black cultural forms than they do with the white upper-class. Today, this history is being grafted on to the new class and the cultural divisions that are arising from the vast polarization of wealth and poverty.

Race, racism and the new class

The ruling class uses the particular weapons of history against the different sections of the new class, but the ruling class is aiming its fire at anyone — regardless of color — who presents a threat to the existing order. They are attempting to stigmatize and isolate the new class as a class.

We can see the outlines of this attack in Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart. He warns that the all-class white unity that once characterized America is “coming apart at the seams, not along seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” The divergence of cultural behaviors and values between the classes he describes is so great, he writes, that they have so little in common that one can “barely recognize their underlying American kinship.”

Murray considers the “new lower-class” of “poor whites” he describes as depraved and ignorant as the poor Blacks he described in his infamous book The Bell Curve. For Murray, poor whites are lazy, prone to crime, addicted to government programs, irreligious, full of excuses, and morally bankrupt. They are inferior to, beneath, not anything like, the whites (and the wealthy of all colors) in the new upper class he lauds so highly.

This kind of racism against the white poor is nothing new, of course. Poor whites have always been considered naturally inferior, their poverty attributed to some deficiency in intellectual or physical capacity. Especially after the Civil War and all the way up to WWII the southern white was looked down upon by the northern white as being not really American. In the 1950s, a series of Chicago Tribune editorials, for example, viciously attacked Appalachian “migrants” for turning the streets of Chicago into “a lawless free-for-all with their primitive jungle tactics … [with] the lowest standard of living and moral code [if any] of all… No other group is so completely devoid of self-pride and responsibility… even worse than Negroes.”  The 1972 movie Deliverance made this point clearly to the American public – that these people were animals, that these were the kind of people that lived in Appalachia.

While Murray focuses on poor whites, he includes poverty stricken Latinos and Blacks in this new lower class. Regardless of color, the new class poses a threat to the very fabric of American society. “Individually, they are not much of a problem,” he writes. “Collectively, they can destroy the kind of civil society that America requires.”

Looking ahead

Two contradictory processes are developing simultaneously in America today. Under the pressure of economic privation there always will be a tendency for any oppressed or defenseless person to shift the blame to someone else, rather than attack the overwhelming power that is hurting him or her. We are going to see different sections of this new class fighting each other.
At the same time, the commonality of their economic situation is going to compel them to unite, if only at first on specific issues. As the foundation for color-racism is being destroyed there is a growing economic attack against the new class — on their education, their housing standards, their job benefits, an attack on the very infrastructure of their lives. There is no way for them to resist this kind of pressure unless they seek out and find a political expression for the objective reality of their changing lives.

We are dealing with a political question. The new class is already forming along the line of a unity based on what is practical and real and possible.  But ultimately, it cannot carry out its historic mission unless it becomes conscious of that mission, unless it understands itself as a class, unless it sees its common interests as a class. This is the revolutionaries’ role, to illuminate the meaning of the current struggles in order to develop the consciousness, the thinking, the sense of self the class must have to carry out its mission.  Strategy, direction, vision and the diverse ways in which the revolutionaries disseminate and share this message all turn on an accurate assessment of the race question as it is today in America..

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Can We Educate Ourselves Out of Recession? Alexander Cockburn and Jack Metzgar Don’t Think So. . .

[Education, Jobs and Wages, the article by Jack Metzgar referred to in the article below, can be found here , on the WCSA blog.]
from Counterpunch
Weekend Edition March 23-25, 2012
Only 25 Per Cent of All Americans Go to College and Only 16 Per Cent of These Actually Try to Learn Anything. Welcome a Nation of Helots.

The Myth of the “Knowledge Economy”


“In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,”  President Obama famously declared in his 2010 State of the Union Address, just as millions of high schoolers across the nation were embarking on the annual ritual of picking their preferred colleges and preparing the grand tour of the prospects, with parents in tow, gazing ashen faced at the prospective fees.

The image is of the toiling students springing from lecture room to well-paying jobs demanding advanced skills in all the arts that can make America great again – outthinking, outknowing  the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, South Koreans and Germans in the cutting edge, cut-throat high tech economies of tomorrow.

Start with the raw material in this epic knowledge battle. As a dose of cold water over all this high-minded talk it’s worth looking at Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum’s recently published  “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” The two profs  followed more than 2,300 undergraduates at 29 universities, selected to represent the range of America’s 2000-plus four-year college institutions. As resumed by Steven Kent in Daily Finance:

Among the authors’ findings: 32 per cent of the students whom they followed in an average semester did not take any courses that assigned more than 40 pages of reading per week. Half did not take any courses in which more than 20 pages of writing were assigned throughout the entire term. Furthermore, 35 per cent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone.

Typical students spent about 16 per cent of their time on academic pursuits, and were “academically engaged,” write  the authors, less than 30 hours a week. After two years in college, 45 per cent of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36 per cent showed little change. And the students who did show improvement only logged very modest gains. Students spent 50 per cent  less time studying compared with students a few decades ago.

Students who majored in traditional liberal arts fields like philosophy, history and English showed ‘significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.’” But of course these are the courses and instructors being ruthlessly pruned back.

One of the study’s authors , Richard Arum, says college governing boards, shoveling out colossal sums to their presidents,  athletic coaches and senior administrative staff, demand that the focus be  “student retention,” also known as trying very hard not to kick anyone out for not doing any measurable work. As Arun put it to Money College, ”Students are much more likely to drop out of school when they are not socially engaged, and colleges and universities increasingly view students as consumers and clients. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that all students want to be exposed to a rigorous academic program.”

Rick Santorum briefly struck out at ingrained snobbery about going to college: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.” Amid howls from Republican governors, this was a piece of derision it didn’t take him long to retract. Actually, it turns out only about 30 per cent  of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees.  Jack Metzgar, emeritus professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, had a very useful piece in Working Class Perspectives, the blog of the Center for Working Class Studies Site, with this and other useful facts and reflections.

The US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20 per cent of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26 per cent of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43 per cent required only a high school diploma or equivalent.

Please note that the latter 69 per cent were therefore free of the one debt  in America that’s even more certain than taxes – a students loan. At least, if you’re provably broke the IRS will countenance an “offer in compromise.” In fact they recently made the process  slightly easier. No such luck with student loans. The banks are in your pocket till the last dime of loan plus interest has been extorted.

Now for the next dose of cold water. The BLS reckons that by 2020 the overwhelming majority of jobs will still require only a high school diploma or less and that  nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30 per cent paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars

As Metzgar correctly remarks, “Put these two sets of numbers together, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are over educated for the jobs that we have and are going to have.  It’s hard to imagine why anybody would call us ‘a knowledge economy.’” In other words millions of Americans are over-educated, servicing endless debt to the banks and boosting the bottom lines of Red Bull and the breweries.

The snobbery, as Metzgar  points out,  stems from the fact that America’s endless, mostly arid debates about education are conducted by the roughly one third who are college-educated and have okay jobs and a decent income.

The  ”knowledge economy” in the U.S., now needs more than 6 million people with master’s or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020.  But this will still be less than  5 per cent of the overall economy.

Even if we expand the definition to include jobs requiring any education beyond high school, the ”knowledge economy” – now and a decade from now -will still represent less than one-third of all available jobs.

This is a lot of jobs, about 44 million now, and if you work and live in this one-third, especially in its upper reaches, more education can seem like the answer to everything.

Indeed, according to the BLS, having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate. But most of the American economy is not like this.

The BLS’s three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020.They are: Office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710);- Sales and related occupations ($24,370); Food preparation and serving occupations($18,770). Other occupations projected to provide the largest number of new jobs in the next decade include child care workers ($19,300), personal care aides ($19,640), home health aides ($20,560), janitors and cleaners ($22,210), teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction laborers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920), and construction laborers ($29,280).

As Metzgar writes, “As an individual, get a bachelor’s Degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family.  You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.” Here’s his kicker: But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that…we need to stop fostering illusions that good educations can ever substitute for the organized collective action – in politics, in the workplace, and in the streets – that will be required to reverse the increasingly miserable  future.”

So what is the best anti-poverty program? Higher wages for the jobs that are out there, currently yielding impossibly low annual incomes. The current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. From time to time senior executives of Wal-Mart call  for a rise in the minimum wage since, in the words of one former CEO, Lee Scott, “our customers simply don’t have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks.” The minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour, and nonetheless has an unemployment rate of just 5 percent.

Any Republican candidate seriously pledging to raise the minimum wage to $12 would gallop into the White House, unless – a solid chance  – he wasn’t shot dead by the Commentariat, or maybe by a Delta team acting on Obama’s determination relayed to him by the bankers, that this constituted a terrorist assault on America. As Ron Unz, publisher of  The American Conservative – who favors a big hike in the minimum wage, recently wrote:

“The minimum wage represents one of those political issues whose vast appeal to ordinary voters is matched by little if any interest among establishment political elites. As an example, in 1996, following years of unsuccessful attempts to attract the support of California politicians, disgruntled union activists led by State Sen. Hilda Solis, now serving as President Obama’s secretary of labor, scraped together the funds to place a huge 35 percent minimum wage increase on the state ballot. Once Republican pollsters began testing the issue, they discovered voter support was so immensely broad and deep that the ballot initiative could not possibly be defeated, and they advised their business clients to avoid any attempt to do so, thus allowing the measure to pass in a landslide against almost no organized opposition. Afterward, the free-market naysayers who had predicted economic disaster were proven entirely wrong, and instead the state economy boomed.”

