Whenever I argue for a new Constitutional Convention and the break-up of the United States, I’m met with disbelief or condescension. All manner of insurmountable legal difficulties are pointed to. More express the dread that quarantines any real discussion: To talk about breaking up the country opens the Pandora Box of horrible knowns and the horribly unknown; we already tried that and look how that ended, the US Civil War; how could a professional, such as myself, even think this….
My entry point here centers around an exchange of letters between critic, Edmund Wilson, and novelist, John Dos Passos, during the Great Depression in the first half of the 1930s. Their interchange focused on the need for radical structural change in the US government and the Constitution. The picture I recast with this interchange from the Republic of Letters is the entrenched institution of the US constitution and these fifty states.
One of Edmund Wilson’s biographers calls the Wilson/Dos Passos correspondence “in its scope and dramatic interest second in American letters only to that of Jefferson and John Adams”. High praise indeed. Their letters are my squeegee to blur the persisting resistance to redescribing our government in any other fundamental way.
It is true this entry’s proposal for a new Constitutional Convention fails to consult the best minds of our time—those experts in constitutional law, economics, and political science. The wider truth is that we are in today’s political and economic straits because other minds, like Wilson and Dos Passos, were ignored in considering the case for new constitutional arrangements and the country’s break-up.
The correspondence was provoked by Edmund Wilson’s 1931 Appeal to Progressives in the New Republic [NR], parts of which read:
Not only are the people in a capitalist society very often completely ignorant as to what their incomes come from; it is actually sometimes impossible or very difficult for them to find this out. And as long as a fair proportion of the bankers, the manufacturers, the middle men, the merchants and the workers whom their capital and machines keep busy are able to make a little more money than before, no matter how unscrupulously or short-sightedly, we are able, as a nation, to maintain our belief in our prosperity and even in our happiness….
[T]he manufacturer raises the workers’ wages only in order to create a demand for the gadgets which for better or worse he happens to have an interest in selling them, while agriculture goes hang, and science and art are left to be exploited by commercial laboratories…or to be fed in a haphazard way by a dole from the fortunes of rich men who have been conscience-stricken or simply overpowered at finding themselves at the end of their careers with enough money on their hands to buy out an old-fashioned empire….
Is it not obvious…that a government like our present one…is incapable of acting in good faith in even the simple matter of preserving the water power which is supposed be operated for the general benefit from being exploited by private profiteers? Our society has finally produced in its specialized professional politicians one of the most useless and obnoxious groups which has perhaps ever disgraced human history—a group that seems unique among governing classes in having managed to be corrupt, uncultivated and incompetent all at once….
Outdated? Hardly, when the bankers have metastasized into global finance, when our public utilities have been sold off to corporate risk-takers, and when the best news we have is that the rich like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, wearying of empire, try to make good in the happy-talk of philanthropy what we once demanded and expected of government.
Edmund Wilson’s proposal? “It may be that the whole money-making and -spending psychology has definitely played itself out, and that the Americans would be willing, for the first time now, to put their traditional idealism and their genius for organization behind a radical social experiment.”
Whoa! you say: We’ve tried those Big Experiments! What more do we need than the intervening decades to convince us that the more radical the social experiment, the deadlier the bolt-hole utopia realized?
Wilson’s point still holds: “[W]ith the kind of administrations that the country has lately been getting, do not all our progressive proposals, however reasonable or modest, seem utopian?” So too Slavoj Žižek more recently: “We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
Yet I believe it’s easier to dismiss a huge social experiment than it is to ignore the huger laboratory of modern life created for ourselves. (If utopias fail and if utopia and failure go together, when then does recovery from failed utopianism end and a new normal begin? Answer: There is no normal, when this very big laboratory can’t tell the difference between the experiment and recovery.)
But what then to do in today’s laboratory? Stay with Edmund Wilson and his then-friend, John Dos Passos, and their interchange over the NR manifesto and its follow-on. Dos Passos’s response to the publications, his increasing disillusionment with the machinations of left politics in the early 1930s, and the disagreements between Dos Passos and Wilson help identify a direction ahead for us.
From the Republic of Letters
“Just read your battlecry,” Dos Passos writes a few weeks after Wilson’s 1931 piece appears,
Of course all the [New Republic] can do is stir things up and try to smoke out a few honest men who do know something about industrial life as she is lived…If you can keep up a series like this you really will have started something—though I’m beginning to think that every publication ought to be required by law to print at the bottom of each page:
NB. THIS IS BULLSHIT
. . . .[T]he trouble with all our political economic writing and the reason maybe why it doesnt interest the ordinary guy who hasn’t joined the fraternity of word-addicts is that it is made up right in the office and springs from neither experience nor observation…
True enough, and Wilson eventually circulates a more urgent manifesto. “The present crisis of the world—and specifically the United States—is something more than a mere crisis of politics or economics; and it will not pass with the depression. It is crisis of human culture. What faces us today is the imperative need for new social forms, new values, a new human order.”
