Revolution #210, August 29, 2010
the "Founding Fathers"
...and A REAL Radical Alternative
Over the past few years, Glenn Beck has called the overwhelmingly poor and Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina locked down in the Superdome—in his words—"scumbags." He has ranted that progressives are a "cancer" that have to be "eradicated" from America. On an episode of his TV show, Beck envisioned—with barely concealed glee—an armed uprising of "bubbas" (white racists). He claims Barack Obama's White House is highly influenced if not run by communists, and that Obama "has a deep seated hatred for white people and white culture." A wide-ranging array of right-wing militia members, Tea Party mobs, and heavily armed desperate people get much of their picture of the world, along with organizational direction, from him.
But Glenn Beck argues that all he is really saying is that the U.S. needs to return to the government envisioned and prescribed by the "Founding Fathers" in the U.S. Constitution. To return to the days before "big government" got so out of hand, with the collusion of both parties, before a tax-obsessed political class enslaved the middle class to fund programs that feed the corrupt and lazy—from Wall Street to those on welfare.
Is Glenn Beck ideologizing and organizing a draconian, racist, and ominous reactionary movement? Is he a harbinger of, and organizer for, fascism? Or, as he claims, is he simply basing himself on the values and vision of the "Founding Fathers"?
The answer, as we shall see, is… both. And that poses a profound challenge to all who are outraged by what Beck spews out and represents.
The Values of the "Founding Fathers" and the Reality of America
Glenn Beck constantly invokes an ideal society of individuals striving for "success" in competition with each other, with minimal government interference in that process. He can claim—with justification in doing so—that he is drawing on the "Founding Fathers'" ideal of how society should be organized.
Before turning to the fact that many of the "Founding Fathers" (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) were slave owners, let's take the vision of the "Founding Fathers" at its "best." In his writings, Thomas Jefferson extolled a society based on the "yeoman"—that is, the small farmer. Jefferson put forward a vision of society defined by more-or-less equal small property owners. It is this vision that Beck invokes, and that a substantial audience finds appealing.
This small-farmer based society never really existed in the U.S. Of course, many people were small farmers in much of U.S. history. But Jefferson, as well as Washington, Madison, and others, represented and were themselves part of a class of large property owners—including slave owners. Their own wealth was the product of the enslavement of other human beings. More fundamentally, they acted as the political and literary representatives of a class of exploiters. And it was the outlook and interests of those large, exploitive landowners on the one hand, and the budding capitalists on the other, that were represented in the U.S. Constitution. The state they created claimed to represent everyone. In practice, it represented—and could only represent—the dominant class of the day. Thus even the rumor of slave rebellions resulted in suppression of the slaves. And even rebellions by poor (white) farmers in the early days of the U.S., for example, were violently suppressed by this same state.
But even if a society of relatively equal small farmers could have been somehow created, such a society would quickly evolve in the direction of the world we live in today—a society of gaping divisions between haves and have-nots, between exploiters and exploited. A state—with an army and executive at its core—would of necessity be constructed to protect the interests of the "haves" and suppress the "have-nots," and to contend violently with other capitalist-imperialist nations to plunder the globe and oppress other nations. And this society would give rise to a culture, values, and laws that flowed from, and served, that class which had risen to the top to exploit the rest.
Why is this inevitable? In the "yeoman" society idealized by Jefferson, for example, some farmers with better land, stronger families, better weather, etc., would soon prosper. Other farmers who held comparatively worse land, or who were hit with poor health or had small families without children to work their land, would fall behind and go into debt. Before long, they would be ruined and crushed. Thus in the "natural workings" of all this, a few would rise to the top of the heap, while those who drew the short stick in terms of land, resources, etc., would be forced to sell themselves—specifically under capitalism, their ability to work—to those who had the means to hire them. Those who ended up owning the means of production—land, farm implements, livestock, etc.—would be in a position to exploit others by paying them only enough to survive and give birth to new wage slaves, while appropriating all the great wealth. And again, those who "rose to the top" of even this ideal process would very quickly stop working themselves and instead devote their time to supervising the exploitation of others who had been forced by economic necessity to work for them. And this process would, as it has in the real world, grind on, driven only by the blind laws of capitalism, crushing most of those caught in its workings.