Scott Turow On Why Amazon Is Bad For Books

[The article below gives solid reasons for fearing Amazon’s monopolistic position.  Here is another aspect of the fear, akin to the fear of Walmart and its treatment of workers. ]

Why We Should Fear Amazon

Author Scott Turow on why the online mega-retailer is bad for books.
March 14, 2012  |

Late last week, the Justice Department warned Apple and five of the nation’s largest publishers that it was planning to sue them for price fixing. At issue is the agency model, a method of wholesaling e-books in which the publisher sets the retail price and the retailer takes a 30 percent cut. Most print and many e-books are sold under the traditional wholesale model, in which publishers sell books at a discounted price, and the retailer can resell them for whatever price it likes.

The unnamed player in this drama is Amazon, which had been selling e-books at a loss until two years ago, when the iPad came along and publishers used the emergence of the new device to pressure the online megaretailer into adopting the agency model, too. If Amazon wanted to sell e-books from the Big Six (as the six largest book publishers are called), it could no longer sell those titles for $9.99.

Publishers actually make less money with the agency model, so why have they insisted on it? The change was designed to limit the growing dominance of Amazon over American book retailing. On Monday, Scott Turow — the bestselling author of “Presumed Innocent” and other legal thrillers, and the president of the Authors Guild — posted a letter to members on the Guild’s web site. In it, he pronounced the Justice Department’s actions bad news for authors, “grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture,” and (contrary to first impression) ominous for book consumers. I called him up to find out more.

What are some of the Guild’s problems with Amazon?

First of all, so that I don’t get dismissed as an ingrate, I should say that Amazon has been a boon for bestselling authors. Authors get paid on the basis of the cover price for a hardcover book. By discounting, which is something that chain stores started and Amazon continued, they have lowered the barriers to book buying in ways that have been personally extremely beneficial to me.

Because you get paid the same amount regardless of how much the retailer charges for the book, and the discounting encourages more people to buy the book?

Exactly. These are not personal complaints. There are lots of things about Amazon for which they deserve credit. They’re innovative. There are lots of very, very happy Amazon customers. I’m not here to dispute that Amazon has been personally good for me or to say that they haven’t been, so far, good to their customers.

So what’s the problem?

The concern is that they are getting so large and they compete so ruthlessly that there’s a lot of fear for what the world with Amazon in charge is going to look like.

The Guild’s beefs with Amazon became pronounced over the issue of the resale of new titles some years ago. This was something that Amazon pioneered. They would sell you a [just-released] book on Day One, buy it back from you on Day Two, and then resell it to another customer on Day Three. This was legal, but certainly not what anybody ever intended.

Traditionally, in hardcover, that’s been basically a split of the proceeds between the author and publisher. (An aside: That’s something we’re fighting with publishers about in the digital world.) So Amazon decides to go into competition with the publishers by reselling the book they just bought. The publisher gets paid nothing, and neither does the author. It’s a pure profit for Amazon.

Now, the reason you don’t see used bookstores within new bookstores is that the used books compete with the new books and the publishers supplying the new books would object. Either you’re doing business with me or you’re competing with me. I’m not going to sell you books so you can take some percentage of sales.

The problem of course was the Amazon had gotten so big that publishers were afraid to resist that. It’s not the mere fact that they’re competing [with their own suppliers]. I can certainly understand that it’s good for consumers to be able to buy a book two days later at a lower price. It’s the fact that the publishers were afraid to dismiss Amazon.

Which is what they would do with a regular retailer who was doing the same thing but had viable competitors?

Right, and of course, Amazon was undercutting authors in the process. We tried to persuade them to just window this [delay making used copies of brand-new books available for a period of time, the way the release of the DVD of a movie is delayed until after it has played in theaters]. That didn’t work. It was a muscle-flexing exhibition by Amazon, saying, “We’ve got so much market power, you guys can’t do what you’ve traditionally done and take your goods elsewhere. We represent at least 30 percent of the book market.”

I don’t like losing sales, but the real problem is at the margins. Midlist authors have been struggling to survive for decades now. If you start eating into the publishers’ returns, then at the bottom of the food chain, those books are just not going to get published. We have seen that happen.

Are there other examples of Amazon using its predominance?

They now control the print-on-demand market. That’s when you buy a book and only then does a service print a copy — literally on demand. [This is a method used by academic and small presses, as well as by authors with otherwise out-of-print books.] Amazon bought a POD service called BookSurge. Then they informed their customers — university presses and some other publishers who the Guild had organized to do POD for Authors Guild members — that they would not list their books on Amazon’s site unless they paid BookSurge more for their services.

I don’t know how they defend themselves on this one. That’s another very ominous sign to the book industry and authors.

What about their history with e-books?

They deserve a lot of credit for the Kindle, for yoking e-ink with this nationwide wireless network. It’s a great innovation. And they said to the publishers, “It’s really important to us in introducing this platform that e-books appear at the same time as the hardcover edition.” Publishers said, “Oh, we’ve seen your tricks before, Amazon! Why would we ever do that?”

So Amazon says, “We’ll pay you the same amount we pay you on a hardcover.” So publishers think that sounds fine, how can they complain about that? They agree and are then stunned when Amazon announces that they’re going to sell every e-book at a loss, for $9.99. That’s an average loss of $4 to $5 a book.

Why would Amazon do that?

I suppose they could argue they were doing it to sell devices and that may well have been one of their intentions. It had the additional benefit of making it much harder for any of their competitors to enter the market.

For example: A lot of people have the habit of going into a physical store, looking at books and then turning around and buying the e-book wirelessly from Amazon. Had it not been the case that you had to sell an e-book at a $5 loss, bookstores would have been able to say, “Sure, bring your device with you and we’ll sell you the e-book right here.”

Bookstores are pretty hard-pressed by book discounting as it is, and the idea of selling ebooks at a loss made it impossible for them to enter the marketplace in competition with Amazon.

What about the proprietary format of Kindle? Didn’t that also make it hard for competing e-readers to enter the market?

You couldn’t read all those books you bought from Amazon on a competitor’s device — you can now, if you have an iPad, but you couldn’t then.

The nook is widely regarded as the better e-reader device, but if you’ve accumulated a library of Kindle titles, you can’t take them with you if you decide to switch. [Technically, you can, but most users would find this quite challenging.]

Barnes and Noble developed the nook because they really had no choice but to compete with Amazon. They were struggling at that point, and I personally don’t think they’d have been able to survive while losing $5 on every book. There simply were not a lot of people jumping into that market to compete, not with the prospect of losing $5 on every book sale. From the outside, it looks like the pricing was not just a loss leader on the devices, but a way to discourage competition.

How did Amazon’s e-book pricing affect authors?

One way that 25 percent of net became the standard royalty for e-books was because publishers said, “We all know they can’t go on selling e-books at a loss forever and sooner or later this pricing structure has got to change.” They told authors they couldn’t agree to a different royalty because everyone knew that Amazon wouldn’t be paying them $14 to $15 per title indefinitely.

You’re implying that Amazon planned eventually to use the consumer’s habituation to $9.99 books to force publishers to charge Amazon lower wholesale prices for books. They’ve tried to do that recently with some small presses, removing their titles from Amazon unless the presses agree to sell their books at rock-bottom wholesale prices. And publishers would have no choice but to agree because every other competitor would also have been driven out of the market by Amazon’s predatory pricing?

Certainly, that’s what publishers assumed.

The other thing Amazon could have done once they had the market to themselves — and this is virtually inevitable — is that they would have raised prices to consumers.

That’s part of the less-known history behind anti-trust laws. Once a large company has spent its capital to fund predatory pricing and drive its competitors out of business, there’s no reason to keep selling for cheap. The low prices don’t last.

Right. Look, if what they’re into is maximizing profits, then if they were to have a monopoly there’d be no rationale not to use the monopoly power to increase prices to consumers. Now, if I were on the other side, working for Amazon, I’d say “Show me where I’ve done that.”

Presumably, they haven’t done it yet because they haven’t achieved the monopoly yet. Historically, that’s what monopolies always do.

Correct. That is historically what monopolies do. There is plenty of precedent for that. It’s only rational to fear what they’re going to do with this accumulation of power.

Again, the concern from the author’s perspective is that e-books are putting a tremendous downward pressure on the price of books in general. That’s putting tremendous pressure on publishers to survive. And I think a world in which online book selling is driving bookstores out of existence is a pity.

How did Amazon respond to the entrance of Apple and the agency pricing system?

