In another defeat for Chilean President Gabriel Boric and his fellow leftists, the country’s right-wing parties on Sunday won a majority of seats on a 50-member commission tasked with rewriting the constitution imposed more than 40 years ago by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
Chile’s Republican Party—led by Jose Antonio Kast, the far-right presidential candidate Boric defeated in a December 2021 runoff election—garnered just over 35% of the vote, according to the Chilean Electoral Service. A separate coalition of right-wing parties secured roughly 21%. Boric’s left-wing coalition, meanwhile, captured nearly 29%, and centrist parties combined to take the remaining 14%.
The special election determined the makeup of the Constitutional Council that will soon write a new charter for the nation. Kast’s far-right party won 23 seats, the other right-wing coalition picked up 11, and Boric’s left-wing alliance gained 16. This means the Chilean right amassed the three-fifths majority needed to approve articles over the opposition of progressives.
As Reutersreported Monday: “The constitutional advisers elected on Sunday will start drawing up a new constitution in June based on a draft compiled by 24 constitutional experts appointed by Congress in March. Voters will then approve or reject the new proposal in December.”
Sunday’s outcome marked a continued reversal of recent political developments. As recently as October 2020, Chileans voted by a 4-to-1 margin to replace the neoliberal constitution that was implemented in 1980 under anti-democratic conditions.
In the wake of that historic plebiscite, voters in May 2021 elected a progressive slate of delegates to the constituent assembly originally put in charge of rewriting Pinochet’s constitution, raising hopes that the citizen-led body would produce an emancipatory charter.
Following months of debate at 103 plenary sessions, Chile’s gender-equal 154-member constituent assembly finalized a draft constitution in May 2022. The 178-page document aimed to empower workers with guaranteed labor rights and an expanded social welfare state, enshrine gender equality and Indigenous rights, and prioritize environmental protection.
However, the first rewrite was rejected last September by nearly 62% of voters. The defeat of what progressive scholars around the world hailed as a “visionary product” from which other countries have “much to learn” happened thanks in no small part to the right-wing forces that flooded the country with misinformation ahead of the vote.
The spread of misinformation by reactionary elements within Chile was mirrored by a global smear campaign led by corporate media outlets.
For example, The Economist—which actively helped foment the 1973 coup that overthrew democratically elected socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power—criticized the first rewrite as a “left-wing wish list,” while The Financial Timesdenounced it as a threat to Chile’s “business climate.”
Delegates to the original convention sought to guarantee universal access to health, housing, education, and a livable planet as human rights in an effort to combat the inequality that has been so thoroughly entrenched by the existing neoliberal policy blueprint that remains in place more than three decades after Pinochet’s ouster.
Now that Kast, a vocal Pinochet supporter, and his right-wing allies are playing a decisive role in the second rewrite, it is more likely than not that Chileans will be asked at the end of this year to vote for a new constitution that does not differ fundamentally from the old one.
Speaking in Santiago on Sunday, Kast declared that “today is the first day of a better future… Chile has defeated a failed government.”
“Boric also suffered a political defeat after throwing his weight behind the first rewrite,” the news outlet noted. “The president has since distanced himself from the process but vowed to support it.”
After he voted Sunday morning, Boric told reporters that “the government won’t meddle with the process and will respect the entity’s autonomy in its deliberation.”
Following Kast’s victory speech, Boric spoke from the presidential palace in Santiago, calling for unity and encouraging his right-wing opponents to learn from the failure of the initial rewrite.
“I want to invite the Republican Party, that’s won an unquestionable majority, to not make the same mistakes we made,” Boric said. “This process can’t be about vendettas, but putting Chile first.”
We are living through a period of reemergence, rise, and surge of far right and fascist forces internationally. This includes reconstructed fascist political parties and movements from the past, alongside novel and neo-fascist formations taking shape inside capitalist states and electoral systems in the present.
The miasma of fascist regeneration emanates from within the cascading crises of the capitalist system, increasing in both depth and frequency over the last two decades. This crises include recurring episodes of recession and stagnation; imperialist and inter-imperial conflict and war; distress, weakening, and collapse of traditional bourgeois political parties; and the rising frequency and intensity of class struggle, authoritarianism, culminating in both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements.
The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people of the Peruvian Amazon are organizing themselves to protect their ancestral forests and waters from illegal fishing, logging, and coca growing amidst conservation and development efforts from both the government and international nonprofits that they say are ineffective at best and actively harmful to Indigenous ways of life at worst.
More than 300 members of the community participate in La Guardia Indigena—or the Indigenous Guard—that works from around 25 bases in the Ucayali region of Peru to protect around 8 million hectares.
“We’ve been resisting, and we continue to resist generation after generation because this land is our life,” Lizardo Cauper Pezo, president of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Council, told reporters at the virtual Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum April 27.
“Without the forest, the world would be chaos.”
The Peruvian Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, but, like much of the rest of the rainforest, it is under threat. Beyond outright tree clearing, one threat is the illegal growing of coca that leads to both deforestation for planting and air pollution when it is burned during processing. Another is illegal fishing from bodies of water like Lake Imiría. Fifteen percent of more than 20,000 hectares of forest in the Flor de Ucayali community has been either cut or burned down.
To counter this threat, the guard patrols the area carrying their ancestral weapons.
“That’s what represents our strength, our spirit, and it also represents our ancestors,” Indigenous Guard president Marco Tulio told reporters.
