If you’ve ever had occasion to read political theory, you’ll often come across critiques of capitalism that throw out phrases like “contradictions in the system”. It’s always bothered me that political theorists will use phrases like this and then move along as if there’s nothing to unpack. Like readers are just supposed to understand and think to themselves…”yup, ya got it right there, pardner. If’n yer system has got any a’them…uh…contradickshuns…hehehe, well, that’s a real problem a’ legitimacy, innit?”
Abstract language is troublesome this way because it compresses a lot and explains only a little. Examples that take things out of the abstract can be a helpful remedy. I’d like to get into that because it’s an exercise that’s not merely theoretical masturbation. There’s a real connection to be made between “contradictions in the system”, the Supreme Court, and understanding the recent failed attempts by activists to motivate specific senators to vote NO on Brett Kavanaugh as Trump’s nominee to the court.
The troubled fit between private property and representative democracy
The first example that comes to mind is one that goes all the way back to the founding of the U.S. The elites who put together the Constitution, bolstered in part by ideas from Enlightenment philosophers, believed that private property rights were an intrinsic part of freedom. They placed enough importance on the issue to even extrapolate that those without property—and therefore, economic independence—weren’t sufficiently free to be trusted with the ability to make decisions as citizens in civic life. During the lead-up to the signing of the Constitution, John Adams was reputed to have said that those “who are wholly destitute of Property” were “too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own.”
These beliefs, with their dubious assertions about the nature of free will, formed the underpinning of the move to deny the vote to people who didn’t own property (which encompassed women and black Americans, who were denied the vote for additional reasons related to deep-seated gender, ethno-racial and cultural prejudices). Herein lies a really foundational contradiction in the system of American political life. Most people didn’t own property. So most people couldn’t participate in electing their representatives, let alone hold them accountable for how they governed. It leads one to ask…given that property at that time (if not now) was the building block of capital, wasn’t this just a democracy for capitalists?
This is all well-traveled territory, to be sure. The dissident historian Howard Zinn devoted much of his career to telling the stories of people who gave their blood to open up American democracy to the rest of the non-propertied populace.
But what happens when private property owners merge with one another?
All the struggles people engaged in to acquire full citizenship rights during the 19th and 20th centuries, as heroic and devastating and bloody as they were, were not sufficient to level the playing field between those with property (and therefore capital) and those without. One of the main reasons for this was industrialization, mass production, and the effort by people of means to pool their substantial resources and form an increasing number of large property-owning legal constructs called corporations. And that these corporations, in a series of Supreme Court decisions during the mid and late 1800s, gained de facto citizenship rights under the 14th amendment to the Constitution. Once all that went down, the sheer scale of these corporations turned them into artificially super-sized citizens and laid the groundwork for every permutation of their (and thus congealed groups of property owners) ability to finance the political campaigns and influence the votes and policy decisions of anyone running for Congress, the presidency, etc.
And whammo, here we have another deep “contradiction in the system”. An ostensible representative democracy where candidates run for office to advance the peoples’ interests where the most powerful, influential, and well-financed of those people are actually not…..uhh….technically…mmm, people. Yeah. Here’s a great logic test. If a person falls down the stairs, they’re gonna get hurt pretty bad. They might even die. If a corporation falls down the stairs….ummmm…wait a minute. A corporation can’t really fall down the stairs. So how is it a person? Very problematic contradickshun.
So who are a politician’s real constituents, then?
Let’s keep this contradiction involving the uneven distribution of citizen power in mind while we step off memory lane and turn to the events of the past few weeks. We had a guy nominated to the Supreme Court, a court that has, incidentally, almost always ruled on the side of private property-holders and corporations, and he was a figure who many of our unincorporated fellow citizens thought was unsuited for such a high-pressure job interpreting the Constitution and current law.
Why might they have felt that way? Well:
- As part of the Bush administration, he helped run roughshod over the Constitution, aiding and abetting a series of yet unprosecuted crimes related to surveillance, torture, civil liberties, war, and beyond.
- He lied about his part in these crimes multiple times under oath, which is against the law.
- He was accused of multiple instances of sexual assault.
- He lost his shit under questioning by a relatively milquetoast committee.
- Records of his jurisprudence were withheld, so no one could get a decent look at the job he’d done as a judge.
Jamarl Thomas over at The Progressive Soapbox had a pretty good take on this:
If you take the role of a Supreme Court justice seriously, regardless of your political affiliations, a candidate like this just doesn’t pass the sniff test. And citizen activists poured into the halls of Congress to plead with, confront, and scream at members of the U.S. Senate to pull Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination or, at the very least, vote NO. Apathy has a been a mainstay of our political life for years, so it was heartening to see engaged and passionate people crawling all over Washington trying to exert some influence.
Yet all this activity, aside from inviting the Senate to produce a little theater and engage in some snarling, had no effect. The numbers and the partisan polarization stayed stubbornly fixed. Kavanaugh was confirmed without much trouble. There are reasons for this we need to talk about, so let’s bring back those “contradictions in the system” we explored earlier.
We know that the citizenship of our country’s propertied classes has always counted more than anyone else’s. We know that these propertied classes control large, ageless entities called corporations, which have enjoyed a facsimile of citizenship rights since the late 1800s. This has historically given them the substantial power to use their capital to bankroll and influence politicians. When you add in the creation of Political Action Committees in the 1940s, and the modern Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo from the 70s, which defined corporate political spending as protected speech under the 1st amendment, and then the further erasure of corporate political speech restrictions through both Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, there is now even more power than before wielded by corporations over the financing, policy positions, and voting behavior of our nation’s politicians. That’s just a fact.
For all intents and purposes, the most important constituents guiding the actions of politicians are the biggest property owners in America, corporations and their affluent executives. Click To Tweet So all of those activists blanketing the halls of Congress? From a modern politician’s perspective, which is unseemly for them to talk about, those people are simply not really their constituents.
It’s long past time to change strategy
If regular citizens genuinely want to influence the behavior of politicians in our current environment, I would humbly suggest that we face up to the reality of whose opinions politicians are concerned about and, having done that, set about pressuring the true decisions makers.
As an example, let’s take Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who crossed partisan lines to vote YES on Kavanaugh. A quick little trip over to OpenSecrets.org reveals who his biggest donors are.
Oh wow, it just so happens to be the big investment and law firms, and well-heeled individual donors from those firms. And the companies’ names are all known. If you want to make the politicians listen to you, figure out how to fuck with the businesses of the companies that bankroll them. Find out who all their big executives are and make their lives miserable. And let them know why you’re doing it. If we can do that successfully, I slam-bang guarantee you the cell phones of puppets like old Joe will light up with frantic calls from their donor friends—and suggestions that may be “ya oughta vote NO on this one, Joe”.
Exploit the contradictions in the system. Then there may be a fighting chance for those of us who are just renters here in America.
“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” ―