Apple offered to sell books on the iPad using the agency model — which is what they use for iTunes — and the publishers one by one agreed to that. Then they told Amazon they were going to follow this new model, and that they were going to produce the e-books themselves rather than Amazon doing so.

When the first publisher, John Sargent [of Macmillan], told them that, Amazon responded by removing the buy buttons not just from all of Macmillan Publishing’s e-books — about which you can say, yeah, there’s a legitimate dispute — but from their print books, too. Paper, physical books! It was another demonstration of their ability to abuse their market power.

They used their market power over an item where pricing was not in dispute to punish a publisher for taking what Amazon regards as an unfavorable position in a different market.

Why should where their books are bought make a difference to authors?

New authors traditionally are nurtured by bookstore personnel, especially in independent bookstores. These people literally hand sell books to their customers, by saying, “I’ve read this. I think you’re going to love it.” Not to mention the fact that a bookstore is a small cultural center in a community. That’s definitely a loss.

Again, my concern is for the sake of literary diversity. If the rewards to authors go down, simple economics says there will be fewer authors. It’s not that people won’t burn with the passion to write. The number of people wanting to be novelists is probably not going to decline — but certainly the number of people who are going to be able to make a living as authors is going to dramatically decrease.

When that decreases, the diversity of the literary culture decreases. The store of new ideas and the richness of the discussion all decreases.

Further reading

Scott Turow’s letter to the Authors Guild membership

The Wall Street Journal on the Justice Department’s threat to sue Apple and five book publishers for price fixing

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site,

Occupy Wall Street and The American Revolution — by Chris Mahin

[The essay below was the basis of Part One of a two part presentation on the Constitution and its history for  Occupy Rogers Park.  Part One was presented February 19, 2012.  Part Two is on this blog as well, and is titled “When Corporations are People: A Grim Fairy Tale,”  and was presented February 26, 2012.]

Thursday, March 08, 2012

“Occupy Wall Street” and the American Revolution, posted in the New Worker (England)

Thomas Paine
by Chris Mahin
AS THE “Occupy Wall Street” movement continues, it may be helpful to look at history to see how those fighting for change have mobilised in earlier times. One such example is the American Revolution of the 1770s.The American Revolution of the 1700s shows the tremendous importance of introducing new ideas into the fight against the powerful.
In 1763 Britain took control of Canada after defeating France in the French and Indian War. The Parliament in London soon began taking steps that pushed the residents of Britain’s 13 American colonies toward rebellion.First the British government barred the colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains (this was the Proclamation Line of 1763).
Then the Parliament passed laws requiring the colonists to pay for the French and Indian War (the Stamp Act, Tea Tax, and other measures were designed to raise money to defray the cost of that war).
These steps enraged many colonists. No longer in need of British military protection against the French in Canada, they were much less willing to tolerate interference by the British government in their affairs. The colonists refused to pay the Stamp Tax and Tea Tax because their colonial legislatures had not been consulted before those measures became law. They cited a principle which the English Parliament had forced the English king to agree to in 1628 – “No taxation without representation”. However, at first, most colonists did not favor independence. The colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the British king, George III, who they believed was being misled by his ministers. The colonists simply wanted to change their relationship with Britain’s central government personified by the Parliament in London.
Between 1765 and the end of 1775 many protests erupted in America against different aspects of British rule. These protests included instances of bitter street fighting (the Boston Massacre of 1770) and wholesale destruction of property (the Boston Tea Party of 1773). They culminated in full-scale, bloody battles in which hundreds died (Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill).
But despite all the militancy and violence of those 10 years of protest, as long as the colonists believed only that the British government’s policy was wrong while accepting the “right” of a king to rule them, they could not break with Britain. They didn’t even try.
This was a classic case of a revolution not being able to move forward because the fighters in the revolution, while militant, were being held back by their old ideas. The situation would not change until something happened to shake up the thinking of the American people. Fortunately, something did.
On 10th January 1776, Thomas Paine, an English radical who had lived in America for only 14 months, published a pamphlet called Common Sense.
In simple, readable language, Paine tore apart all the arguments in favor of American loyalty to the British Crown. He insisted that one honest man is worth more than all the kings who ever lived. He painted an inspiring picture of what the world would be like with an independent America to serve as an example to everyone fighting for freedom in every part of the world.
Common Sense challenged some of the basic assumptions that people in the 13 colonies had lived by for their entire lives.
Paine gave the colonists a cause – independence for America and opposition to kings and aristocrats everywhere. “The cause of America is the cause of all mankind,” he declared. Because Paine’s ideas were, for his time, qualitatively new, they sparked great debate. His small pamphlet was circulated widely. Some 120,000 copies of Common Sense were sold in its first three months and 500,000 copies were sold in the first year after its publication.
As Common Sense was distributed throughout the 13 colonies, public opinion began to change. One by one the state delegations to the Second Continental Congress began to support the idea of proclaiming the independence of the 13 colonies from Britain. Finally in July 1776 the Second Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. This vote was a direct result of the publication and widespread distribution of Common Sense.
Perhaps those involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement can learn lessons from the American Revolution of the 1770s.
Like the revolutionaries of 1776, we live at a time when people have been hard hit by the status quo, but don’t fully understand what it is that has hit them. This means that we have to act like Thomas Paine; we have to change people’s thinking. We have to convince the American people to give up their old ideas and accept some new ideas so they can win the fight that they are waging against hunger and misery in this country.
The fundamental idea that we have to get across to people can be stated fairly simply: We do not have to live like this. Today, no human being in the world “has” to be hungry. Today, the human race possesses the productive forces (computers and robots) and the scientific knowledge to guarantee that everyone could live a healthy and cultured existence. The only thing preventing that from happening is the strangle-hold that 445 billionaires have over the world’s economy and politics. Today, it is possible to unite our efforts against the billionaires and millionaires, end their control over society, and create a new society.
Like the people who made sure that copies of Common Sense reached every corner of the 13 colonies, we have to transmit our message far and wide. We have to ensure that there is as wide a debate as possible about the role of the corporations.
If we do that, we can begin to change the thinking of the American people – and help change history.

When Corporations Are People: A Grim Fairy Tale by Lew Rosenbaum

When Corporations Are People:  A Grim Constitutional Fairy Tale


How I Learned To Live With an Iron Heel on My Neck

poster by Doug Minkler

By Way of Introduction

This is the second of a two part series on the Constitution in history and how it has evolved.  The first part, by independent scholar Chris Mahin,  reviewed the revolutionary period of American history and its roots in the European enlightenment.  This part will deal with the Constitution itself, the debates leading up to its ratification, and the evolution of the political apparatus in this country.  We will look closely at how slavery impacted the development of the State, and how corporations and the State have been intertwined since the inception of the United States.  In the final analysis we want to look at these three propositions that are fundamental to understanding history and the present.

  • The Constitution is the legal framework upon which the State has been constructed. Within its content one can see the results of the debates that created it and can understand the class struggles that emerged from it. A general dictionary definition of “state” is: ” a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government”; a more specific definition, under which I am operating considers: “The State is a particular power of suppression”  (Friederich Engels).
  • The Constitution is an evolving document.  Interpretations of it have changed, depending on the forces in society.  Therefore, to rely on the thinking of the founders both discredits the revolutionary period in which it was written and makes us hidebound to the reactionary conclusions of that same period.
  • To analyze what is happening today requires that we understand history – but not be shackled by it.

Let’s restate some of the background of the years leading up to the revolution.

First, the revolutionary war was one phase of a century long struggle, in which European powers contested for global supremacy.  Viewed from our side of the Atlantic, it is often easy to ignore the monumental battles taking place between France, Spain, England and Portugal for control of the seas and hence the “right” to colonize the world.   Colonies provided the feudal nobility new sources of raw materials and other forms of wealth.  Some of the nobility who obtained the rights to colonize North America attempted to reproduce European feudal relations on the new landscape.  Every such extent failed within a few years of settling.  If nothing else, the opportunity for indentured servants, who formed the bulk of the early settlers, to escape (legally or otherwise) significantly altered their expectations.  The other feature that greatly influenced  development was the cash crop economy of the South, integrated into the emerging world economy by the production of sugar, tobacco and indigo.  What became known as the triangular trade– sugar and tobacco from the South and Caribbean shipped to England, where it would be sold and turned into rum and chewing and smoking products; money obtained from commerce or products thus manufactured then were shipped to West Africa where the profits would be used to purchase slaves; and the cargo of slaves made the return final leg of the triangle back to the South or Caribbean.  This was the beginning of a sophisticated capitalist process,

Triangular Trade

distinct from what was found in Europe, a process which shaped the history of America.

Second, this side of the Atlantic participated grudgingly in the revolutionary struggle, only coming late to the conclusion that this would need to be a war for separation of the colonies from England.  Even the idea of a “United States of America” was foreign to the colonists a short 20 years before the Declaration of Independence.  The revolutionaries themselves debated whether independence was necessary, up to the eve of the war and even after the victory.

