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 Ancestry.com, 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