Heading for self-destruction
Impeachment and acquittal: but, says Daniel Lazare, Trump was guilty as charged
In order to understand insurrection, impeachment and other recent American events, a comment about free markets in Marx’s Grundrisse, the notebooks he compiled in 1857-58, may prove useful:
Free competition is the relation of capital to itself as another capital: ie, the real conduct of capital as capital. The inner laws of capital - which appear merely as tendencies in the preliminary historic states of its development - are for the first time posited as laws; production founded on capital for the first time posits itself in the forms adequate to it only in so far as and to the extent that free competition develops, for it is the free development of the mode of production founded on capital; the free development of its conditions and of itself as the process which constantly reproduces these conditions. It is not individuals who are set free by free competition: it is, rather, capital which is set free.1
The passage goes on for another thousand words, as Marx describes how industrial capitalism emerged out of the late-medieval guild system, cast aside old fetters and restraints, and then set about remaking society in its own image in order to create the conditions for its self-development. But what does the Grundrisse have to do with events more than 160 years later?
The answer is that the means by which capitalism builds itself up are broadly similar to those by which it tears itself down. The process is self-referential, self-reflexive and self-generating - ‘autopoietic’, as systems analysts would say. While it may seem at various points that Republicans and Democrats are in the driver’s seat, their actions merely reflect “inner laws” that are just as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the 18th - inner laws not of capitalist production, that is, but of capitalist decay. It is the larger system that “constantly reproduces” the conditions that contribute to its downward spiral.
This is the only way to make sense of the charges hurtling back and forth in Washington. At the outset of Donald Trump’s five-day impeachment trial, Democrats led by Jamie Raskin - a constitutional law professor turned suburban Maryland congressman - described the former president’s role in the January 6 coup attempt in terms so shocking that even Republicans were taken aback. Raskin’s presentation began with a video of Trump urging followers to “fight like hell” and “stop the steal”, and then showed frenzied ultra-rightists, as they smashed windows, broke down doors, and overran Capitol Hill. It was the most naked anti-democratic display since 2014, when ultra-rightists chased out an elected president in the Ukraine - with the enthusiastic backing of US Democrats, needless to say.
Still, the bottom line was clear: Trump was guilty as charged. He had plainly incited the riot and Democrats were not unjustified in pushing for his conviction and seeing to it that he never held office again.
But then Trump’s lawyers shot back three days later with another string of videos that were no less effective. Where Democrats said that Trump’s words on January 6 - “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more” - clearly amounted to incitement, the videos showed Democrats using equally incendiary rhetoric with regard to Trump. There was House speaker Nancy Pelosi saying, “You have to be ready to throw a punch”; Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana declaring, “I think we need to go back and punch him in the face”; Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey confessing, “I feel like punching him”; and president Joe Biden vowing that, “if we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him”.
There was even Madonna in a knitted bourgeois-feminist ‘pussyhat’ telling a cheering crowd in 2017, “I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”2
Liberal journalists snickered. “What is this never-ending video of Democrats saying ‘fight’ meant to prove?” asked a reporter for the centre-left website Vox. “Is it supposed to be a form of torture?”3
No, it was supposed to show that Trump is not the only one who’s out of control and that Democrats are just as hypocritical, if not more so. After all, senator Elizabeth Warren, who appeared in one of the defence tapes, urging supporters to “fight harder for the changes Americans are demanding … you don’t get what you don’t fight for …”, is the same erstwhile liberal standard-bearer who first opposed the universal health-insurance programme known as Medicare for All, then supported it, and then opposed it again due to a shift in the political winds. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, shown declaring, “I’m going to be fighting, fighting like hell”, is the same Democratic chickenhawk who told voters that he fought like hell in Vietnam and then was forced to admit that he never got near the war, thanks to a string of student draft deferments.4
As for Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat shown vowing to “keep fighting, fighting, fighting”, he is the self-described “angry centrist”, who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and against the Iran nuclear accord in 2015, and whose fighting during the course of his 22-year career on Capitol Hill has mainly been on behalf of Wall Street deregulation. He is a relentless fundraiser, who has convinced countless hedge funds and private-equity investors to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns because, as one Wall Street lawyer said, “If you can be responsive to a solicitation, you are really getting an extra bang for your buck.”5
The portrait that this collection of empty suits painted of Trump’s role on January 6 is therefore incomplete, because it fails to mentions their own role in the debacle. As Michael van der Veen, one of the ex-president’s lawyers, observed,
The entire Democratic Party and national news media spent the last four years repeating without any evidence that the 2016 election had been hacked, and falsely and absurdly claimed the president of the United States was a Russian spy. Speaker Pelosi herself said that the 2016 election was hijacked and that Congress has a duty to protect our democracy. She also called the president an impostor and a traitor, and recently referred to her colleagues in the House as the enemy within.