Third, the American revolutionaries were by no means united on what kind of nation an independent America should be.  The reaction to the European conflict and the disagreements about how to relate to England can be found in the Constitution; but the main issues that writers of the Constitution fought over concerned what the new nation would look like.  And they made certain fundamental assumptions that were grounded in the theology and ideologies of the period.   The main, fundamental assumptions, codified in the Declaration of Independence, start out with this phrase: “We hold these truths to be self evident . . .

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It is fair to say that none of the founders understood the radical implications of the statement that they had written in the Declaration and now were charged with carrying out in writing a Constitution.  We have discussed briefly in the first part of this presentation that  these words and the Constitution struck fear into the hearts of European monarchs in their palaces.  But the founders of the new, independent colonies deeply distrusted the implications.

They had, in the wake of their victory, written Articles of Confederation and effected a union that stumbled as it tried to stand.  The leaders of the new government could not raise taxes; could not pay their war debt; could not maintain an army; could not build the infrastructure to transport goods; could not protect the fledgling manufacturing and merchant interests from competition with the British Empire; and were everywhere confronted by former colonial administrations that resisted a centralized governmental structure.  Now 4 years after the Treaty of Paris certified the victory of the colonists,  many of the leaders saw the structure as a model of centrifugal force without a counterbalance.  The new nation was disintegrating and the cause was too much power dispersed.  Too much democracy.  In some ways, Shays Rebellion was the epitome of what was wrong.

Shays’ Rebellion

Daniel Shays was a Western Massachusetts  farmer who served as a lightning rod among all the other poor farmers threatened with high taxation and then foreclosures when they could not pay.  Leaders everywhere looked on with horror as the former Boston radicals, none more radical than Sam Adams, called out the militia on the rebellion of the poor.  What if this happened elsewhere?  What if this turned into a general insurrection to “alter or to abolish” the new government? What if a general slave insurrection would threaten the Southern planters?

The 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787 had Shays and all he represented on their minds.  They were men of wealth and means, and highly educated for the time  —  when 1% of  the Americans had a college education, half of these men had been to college.  George Washington, probably the wealthiest man in America, presided over the convention.  Many of the men were people who had loaned the colonial army money and had much to gain by a central government that could and would repay them. In fact, they suffered under the Articles, because the government could not even pay the interest on the money owed them.

But they had some disagreements as well.

They did not agree on the extent to which democracy should be limited.  Who should be entitled to vote?  What offices should they be entitled to vote for, either directly or indirectly (through electors)? How long should an office holder be entitled to hold office?  What kind of man should be allowed to hold office?

They agreed (mostly) that they did not want to re-institute a monarchy; but how could they institute in the form of the government some way in which one of differing interests could not become dominant?  How could the powers of the government be effectively separated?

They did not agree on the relation between states and the central government.  How could the states maintain their autonomy within a centrally supreme structure?  How can the powers of federal and state and local governments be effectively divided? How can the sectional interests of the states be protected against the controlling tendencies of the federal government?

They did not agree on slavery, which was a sectional and economic interest but more than a sectional interest.  How could the South establish and maintain an electoral parity with the North? How could the property rights of slaveholders be protected from Northerners harboring escaped slaves? How could the rights of the slave traders be protected? How could free labor in the manufacturing centers of the North protect themselves against slave labor?  And what about the moral question of slavery itself?  81 year old Benjamin Franklin, petitioned the Convention for abolition, which in the final analysis the Convention refused to take up.

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton, Madison and Jay took up the cause of the Constitution in a series of polemics published in the newspapers of the day, ultimately collected as The Federalist Papers.  Their opponents became known as the Anti-Federalists, which of course gave them a disadvantage from the start.  They were the “anti faction.”  Madison, soon to be allied with Jefferson and against Hamilton in the first administration under the new Constitution, wrote in the Federalist Papers that “faction” was the great enemy of democratic government, and that the faction most to be feared was that of the rabble, the majority, the poor.  The poor would always predominate in numbers, and the nation would need to find a way to enforce a government of the “best people.”  Madison and Hamilton meant that in a large nation, such as the new United States, electoral districts could be large enough, encompassing enough people, so that only those who were known to so many could stand a chance of being elected.  Only the best people.  The Anti Federalists disagreed among themselves about the degree of democracy, but leaned more toward a more direct democracy.

Madison and Hamilton also argued vigorously against a Bill of Rights.  This was the major platform of the Anti Federalists. In fact,  Anti Federalists blocked ratification of the Constitution until the Federalist majority agreed to make writing a Bill of Rights the first item on the agenda of the first Congress convened under the new Constitution.  Madison and Hamilton objected because they thought the rights were already guaranteed under the Constitution, hence redundant.  Given all the furor over at least the First, Second and Fifth amendments in our own time, perhaps Madison and Hamilton (and the Federalists in general) may have thought these too much a concession to the rabble as well.


What The Constitution Says

A line by line careful reading of the Constitution will reward anyone who seeks to, well, read between the lines;  but we are only going to review a few of the most significant points here.

The Preamble of the Constitution starts out with the well known phrase: “We the People.”  It is of course easy to recognize that this group of 55 men were not representative of the breadth of “The People,” even if you consider “The People” white males.

John Adams described the convention as a gathering of men “ability, weight and experience.”  He might have added “and wealth.”    Few men of ordinary means attended. . . nearly all were quite prosperous by the standards of the day.

At a time when fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans attended college, more than half the delegates had college educations. (Foner, p. 235)

But it is easy to understand why this elite of the elite wanted to cast themselves as representing the interests of all.  Still, this deception is not the most significant meaning of the usage.

For another, “We the People” distinguishes it’s origin from the contemporary divine right of kings, or from god.  Further, “We the People” should be contrasted with “We the several states,” or “We the People of the several states.”  It is an attempt to relegate the states to a secondary position under “the People of the United States of America.”  From the outset of the Constitution, the writers are sending a message that the federal government, which represents the interests of all “the People,” is supreme to the states, which represent the interests of a section of “the People.”  From the outset, they make the “division of powers” clear.

Very quickly the Constitution gets into the meat of what it is about.  The document emphasizes the role of the Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Remembering that one of the chief concerns of the framers of the Constitution was  to limit democracy, they defined the office holders.  Representatives were to be elected directly for a 2 year term and were to be allocated proportionally within the states according to a census to be conducted every 10 years, from districts created within the states.  The South Carolina, however, threatened to block the Constitution unless some accommodation was made for the large number of slaves in the South (who could not vote or hold office, but whom the South wanted enumerated for the purposes of representation).  In other words, the South foresaw the potential of domination by the non-slaveholding North, and wanted to shift the center of gravity. The “compromise” was the “3/5 clause,” which enumerated the slaves at the rate of 3/5 of a person for the purpose of representation.  Let’s avoid any misunderstanding: Southern politicians were not admitting that slaves were even partly human or part of “the people.”  The 3/5 clause was strictly a matter of preventive book-keeping, certifying in fact that slaves were stock.

On the other hand, senators were to be elected only indirectly, through a system of electors, and from each state as a whole, for a period of 6 years. Each state, regardless of size or population, would be entitled to 2 senators.   The Senate was to be a much more stable gentleman’s club, viewed as a counter to what was expected to be a more raucous House with much greater turnover.  The men at the convention from the bigger states resented domination by the smaller ones, but this also foreshadowed the debates of the first half of the nineteenth century to balance slaveholding states in the South with free states in the North, as more states were brought into the Union.

The discussion about how long a President should serve started at the extreme end with a proposal from Hamilton:  the President should be elected for a life term (much as is true of a Supreme Court Justice, who is appointed by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate, for a term of “good behavior”).  This got  little traction among delegates who feared the restoration of the monarchy.  They compromised on a four year term, indirectly elected.  (While both the 3/5 clause for Representatives and indirect election for Senators has been amended, the electoral college still exists for the President and Vice President). The Presidency is the only office which has a limit of two terms (amended after Franklin Roosevelt was elected for four terms).

What each branch is responsible for is the crux of the “separation of powers.”  For example, only the House can initiate a revenue raising bill; but all legislation must be approved by both House and Senate and then must be submitted to the President for approval.  The President can veto legislation (this was originally conceived as an exceptional circumstance;  the first significant use of the veto was Jackson’s refusal to accept the renewal of the national bank charter in 1832), and Congress must obtain a 2/3 majority vote to override the veto.  It was not until the Supreme Court ruled in Marbury vs Madison (1803) that the doctrine of “judicial review” was established: the right of the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of Congressional legislation (extended a few years later to state legislation).

Fearful that the executive might accumulate too much power, the framers gave the Representatives the sole power to “impeach” the President, that is, to draw up articles accusing the President of a serious crime.  Under the Constitution, once the President is thus accused, the Senate has the sole power to try the case, and the Supreme Court Chief Justice presides.

Section 8 of Article 1 (The legislative branch) collects here the “enumerated” powers of Congress – those powers specifically assigned.   Here the legal framework for the State strides to the forefront.  Collecting taxes, coining and regulating the value of money, naturalization laws, bankruptcy law, declaring war, establishing and supporting armies, navies, a militia – all the necessary legislation to maintain the organs of force required by a national government.  While the power to “raise the armies” is given to Congress, the command is specifically given to the President.  Civilian control of the military is the principle here.  However, only rarely has the military been commanded directly by the President (e.g., Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion).   It is a legitimate question as to how much that separation of function really matters in a militarized society such as ours.