What is needed, Wilson feels, has moved beyond experiment to revolution. “Sure I’ll subscribe to it,” Dos Passos writes Wilson in reply to the new battle cry,
—but I don’t think it’ll cause any bankers to jump out of fiftieth story windows—what are you going to do with it?—post it up on billboards? it might go well on toilet paper like [ laxative] advertizing—or is it going to be laid on [President] Hoover’s breakfast table?….Where is it going to be used—?
Wilson ends up forwarding material to Dos Passos from another periodical, New Masses, and Dos Passos writes back in March 1934,
I think it’s very important not to add to this mass of inept rubbish on this subject—what is happening is that the whole Marxian radical movement is in a moment of intense disintegration—all people like us, who have no taste for political leadership or chewing the rag, can do, is to sit on the sidelines and try to put a word in now and then for the underdog or for the cooperative commonwealth or whatever….
The only alternative is passionate unmarxian revival of AngloSaxon democracy or an industrial crisis helped by a collapse in the director’s offices—That would be different from nazi socialism only in this way: that it would be a reaction towards old time Fourth of July democracy….How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I dont see.
Late 1934, Dos Passos writes to Wilson about recent events in the Soviet Union, including the murder of Stalin’s intelligence chief,
This business about Kirov looks very very bad to me. In fact it has completely destroyed my benefit-of-the-doubt attitude towards the Stalinists—It seems to be another convolution of the self-destructive tendency that began with the Trotski-Stalin row. From now on events in Russian have no more interest—except as a terrible example—for world socialism—if you take socialism to mean the educative or constructive tendency rather than politics. The thing has gone into its Napoleonic stage and the progressive tendencies in the Soviet Government have definitely gone under before the self-protective tendencies….Meanwhile I think we should be very careful not to damage any latent spores of democracy that there still may be in the local American soil.
These remarks provoke Wilson to respond in early January 1935:
…I don’t think you ought to say, as you do, that a country which is still trying to put socialism into practice has ceased to be politically interesting…One doesn’t want to give aid and comfort to people who have hopped on the shootings in Russia as a means of discrediting socialism. Aside from this, you are right, of course, in saying that Americans who are in favor of socialism oughtn’t to try to import the methods of the Russians….
Dos Passos fires back,
[N]o government is in good shape that has to keep on massacring its people. Suppose, when that curious little [Italian] Zangara took a potshot a Franklin D. [Roosevelt], the U.S. Secret Service had massacred a hundred miscellaneous people, some because they were [Italians], others because they were anarchists and others because they had stomach trouble, what would all us reds be saying…What’s the use of losing your “chains” if you get a firing squad instead…Some entirely new attack on the problem of human freedom under monopolized industry has to be worked out—if the coming period of wars and dictatorships give anybody a chance to work anything out….
About Russia I should have said not politically useful rather than politically interesting….By Anglo Saxon Institutions I mean the almost obliterated traditions of trial by jury common law etc—they don’t count for much all the time but they do constitute a habit more or less implanted in Western Europeans outside of Russians….
Intellectual theories and hypotheses dont have to be a success, but political parties do—and I cant see any reason for giving the impression of trying to induce others to engage in forlorn hopes one wouldn’t go in for oneself.
“Don’t agitate me, comrade, I’m with you,” Wilson countered at the end of that January,
Surely it’s entirely unnecessary to worry about the possibility of a Stalin regime in America. I can’t imagine an American Stalin. You talk as if there were a real choice between Henry Ford on the one hand and [American Communists] on the other; but who outside the Communists themselves has ever seriously entertained the idea that these individuals would every lead a national movement?
“But” responds Dos Passos in February 1935,
it’s not the possibility of Stalinism in the U.S. that’s worrying me, it’s the fact that the Stalinist [Communist Party] seems doomed to fail and to bring down with it all the humanitarian tendencies I personally believe in—all the while acting as a mould on which its obverse the fascist mentality is made—and this recent massacre is certainly a sign of Stalinism’s weakness and not of its strength. None of that has anything to do with Marx’s work—but it certainly does influence one’s attitude towards a given political party. I’ve felt all along that the Communists were valuable as agitators as the abolitionist were before the Civil War—but now I ‘m not so happy about it.
