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Instability: Bring it on

By Michael J. Smith on Saturday February 25, 2006 09:12 PM

I've been reading Luciano Canfora's recent book, Democracy in Europe, and at the same time pondering the perennial question, asked in various forms by contributors here, of what we ought to be doing in a constructive way. Yeah, bashing the Democrats is fine and they deserve it, but what actions will get us closer to where we want to be?

The book is kind of a mixed bag, but the question is an awfully good question.

One of the patterns that emerges from reading Canfora is the way constitutional systems traverse back and forth across a range from relatively oligarchic to relatively democratic, depending, it seems, mostly on how much social pressure the elites are feeling. The constitutions of the Western European "democracies" written in the immediate aftermath of World War II are full of advanced "democratic" features like proportional representation -- and these all get repealed over the next few decades, as the social upheavals of the Thirties and World War II recede from immediate memory, and the restless public calms down.

Here in the United States, of course, our constitution is a holy text, holier than Torah and Gospels and Koran all rolled together, and so of course no revision to the constitutional order can be entertained, any more than we could excise the Epistle to the Philippians from the Bible. (I recommend Dan Lazare's book The Frozen Republic on this topic.)

Nevertheless, our oligarchy finds ways, when the public gets restless, to cede certain points to them, even while preserving the holy letter of the Constitution intact. All kinds of unsuspected implications can be found, at need, in obscure sub-clauses of the Founding-Fatherly text; and the state legislatures can even be persuaded to amend the text itself, if elite consensus -- or elite panic -- is sufficiently strong.

So -- skipping a step or two in the theorem -- I conclude that the machinery of the Constitution, and the law, is really very secondary and unimportant. Intellectuals are always strongly tempted to design machinery -- to engineer some idea, like proportional representation or instant-runoff or the single tax -- that will operate elegantly, naturally, causally. And if we can do that -- if we can

... with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then
Remould it nearer to the heart`s desire!
Now I am far from dismissing these ideas: proportional representation, the single tax, and so on. They're all good ideas. But if we had the power to implement them -- then we'd also have the power to end the Iraq war, manage the currency for full employment, close our bases abroad and cut the military budget by nine-tenths. In other words, these good ideas beg the question. The reason all these things are unattainable is also the reason why the social engineer's steps to get there are also unattainable.

So what does make things happen? Well, I say it with sorrow, being a sorta-kinda intellectual myself, but good ideas don't make things happen. Not by themselves. Not that good ideas are a bad thing, but they need a source of energy behind them before they can get any "traction" -- to borrow the buzzword-du-jour of last year, or was it the year before that?

The source of energy that good ideas need is, I think -- in a word -- instability.

Instability is when the public stops behaving in predictable ways -- when the technical calculations of the Roves and the Carvilles turn out to be based on premises that no longer apply. That's when the elites start to worry. Gee, they reflect, there's a lot of them and not many of us -- by definition -- and the many of them know how to work the power plants, and the phone exchanges, and the sewage-treatment plants, and we don't. We gotta calm 'em down, somehow.

This is kind of a general observation, and doesn't tell us exactly what to do that will be constructive. But if I'm right, it at least gives us a guideline. Do whatever will promote instability. Build up and vote for a third party -- even if they don't have a persuasive recipe for Utopia; the point is to knock the pegs out from under the increasingly dystopian order we actually live in. More important even than the third party is some monomanical, irresponsible, fanatical single-issue cause -- ruat coelum, but Out of Iraq! or No aid to Israel! or Sixteen dollars an hour minimum wage!

So it turns out that going for what you really want -- and let the chips fall where thay may -- is not only principled (and fun!) but highly tactical. It's much more tactical than the lame strategy of voting Gollum into the White House, or into Congress, and then hoping he will turn out to be Smeagol after all.

I don't have very specific advice, in other words -- but maybe I can offer a touchstone. Judge your choices by this criterion: will it destabilize? Will it upset the applecart?

If so -- I say, go for it.