Sections 9 and 10 limit the powers of Congress and prohibit powers of the States respectively.  Generally these show the efforts of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists to compromise on the central authority of the federal government.  The power of the Southern representatives at the convention is seen by the first paragraph of Section 9:  the Congress is prohibited from abolishing the slave trade from overseas before 1808.  Even before the invention of the cotton gin made the South the source of the bulk of the world’s cotton, slave production of both sugar and tobacco were the source of great wealth in the South.  Many people including Southerners expected that slavery would ultimately fade away because of the tendency of tobacco production to deplete the soil.

It is worth while questioning, before going on to the amendments, who is entitled to benefit from the Constitution.  Who is entitled to political freedom or citizenship?  Who is entitled to hold office and vote?  Congress is given the power to establish “uniform rules of Naturalization,” but nowhere in the Constitution itself is a definition of citizenship given.  The document refers to “the People,” and “Indians” and “Indians not taxed” and “other persons.”    “Other persons” refers in all cases to slaves, who have no rights.  Even fugitive slaves, run away to free territory, must be returned to their owners just like any other property (Article IV, Section 2). The states can regulate how they want to treat free blacks.  Women are not mentioned in the Constitution and were subject to different regulations depending on the states.  Owning property was considered a measure of responsibility by the framers, and consequently became a measure of whether a person could vote or participate in society.  Limitation on democracy was evident everywhere, in conflict with the revolutionary proclamation “We the People” that starts this document out.

With Washington elected and the first Congress seated, the new government faced some significant questions that it had to resolve before it could find out, as we stated earlier, what kind of nation an independent America should be.

As indicated above, the first question they did address was writing a Bill of Rights.  The new Congress wrote 17 amendments, which were then consolidated to 12 amendments presented to the states for ratification.  Only 10 were ratified at first, and these have come down to us as the Bill of Rights.

The first amendment begins “Congress shall make no law . . .” and then goes on to enumerate what Congress is prohibited from infringing on:  religion, speech, press, public assembly.  For most of the nineteenth century, this was interpreted as a prohibition only against Congress.  States routinely promulgated laws that inhibited free speech.   The twentieth century saw the application of the first amendment to more peripheral cases, so that today it is generally applied to states as well.  But even after the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams administration (1796-1800)  were rescinded in the succeeding Jefferson administration, states continued to pass legislation that limited first amendment rights.

Amendments 2, 3 and 4 are closely connected to experience in the immediately concluded revolutionary war.  The presence and behavior of British soldiers on colonial soil gave rise to the right to bear arms (2), the right to refuse to have soldiers stay in your home (3) and the right to refuse officials searching your home.  Of these, the second and fourth amendments continue to be a bone of contention.  Note that the FBI raids on anti war and labor activists over a year ago and the seizure of computers, printed files and art work are seen in violation of the fourth amendment as much as the first (targeting those who exercise rights of free speech and public assembly).

The Fifth Amendment figures prominently in our own day.  The prohibition against being tried twice for the same crime (double jeopardy); the requirement for due process of law; and that one may not be compelled to testify against oneself are all wrapped up in this amendment. “Taking the Fifth” has been the last resort of those politically prosecuted, often to keep from implicating others as in the McCarthy era witch hunts.  The grand jury system, originally conceived of as a protection against unjust indictments, now effectively eliminates protection against self-incrimination when it offers prosecutorial immunity in exchange for testimony.  Under these circumstances, pleading self-incrimination can invoke a contempt charge and jail.

Amendments 6, 7, and 8 all deal with the conduct of the justice system, trials, bail, and cruel and unusual punishment, all intended to ameliorate any excesses caused by a punitive central government.  The extent to which these amendments have been successful can be judged by the length of time people are in jail now before trials take place or before final adjudication of their cases.

Amendments 9 and 10 are the amendments which limit the control of the federal government by reserving rights to the people, so long as they are not enumerated nor prohibited by the Constitution.  This is the last defense of the advocates of states rights vs. national government rights.

In the next section, I want to discuss how these themes — slavery and democracy;  corporations, business and labor — have continued throughout our history, in the context of the Constitution.    Before we get there, I want to point out how some of what we discussed earlier was modified by the amendment process.  We will discuss the Civil War Amendments separately.  Note however that the language in the Constitution prohibiting a direct tax on the people was altered in 1913 by Amendment 16, which established the Constitutionality of the income tax and followed decades of attempts to resolve this question.

Also in 1913 the ratification of the 17th amendment changed made the election of Senators direct.  As a historical curiosity, the 27th amendment, which had been proposed in 1789 as one of the original Bill of Rights, was finally adopted in 1992.  This amendment requires that Congressional raises could not take effect until the session after they were approved by Congress.

Corporations and the Constitution

The period roughly from the first administration under the Constitution until perhaps 1830 is sometimes called the “Market Revolution.”   This term has a number of levels of meaning.  First and foremost, the former colonies that had been dependent on British imports (thus they were thoroughly integrated into the developing manufacturing system of Britain) now established their own manufacturing base.  Second, internally, within the former colonies, a market developed between city and surrounding countryside, between manufacturing areas and farming areas.  Third, the already distinct regional differences between North and South became exaggerated, as the slave economy actually inhibited the development of manufacture, and the bond between shipping, Southern cotton, and Northern manufactured products became strengthened. (The South did build some  textile mills in the large cities and ports.)

Immediately upon the completion of the Bill of Rights and its submission to the states, the Federalists put forward their program for what the new nation should look like.  Spearheaded by now Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, they proposed that the new nation needed to be credit worthy, therefore needed to pay off its debts (primarily to the investors who had bankrolled the revolutionary war) and needed to borrow more money (since it had none) and institute a system of taxation (to be able to pay off new debt and to pay for anticipated projects).  One such project was the establishment of a standing army (fear of invasion; need to put down rebellion).  Another was to subsidize new manufacturing initiatives and to erect protective tariffs against England.

Jefferson and Madison and others coalesced in opposition to this plan.  In their view, everything needed to be centered on developing an agricultural economy of “yeoman farmers,” that is people who owned their small farms and produced grain for export to the world.  Owning land guaranteed independence, in their view.  The factory system and wage labor simply reproduced dependence on the manufacturer. The banking system seemed to the Jeffersonians only an effort to produce a dependent population.

Where they mostly agreed was on the need to repay war debts and to protect both Southerners and Northerners against English tariff walls and other protective legislation.  American ship builders and Southern cotton planters had lost some of their best British customers.  The two sides reached a compromise, when the Republicans (as the Jefferson-Madison faction called themselves) agreed to all of the Federalists’ program except the manufacturing subsidy; and the Federalists agreed to establish the national capital in a Southern location, what became Washington, D.C.  By the mid nineties, what both Madison and Hamilton had argued against in the Federalist Papers and hoped to avoid had become commonplace, Not only had party factions developed within Congress and the states, but Madison and Hamilton had become leaders of the factions.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 changed the South and therefore the entire country.  The gin is a relatively simple machine that cleans seeds from the cotton boll.  This was a highly

The cotton gin

labor intensive job and therefore limited the amount of acreage that could be planted.  In 1790, the amount of cotton produced in the South amounted to perhaps 8.5 million tons.  By 1820, the amount had increased 20 times, the American South was the center of the world’s cotton production, and after 1833 when the British abolished slavery, the U.S. became the world center of a slave economy.  This had definite implications in regard to the slave trade, which we will go into later.  For now, however, it is important to emphasize that the concentration of the cotton kingdom further differentiated North from South, and integrated the slave system of cotton production into the world capitalist economy.

The first national bank, chartered in 1791 for 20 years, was an essential part of Hamilton’s plan.  Jefferson opposed the bank, a private institution, as undermining property rights and as a power not enumerated and delegated to Congress in the Constitution.   In contrast, Hamilton asserted that what Congress could do for a person it could do for an artificial person, namely, a business. You can trace the government arguments about banking, corporations and people back to this point.  The plot thickens, however, as the nation begins to develop.

The Jefferson presidency took advantage of a revolution that broke out in Haiti, along with the French engagement in a European war, to purchase the Louisiana territory, a land grab that doubled the size of the United States.  Note that Jefferson, who showed how conflicted he was about slavery in his writings,  took the opportunity to quarantine Haiti. His Federalist foes, whom he had defeated by branding them anti-democratic, welcomed the Haitian revolution. The Federalists were also quick to point out that such a purchase was not consistent with the enumerated powers either – not delegated to the President.  They argued that he spent money that the Federal government did not have to obtain land that it did not need.  But Jefferson foresaw an expanded frontier which would allow the yeoman farmer class, the backbone of the nation, to move West.  The purchase also gave the United States control of the port of New Orleans, which was the gateway from the Ohio and Mississippi river grain producing areas to Europe.    Jefferson was eager to achieve this.