In walking through how this would unfold, we can see an example of why even if there is formal equality, this can only mask and perpetuate profound inequality and exploitation. And of course, the founding of America was far from this ideal—it came about in actual historical fact on the foundation of the near genocide committed against the peoples who lived here—the Native Americans—and the enslavement for centuries of millions who had been kidnapped from Africa.
The "Sanctity" of Capitalist Property Rights
Glenn Beck insists that the "Founding Fathers" saw private property, and property rights, as the most sacred thing of all. And he's right. In Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, Beck highlights a quote from John Adams, one of the "Founding Fathers," which does capture the essence of the "freedoms" sanctified in the Constitution: "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence." (p. 82)1
But the U.S. Constitution when written reflected, and enforced, the needs of very specific forms of property—the forms of property that conformed to capitalism on the one hand, and slavery on the other. With the Civil War in 1861-65, the Constitution was amended to outlaw slavery and to much more fully correspond to, and serve to extend, capitalist forms of exploitation. This is the private property that the U.S. Constitution protects above all. When the owner of Whole Foods declared, during the healthcare debate, that there is no constitutional right to healthcare, he was being heartless and cold-blooded, but he was right about the U.S. Constitution. Beyond that, there is definitely nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits exploitation.
The enshrinement of property rights as the most "sacred" right took shape "on the ground" in the early days of U.S. society, in the form of violently stealing the land of the Native peoples and declaring it the "private property" of those who stole it (or in whose interests it was stolen). And it took the form of suppression of uprisings of the lower classes, including slaves.
What is "sanctified" here is the right of the capitalists to appropriate the labor of others; to accumulate ever greater wealth and power through that accumulation; and to use that wealth and power to dominate the instrument of the state and use the state to further suppress the exploited classes. Today the greatest part of the needs of society by far is met through the collective labor of the main suppressed class in society, the proletariat; but this socialized labor is privately appropriated by the relative handful of capitalists. Among the capitalists, it can only, and always has, led to cutthroat competition and production in which things are blindly thrown onto the market in the hopes that they will outsell the competition, with no rational overall plan based on social need guiding that production. It has led, and can only lead, to wars and other forms of contention between nation-states that serve as "home bases" for blocs of capital as well as the ongoing massive invasions, slaughters, proxy wars and military actions of all kinds waged against the oppressed nations and peoples of the world. In short, sanctifying private property can only lead to the world of exploitation, oppression, blood, and cruelty we live in today, where property rights—specifically the right of capitalists to own and control the great productive resources of society—are sacred above all else.
Thus the capitalist declarations that "all men are created equal" conceal a very basic and extremely fundamental fact about the capitalist system. The capitalist and the proletarian (i.e., the propertyless laborer) confront one another in the marketplace as legal equals. One exchanges her or his ability to work for wages; the other exchanges wages for the other's work for a set period of time. But this very exchange of equals is based on, and further deepens, a very unequal, exploitative, and oppressive relation between two classes: one which owns the means of producing things (factories, etc.) and thus pays wages; and one which owns nothing but their ability to work for wages (leaving aside personal possessions like a car to get to work, etc.), and thus must search for someone to employ them.
In the U.S. the concealment of inequality through the seeming exchange between equals was further compounded by the fact that the notion of equality was reserved for white men. No such formal equality was promised to Black people, Native Americans, and people of mixed race. Pariah classes (people considered sub-human in the laws and culture of the new American society) were created. Thus an ideological bond was forged, from the beginning of this country, where white people who were not part of the ruling class in large part identified with their ruling class oppressors in opposition to Blacks and Native Americans.2
We have spent so much time taking this apart because Beck himself bases so much of his ideological appeal on "going back to the Constitution." And while it is true, as we shall see, that Beck in fact actually supports the elimination of some of the legal rights now promised by the U.S. Constitution, really taking on Beck cannot be confined to defending those elements of the Constitution which do protect some of the legal rights of the people, but requires getting into the overall oppressive character of that Constitution.
