Trump’s attack on American “democracy” – Part 2 by Keith Hart

Is the United States a racist theocracy?

As the last of three generations of Northern Irish Protestant descent settled in Manchester, I was brought up as a warrior in a racist theocracy, so what follows in not ancient history for me, but a matter of personal experience.

In 2000, Jim and I decided to drive from Newark, New Jersey to New Orleans for a few days. On the first night, we stopped in Bristol, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains on the southwest border between Virginia and Tennessee. From there we would go via Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans. We asked the hotel clerk where we could find entertainment on a Friday evening. He replied that most people went to the Walmart superstore. The place was crowded and lively. We were struck by a display of 4- to 10-rifle glass-fronted cabinets on special offer for around $150. Jim whispered to me, “Have you noticed anything weird about this place?” “Plenty”. “In all my life as an American, I have never before been in a large space without a single Black person.” “I guess all those guns are to keep them out.” We didn’t stay long.

William of Orange was the most successful general in a seventeenth-century religious war pitting a Protestant coalition led by England and Holland against the Catholic monarchies of France and Spain. He married the English princess Mary and together they assumed the English throne. William inflicted a brutal defeat on the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne and settled some Scottish Presbyterians to keep down Catholic peasants in Ulster, before establishing constitutional monarchy in the Glorious Revolution of 1689.

The War of American Independence against the British was led by Virginia plantation owners with George Washington heading the army. Puritan farmers from New England to Pennsylvania didn’t know much about guns. The “Ulster Scots” of the Appalachians certainly did. They shot runaway slaves and Native Americans for sport. They were known later as “hillbillies”, “rednecks” or just “poor white trash”. Washington’s second-in-command was a 23-year-old Ulster Scot.

Fast-forward to the American Civil War and Martin Scorsese’s film, The Gangs of New York (2002).[1] It is 1863 and the coffins of Union soldiers line the dockside, while a shipload of Irish immigrants are offered a chance to serve in the Union army. At that time, the main axis of gang warfare in New York was between Irish Protestants and Catholics. The Irish felt threatened by former slaves competing for the worst-paid jobs. Lincoln issued a conscription order with exemption for $300. This unleashed a class riot with Southern Manhattan’s poor invading the richer neighbourhoods. But it soon turned into America’s first urban race riot, with 100 Blacks being killed by the Irish. Union ships in the East River shelled Southern Manhattan to pacify the gangs.

The West opened up after the Civil War. The place had to be made safe for the farmers who followed. A mobile avant-garde of drunk, whoring desperadoes took on the Indians, served the cattle barons and then became redundant or were killed. Endless Hollywood westerns give more attention to myth than to the brutal violence and corruption that would not sell cinema seats. Many gunslingers were of Northern Irish origin. The most famous of them was “Billy the Kid”, born Henry McCarty. Elsewhere battle-hardened Northern Irish cadres did the British Empire’s dirty work.

Michael Moore made a documentary film, Bowling for Columbine (2002) about an incident in 1999 when two high school boys shot and killed twelve students and a teacher. Moore makes a wide-ranging investigation into American gun culture, including the National Rifle Association. Canadians have as many guns, but they don’t kill people with them. Why? He comes from Flint Michigan, a city with a bad race problem; in an animation, he claims that the US’ history of racism is the main reason for all the killing. The “Black Lives Matter” movement likewise draws attention to how police kill young Black men with impunity. The US has a quarter of the world’s prisoners, many of them Black.

What we have here is a combination of white racism, guns, religion, patriarchy and right-wing politics. Americans are highly religious, some 4 out of 5 believe in God and weekly church attendance has declined from 70% to 50% in the last two decades. Church attendance in Britain and Canada is around 10%. In the European Union, attendance varies widely between West and East, North and South, often in unexpected ways: for example, only 5% of French people are active members of churches, over 50% of Germans. I will next consider the neglected issue of private property and economic inequality.

