Calhoun, Biopower, and America’s Phony Constitution

It seems to me that the most important characteristic of “liberalism” is its attack on quiddity, that is, its attack on the notion of what-ness, of the singular essence of a thing itself. All other characteristics of liberalism are secondary.

This came to mind when reading John C. Calhoun’s great Disquisition on Government. Along with his Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, the Disquisition stands as the culmination of Calhoun’s great career. Both were published posthumously, and one gets the feeling while reading them that for all his patriotism and desire to preserve the Union, Calhoun is very much a man with nothing left to lose. The Discourse serves as a justification of Calhoun’s political career, including his extreme states’ rights policy, while the Disquisition runs closer to pure political philosophy, and is just as insightful as it would have been in 1850.

Though Calhoun was about as reactionary as one could be without renouncing the American Revolution, he never strayed from the basis of popular sovereignty. To accomplish this, Calhoun distinguished between two kinds of representation. One he calls the numerical majority, the bare winner-takes-all system we associate with simple direct democracy—“by right of suffrage, unaided.” The second he refers to as concurrent, or constitutional, majority. Rather than relying on direct democracy alone, the system relying on a concurrent majority distinguishes that a community is made up of different distinct and conflicting interests, and that a good government must recognize these interests. The concurrent majority therefore accounts for the “proper organism” of the polity, its actual constituent members, rather than the often-arbitrary distinction of failing to achieve a majority of votes.

Calhoun inveighs against anyone who would confuse numerical and concurrent majorities. The democracy based on numerical majority recognizes two political parties jostling for a single spot of power. This arrangement becomes dangerous when fifty-minus-epsilon, upon gaining complete superiority over fifty-minus-epsilon, realize that the only way to protect their victory is to undermine the now-minority. Emasculating if not defenestrating, the now-minority party is the sure way to retain power. Rather than a re-calibration of a polity, every election threatens to be an existential struggle, and violence is always liable to result.

A polity relying on concurrent majorities depends far more heavily on compromise between its different interests. Since every interest group, however small, is assured some role in the government, majoritarian forces cannot simply impose their will on the minority. They have to play nice. Calhoun cites with approval the creation of the Roman tribune system, which in solidifying the commoner’s role in Roman government brought an end to the constant warfare between patricians and plebs, and allowed Rome to turn her bellicose attention to the rest of the world. He similarly praises the government of Iroquois, whose confederate system resolved internecine disputes, and gave them precedence among all the North American tribes.

It is difficult to read this without thinking that Calhoun sees the Constitution—that document which recognizes neither titles nor classes nor creeds—as doomed to fail from the beginning. The Discourse ends with a seeming lament that our classless society is not easier to organize. It sometimes seems that Calhoun is proposing the re-invigoration of the Estate General—that noble ought to have his vote counted qua noble, that clergyman ought to have his vote counted qua clergy. This represented, simply and organically, the real constitution of the French state. It was also what the revolutionists wanted to destroy. The word “democracy” has ever been a bugbear on the Right, yet this animosity is often misplaced. A true “democratic” reform of the Estates would have allowed more classes into the fold of government: perhaps the bourgeoisie, perhaps artisans, perhaps laborers—maybe even Black Transsexual Daycare workers. The Revolution was always liberal rather than democratic; it strove not for a leveling of social classes, but their erasure.

The distinction between numerical and concurrent majorities also leads to interesting perspectives on Calhoun’s career. His great struggle for states’ rights, as quixotic as it now seems, was an attempt to place something real in the Constitution. If the Federal Constitution could not acknowledge aristocrats, clergy, or workers, it could at least acknowledge some difference between Virginia and Massachusetts. One’s particular state citizenship meant much more in 1850 than it does today; but it also meant much more at the beginning of Calhoun’s public career in 1811 than at the end. His last oration in 1850 was against the admission of California. I have generally understood this by the conventional wisdom: Of course a South Carolina senator would oppose admission of a free state. At the same time, the entry of every new state weakened what was real about statehood. It transformed them from former colonies built upon creeds and generations of history into arbitrary political units. With statehood continually denigrated, who could be surprised by the tyrant Lincoln making mincemeat of the whole arrangement?