Dos Passos then shifts his letter to a point Wilson had made to the effect that Marx belonged to a group of romantics that “came out of a world (before 1848) that was less sick, had much more spirit.” “By the way,” Dos Passos continues,
I don’t agree with you that a hundred years ago was a better time than now—they had a great advantage that everything was technically less cluttered and simpler—but dont you think perhaps in every time the landscape seems somewhat obstructed by human lice for those who view it? We have more information to go on, more technical ability to carry ideas out and ought to produce a whale of a lot of stuff—if I was a European I wouldn’t think so, but here we still have a margin to operate on—
Later that February Wilson writes Dos Passos another letter, the parting shot of which is its own “By the way,”
it is being rumored that you are “rubbing your belly” and saying that “the good old Republican party is good enough for you.” Maybe you ought to make a statement of your present position.
…which Dos Passos does. The month after, he writes Wilson,
I finally consented, against my better judgement, to put my name down on the [leftist] Writers Congress roster. I’m going to try to write them a little preachment about liberty of conscience or freedom of inwit or something of the sort that I hope will queer me with the world savers so thoroughly that they’ll leave me alone for a while. I frankly cant see anything in this middleclass communism of the literati but a racket….People haven’t any right to make a living out of politics—It’s selling stock in a corpse-factory.
“It’s selling stock in a corpse-factory.” “Some entirely new attack on the problem of human freedom under monopolized industry has to be worked out.” “Intellectual theories and hypotheses dont have to be a success, but political parties do.” “How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I dont see.” That said, at least here in the US, according to Dos Passos, “we still have margin to operate on”.
What margin do we have today?
In reply, start with the margin that the framers of the US Constitution saw fit to endorse in Article 5—a new constitutional convention. Oh no, no that won’t work, you say. How would most of our state legislatures or Congressmembers ever agree to hold a Constitutional Convention?
Answer: We hold it for them. We don’t wait. We start our own constitutional convention.
The idea here is this: We have 465 congressional districts, and 465 delegates to a Peoples’ Constitutional Convention sounds about right. Anyone on the voter rolls or adult able to show district residency would be eligible to vote and any voter from the district could run as a convention delegate. Party affiliation or endorsement would, of course, not be required. The candidate with the greatest vote plurality would be the district’s delegate. The cost of this nationwide election and delegate process would be, say, US$1-2 per person, or some $600 million, with another $50 million to hold the actual convention. The US government won’t finance this, and corporate funding would for obvious reasons be ruled out. One can imagine a consortium of individuals, foundations and overseas governments willing to defray what we can’t pay ourselves. (To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, Forbes estimated in 2017 that the net worth of author and large charity giver, J.K. Rowling, was roughly $650 million.)
The charge of the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention: To redraft the US Constitution through a series of amendments.
What a waste of time and money, you interject, since the real government—the states and feds—would just ignore the work of any Peoples’ Constitutional Convention.
Let them. Let them say the peoples’ mandate is illegitimate. Let them ignore a convention that represents no government, no court, no army, and none of the techno-managerial elites, just those elected to come together to hold our government, our courts, our military, and our techno-managerial elites to account. Let them ignore the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention and if they do, we’ll hold a different-premised one, and if that also does not work, we’ll go global and elect a World Parliament and then let them ignore that too. (As some readers may have realized I am adapting and paraphrasing George Monbiot’s proposal in The Age of Consent.)
But Americans could never, never, never support something as utopian—so Fourth of July democracy—as that!
Which takes us back to Edmund Wilson. Late in his life, he published a slim volume, The Cold War and The Income Tax. Pursued by the US Internal Revenue Service for non-payment of taxes and appalled at what his federal tax dollars were going to once paid—namely, the interdigitated grip of war and commerce—Wilson only could muster mordant wit in a way that the early 1930s’ Dos Passos would have appreciated:
I have always thought myself patriotic and have been in the habit in the past of favorably contrasting the United States with Europe and the Soviet Union; but our country has become today a huge blundering power controlled more and more by bureaucracies whose rule is making it more and more difficult to carry on the tradition of American individualism; and since I can accept neither this power unit’s aims nor the methods it employs to finance them, I have finally come to feel that this country, whether or not I continue to live in it, is no longer any place for me….
How to get rid of this huge growth, which is no longer a private organization, like one of Theodore Roosevelt’s old trust that could be busted, that is not even a thriving corporation protected by a business administration but an excrescence of government itself which officially drains our resources and which stupidly and insolently threatens our lives?…But now that things have gone so far, is there any chance, short of catastrophe, of dismembering and reassembling this image and constructing a nobler one that answers better to what we pretend to?