The people who tried to overturn the 2016 election, in other words, were the same ones going after Trump for trying to overturn the election in 2020. The Trump team even showed a clip of Jamie Raskin seeking to decertify the Electoral College in 2016, because, as he put it, “10 of the 29 electoral votes cast by Florida were cast by electors not lawfully certified”. The players had changed roles, but the game was otherwise the same.
So what does this tell us about the crisis? One is that it has been long in the making. Other clips the ex-president’s team showed were of Nancy Pelosi complaining in January 2005 that “there are still legitimate concerns over the integrity of elections” and Bernie Sanders saying around the same time that he “agree[s] with tens of millions of Americans who are very worried when they cast the ballot on an electronic voting machine that there is no paper trail to record that vote” - precisely the same complaints that Trump is making today.
But the crisis goes back even farther - to the stolen election in 2000; to the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton over a semen-stained blue dress; to Republican House leader Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and the back-to-back federal shutdowns he engineered in 1995-96, and so on. The more Congress erupted in vicious partisan warfare, the more the ancient constitutional machinery stiffened and froze. Both sides complained about a voting system that is chaotic, opaque and grossly overdue for an overhaul. But neither side did anything about it, because nothing can be done, thanks an archaic, 233-year-old constitution that is immune to reform.
Another thing it tells us is that the crisis is fully bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats may go at one another hammer and tong, but both are equally silent about the real elephant in the sitting room, which is to say a plan of government that is as unchangeable as it is dysfunctional. Trump and Raskin may look like they are in charge. But they are no more than actors following a script that the great unmentionable dictates at every turn.
Impeachment is yet another stage in the process of constitutional self-destruction. Derived from the Old French empeechier (to prevent), it is a product of 14th-century Anglo-Norman law, in which a bourgeois House of Commons would indict a royal official - but never the king himself - while leaving it to the upper house to conduct the actual trial, on the grounds that only a peer can judge a fellow peer. But impeachment fell into disarray in the mid-17th century after parliament used it against various royal favourites of Charles I. When it became time to deal with Charles himself, however, the House of Commons had no choice but to cast impeachment aside and try him on treason charges, since it was clear that the Lords would never go along with it.
Indeed, the mechanism was experiencing its last gasp in Britain just as the founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a new constitution. This was the case of Warren Hastings, a former governor-general of colonial India accused of corruption and mismanagement. Although Raskin referred to Hastings during the Trump impeachment trial as “a corrupt guy”, it was another example of the congressman’s penchant for twisting the facts.6 Indeed, Hastings would be acquitted in 1795 after a seven-year trial that all but ended the career of Edmund Burke, the enemy of the French Revolution and Hastings’s chief tormenter.
Thereafter, parliament sought other means of controlling the executive. But since America’s founders had specifically ruled all other means out, they stayed with impeachment, even though it would prove more and more ineffectual.
The upshot centuries later is a Hastings-style fiasco - only worse. Democrats felt they had no choice but to go ahead with impeachment even though they knew it would be nearly impossible to win over 17 of the Senate’s 50 Republican members needed under the constitution to convict.
But, now that impeachment has ended in acquittal for the third time in a row since the late 1990s, they have wound up in an even worse position than before. With only seven Republicans voting to convict, the constitution’s chief means of reining in a runaway executive has turned into the opposite. Trump can now brag that he is the only president who has been acquitted twice by Congress, while the Bonapartism he represents has emerged strengthened from the ordeal. Democrats may try impeachment again the next time a Republican president mounts an assault on Congress. But they will know that the effort will go nowhere before it even gets off the ground. They are sitting ducks - not despite the Trump impeachment, but because of it.
Is this Jamie Raskin’s fault? Perhaps. But it is really an example of an ancient political structure advancing toward one-man rule under its own steam. The US constitutional system serves as the politico-legal basis for a capitalist system that now straddles the world. But it is aware in some dim sense that checks and balances, separation of powers and the like are increasingly untenable and that it therefore has no choice but to head off in a direction that is more and more illiberal. Individuals like Trump, Raskin, Pelosi and Schumer are momentary personalities that the capitalist political structure creates in the course of its own self-destruction.
K Marx Grundrisse: foundations of the critique of political economy (rough draft) London 1973, p650 (emphasis in the original).↩︎
The New York Times May 17 2010: nytimes.com/2010/05/18/nyregion/18blumenthal.html.↩︎
Journalist Max Blumenthal’s 2017 interview with Raskin about Russiagate is a classic example. See youtube.com/watch?v=Ce0X7_48vGY.↩︎