WeeklyWorker

28.01.2021
‘Washington as statesman at the Constitutional Convention’ Junius Brutus Stearn (1856)

Old regime is cracking apart

Not a Tudor but a Whig republic. Bradley Mayer sees change coming sooner than many expect

Daniel Lazare’s timely ‘Trump’s “March on Rome”’ (Weekly Worker January 14) warrants both a critical and sympathetic response - critical in regards to the substance of the state and political regime of the United States; and sympathetic with respect to the opening criticism of various left responses to the events of January 6 of this year.

To begin with the latter, there is agreement that the left must look past the oftentimes clownish incompetence by which the events of that day were carried out, and take more seriously what this event signifies. Immediately, January 6 was an ad hoc insurrection consciously fomented by the Trump clique in conspiracy with Congresspeople from Alabama and Arizona, who provided for the rally crowd at large and in coordination with various fascist gangs. This mixed composition is one key difference with both the Beer Hall Putsch and the March on Rome. The Trump clique would whip up and herd the general crowd toward the Capitol building, where a select cadre of fascists had prepared the ground with the intention of storming the Capitol. The object was to dislodge the presidential confirmation proceedings - not merely for hours, but for days - where the still president Trump could possibly declare a state of emergency and block the January 20 inauguration. The intent to capture key politicians such as Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi would make these hostages to any attempt to retake the Capitol by force, though this intent is as yet unproven.1

The efforts of January 6 did not rise to the level of a coup, as they lacked any real institutional support from the security, intelligence and military agencies of the US regime - agencies that certainly know how to pull off coups. It was not a mere ‘riot’ either, as this was a coordinated effort led by a presidential clique and Congresspeople - prepared with a months-long Big Lie propaganda campaign to delegitimise the 2020 election. But, however hare-brained and absurd in its execution, January 6 could remain a ‘teachable moment’ - a data point on an ascending line from proto-fascist incubus to a full-blown fascist movement - given the long history of US cold war regime coddling of the radical right, while repressing the radical left, at home and abroad.

This bias, embedded in its domestic police and security apparatus - some of whose member associations were a key basis of support for Trump - coupled with the continued anti-worker economic regime of the last 40 years, gives little cause to believe that the political regime will move to decisively uproot the proto-fascist network catalysed by Trump’s presidency, even if the Biden administration, if only out of immediate necessity, temporarily reverses that economic policy in the next two years. The insurrectionists’ naked sense of entitlement is full of the expectation that they will land on their feet on the other side of the revolving door of a regime biased towards them.

Flippant responses to the January 6 event are easy to make, but they reveal a passive reliance upon the US regime to do the dirty work of breaking the trend toward a full-blown fascist mobilisation in the medium term. This attitude ignores the extraordinary fact that the present political regime not only allowed a character such as Trump and his clique into the highest echelons of state power, but also proved unwilling or incapable of removing his administration, even as its incompetence and malignancy became manifest. Regime pusillanimity persisted to the very end in a deadly insurrection aimed at one of its central institutions.

Foundation

Lazare correctly points to the antiquity of a state founded at the end of the 18th century - before the capitalist Industrial Revolution and unchanged in its foundations to this day - as a prime cause.2 The entree to a concept of the move against that state is made with an analogy with Charles I’s January 1642 attempted coup against the parliamentary leadership in England. However, Lazare relies upon Samuel P Huntington’s theory of the United States as a fundamentally “Tudor polity” - a thesis whose material basis pretends to rest upon the foundation of the English North American colonies, particularly that of the Massachusetts Puritans (Lazare curiously omits the Virginia colony, of quite different social origin) in the late Tudor/early Stuart period. The actual thesis ‘pretends’, because, as deployed by Lazare, it argues that Puritan Massachusetts both formed the germ of the future American Republic - once again omitting the contributions of Virginia - and remained unchanged in social character until the American Revolution.3

The notion of an ‘eternal’ and unchanged Tudor Puritanism at the core of the American state is idealist and is not a historical-materialist concept. Interestingly, the Tudor polity thesis mirrors the idealist theory of an eternally and uniformly “liberal tradition”, put forward by Louis Hartz in The liberal tradition in America (1953). Both idealist interpretations stand on opposite sides of a historical class divide, as we will see.