Private property unbound

We experience the economy in modern society as a network of market relations. These can take place anytime, anywhere and participants are generally unknown to each other. The institutional conditions that make this work are historically abnormal and were first won in a few countries only after centuries of political struggle. The US is the country most wedded to the idea of personal agency in market situations.  Private property is the ability of an owner to command exclusive rights over something against the rest of the world. Market exchange gives us a right to our possessions. But what secures the market exchange? Most people think of their possessions as their own and the social conditions that make it possible are invisible.

Securing private property through an anonymous state apparatus has been very rare in human history. Usually, ownership is relative to membership of local social groups. The Romans (with the Chinese and possibly the Aztecs) invented private property law. Property rights were based on kin-groups asserting their interests against similar groups. Ownership derived from production or consumption: something belonged to you as a clan member because you had made it or needed to use it. Traders owned what they had neither produced nor would use, but intended to sell for money. They were exposed to the brigandage of any group enforcing its local monopoly of violence. To develop long-distance trade, the Roman state offered merchants military protection. It supported their rights over things unmediated by personal relationships, the same form of private property that we now take for granted.[2]

For the sake of market expansion, the connections between persons and objects and between persons in groups were weakened in law. In order to understand our moment in history, we must grasp what has happened to private property in the last century and a half.  Huge social entities, especially national governments and corporations operating on a transnational scale, have acquired the property rights of individual citizens. Far from shoring up liberal or social democracy, private property in this guise favours a totalitarian alternative.

American corporations tried to win the constitutional rights of individual citizens for their businesses. This aim built up momentum after the Civil War, when the railroads acquired wealth and power that they wanted to convert into legal privilege. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 sought to guarantee former slaves equal protection of the laws, by making discriminatory public services illegal. The railroads used this provision to sue states and local authorities for enacting regulations specific to them, on the grounds that this created “different classes of persons.” Eventually they won, through a Supreme Court judgment of 1886 in the case of Santa Clara County vs. the Southern Pacific Railroad.[3] The written record says

The defendant corporations are persons within the intent of the clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Today, if a town wants to protect its small shopkeepers by denying Walmart the right to open a superstore there, it will face an expensive lawsuit brought to defend the corporation’s constitutional rights as a person. The US Supreme Court has recently refused to limit the political spending of corporations on the grounds that it would infringe their human rights; even the Romans limited political expenditures by rich men. The Court has also allowed firms to opt out of Obamacare on religious grounds.

We still think of private property as belonging to living persons and oppose private and public spheres on that basis. But what makes property private is holding exclusive rights against the world. Abstract entities like governments and corporations, as well as individuals, can thus hold it. We are understandably confused by this, especially since the corporations’ rise to public power rested on collapsing the longstanding difference between real and artificial persons in economic law. This distinction holds for churches, political parties and the like. Corporations still benefit from limited liability for bad debts and freedom from other legal impediments that you and I must endure. This constitutes a major obstacle to the practice of democracy and to thinking about it. It is hard enough to see ourselves as equal and free agents in a democracy where vastly unequal powers are exercised remotely without our consent. If we swallow the idea that Amazon deserves the same protection of the laws as individual citizens, we are lost. The sad truth is that many intellectuals now obscure the distinction between people, things and ideas, even claiming that we are now in a post-human phase.

Private property has not only evolved from individual ownership to collective forms, but its main referent has also shifted from “real” to “intellectual” property, from material objects to ideas. The digital revolution has promoted the economic preponderance of information services whose transmission is nearly costless. A similar sleight of hand is at work here to the idea of corporate personhood. If I steal your cow, its loss is material — only one of us can use its milk. But if I copy a DVD, I am denying no-one access to it. Yet corporate lobbyists persuade courts and legislators to treat duplication of their “property” as “theft” or “piracy.” The US, born in resistance to corporate monopoly (the East India Company), now foists onto smaller countries an intellectual property treaty (TRIPS) that shores up the monopoly profits of transnational corporations.

[1] From Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York: An informal history of the underworld (1927).

[2] Sir John Hicks, A Theory of Economic History (1968).

[3] Thom Hartmann, Unequal Protection: How corporations became “people” and how you can fight back (2010, second edition).