The American Constitution: Liberty for the Selfish Rich

Were anyone to doubt that the United States has an hereditary ruling class, it is revealing that GOP candidate, Mitt Romney is related to six former presidents of the United States. According to, the world’s largest online family history resource, Romney’s family tree connects him to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and both George H.W. and George W. Bush.

The current US election is being bought and sold by huge corporate spending, following the scandalous Supreme Court decision over Citizens United. The landmark decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 provided a majority ruling that corporations are tantamount to citizens and are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, and therefore the federal restrictions on corporate spending in elections were unconstitutional. Consequently, Mitt Romney’s campaign has been floated upon hundreds of millions of dollars worth of negative advertising against Obama, and propaganda masquerading as news. As Huffington Post reports:

Independent groups have spent $180 million in the first two weeks of October, attempting to influence political contests ranging from the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on down to dozens of House races.

The majority of that money — $117 million — is being spent by groups that either would not exist or would not be allowed to spend money on direct electoral efforts if it were not for the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. … … with Republicans spending more than Democrats. … … groups trying to unseat President Obama have spent $40 million, while groups opposing Mitt Romney have spent just $15 million.

Back in 2010, President Obama described the Citizens United ruling as “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

The US Supreme Court was split down the middle, but conservative Republican judges exercised a majority; and the effect of the ruling was felt immediately in the 2010 mid-term elections, where the Democrats lost their filibuster proof majority, and instead only two years into his administration Obama effectively became a lame duck, hostage to a hostile Congress.

The doctrine of separation of powers, the rock upon which the US constitution is built, is designed to undermine the executive authority of the President, and hobble the government with an inbuilt tendency towards an oppositional legislature and judiciary. Indeed the concept of liberty in American discourse reveals a glaring failure of “enlightenment” thinking. Inspired by the political theories of Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, James Madison the drafter of the US constitution sought to free individuals from collective restraint.

Montesquieu coined the term “feudalism” as a perjorative concept, and popularised the whig conceit that the political triumph of the capitalist class could only be seen as unambiguous progress; even though it was typically experienced as a disaster by working people, craftsmen and farmers.

Within the ethical socialist tradition in the British Labour Party, RH Tawney argued that the removal of the legal inequalities of feudalism allowed advance towards greater political freedom, but at the expense of allowing the rich to use their economic power to impose their will upon society; and the ideological triumph of individualism and a philosophy of rights rather than social obligations destroyed concepts of duties towards the common good.

In “The Acquisitive Society”, Tawney argues that the concept of natural rights is an individualistic doctrine that appeals to the acquisitive and materialist instincts unleashed by Capitalism, and the idea that individuals can assert rights against the collective reflects a decline in a philosophy of social purpose.

Tawney’s belief is that society requires a shared common moral framework, which functionally protects the collective interests of society. Tawney was by profession an academic historian, a specialist in the late mediaeval period, and his account of the transition to capitalism stresses the role of the Church in European feudal society, with provided the scholastic doctrine of organicism. This valued different social functions contributing to the mutual benefit of an organic whole. The Church opposed avarice and usury, and stressed collective duties rather then individual rights.

For Tawney the low level tolerance of usury by the Church when it was a peripheral economic activity meant they were unprepared to ideologically adapt to the later development of Capital as a driving economic force; and the Protestant rebellions against the materialism and self-interest of the Roman church, themselves opened the door to individualism, and the retreat of the church from the political sphere into the private realm. For Tawney this removed the main mechanism in mediaeval society for maintaining a philosophy of shared social purpose, and defining the duties that individuals owed to society.

So Tawney’s critique of American society would be that where freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree. For Tawney, in contrast, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful.

American society and politics reflects the unfettered power of money, and a constitutional settlement that inhibits strong government. It is therefore no surprise that the hopes of progress which enthused millions of people when Obama became President crashed upon the rocks of reality, as the American state is a relatively weak actor in domestic politics, and the President less powerful than he appears. What is more – bolstered by the huge spending by the rich corporations allowed by the Citizens United ruling – the right were able to mount an electoral counter-insurgency in the 2010 mid-terms.

Real political progress requires not only a reforming government, but also a mass national reform movement of popular participation. Tragically Obama demobilised his own suport base in the wake of the last election; but the task for social-justice activists and the labour unions is not to allow themselves to be demobilised.

It is common in American elections for shrill ultra-left voices to say that there is no difference between the two parties. Firstly this simply isn’t true, Romney’s election would be a disaster for working and middle class Americans, especially as he would have the support of a GOP dominated Congress. However a further important difference is that a Democrat President provides a much better context for the left and unions to organise than a Republican presidency. Most importantly, social-justice activists and the unions need to organise and campaign in their own interests, and the interests of ordinary Americans, independent of the political class

20 comments on “The American Constitution: Liberty for the Selfish Rich

  1. jack ford on said:

    Yes the separation of powers into three co – equal branches of Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court makes it harder for the government to operate effectively and was designed by the Founders to protect men of property against the public. Most of the Founding Fathers were not democrats; they deliberately created an aristocratic republic.

    Midterm elections also weaken the executive; it would be better if all the Federal elections were held at the same time every four years with President and Congress elected together that way you would be less likely to get two separate parties controlling the White House and Congress leading to gridlock.

  2. brokenwindow on said:

    The banking cartels control Obama too or have you not paid attention to what is happening on Capitol Hill?

  3. jack ford on said:

    Obama was the Goldman Sachs candidate right from the start, that was how he was able to outspend McCain. It is possible that there might have been tougher action against Wall Street under McCain. His political hero was Teddy Roosevelt who took action against the corporate trusts.