But the proper ground to approach ideological political traditions is that of intellectual history, and GJA Pocock in The Machiavellian moment: Florentine political thought and the Atlantic republican tradition (1975) already provides a credible story that does not hypostatise ideology as a foundation of American political society.4 Pocock centres on James Harrington as the originator of the basic concepts that eventually informed the founders of the American republic, and specifically their republicanism, in The Commonwealth of Oceana, published in the 1650s - which is carefully dedicated to Oliver Cromwell and in part a riposte against his great rival: the ideologue of absolute monarchy, Thomas Hobbes. Pocock’s thesis has been an important influence on the leading mainstream American historians of the British colonial period, Bernard Bailyn and especially Gordon Wood.5 Other historians, such as Caroline Robbins, place Harrington in the context of a long line of ‘Commonwealthmen’ British Whig republicanism.6

This intellectual history points to a Whig, and not a Tudor, polity. Whig politics did not exist in the Tudor polity, or in the early Stuart period. Whig politics were the outcome of the English Civil War and the following revolution period, 1647-53. Parliamentary and army-navy Whigs supported the Cromwellian counterrevolution and, when their Caribbean designs failed, sponsored the Restoration - a ‘Whig Restoration’ - of Charles II, who ruled only with their assent. This was demonstrated later by the Shaftesbury Whig deposition of his brother, James II, in 1688, when he sought to abrogate the Restoration settlement.

The long run of the English revolutionary cycle, and of the century that followed 1688, demonstrate that Whig politics of the 18th century supremacy were an early modern bourgeois politics. That of the Tudors was of a late Baroque feudal polity, a superstructure out of joint with its real social-economic basis emergent after the dissolution of serfdom in the 14th century, followed by the collapse of an independent high aristocracy in the War of the Roses in the 15th century. There was an absence in the ‘Gothic balance’ that moved Harrington - ideologist of the English landlord gentry - to opt for a combined aristocratic and limited democratic agrarian republic, headed by a constitutionally limited, quasi-monarchical executive. This historical disjuncture was the proximate condition for the English Civil War and Revolution; its proximate cause was Charles I’s attempted coup.

The Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were founded immediately prior to those momentous world-historical events, but it is impossible to hold, on any historical and material political or economic grounds, that these still tenuous colonies could ever remain mere direct extrusions of late Tudor England for very long. These and the English colonies that followed were to undergo a profound metamorphosis under the hammer blows of three forces: first and foremost, the force of the ferocious and ceaseless wars with the indigenous peoples of North America, often overlooked by historical interpretation; second, particularly in Virginia and the southern colonies, the formation of the racial apartheid, slave-labour system, as we more fully understand it today; and finally the one force that shaped both Britain and its colonies: the bourgeois English Revolution and aftermath of Whig political dominance, particularly in the 18th century, when the North American colonies were likely the most rapidly growing social formation on Earth - the real foundation of the soon-to-be-independent state.

That American state was, then, a Whig bourgeois polity - one whose subordinate democratic element included the rural settler-farmers, but, following the Levellers in the Putney Debates of 1647, initially excluded from the franchise propertyless wage labourers as ‘servants’.7 This Whig polity was further transformed in the political revolution that extended the franchise to all white men, giving rise in the 1830s to the ‘Jacksonian’ political system of mass politics that remains at the foundation of the US political regime to this day. Together with the state, they both predate the emergence of industrial capitalism and its mass working class, and to this extent also form an ancien régime in a different kind of historical disjuncture today, between a majority non-white and feminised working class social economy, and a superstructure established and originally governed by a now archaic class alliance of slave-owning British-American merchants and European settler farmers. Crucially this disjuncture is not a contradiction with a residual, late feudal Tudor state and regime, but with an early modern commercial - and not industrial - bourgeois state and regime.8 But it possesses the explosive potential of early 17th century England, and the radicalised far right, in its own way, knows it and is anxious to move now, ‘before it is too late’. The danger for the rest of us is therefore immediate to medium-term.

Media control

The main accretions to the American Old Regime were a great growth of a democratically unaccountable state bureaucracy, civil and military, at both federal and state levels, and - less emphasised in the advent of industrial capitalism - the growth of commercial capitalist media enterprises, which have come to exercise a monopolistic chokehold over the transmission and circulation of information as a commodity.

Ever since the advent of the railroads and telegraph, history shows that purely commercial capitalist enterprises, based primarily on networks of commodity circulation and not production, invariably tend toward monopoly and, in the case of information, towards a restrictive monopoly over political discourse, especially in political systems that predate industrialised commercial capitalism. This tendency is accentuated in the American case, given the congruence of commercial monopoly with the commercial, and not industrial, foundations of the state and political regime.