In 1811, half way through Madison’s administration, which succeeded Jefferson’s in 1808, the charter on the first national bank expired and was not renewed.  The Republicans ran into trouble, however, in the War of 1812.  Unable to finance the war or to pay the debt that accrued from the war, Madison moved to re-establish the national bank.  This charter was passed in 1816 for another 20 year period, part of what became known as “The American System,” an economic package sponsored by the Federalists in 1812 to 1816 and then, as the Federalists fell apart, by the new party that emerged out of the wreck of the Federalists, the Whigs.

The “American System” was a continuation of the Federalist plan of Hamilton, focusing on the bank, high tariffs on imports, and federal subsidies for “internal improvements.”  The Whigs now aimed to finance the development of roads and canals to further the westward expansion and the trade that was necessary to support that expansion.  The opposition to this was led by Southern capital, which had no need for  federal subsidies for “internal improvements.” River waterways had always provided its primary internal traffic, and externally the oceans allowed for transport of the cotton crop around the world.  Southern capital did invest in railroads as the century progressed.  The purpose was to tie the cotton plantation areas with the ports and the newly built textile mills, constructed to compete with the more rapidly developing industry of the North.  Again the arguments raised were Constitutional.  Congress had no enumerated right to tax Southerners to pay for Northern improvements.  The arguments in favor went all the way back to the Preamble, to provide for the general welfare.  Monroe, who became president in 1816, relied on John Quincy Adams to prepare the legislative package;  Adams was thoroughly shocked when Republican Monroe had a change of heart and vetoed the internal improvements measure.

Chief Justice John Marshall

The Second National Bank, however, had been approved in 1816 and given a 20 year charter.  Three years later came the Dartmouth and McCulloch decisions of the Supreme Court.

In Dartmouth College vs. Woodward, the court decided that corporate charters are contracts that cannot be rescinded by future lawmakers.  The charter was a contract, and just because the members of the legislature changed did not mean they could unilaterally refuse to honor the previously negotiated contract.  Going even further, in McCulloch vs. Maryland the Supreme Court ruled that state laws could not be made in opposition to federal legislation that carried out Constitutional provisions.  In that particular case, Maryland attempted to tax the Baltimore branch of the National Bank, pursuant to a law that allowed the state to tax banks not chartered by the state.  The Court, in its ruling, indicated that the taxing power was being used not simply to raise funds, but to tax the bank to death.

John Marshall, presiding over the Supreme Court, here ruled first that the federal government has the power to establish corporations (e.g. banks) even though this is nowhere stated directly in the Constitution.  It is implied, he said, in that the creation of the bank was for the general welfare of the population, and it was not prohibited in the Constitution.

Further rulings in 1824 and 1837 clarified also that the states could not limit the right of corporations to compete.  And in 1830 to 1832, under the Andrew Jackson administration, a series of Court decisions relating to “Indian Removal” – expropriation of Indian land – asserted the primacy of contracts with the federal government. In general, the Supreme Court confirmed the “sacred rights” of private property.  The government, the Court repeatedly affirmed, is bound to protect property rights over personal rights.

By the time Jackson took office in 1828, the old Federalist Party had disintegrated.  Jackson’s own party, a reinvented version of the Republicans now called the Democratic-Republican Party or just the Democrats, was a states rights, pro slavery, Southern oriented party, with strength among Western and Northern farmers.  The Whig opposition based itself in the North, among artisans, manufacturers, workers and small farmers.  Jackson was opposed to the “American System” and especially the National Bank, which he saw as fraudulent.  Jackson was a “hard money” man.  He saw the banks as issuing worthless paper that depreciated the value of money and cut into the real income of wage earners and farmers.  In 1832, Nicholas Biddle, head of the National Bank, persuaded Congress to extend the life of the bank (even though it was not due to expire for 4 more years; he feared that after the upcoming elections Jackson would be able to organize to stop the bank renewal).

Jackson responded by vetoing the extension.  He was the first president to go over the heads of the Congress and to appeal to the whole people to “oppose the rich and powerful.” His message  called forth considerable criticism from Whigs, who denounced him for usurping the power of the legislature.  After the veto, and in spite of the Biddle campaign against him, Jackson won re-election by a sweeping margin as the defender of the “humble American.” In his second term of office, Jackson removed deposits from the National Bank and placed them in various state banks, often under the leadership of Jackson’s cronies (“pet banks”), where the unregulated issue of paper money was a factor bringing on the economic crisis of 1837.

It is worthwhile stopping here, for a moment, to see what the country looked like on the eve of the 1836 election.  48 years after the ratification of the Constitution, all but 8 years were under Southern administrations  (32 years were Virginia presidents).  The dominance of the South had played a significant role in limiting the development of what we have called “The American System.”  Still, objective forces pushed that forward.  Despite Southern objections, the National Bank was chartered for 40 of these years.  In part it was chartered because, despite the ideological convictions of the leadership of the Parties, wars had to be financed, the elite had to be repaid for financing the revolution, and taxes had to be raised.  Both sides were fundamentally agreed about this.  And underneath the political machinations, manufacturing advances were fueled by rapid technological discoveries.

We have already talked about the significance of the cotton gin, introduced in 1793.  The development of the steam engine from the early 1700’s to the introduction of the double acting steam engine in the early 1800’s rapidly accelerated the advance of industry.  Mills and factories that had depended on water power could now be located far from water power sources. Steam power was also fundamental to the commercial use of steamboats and railroads.  Steam also powered the printing press and the rapid expansion of newspaper publishing.  The Erie Canal, the Cumberland Road and other  canals, railroads and toll roads opened up the west to transportation of goods, and thus developed the market relationship between East and West.

Nation and commerce changed in this 48 year period.  We started with a loosely associated group of former colonies now called states that had two distinctly different regional economies. Northern farmers produced food crops, while merchant shipping served the triangular slave trade and as fishing vessels. The agrarian South depended on cash crops of  sugar, tobacco, indigo and cotton.  Politically the cash-crop South dominated the small farming and manufacturing North.  The goal of most families was land ownership, which conferred “independence”: that is the owner of land, like the owner of a business, is “his own man.”  This translates into the ideal of the Republicans, later the Democrats, as the “yeoman farmer.”  By the end of this period, the dominance of the South (politically) is on the wane.  The wealth in property is still concentrated in the South, but “internal improvements” have connected the separate states.  New England has become a manufacturing center, and the factory system has made huge inroads in the agrarian base of the North.  “Mill girls” flee the farms to find “independence” in the textile plants that crowd the landscape. The ideal of the yields to the practicality of the worker and the workplace, wages begins to replace land ownership. As the century proceeds, controlling the land becomes, for many, tied to the banks who own the land; while independence becomes identified with the workers’ freedom to move from one job to another. Farmers and industry in the North produce more than can be consumed in the region, and steam boats plying the Ohio and the Mississippi penetrate the heart of the South with food and finished and manufactured goods.

This market revolution of the early 19th century is, in a certain sense, being revisited in our own day.

The market has been redefined globally by a new form of production analogous to the steam engine. The technological revolution we have experienced in the last 40 years has introduced a new mode of production in the microchip and its spinoffs.  What was independence before (the promise of a good job and the freedom to find another better one) has become dependence once more; while electronics has created a class free from employment at all (i.e., no longer connected to the old production process, no longer likely to find work within the old environment).  Between the 1840s and the present lies a world of difference.  Now century old Supreme Court decisions on monopoly no longer seem to hold water, old rules no longer apply.   Corporations do what they want and government steps in to help out when they stumble.

In this context the Citizens United Supreme Court decision is consistent with the position of a large faction of those who wrote the Constitution. The decision is even more consistent with a global economy in which the microchip and robotics has ejected many wage earners into a permanently unemployed class. It is consistent with an era in which everything takes a back seat to privatization.

Slavery and the Constitution

James Madison

Let’s step back again, this time to examine how the Constitution laid the basis for the “irrepressible conflict” about slavery.  Madison, like Washington and many other framers of the Constitution, was a slaveholder. He recorded in his notes about the deliberations that color had become the basis for “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”  (Foner, p. 258).  Later he assured his fellow Virginians, questioning whether they should ratify the Constitution, that the document offered slavery better security that was available under the Articles of Confederation.

Madison had good reason for assuring the Virginia delegation.  One of the most significant pieces of legislation passed by the Congress under the old Articles (in 1787) was the Northwest Ordinance.  The effect that concerns us here is that it prohibited slavery in the first “territory” created by the federal government for the purpose of ultimately admitting new states to the Union.  By this prohibition the Ordinance made the Ohio River the boundary between free and slave states.  The Ordinance also established the precedent that the Federal government had a right to determine whether a territory could engage in slavery. South Carolina, one of the states with the greatest slave population, came to the Convention determined to defend the “peculiar institution,” and by their efforts greatly affected the document.