  4. jack ford on said:

    The states have kept the constitutional power to bring the whole system to a screeching halt.

    You’ll find that power spelled out in Article V of the US Constitution. If two thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution, the convention will happen; if three quarters of state legislatures vote to ratify any amendment to the Constitution passed by the convention, that amendment goes into effect. It’s that simple. Congress has nothing to say about it; the President has nothing to say about it; the Supreme Court has nothing to say about it; the federal government is, at least in theory, stuck on the sidelines. That power has never been used; the one time it was seriously attempted, in 1913, Congress forestalled the state legislatures by passing a constitutional amendment identical to the one for which the states were agitating, and submitting it to the state legislatures for ratification. The power nonetheless remains in place, a bomb hardwired into the Constitution.

    What makes that bomb so explosive is that there are very nearly no limits to what a constitutional convention can do. The only thing the Constitution specifies is that no amendment can take away a state’s equal representation in the Senate. Other than that, as long as two thirds of the states call for the convention and three quarters of the states ratify its actions, whatever comes out of it is the supreme law of the land. Everything is up for grabs; it would not be beyond the power of a constitutional convention, for example, to provide a legal means for states to withdraw peacefully from the Union, or even to repeal the Constitution and dissolve the Union altogether.

    Had the leaders of the southern states in 1860 been less proud and more pragmatic, it’s entirely possible that they could have won their independence and spared themselves the catastrophe of the Civil War by some such measure as this. It’s eerily plausible to imagine Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi rising in the Senate that year to propose an amendment to provide for the peaceful dissolution of the Union, denouncing the radicals on both sides of the slavery issue who were pushing the nation toward civil war, and offering a peaceful separation of the states as the only workable solution to the problem that had dogged the nation for so long—and it’s by no means hard, at a time when most Americans still wanted to avoid war, to imagine such a proposal getting the votes it would need from Congress and the states to take effect.

  5. Very good article, Andy. It’s clear your politics are heavily influenced by Tawney.

    I think you accurately identify where the locus of intervention of progressives and socialists in US politics should be – namely organising to advance their own interests no matter who’s in the White House.

    You are also correct to point out Obama’s decision to demobilise his base after his outstanding election campaign in 2009, significant for the role of a massive grassroots movement of volunteers all over the country which his candidacy inspired. He was either naive in believing he could be a consensus president, or feared unleashing forces that could have moved beyond him.

    It has to be remembered that to be the President of the United States is to be responsible for maintaining and sustaining a global empire. It is an economic, military, and cultural phenomenon which carries its own momentum, responsible for setting narrow parameters within which any President can operate.

    The level of class consciousness in the US is traditionally low, due largely to the ideological pull and traction of the nation’s enduring nostrums, reflected in the myth of the American Revolution as one of history’s great emancipatory events, the exaltation of the nation’s founding documents – the Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc – not forgetting the ethos of the American Dream and land of opportunity narrative which continues to exert a massive attraction for successive generations of immigrants.

    Asserting there is no concrete difference between Obama and Romney isn’t serious politics for the reasons you set out.

  6. Btw, I think the Republican governor of New Jersey, who praised Obama’s response to the hurricane, has probably gone some way to winning him the election.

  7. albacore on said:

    So a Romney victory would be a disaster. What, then, would a second Obama term be? A slightly less disastrous disaster?

  8. jim mclean on said:


    yes, that is the main point, Obama goes, healthcare goes. Still bomb the shit out of people elsewhere, but as a reward, free doctors.

  9. A small point, but in the interests of fairness it should be pointed out that Obama is just as well-connected to all sorts of Presidents etc as well. There were not many settlers in the colonial days, so it means that anyone who is descended from the original colonials will have all sorts of connections.

  10. albacore on said:

    So there’s this thing called healthcare, and it’s all fine and dandy if Obama stays, and it disappears if he goes. Really?

  11. jim mclean: Still bomb the shit out of people elsewhere, but as a reward, free doctors.

    Well, if US foreign policy is to be to be exactly the same under either candidate, it is hard to see how the extension of healthcare is a ‘reward’ for bombing people.

    And the fact that the Israeli regime has been working hard to assist Romney might suggest that there actually are some foreign policy differences at stake in this election.

  12. jock mctrousers on said:

    #14 “the extension of healthcare”

    DID Obama ‘extend’ healthcare, or just impose a new poll tax on behalf of private insurance companies? There’s a lot of debate about that, so I don’t think it’s ok to give him the benefit of the doubt without at least acknowledging the doubt.

    Lawyers and PRs and all the professional liars can prove anything and the opposite at greater length than anyone’s got the time to follow, so my instinct is: if you can’t understand it, it’s a ripoff.

  13. @14: “And the fact that the Israeli regime has been working hard to assist Romney might suggest that there actually are some foreign policy differences at stake in this election.”

    Barack Obama’s Middle East surge

    In Chicago on Friday, the charismatic newcomer who is challenging Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for US President in 2008, proclaimed “total commitment” to the USA’s diplomatic and financial support for Israeli military actions. He also pledged to redeploy US troops from Iraq to other Middle East states, rather than bringing them home.

    Describing Iran as “one of the greatest threats to the United States, to Israel, and world peace,” Senator Barack Obama said that in dealing with Iran, “no option, including military action, [should be taken] off the table”.

  14. #18 I don’t think anyone would dispute that Obama pledged support to Israel.

    But is it correct that the Israeli regime has been ‘working hard to assist Romney’, the point you claim to be responding to, and if so how do you square that with the idea that there is nothing to choose between the 2 candidates?

    After all, if there is nothing to choose, then why would they bother?