Commercial information media has its origin in, and is economically based upon, the advertisement of real commodities for sale. Advertisements will always contain a certain measure of disinformation to make the sale, and this economic basis acts with corrosive influence on political ‘news’ discourse as well, distorted to attract viewers to the ads. The net political result is, on the one hand, the suppression of anti-capitalist and non-bourgeois discourse necessary for political organisation and action and, on the other hand, the elevation - often active - of pro-capitalist and reactionary political discourse. This political bias, critical to the suppression of independent working class and socialist political organisation, is embedded in the historical foundations of the ‘Jacksonian’ political regime.

Donald Trump and his movement are, conversely, an almost pure fabrication of this commercial ‘infotainment’ capital, always resting upon the ‘public’ broadcast domain, both with ‘legacy’ and ‘social’ media. Its main scapegoats - dark-skinned immigrants and Muslims, and certainly not Russians - are targets shared to a varying extent throughout the capitalist media. In addition, the current internecine turf war now underway between ‘legacy’ and ‘social’ media - a struggle for both the advertising dollar and traditional ‘legacy’ control over political discourse - will not fundamentally alter capitalist media congruence with reactionary and even fascist politics, and is not to be relied upon as even a stop-gap solution.

However, the Trumpian alternate reality media machine was not able to make enough recruiting inroads into that other great anti-democratic growth - the state bureaucracy, especially in the military, intelligence and internal security apparatuses - sufficient to turn enough officers to elevate the January 6 insurrection to the status of a coup. On the contrary, Trumpism antagonised certain key agencies, particularly the CIA and elements within the state department, which launched a fierce propaganda counteroffensive through their favoured media outlets, such as CNN and MSNBC, while also pushing the turf war against ‘social’ media. The Trump clique’s lack of state institutional support caused it to seek such support abroad from like-minded reactionary governments - further aggravating the same domestic antagonism. This doomed from the start any insurrectionist road for keeping the Trump clique in power.

These same domestic institutional antagonists were, however, incapable of removing Trump during his term in office, due to their formal subservience to the anachronistic political regime that put him there in the first place, and that refused to remove him for the duration. Therein lies an explosive contradiction, as any extra-constitutional move by the bureaucratic institutions would actually accelerate the timetable for a triumph of fascism in the USA by the achievement of one of its purposes: the formal abrogation and delegitimisation of the archaic constitutional regime.

Hence the socialist left, at least, must not rely upon, much less align with, institutional contradictions outside its control and class base. Unfortunately, most self-described socialists are doing just that, through the medium of the Democratic Socialists of America and other left organisations, in a strategy to prop up the Democratic Party, which, in turn, has become the virtual state party of anti-Trump bureaucratic institutions. The left needs to begin looking down the road to political independence now and, should Trumpism, with or without Trump, generate a real split within the Republican Party, that road may open up sooner than many expect.

In all cases, a passive flippancy from the jaded peanut gallery is not the order of the day.


  1. See ‘Trump campaign and Trump administration ties to the insurrection’: sethabramson.substack.com/p/trump-campaign-ties-to-the-insurrection.↩︎

  2. See D Lazare The frozen republic: how the constitution is paralyzing democracy Boston 1996; and The velvet coup: the constitution, the Supreme Court and the decline of American democracy New York 2001.↩︎

  3. Of course, no association is to be made here with Huntington’s profoundly reactionary and authoritarian ideology, as expressed in Political order in changing societies (London 1968), the infamous The crisis of democracy: on the governability of democracies (with co-authors Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki - New York 1975), the ‘western chauvinist’ book (Proud Boys, anyone?), The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order (New York 1996) and the blatantly racist Who are we? The challenges to America’s national identity (New York 2004), among others.↩︎

  4. On Pocock and his school, see also “1776” as the “last British revolution” and its colonial history as an extension of early British imperial history, in Three British revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton 1980).↩︎

  5. In particular, see Wood’s The creation of the American republic 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill 1998) and The radicalism of the American revolution (New York 1991).↩︎

  6. The eighteenth century Commonwealthman (Cambridge Mass 1959).↩︎

  7. For the still ‘pre-capitalist’ status of wage labour in the colonial period and early republic, see, for example, RJ Steinfeld The invention of free labor: the employment relation in English and American law and culture, 1350-1870 (Chapel Hill 1991).↩︎

  8. The progressive historian, William Appleman Williams, in The contours of American history (New York 1961) also referred to the 1787 constitution as “feudal”, and is also rejected here, though Williams recognised its merchant basis. But these ‘outlier’ British Atlantic merchants were no longer a feudal bourgeoisie. Few if any historians grasp the specifically different historical class nature of the American disjuncture.↩︎