South Carolina was responsible for the fugitive slave clause and the 3/5 Clause. Their delegates proposed the Electoral College and pressured the Convention to limit Congressional ability to levy taxes for fear of federal taxation on slave property. While New England and slaveholding Virginia wanted the slave trade abolished (Virginia had a large number of native born slaves), South Carolina threatened disunion if the abolition were not delayed (70 years later South Carolina led the secession movement and the military attack on the North that opened the Civil War).

The fugitive slave clause not only attached “extraterritoriality” to slavery – i.e. that slaves were still in bondage no matter where they traveled – but also created a mechanism that required all states to police the institution of slavery.  Further, the 3/5 Clause greatly exaggerated the national power of the Southern states, giving them much more representation in the House than their voting population would have allowed them.  Through that representation, they also influenced the Electoral College.  Jefferson won the presidency from John Adams in large part because of the 3/5 Clause.  Of the first 16 presidential elections, all but four placed a Southern slaveholder in the white house.

Finally, Southern slaveholders were even partly responsible for the opposition to the Bill of Rights among the delegates to the Convention.  Again we call attention to South Carolina, whose delegate Charles Pinckney, argued: “such bills generally begin with declaring that all men are by nature born free,”  while “a large part of our property consists in men who are actually born slaves.”  The words “slave” and “slavery” appear nowhere in the document, and as Maryland delegate Luther Martin wrote, “[his colleagues] anxiously sought to avoid the admission of expression which might be odious to ears of Americans,” but were “willing to admit into their system those things which the expressions signified.” (Foner, 258, 259)

Finally, while the first Congress passed a Bill of Rights, it shrank from hearing petitions and bills to abolish slavery.   Writing for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Benjamin Franklin again sought to bring a petition before Congress.  Again he could not get a hearing.

Our inquiry purposefully focuses on the legal (Constitutional) expression of the “irrepressible conflict.”  But at the same time I want to emphasize that rebellion and abolitionism, both taking place in the “extra-legal” sphere, were extremely important elements leading up to the Civil War.  While large, organized rebellions were few and far between, they did occur and were extremely significant; few because of the close overseer and state suppression that isolated them early, and executed those who threatened the status quo.  But from Gabriel to John Brown, armed insurrection was a threat which the South was bound to fear and the North to take account of.  It is just not the subject of this discussion.

If we fast forward to 1820, we find ourselves in an America caught in the middle of the market revolution.  This is an America where New York surpassed Virginia as most populous. Cotton production had reached 170 million pounds, 20 times what it was when the cotton gin was invented.  Population was rapidly increasing and settlers moved westward.  Land speculators, often families of the elite framers of the Constitution,  bought huge tracts.   From 1791 through 1820 Ohio, Illinois and Indiana were admitted as states from the territory of the Northwest Ordinance, along with Maine and Vermont, as states without slavery.  However the following states were also admitted, all of which allowed slavery: Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.  Southern states regarded their Northern neighbors with great fear.

In the 12 years following Congressional abolition of the slave trade, the “Up-South” border states had stepped in to fill the gap by developing a specialty as a breeding reserve of the plantation states.  Of course illegal trading in African slaves continued, but the insatiable demand of the cotton kingdom created the division of labor to fulfill the supply.  The concept of being sold “down the river” was a death sentence from overwork in 7 years. Then Missouri applied for admission as a slave state.

In 1821 Congress reached a “compromise” which pushed the conflict into the background for the time being.  Congress agreed that Missouri could come in as a slave state, but that all other states admitted from the Louisiana Territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri would be free.  With that, the South eyed expansion into Texas and carving five states out of the Texas territory.  This required taking the territory from Mexico, a process which took another 25 years before it was accomplished. Again, the details are beyond the scope of this investigation.  However, in a style which would be repeated many times in our history, the Federal government manufactured a pretext for invasion of Mexico and captured a vast territory including Texas, California and the states in between.

In 1846 Representative Wilmot proposed to Congress that no slave state be admitted from the territory taken from Mexico.  This was unacceptable to Southerners, for whom the expansion of slave territory was now a matter of dominance in the government.  The balance in the House of Representatives was turning against the South;  the Presidency was no longer guaranteed to a Southerner; the Supreme Court was still in the hands of the South.  The battle was now for the Senate, and thus the electoral expansion here was crucial to the slave power.  The conflict was so great that a new political party emerged in 1848 taking elements of the Whigs and the Democrats with them.  These Free Soilers ran Martin Van Buren for President.  That a former President would run on a platform limiting slavery showed that abolition had achieved a popular respectability not seen before.

Still, in 1850 the legislature did what it had done before, covering the conflict over with a “compromise” that allowed the voters of a particular territory to determine if the territory should be admitted free or slave. California applied for admission as a free state. John Calhoun, representing South Carolina, was intransigent representing the slave power, but finally agreed to “popular sovereignty” as long as Congress would pass a strengthened fugitive slave law, and as long as Washington, D.C. would remain a slaveholding area (the slave trade would be abolished in the District).

Once again the conflict arose about the Kansas territory in 1854.  With Calhoun and Clay, the titanic compromisers of an earlier era now dead, Stephen Douglas, hoped to position himself for a run for the Presidency.  He proposed to apply the doctrine of popular sovereignty to the Kansas territory.  But this was part of the territory already decided in 1821, all the territory being north of the Missouri Compromise line.  The firestorm this set off shattered the Democratic Party, from which the Republican Party was born, led directly to bloody Kansas (the struggle between free and slave factions), and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The Supreme Court set in place the legal capstone to the battle around slavery  with its Dred Scott decision of 1857.  Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Blacks, not being persons, “had no

Dred Scott

rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  From definite limits to slave states, little by little the South had enforced their dominance while they had it. In Dred Scott the Court established that slave property existed everywhere in the United States. This direct challenge to the North set the stage for the consolidation of the Republican Party and the 1858 election campaign.

1858 was not a year for Presidential elections, but the issue was national:  what to do about the slave power and its threats against the Union.  The Congressional and Court battles against the Market Revolution often took the form of the structure of government and “states rights.”  John Calhoun, who had at one time championed the cause of internal improvements, became the champion of the Southern doctrine called “nullification,” meaning that states had the right to oppose legislation that in their view went against the Constitution.  From South Carolina he had also championed the Southern states’ right to maintain and expand slavery.  In 1858 Calhoun’s legacy was carried on by Stephen A. Douglas, running for Senator against the Republican Abraham Lincoln.  The issue was the slave power and how to contain it. In a hotly contested election, after a series of legendary debates, Lincoln lost, most likely because the shift in population to the northern part of Illinois (Chicago) was not reflected yet in the electors who chose the Senators.

1860 was a Presidential election year, and the Republicans nominated Lincoln.  His Illinois Senate campaign brought him to the notice of the national party, when Republicans could not decide among more prominent figures vying for the candidacy.   The Democratic Party was fractured by the slavery question, and ran two candidates:  Douglas ran as the Northern Democrat candidate, while Breckinridge ran as the Southern Democrat.  A fourth party, the Constitutional Union Party, ran a candidate as well.  With 40% of the vote Lincoln polled more than any other candidate and won the election.  Before Lincoln even took office, South Carolina’s legislature passed articles of secession from the Union, followed first by six other Deep South states. Four more states seceded to comprise the Confederate States of America.

Election of 1860

The political result of the Republican victory, the subsequent secession of Southern states, and the consequent Civil War was a Congress dominated by Republicans, all hailing from the North. Within this group were “radicals” who went further than limiting the expansion of slavery and the slave power.  Sentiment for abolition now resided at the highest levels of government.  While Lincoln maneuvered to get support, civil rights legislation was passed that formed the basis for what became known as the Civil War amendments to the Constitution.

The 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery in all of the U.S., was proposed by Congress January 31, 1865, as the war drew to a close.  (Less than 3 months later, Lincoln had been murdered). It was quickly ratified by the Northern States;  all but Mississippi of the reconstituted Southern states ratified it by the end of the year.  (The North organized the re-establishment of the Southern legislatures).   Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, became President after Lincoln was assassinated.  A Southerner, Johnson hoped to re-admit the Southern states to the Union when they passed the 13th Amendment.  The “radical” Republicans thwarted this aim.  They wanted to maintain the power that the North exercised during the War,  not to return to the state of affairs before the War.  Further, when they saw the Southern states passing legislation to control the ex-slaves with violence, called “Black Codes,” they understood further action would be necessary.

Congress then passed the Reconstruction Acts, placing the former CSA states under military rule.  Congress prohibited Southern members of Congress from rejoining the legislature until their state passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  While aimed specifically at ensuring that the former slaves were granted citizenship and enjoyed equal rights, the 14th Amendment has been applied much more broadly.  All persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens (this is the first mention of citizenship in the Constitution), and no state can abridge their rights, privileges, or deny equal protection of the law.  Further, the 14th Amendment struck down the infamous 3/5 Clause, simply stating that Representatives are apportioned according to population.  Proposed in June, 1866, the Amendment was finally ratified 2 years later.

In 1870, under the new presidential administration of Ulysses S Grant, the 15th Amendment was ratified, making it explicit that ex slaves have the right to vote.