Wilson was right, as was Dos Passos before him, and their questions still hold. It’s long past time for 4th of July democracy to get constitutional. But instead of stopping here, push our thought experiment further, and assume the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention, its delegates having met, resolves that the country should break up.
Just hold on buddy! Stop right there. Break up the country? No, no, and again no: absolutely not. After all, our current Constitution is a living document. . .
NB. THAT’S BULLSHIT
I do not see how anyone can pretend that the Constitution we now have is a living organism, able to evolve into the reliability mandates we demand of it. “You would have to be an idiot to believe that,” said Justice Scalia, who to my mind was right on this point. When it comes to the legal document that I can vote for with my feet, I want privacy rights guaranteed constitutionally and, puh-leese, none of that bald canard about corporations being fictive, immortal individuals.
Yes, of course, we all must avoid a replay of the mass migration and slaughter that followed the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. As a sign of willingness to compromise, I for one am quite willing to let the wee boys keep beltway Reaganland and its airport; if they want Bozo the Prez as their own, let them; I really don’t care whether the schismatics call another breakaway, Prophetland or Profitland. As for Mexifornia, it’s ok by me. If any one of new entities wants to keep parallel wording of the present Constitution, so be it.
Then what? “It is hard to imagine [this] happening without a certain amount of civil war,” Edmund Wilson admitted, and the last time we tried that…well, need we say more?
Yes we do need to say more, and now is the time to say it. Now as then, the priority is to fund and run any new government with all ingenuity available, and not just in drafting new policies but also in doing things differently.
If our Civil War over southern separatism is a guide to the coming break-up, most state constitutions will remain in place as governing documents, while any interstate confederation would most probably be modeled on parts of the current US Constitution—though with the significant changes. Constitution-making in the Confederacy witnessed not just further entrenchment of unconscionable chattel slavery, but also the first Department of Justice, a national citizenship requirement for voting, no functioning supreme court, a six-year term limit for president, civil service reform, strictures against protective tariffs, a district court structure, and provisions for a presidential item veto, executive budget, and no recess appointments. How else are we to get an isomorphic version of this range of changes without breaking up the country?
(And those appalled by any appeal to the Confederacy might want to remember that four states—Vermont, Texas, California and Hawaii—opted to give up their sovereignty to join the Union–so why is the reverse out of the question?)
Be that as it may, when the-now US breaks up, a cadre of professionals will be needed who keep the government services operating under the new conditions. The immediate decline in security and economic growth that comes with the break-up means priority would have to be to keeping the control rooms of our critical infrastructures in hospitals, energy, water, telecommunications, transportation, and public safety operating as reliably as possible. These systems frequently cross current state borders, and the challenge will be to continue inter-regional collaboration for their operation until alternatives—if needed—are devised.
I can think of no more important a task than that the delegates at the Peoples’ Constitution Convention grapple with and address the logistics involved and ingenuity required in keeping critical services provided in a reliable fashion, doubtless as messy as it will be, as the nation undergoes the Great Scission into differing constitutional arrangements. Even today’s reliability professionals like those needed when the US breaks up are presently imagining the unimaginable, thinking the unthinkable, and balancing imponderables all over the place and in real time.
Yes, there is no room for complacency here. But the next constitutional convention everywhere an unthinkably bad mess? Everywhere then the drip-drip-drip of calamities-on-tap? This unimaginably worst mess is just another carking conceit of decline-and-fall (decline-and-stall).
The letters are in: Edmund Wilson (1977), Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY and John Dos Passos (1973) The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos, Gambit, Inc., Boston, MA. I’ve followed their spelling and grammar throughout, while editing in one case still-offensive ethnic expletives.
Four other key sources are: (1) L. Dabney (2005), Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY; (2) G. Monbiot (2003), The Age of Consent, Flamingo, London: Chapter 4; (3) E. Wilson (1963), The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, Farrar, Straus and Company, New York, NY; and J. Israel (2017), The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford, Chapter 3.
My Confederacy cites are from: (1) W.B. Yearns (1960), The Confederate Congress, University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA; R. Bensel (1990), Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK: Chapter 3; P. Van Riper and H. Scheiber (1959), “The Confederate Civil Service,” The Journal of Southern History, 25(4): 448-470; C.R. Lee (1963), The Confederate Constitutions, Greenwood Press Publishers: Westport, CN; and E. Thomas (1979), The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865, Harper & Row: New York, NY.