Yes, It Really IS About RACISM
Glenn Beck takes great offense at any who would dare to call him or his followers out for racism. For example, in mid-July, the NAACP objected to "the Tea Party's continued tolerance for bigotry and bigoted statements." To which Glenn Beck replied, "What statements are those? I haven't seen any." Well, overt racists and racist statements are at every Tea Party event, ranging from glorification of the Confederacy (and slavery) to people with signs depicting Obama with a bone in his nose in a grass skirt in front of an African hut… in whiteface… or as an African witch doctor (see "The Right Wing Populist Eruption: Yes, It Actually IS Racism," Revolution #178, October 4, 2009).
And no, these are not so-called "fringe elements" of this movement championed by Beck. A week after the NAACP statement, Mark Williams, the leader of the Tea Party Express, one of the most influential Tea Party groups, posted a viciously racist rant in the form of a so-called "parody" letter from former slaves to President Lincoln expressing—in the venomous words of a Tea Party leader—that slavery was "[A] great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house." And, "We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!" And this racist rant went on to say—again supposedly in the words of an ex-slave but actually expressing the racism of this Tea Party leader, "how will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?"3
But on an even more fundamental level, Glenn Beck doesn't have to, himself, invoke crude, overt racist name-calling to qualify as a big-time racist. His "lower taxes" and "smaller government" message serves, in large part, to whip up racist hatred of Black people and Latinos, especially poor people in the inner cities. When Beck inflames his readers with rhetoric about "[W]hile you worked hard, lived prudently, and spent wisely, those who did the opposite are now being bailed out at your expense," he is using what are by now well-known "code words" to unleash exactly these kinds of vicious racist outbursts.
After all, Glenn Beck's opposition to taxes and big government does not extend to the single greatest, by far, recipient of U.S. "tax dollars," the massive military apparatus that makes the U.S. empire possible, enforcing capitalist-imperialist exploitation, rape of the environment, and crushing of political opposition of all types around the world. Beck is a gung-ho supporter of the whole U.S. war in the Middle East and beyond.
Nor do Beck's rants against "big government" include, for example, opposition to massive subsidization of the oil industry in the form of ("taxpayer funded") research, infrastructure like roads, and massive tax breaks. So… what does that leave? Basic government services that—in the warped world of Beck and his followers—are handouts to Blacks and Latinos. The fact that Tea Partiers can consistently demand (and be told by their leaders) "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" reveals, yes, that this is a movement of people incapable of critical thinking. But even more fundamentally, it illustrates the mindset of a section of people for whom government programs that serve them aren't really government programs at all!4 Things like Medicare are, as they see it, programs that they (as white people) are just naturally entitled to. But government programs, no matter how pitiful, that ostensibly provide any assistance to non-whites are seen as handing out "hard earned tax money" to—as Beck called the desperate poor Black people trapped in the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina—in Beck's words "scumbags."
In short, Glenn Beck's calls for "small government" and "lower taxes" are code words for racism.
Glenn Beck's Racist, Wrong-Headed Rants Against Reparations
Leading up to passage of Obama’s extremely limited "healthcare reform," Glenn Beck declared, "Barack Obama is setting up universal healthcare, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back-door reparations."
Here Beck is referring to the demand that reparations be given to African-American people for two and a half centuries of horrific slave labor. To which it must be said: What would be wrong with that? Reparations for the horrors of slavery, for the uncounted wealth extracted from the sweat and blood of slaves, for the barbaric moral crime, and for the deep and profound legacy of slavery today... this is a just demand. Reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves, no matter how large, could only scratch the surface of, and not be enough to undo, the great injustice and barbaric crime of slavery.
And that's not just history, that's present-day reality. The rise of the United States, historically, and as it exists today, is intimately and integrally bound up with and in large part was built on the enslavement of African-Americans. The vast wealth literally beaten, bled, and sweated out of African-American slaves, and later Black sharecroppers in the South, was a key element of the foundation of the USA as it developed, and as we know it today. This was obviously true in the South—where during and after slavery, the slavemaster's children lived in big houses and attended universities based on the wealth produced by slaves or sharecroppers, while the children of slaves and sharecroppers got only the basic necessities of life, if that.
This was also true in the North, where banking, shipping, manufacturing, and a relatively high standard of living for many resulted directly or indirectly from slavery.5 To the extent the slave system (and the links between the Confederacy and British manufacturing and capitalism) impeded—got in the way of—the growth of northern capitalism, this problem was "solved" for the capitalist class with the victory of the North in the Civil War. After the Civil War, Black people were no longer literally owned as property. But their oppression now took the form of near-slavery conditions in the sharecropping system.
