As everyone gets a break, takes holiday, and fires up the barbecue this Forth of July, it’s time to revisit what this holiday means in the world of 2017. It’s a world of science fiction compared to July 4, 1776, some 241 years ago, the day we Americans mark the birth of our nation, and remember its remarkable achievement. The USA was the first modern nation founded on Enlightenment ideals and the ambition of self-governance apart from aristocratic rule. To accomplish this, the US became the first nation to actually write down its founding principles, the first nation to write a Constitution. It is a society founded on these documents rather than cultural tradition or the names of families that made up the dynastic empires. This was, for its time, truly revolutionary and a cause for celebration, and it became a model to other nations opposing imperial rule.
Time has a way of changing the meaning of things, however. For everything Independence accomplished, we can see clearly where it also failed. In the near quarter millennia after the Declaration of Independence, the United States is a different nation. It is no longer a former colony and upstart. It is rather the world’s richest and most powerful nation. It no longer opposes empire, rather it is the center of empire. It’s a bit of the irony of American history that the mainstream cultural memory has yet to reconcile. It is the irony of a nation that espouses freedom and liberty, yet whose foundations are precisely based on slavery and the lands it confiscated from native people.
This irony is cleared up rather easily if we only understood the American experiment in its proper context with a rather simple question. Whose revolution was this? It certainly was not a revolution by the working classes, or slaves, nor an indigenous revolt (Remember, Jamestown was basically a colony of poor white indentured servants). It was not religiously or culturally motivated either. The American Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, a revolution by large wealthy landowners and real estate speculators whose power and wealth was growing to such a degree to usurp the crown’s authority. Their America was a grand real estate venture – they had a whole continent of wealth to exploit and wanted to do so without the crown’s taxes or legal restraints. Britain did not have the resources or will at the time to expand westward as the Washingtons and Jeffersons of the Americas wanted. And they were on the verge of abandoning chattel slavery as an institution in the New World. The American Revolution assured that these institutions would go on – the conflict was really a massive transfer of wealth from the British aristocracy to the American landed gentry. And America itself an epic in scale real estate venture. By the time of the founding of the nation, George Washington was perhaps the wealthiest man in America. His wealth was in real estate, all of it in property his family seized from Native Americans. The Iroquois tribe knew George Washington by another name – “Village Burner.”
When the founding framers and fathers constructed the government, they did not create a democracy. Their model of government was not ancient Athens, but rather the Roman Republic. The President would not belong to a family, but be a rotating office for elected monarchs. The congress was created with two houses – the House and Senate. The House of Representatives would tend to budgetary issues and be decided by population of states (slaves counting for three fifths of a person). The Senate was constructed in an age when states had more power than they do today, so that each state has 2 representatives, who they expected to be basically attorneys from the managerial land owning class, because of course, only wealthy white landowning adult men could vote. In the year 1800, exactly 3 percent of this nation voted. This is the world they created – a world explicitly for the three percent wealthiest people in the nation.
Much is made of the idea of “American democracy.” But as David Graeber points out in The Democracy Project, the actual word democracy is never mentioned in the Declaration or the Constitution. In fact, the word itself was used as a pejorative at the time by framers like Washington. To these slaveholding elites, democracy was interchangeable with “rabble,” and “mob.” It was an idea that actually frightened the framers, and they built in protections against democracy into the Constitution. Here are a few:
- One of these was the representation of the Senate, which nominally represents states, and makes sure that California’s 38 million people have two senators, which equal the two of Wyoming’s 700,000 people. (In fact California, the most populous state, has as many people as the combined population of the 22 fewest states).
- The few who could vote: wealthy, white, landowning men of age. Not women, not natives, not slaves, not poor white men.
- Counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person.
- Establishing the paternalistic electoral college, who are elites of the managerial class built into the nation as a bulwark against the rabble rising.
- Constructing the Constitution really in secret behind closed doors.
- Then later obstacles – Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, institutionalized segregation, et cetera.
- Add to this gerrymandering, corporate personhood, unlimited dark money, phony citizens groups, lobbyists, special interests, and you end up with nothing resembling a democracy, just a managed democracy with occasional elections conducted as a PR maneuver.
It makes you wonder why the Forth of July is still celebrated. Well, it persists as a kind of vestige of an earlier time. It is curious that our culture has not been in the business of creating new holidays, hasn’t for a long time. What we have instead is a relic of a managed democracy, a constitution built in the full swing of bourgeois sensibilities of a burgeoning landholding class. We now live in a kind of ironic time, struggling with the antiquated structure of America with another progressive history of reform – ending slavery, fighting for worker’s rights, women’s rights, civil rights – a legacy of protracted progress of inclusion and living democracy that challenges American democracy – not a a relic of the past but as a projection into the future. It’s worthwhile to remember that every bit of progress of inclusion, equality and fairness has required an enormous overcoming against the violent, reactive and entrenched forces of the managerial class. It comes from the disobedient, from those who fight to help fulfill the promise of self-governance.
This country is one that is founded on, and continues to reinforce itself as, the anchor of the globalist bourgeois state. America, founded for the three percent, is now making due on its plutocratic premises. The billionaire class wants to strengthen this today – the Kochs and Mercers are actually bribing state congressional houses to get to a two thirds majority to call a Constitutional Convention in which their aim to officially corporatize the United States according to their wishes. They will do it under the deceptive name of a “balanced budget” amendment, effectively erasing the government’s legal capacity to establish any welfare state or fiscal policy in the interest of the public.
I believe we today live in a time when we are closer to the end of America than to the beginning. Or, at least America as we have known it. The inflection point of history when Trumpism has free rein, when the whole world become financiallized, when society has been erased in favor of the greedy motivations of self interest, Congress becomes a servant of the managerial elites, I believe the culture is reaching a kind of singularity point. America, its structures unraveling as I write this, reaching out to some breaking point … the question being … how far right can this country go before its tinderbox ignites like those Forth of July fireworks? We now exist in this interregnum where the entire political firmament is melting. America so far has been a nation that has not had a successful people’s revolution. If and when this would happen would be a new Independence Day.