As the suffrage has been expanded, so has man’s relationship to government been dehumanized. Peasants gained full citizenship only by relinquishing their legal status as peasants. Women gained full citizenship, but only with the simultaneous removal of the legal provisions which recognized them as women. The rights of citizenship are extended everywhere, but only after the distinctive characteristics of every group are erased. This tendency—this erasure of institutions—tends to ensure that the great homogeneous mass of “citizens” is united only by their most basic characteristics.

But of course humans are made more human by their distinguishing characteristics. And when men lose their faces, only their animal needs unite them. The homogeneous citizen is no longer an individual, but a form of biopower, an animal unbound by religion, race, or place, but only by biological necessity. This transformation has been part and parcel with liberal change throughout the centuries, and always for the same reason: The homogenization of citizens always has a tendency to centralize power. Calhoun saw this with respect to the Federal Government, that with the diminution of states’ power, Washington would become tyrannical. Perhaps he would not be surprised by our century’s erasure of race, sex, and religion, which have centralized power in the hands of bureaucrats of both the corporate and governmental variety. A nation of believing Catholics, Protestants, and Jews need appropriate ministers, while Therapeutic Moralistic Deists need only Joel Osteen, Walmart trash, and a monthly comic book movie.

The distinction between numerical and concurrent majorities sheds light on the present goals of the elite. We generally think of mass immigration only in terms of numerical majorities. It is beyond dispute that immigrants serve as a voting pool for the liberal agenda. But the immigrant’s effect on constitutional majority is more severe and long-lasting. Somali immigration to Minnesota is done, first and foremost, to destroy any notion of the Minnesotan—to introduce to the Land of 10,000 Lakes mosques and clitorectomies. It is true that Somalis vote overwhelmingly for liberal candidates. Even if, somehow, they could be turned to the Republican ticket, their purpose would be served: they would have helped dilute and dissolve an idea of a people who had once existed, and no longer does. The constitution of the state is the target, not an electoral majority per se. The primary purpose is not to implement any one policy agenda, but to destroy any notion of the “Christian,” “American” or the “Minnesotan” that might stand in the way of brute the domination of a homogeneous populace.

Just as interesting to me is Calhoun’s opinion on technology. The Discourse goes on to chart the technological progress of the Western world. Calhoun at first expresses his reservations, but then avers that “they will greatly improve the condition of man ultimately—it would be impious to doubt.” Nonetheless, the interval between old and new technological regime will be perilous, and full of chaos. “The interval between the decay of the old and the formation and establishment of the new, constitutes a period of transition, which must always necessarily be on of uncertainty, confusion, error, and wild and fierce fanaticism.” Technology transforms the very constitution of the state; whether the state’s government can keep up with this is the (perhaps impossible) task of modern statesmen.

In the context of Calhoun’s advocacy for real constitutions, this detour is fascinating. Against Calhoun’s prediction, technological advance has never slowed. The American government’s failure to recognize interest groups and classes has proved a great asset in accommodating technology’s perpetual revolution. A contradiction arises: America has slavish devotion to its paper Constitution, but it has scarcely ever had an established constitution. That the nation is ever in flux is almost our one consistency. This seems to be America’s true original sin, at least since 1789. Even when we finally ended our two centuries of territorial acquisitions, we decided to become an open-air experiment of Third Worlders in an industrial state. Perhaps Calhoun would take some grim pleasure in seeing that the figment of our paper Constitution is now all that unites us.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. BaboonTycoon says:

    I suppose the bitter irony of all of this is that reaction would have served liberalism better than its own methods. If the objective is to dominate a population, they need have only erected their own dictator. Who, after all, would have stopped them? Surely this would have been easier than turning the United States into a favela, which has ironically created resistance to them where it is doubtful that such resistance would have existed before. Truman being elected four times shows us that America was not ideologically committed to democracy in the way we think of boomer libertarians being so today


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