On the other side of the coin, the history of this country has been characterized by providing petty, though socially significant, privileges to many whites. And this has been the case even though in the most basic sense, this system has not at all functioned in the actual interests of most white people. And those who have not gone along with the program, who have stepped out of line, protested, rebelled, or even tried to think critically get hit with the "iron fist" of the system.
From the beginning, lands stolen from the Native Americans were parceled out to white farmers. After the Civil War, their children got government subsidized training in advanced agricultural techniques and engineering at land-grant colleges. (Of course, Glenn Beck and his followers would no doubt have supported these "government handouts.")
After World War 2, all this became even more systematic. In the wake of World War 2, the U.S. pounced on the oppressed nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (that had formerly been dominated by European nations) and incorporated much of the world into its empire. On the basis of extreme exploitation of people in the Third World (Asia, Africa, Latin America), the U.S. ruling class was able to provide substantial sections of the U.S. population with a high standard of living, as measured in things like the "freedom" to live in a segregated suburb, drive a car, and to spend 30 years at, and retire from, a secure—if mind-numbing—job.
And that "American Way of Life" was always rooted in white supremacy and saturated with white racism. After World War 2, for example, federal agencies provided home loans to white veterans—while Black people were kept out of the suburbs, subjected to pervasive discrimination in loans, and funneled into overcrowded, substandard inner-city housing projects by official U.S. government policies. And again—this was a matter of federal government policy.6 Two "Americas," separate and highly unequal, continued to exist, even as this took new and evolving forms.
On this economic foundation, a superstructure—that is, laws, political and social institutions, culture, morality, and other ideas—was erected. Among the main ideas in this superstructure was the utterly false notion that the high standard of living in the U.S. was due to the "work ethic" of its (white) citizens—when in fact this had been due to a combination of the theft of an entire continent, the kidnapping and enslavement for centuries of a people, and a long history of predatory wars and military actions waged overseas. This idea would be laughable—if it weren't so widely accepted and so terribly vicious in its effects.
And through all this, through the workings of this system, and through conscious policies to promote white privilege, the rulers of the U.S. have kept large sections of the population in the U.S. relatively secure, pacified, and loyal.
But all that is under extreme stress and strain today, and threatens to come apart at the seams. And as that happens, huge questions are posed as to how to, and whether or not to, pull this system of horrors back together again… or to fight to bring forward a whole different kind of world. As we shall see in Part 2, Glenn Beck poses an extremely racist, extremely fascist answer to this question. As we shall also see, and explain, other sections of the ruling class at this point remain paralyzed in the face of Beck and his ilk. But, as we shall also show, there IS another answer… there IS another way… out of the deepening crisis now enmeshing U.S. society.
To be continued
1. Beck immediately follows this quote in Glenn Beck's Common Sense with a quote from Karl Marx, "The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." While this quote has been distorted by claims that it means nobody will have any personal property (even a toothbrush), Marx and Engels made it clear in the passage this is lifted from in The Communist Manifesto that "Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriations." [back]
2. The U.S. Constitution also did not recognize women of any race as equals, and this subordinate status also formed part of the ideological "glue"—and still does—of a "white man's America." [back]
3. In the wake of the NAACP call and the resulting attention to racism in the Tea Party movement (minimal as that was), Williams' Tea Party faction, the Tea Party Express, was expelled from a federation of other Tea Party organizations, and later Williams himself was replaced as leader of the Tea Party Express. But the views in Williams' rant were anything but an exception to the rule in that movement. [back]
4. See "Keep Your Goddamn Government Hands Off My Medicare!" by Bob Cesca, at Huffington Post, August 5, 2009. [back]
5. See the book and online resources connected with Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, or the interview in Revolution with Douglas Blackmon on the prison slave industry after the Civil War (Revolution #132, June 15, 2008), and "The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need," Revolution #144, October 5, 2008. [back]
6. These kinds of policies had huge and long-term impact on U.S. politics, culture, and economics, down to today, including laying the foundation for the predatory ultra-high interest loans to Black people that were some of the most egregious aspects of the "housing bubble" and its collapse. [back]
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.