Comments (7)

J. Alva Scruggs:

Principles are pragmatic. Even the Dems have some sense of obligation and reciprocity, however debased that sense may be. Not to be too clever, but is there really anything to lose through goosing the donkeys? Every other option has been shut down, deliberately, with their full approval and frequent assistance.

I suspect that in an open system of governance many of the readers here would pursue markedly different goals. Some of them will likely be unworkable, others with varying degress of success. We'll never get to know the way things are now.


I think we need to talk about conversion of the military industrial complex. We must create a national (and international) demand to use our tax dollars for production of solar, wind power and public mass transit systems rather than weapons for endless war. The progressive movement is stuck on say NO (which we have to do often), but we need a YES as well and I think this is a key YES. People are worried about jobs, we are bleeding jobs, so let's create them doing something good for the nation and the earth.


Do whatever will promote instability. Build up and vote for a third party -- even if they don't have a persuasive recipe for Utopia; the point is to knock the pegs out from under the increasingly dystopian order we actually live in. More important even than the third party is some monomanical, irresponsible, fanatical single-issue cause -- ruat coelum, but Out of Iraq! or No aid to Israel! or Sixteen dollars an hour minimum wage!


This was precisely what got on my nerves about Cobb's Greens in '04. They scuttled their best --if not only-- strength;The ability to throw a monkey wrench into business as usual. I am heartened, however, to note that at least some of them were pissed off at the don't-hurt-me approach and don't endorse it (ie-- Gonzales in California).

Also, I really hope that the whispers of an increasing reliance on non-partisan races in my home state catch on. If we are dismayed at the traditional reliance on corrupt power-brokers and "ward-heelers," (as one rightfully pissed-off woman at Media Girl called Kos) the best way to undercut them is to run Independent campaigns that build no Party at all. Travel light. Sell your policies as something that transcend traditional notions of red/blue, North/South, working-class/elite, and so forth.

It could hardly go worse for you than what we already have: Supposed "Progressive Democrat" stalwarts that never seem to be around when some genuine Progressive action is needed to save your bacon...



a bottom upjob
a real upheaval
okay so its part
self fullfilling myth
and only partly
a root over top branch thing

its massive
up ending
of all status quo
elite organizations

my take in todays traffic
it oughta look mre like
the huge populist awakening of the late 19th century
then the narrower wage klass upheaval of the 30's

I wanted to say that I agreed with Bruce's comments above.

I also wanted to thank you for mentioning The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare. I read it a couple of years ago after thinking for several years before that, that there were many things deeply wrong with the Constitution. It's one of the few books on American history that I've ever read that as far as I can tell, actually tells the truth of the way governance in this country actually works and has worked (and hadn't), instead of the idealized version.

Tim D:

Yeah strangely enough, I myself only recently became aware of the underlying, conservative, status quo retaining nature of the Constitution. My revelation occurred when I was organizing exchange programs for foreign teachers coming here to observe American schools. My supervisor took great pains to explain the history of education and it's current structure to the delegates, and it was a shocking realization for me that something as fundamental as a right to an education (amongst many other rights included in post-WWII European constitutions) was omitted from the Bill of Rights.

Also, I agree with the idea of running more independent campaigns. Kevin Zeese, director of Democracy Rising and veteran anti-war and anti-drug war campaigner, is in the Senate race here in Maryland. Although he is a Green Party member, he is running as an independent and has received nominations from the Populist (Naderites), Green and Libertarian Parties.
He was on a local NPR show last week (worth listening to if you have an forty minutes to spare) and pointed out that all the polls show that people are tired of both parties and feel they aren't represented by their elected officials - also, even though Bush is down in the dumps in terms of approval ratings, Congress' is even lower!

Tapping into that discontent and reaching out to the voters based solely on issues which enjoy widespread popularity like living wage and single payer health care is probably the best way to go.


jsp: So we need a few good Elizabeth G. Flynns and Mary Leases ? I'm all for that. I just hope they show up in urban centers this time, too.

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