Proponents of “small” government are making headway: 29 states have signed on to calling for a constitutional convention. Thirty-four states trigger such a gathering. Behind the controversial efforts are ALEC and the Koch Brothers, well known for supporting corporate interests at the expense of people, communities, and the environment.
Like it or not, it’s time to take the controversy further. Instead of being concerned about defending the US Constitution, we should seriously consider chucking the document and starting over.
While ALEC, the Koch brothers, and other 1% interests are seeking constitutional change to further solidify their stranglehold on the 99%, I’m asserting the US Constitution so well protects the 1% already, that it needs to go.
It’s time we got over the fantasy version of America that we learned in school. What’s been going on for more than 200 years amounts to a cover-up for the high crimes of a wealthy band of counter-revolutionaries. They conspired to create a powerful central government that would cater to the priorities of the wealthiest among us for generations.
There’s a big shoe box of myths out there from the “free market” to capitalism to the American dream, all based on the pretense that we’re equally endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It should be true, but it isn’t.
Neither are the big whoppers that tell us the United States is a democracy and that the US Constitution is a document sent directly to the American people from the heavens.
The creation story of the US Constitution has been powerful enough a legend that questioning it can have you on the receiving end of some pretty colorful language, or witnessing looks of pure panic on people’s faces. The myth is powerful enough to make one believe that the US Constitution is a law of nature like gravity, and that questioning it or talk of replacing it will thrust the planet into uncontrollable chaos, hurtling all of us into deep, deep space. We even refer to the US Constitution as “the constitution,” as if no other country has a constitutional form of government.
The US Constitution is Just…Words on Paper
Well, it’s time we go cold turkey and demystify the constitution. It’s made up of words on paper that were written by men with biases, hubris, selfishness, and all the foibles associated with being human. They are words that supposedly match what society requires and the planet demands, but do they? Let’s consider:
- The US Constitution was written by the top 1% owners of wealth of their time
- The US Constitution is not a document creating democracy; it is a republic only nominally
- The US Constitution places commerce and property protection above civil, human, and nature’s rights
- The US Constitution was written by propertied white men who despised the notion of democracy
- The US Constitution’s checks and balances on government function more as a check on democracy
- The US Constitution is not just the bill of rights nor is it the Declaration of Independence – people often mash up the best of the two documents
- The US Constitution was opposed by a large contingency of people, in fact the majority; it was ratified not by the whole nation, but by wealthy delegates who did not reflect the demographics of the country
- The US Constitution is extremely difficult to amend, which is very undemocratic
There are myriad things that could be added to the list that would lay bare the deeper purpose and intention behind the constitution. However, I’ll focus on three:
1) who the document benefits (the 1%)
2) what the document is largely concerned about (commerce and property) and
3) why replacing words on paper with new words on paper can invigorate us (remember the Revolutionaries?)
Myth vs Reality of the “Founding Fathers”
Lionizing the “founding fathers,” who were the white men of property who drafted the constitution, makes about as much sense as touting the “nobility” of members of the British House of Lords. The king’s “nobles,” whose blood descendants would eventually rule from the House of Lords, gained their generations-spanning status by fighting for William the Conqueror to overrun the people living in what we know as England today. They were paid for their murderous service with land they stole from the people they conquered.
The “founding fathers” have as lustrous a pedigree. They gained their notoriety by murdering the American Revolution and replacing the decentralized Confederation of the United States of America with the current system of government we live under today.
One-percenters like Washington, Madison, and Hamilton drafted a whole new governing document in secrecy, under the protection of armed guards and against the mandate of congress under the Articles of Confederation (the country’s first constitution). They replaced the revolutionary constitution with one modeled on the British system America had just routed. They included even more expansive means of controlling the masses and making sure the 99% were kept at arm’s length from real governing power.
The making of our constitution can be described as nothing less than a counter-revolutionary coup.
The colonial 1% were after a governing document that would keep the haves (the men in the locked room and others like them) in control. But they also wanted a governing document that would allow them to expand their holdings and wealth. And they wanted to do so while keeping civil liberties to a minimum. This they achieved in a bundle of amendments, which they allowed only in order to keep revolutionary opposition from scuttling the proposed constitution. These guys were not only anti-democracy – they also had a superiority complex. They believed that the new country needed bright minded (white) men of means to be calling the shots for the unpredictable masses. That’s us. The 99%.
A Counter-Revolutionary Coup
The bill of rights was dangled as the carrot of compromise and a nod to the Declaration of Independence. Its purpose was solely to clear the way for eventual ratification of our present-day constitution. Everything leading up to that was, actually, unconstitutional. Simply put, it was a conspiracy that can be described as nothing less than a counter-revolutionary coup. And they had a lot riding on their coup: opening the floodgates to access, harvest, exploit, and market the natural resources that lay before them, and that many already held privately.
Protecting commerce and property was paramount for the colonial one-percenters. So much so that they added a moratorium against even discussing the outlawing of slavery, and made sure the biggest economic actors (the slave plantation states) had the most governing power. Even with the repeal of slavery in 1865, the foundational structure of the US Constitution was retrofitted with new tools that retained the preeminence of the privileges of wealth over the rights of people.