Having politically broken the back of the slave power, the Republican “radicalism” receded until, in 1877, the contested election of 1876 was decided by a compromise that withdrew troops from the garrisons that still existed within the former “military districts” that had governed the South under the 14th Amendment.  Peonage, debt slavery and sharecropping became the order of the day in agricultural Southern states, but now under the control of Wall Street.  W.E.B. DuBois, writing in Black Reconstruction, describes the political result thus: “Wall Street Controls the South and the South Controls the Nation.”

Just as the Market Revolution reflected a change in the economic forces in society, so too the political developments leading up to the Civil War and Reconstruction reflected a further development of those economic forces. The various compromises and Congressional battles and the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court all reflected attempts to shove under the rug an irrepressible conflict that forced its way out without regard to the wishes to ignore it.  Clausewitz’ famous dictum, “War is politics by other means,” certainly holds true here, as unsatisfying compromise after compromise yielded to armed conflict.  Reconstruction was a political continuation of the War and resulted in the political supremacy of the North along with the economic supremacy of industry and railroad capital.

Prior to the Civil War, the wealthiest individuals in the country were slaveholding Southerners;  the four million slaves, considered as property, were

Note how composition of capital changes over time, from primarily slaves to railroads to industrial capital to financial capital in our own day. Source: Power in America, John Keller, p. 58

collectively the largest percentage of capital.  The passage of the 13th Amendment legislated the largest expropriation of private property until that time – without payment to the owners.  It is not a coincidence that following this two sectors of society were immediately affected.  The elite of society, where the greatest accumulation of capital took place, was first (until the World War I) in the expansion of railroads (throughout the South and out to the West, an internal improvement that had not been possible under Southern domination) and at the same time a rapid expansion of industrial capital, especially with the expansion of the steel industry at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  Between World War I and World War II, industrial capital became proportionally larger than railroad capital.

The second sector affected by the end of the slavery was the labor movement.  Karl Marx had written about slave and free labor that labor in the white skin cannot emancipate itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.   He also famously predicted that ending slavery would lead to a rapid expansion of organized labor across the country “in 7 league boots” .  It is again no coincidence that 10 years after the cessation of military action the first national general strike took place – starting among railroad workers; and that the fight for the 8 hour day culminated in massive demonstrations May 1, 1886; and that the troops removed from military garrisons in the South at the end of Reconstruction were redeployed in the North to put down the strike movements of the workers.

The period from the end of the Civil War to the 1940’s in the South appeared to be a return to the pre-war days, without the name of “slavery.”  Perhaps nothing epitomizes this as much as the nefarious Plessy vs Ferguson decision in which the Supreme Court affirmed “separate but equal education. But the Market and Industrial Revolutions had changed the face of the nation forever and created the basis for further changes to take place.  The cotton picking machine finally ended the reliance on sharecropping, creating a vast section of unemployed that migrated into Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York, industrial centers in the North.  Black veterans returning from World War II were unwilling to re-integrate into second class citizenship.  And an American ruling class, poised on expansion supplanting the European colonial masters in Africa and Asia, began to position itself to represent a “democratic” alternative.  These forces, not entirely in agreement, took on the relics of the Democratic Party hanging on in the South.  Brown vs. Board of Education represents the judicial turning point, a reassertion of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.


So we return to where we started from, to recognize that the Constitution and its creation was and is a tremendously complex process. This has been a cursory overview, so cursory in fact that we have scarcely mentioned the First Amendment and its perils.  The Constitution is first and foremost the legal basis on which our society is constructed. Their time was the destruction of feudal society and the creation of capitalism; the invention of the steam engine and through that the creation of new classes and class relations. The Constitution was written to deal with these revolutionary changes.  But these are not our revolutionary changes.

We live in an age of the dominance of financial capital (since World War II), exacerbated by a microchip revolution that undercuts labor and consequently capital’s ability to profit from the labor of the worker.  Financial speculation is a response to this reality, represented also by new class relations and the growth of a social group that exists outside production, that has been expelled from relations in production.  This high-tech capitalism is perhaps the fundamental characteristic of what is called “neoliberalism.”  Flowing from this fundamental characteristic is the drive to turn everything into a commodity.  All public property becomes fair game, sold to the highest bidder or the inside trader. The watchword is “privatization.”  Corporations merge with the government, assume whatever mantle assures them most power (including but not limited to “personhood,” and all efforts at reform are met with refusal and then violence. Mass incarceration, disinvestment in education, privatization of public health (and other services) follow a familiar pattern, codified in the original Constitution in the 3/5 Clause, that focuses on Blacks and Latinos in order to attack the poor as a whole.  The racism of the 19th century is raised to a higher power to attack the “race” of the poor.

Whether we like it or not, the Constitution is the authority for what is most heinous in our society, including corporate personhood and other features of “neoliberalism.”  It is also the authority for what is most revolutionary in our history, no matter how restricted or how little envisioned by our founders.  Our attitude toward the Constitution requires that we reclaim from it whatever is revolutionary, while recognizing that our time is different.  Still, the demands that echo from that time to ours reflect the striving of centuries of fighters for a new society organized to provide justice, peace and equality.

We are taking up that banner.  The State system erected by the Constitution, and the corporations with which it is merging, can no longer contain or answer the demands of a population excluded from the benefits that the society can produce in abundance.  It is the “Right of the People to Alter or Abolish” a destructive government. That is our birth right.  It is our responsibility.

Suggested Readings:

Beard, Charles An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (MacMillan)

Foner, Eric  Give Me Liberty  (WW Norton)

Keller, John  Power in America  (Vanguard Books)

Peery, Nelson  The Future is Up To Us  (Speakers For A New America)

In Chris Drew’s Case: Judge Declares State Eavesdropping Law Unconstitutional

[The Chicago Sun Times reported Friday, March 2, that Chris Drew has won this round in his free speech battle with the State.  Although Prosecutors immediately appealed the decision, Judge Sachs ruled in Chris’ favor that the law making it a felony to audiotape the officers making an arrest is unconstitutional.  There will a be a formal celebration at B1E Gallery on April 7, part of the Chicago Spring activities of Occupy Chicago and the neighborhood Occupations.  Chris and his legal team will be there!]

Judge declares state eavesdropping law unconstitutional

BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK  AND DAVE MCKINNEY Staff Reporters March 2, 2012 12:31PM

Story ImageChristopher Drew

Updated: March 3, 2012 2:10AM

A Cook County Judge declared the state’s eavesdropping law unconstitutional Friday, and a state lawmaker hopes the ruling provides momentum for her push to change the law.

Judge Stanley J. Sacks issued the ruling in the case of Christopher Drew, a Chicago artist who was charged with felony eavesdropping after he recorded his Dec. 2, 2009, arrest on State Street by Chicago Police.

“The Illinois Eavesdropping Statute potentially punishes as a felony a wide array of wholly innocent conduct,” he read. “A parent making an audio recording of their child’s soccer game, but in doing so happens to record nearby conversations, would be in violation of the eavesdropping statute.”

Prosecutors now may appeal the judge’s ruling directly to the state’s Supreme Court.

A photographer and screen printer from Rogers Park, Drew, 61, was selling art patches for $1 at 103 N. State St. when he was arrested for not having a peddler’s license.

Police found a tape recorder in his poncho that recorded the conversation between Drew and the arresting officer on the street.

He was charged with a Class 1 felony, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

“It was impossible for me to imagine a law based on privacy would make it illegal for me to tape a public conversation by a public officer on the public way who was arresting me,” Drew said after the hearing in the Criminal Courts building in Chicago. “I should have the right to bring evidence into court of what that officer says to me in public.”

His attorney, Joshua Kutnick, had argued that the law was too broad.

“It criminalizes conduct that the statute was not designed to criminalize,” Kutnick said Friday. “It was designed to protect personal privacy and what Chris did out there on State Street that day was not a violation of the officer’s personal privacy.”

Illinois has one of the strictest laws in the country prohibiting audio recording without the consent of all parties involved in the conversation. Most states allow one-party consent, in which only one person who is part of the conversation has to agree to it being recorded.

A bill to change the law is pending in the Illinois House.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) is the lead sponsor of a measure that would legalize the recording of conversations with police officers performing their duties in public places “if the conversation is at a volume audible to the unassisted ear of the person who is making the recording.”

The bill passed out of committee in early February by a 9-2 vote and now is positioned for a floor vote by the full House.

Nekritz said Friday’s ruling “provides a great deal of momentum.”

The bill has 26 co-sponsors, including three Republicans, yet police groups still oppose the bill, and Nekritz is not clear whether she has the necessary 60 votes to pass the legislation in the House.

“We’ve been engaged in discussions with the police groups to try to see if there is some room for coming together,” she said. “I still think we are probably philosophically just going to be on opposite sides of the fence. But we’re trying.”

But not all police officials fully back the existing law. Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has called the Illinois eavesdropping law a “foreign concept.” He has said recording police doing their jobs might prevent false accusations of misconduct later.

© 2011 Sun-Times Media, LLC.