Extracting Human Labor
Perpetuating an economy that extracts human labor on the cheap to produce wealth for a privileged minority continues to be the main function of the US Constitution. When people of conscience rightfully broke the back of slavery and the slave economy, it is unfortunate that the Constitution was merely amended rather than abandoned and reworked. The new economic engine to emerge following the Civil War would hand the crown of true power to the railroad companies, the robber barons, and the money men. They get the credit for taking money out of the pockets of common workers to build industrial empires. Gone were canals and a cotton economy. In came the railroads and a bevy of commodities and finished goods made possible by fossil fuels and steel, mined and milled by men and women who did not share in the bounty. And let’s not forget that blacks weren’t really free, laborers were falling to the bullets of the federal military, and the tribes out west would be nearly wiped off the planet – all sanctioned by the US Constitution.
US Courts Assist in Corporate Rise
Though the core function of the Constitution was largely untouched in its focus on commerce and property from 1789 to the 1860’s, the courts did their part in protecting those core values by replacing slavery with a new economic engine – corporations. With the help of the courts, corporations were left pretty much to their own devices by the invention of corporate constitutional rights. The post-Civil War era constitution that turned corporations into mini-sovereignties fueled the American industrial age and continues to funnel public land, resources, and human labor into the bulging coffers of corporations today.
People have fought, bled, and died to raise the standards of basic human rights through successful efforts to amend the constitution (the 14th and 19th Amendments). People’s movements have found favorable courts to rule on grounds of civil rights based on the maturity of society.
Our lives and the future of others to come are being shaped by dead men who lived over 200 years ago in a very different time under very different conditions with a very different sense of what government should be about.
However, people haven’t yet reprogrammed the Constitution to be about people, communities, and the environment. They haven’t redesigned it for the protection and advancement of those rights when they come up against the endless-production-of-more machine that is now fully corporatized and running full steam toward an abyss. And we are all passengers on that death train.
Constitutional Myth of Rights vs. Reality of Harms
One of the myths that we’ve told ourselves time and time again is that the US Constitution has allowed for the advancement of civil rights, protection of workers, and protections of the environment. So we tell ourselves that all we need to do is put good people in office to protect what we cherish. If, from time to time, they can squeeze out a little more good, then we shall rejoice.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t go anywhere today without reality smacking me in the face when it comes to the true condition of the environment, our communities, the economy, politics, the dynamics of war and armed conflicts, and so many other facets that make up our complex world. What is out there is not pretty. But when we try to make sense of it, we typically find ourselves talking about symptoms, rather than digging down to the root level causes.
We become awash in stories of political infighting or market trends or policy decisions of thirty years ago, but we can’t seem to journey further into our own past to really see the source and wellspring of our woes that has brought us to where we are today. Our lives and the future of others to come are being shaped by dead men who lived over 200 years ago in a very different time under very different conditions with a very different sense of what government should be about. They weren’t thinking about us or our children. In fact, they were thinking about themselves and protecting the privileges of their economic class.
When I speak about these things, it’s usually at this juncture that the shortness of breath begins and contorted faces appear in the crowd.
Current Calls for a Constitutional Convention
People of late have been pointing to a clearly corporate agenda (ALEC and the Koch Brothers backed) to open up the constitution via the states calling for a constitutional convention. People worry that what motivates this top-down call for a convention is a compulsion to further what is already a well-functioning constitution for the protection of amassed wealth – the same kind of constitution that the likes of Washington, Madison, and Hamilton intended. Concomitant with this plan will be further attempts to keep the civil rights and the happiness quotient at the lowest possible tolerance level. The corporate agenda is to further expand on what they’ve achieved through the courts, but now enshrine it in a new constitution.
We like to say that the constitution is the people’s governing document, being that the preamble begins “We the people….” And we should not let go of that preamble, nor the words of the Declaration of Independence. But we need to get real. We need to shatter the myth that the US Constitution belongs to the people. If that sounds too harsh, then can we at least be honest enough to say that the people really have little control over the constitution and that the constitution was never intended to live up to the true needs of people, our communities, and the environment?
Moving Past Fear
Many people are anxious at the thought of amending the US Constitution, and downright fearful at the thought of writing a new one. This is understandable – what if prior accomplishments securing civil rights and guaranteeing other basic political rights are taken away by the corporate class? And of course there is the fear of the unknown. “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”
However, it’s critical that we understand that the constitution we have is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s critical that we understand our very survival depends upon both our resistance and our organizing. We must create what is necessary to survive – perhaps even thrive. We can be fearful, and still do what is necessary. That’s what courage is. We can fully embrace our fear and our courage to do what we need to do. It is we the people, the 99%, who need to be the drafters of new words for our new constitution.
It’s Time, Says Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying,
“Every constitution…and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.” He went even further, declaring “[B]etween society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. . . . [B]y the law of nature, one generation is [therefore] to another as one independent nation to another.”
By my count we are coming up on the twelfth opportunity to take seriously Jefferson’s contention that a review and revision of the nation’s constitution is due. The time is ripe. We see in all people’s movements a determination to secure basic rights, realize a vision of equality, and form a governing system that reflects the aspirations of the living. It has been thus, from the Revolutionaries to the Abolitionists to the Suffragists to the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement to the fight for marriage equality.
We must get over our ancestor worship and our belief that the US Constitution was heavenly ordained, if we are to achieve what we envision and what the planet demands. The federalist counter-revolutionaries who wrote our constitution in secret – the ones some call the “founding fathers” – have no claim on governing us today. They could not see the world in which we live, nor are they here to offer advice. We are “we the people,” and it is up to us to secure justice and mend the mistakes of yesterday. Today we require a new governing vision that eschews privileges for a few and lip service for the rest.
Out with the old. In with the new.
CELDF is working with communities across the country. We are building a movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature to advance democratic, economic, social, and environmental rights – and to stop unjust legal doctrines harming our communities. Join us.