However, the guard does not threaten or seek to harm fishers, loggers, or drug traffickers. Instead, they attempt to speak with them and explain that the land belongs to the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people. If fishers return for a second time, the guard may destroy their equipment. In total, the guard has confronted fishers 45 times.
Sometimes, the fishers or loggers are themselves armed and threaten the Indigenous Guard. The guard will act in self-defense and also explain to authorities their right to do so.
“We don’t threaten, we only need to care for the forest, because the forest is for everyone,” Tulio said. “Without the forest, the world would be chaos.”
This work—like land defense everywhere—is not without significant risk. The most recent annual Global Witness report found that two environmental defenders were killed every two days of the last 10 years. During 2021, 40% of the murders targeted Indigenous activists, despite the fact that they make up only 5% of the global population.
Tulio told reporters that a week before speaking at the forum he received a death threat telling him he only had days left to live.
The violence comes despite the fact that the area is technically protected as the Lake Imiría regional conservation area, or ACR, and has been since 2010. In fact, many Indigenous people oppose the ACR, which they say was established without full community consent, according to an investigation published by Grist last month.
The Shipibo Konibo-Xetebo claim that the government allows poachers, coca growers, and loggers to enter the area while focusing its enforcement efforts on Indigenous people catching and selling fish to survive.
“What kind of protection and conservation are we talking about?” Pezo asked rhetorically at the press forum.
For example, a Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo woman named Sorayda Cruz Vesada was arrested and fined the equivalent of $400 in 2016 for attempting to sell a large Amazonian fish called the paiche in order to pay for her daughter’s school supplies, Grist reported.
Things came to a head in 2020, when the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo community learned of plans between the ACR, the Ucayali Department of Fisheries, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to open Lake Imiría to commercial fishing. It was this news that prompted the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo to reform their Indigenous Guard, as well as to occupy a park guard post in Junín Pablo in July 2022. That occupation was formalized in August as the community waits to hear from Peru’s national government on a proposal to have their lands excluded from the park for them to manage themselves.
Tulio said the people wanted to live and work freely without the government harming their forest or inserting itself into their way of life.
“The forests, the rivers, the waters, they are our market,” he told the forum.
The occupation in July succeeded in ousting the USAID-backed company Pro Bosques from the area, but the threat of the project lingers, and the status of the protected area remains uncertain. Tulio believes the regional government—or its supporters—is behind the death threats against him. The president of the Autonomous Government of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo People shared the community’s concerns with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on April 19.
The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo’s struggle comes at a crucial time for both conservation and Indigenous rights. As world leaders pledged in Montreal last December to protect 30% of land and water by 2030, there is growing recognition in the scientific and international community that Indigenous people are the best protectors of their lands. Their 5% of the population protects 80% of Earth’s remaining biodiversity, and a 2022 study found that protecting Indigenous lands could help four Latin American countries—including Peru—meet their climate goals.
Yet the growing business of carbon offsetting is raising new concerns about conservation strategies that work by excluding these very communities from their forests, as a January exposé of top carbon credit standard Verra reported happened in Alto Mayo, Peru.
It remains to be seen if the 30% goal will be met by acknowledging the rights and role of Indigenous communities or repeating the colonial fortress conservation mindset of the past. While the agreement states that Indigenous rights must be considered in its implementation, it does not allow Indigenous territories to count toward the target, as Survival International pointed out at the time.
“What we saw in Montreal is evidence that we can’t trust the conservation industry, business, and powerful countries to do the right thing,” Survival research and advocacy Officer Fiore Longo said in a statement. “We will keep fighting for the respect and recognition of Indigenous land rights. Whoever cares about biodiversity should be doing the same thing.”
Meanwhile, the Shipibo Konibo Xetebo have a message for the people and nonprofits of the U.S.
“You need to stop supporting the things that exploit our rights, or that support these different activities and projects that trample on our rights and ways of living as Indigenous people,” Pezo said.
Colonialism and market forces are destroying the planet and affecting Indigenous peoples’ health, a draft report from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues declared last week. One of only three U.N. bodies that deal specifically with Indigenous issues, the Forum’s report was the culmination of two weeks of talks around the theme of Indigenous peoples, human health, planetary and territorial health, and climate change. “The destruction of the Earth is driving a global health and humanitarian crisis,” the Forum wrote.
“It is unacceptable that we continue to hear how Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders from among Indigenous peoples are threatened, harassed, and killed for defending their home,” Forum chair Darío José Mejía Montalvo, Indigenous Zenú from Colombia, said in a closing statement.
The near-final report described the eviction of Indigenous communities to create protected conservation areas, green energy projects that violated human rights, and the killings of land defenders—particularly women and children. It made a list of recommendations to U.N. agencies and member states, including calling on the United States to release Indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier and decommission the Line 5 oil pipeline that passes through Canada, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The Forum also called on UNESCO to “step up” its protection of Indigenous lands and culture from mining activities like Rio Tinto’s projects in Oak Flat in Arizona and Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.
“I’m more engaged and excited about the language that we got put into this report than in years past,” Geoffrey Roth, a Standing Rock Sioux descendant and Forum member said. “I think that we made some really good progress.”
The challenge now is ensuring that the report’s recommendations are implemented by U.N. agencies and member states, over which the Forum has no enforcement power. Last year, for example, the Forum for the first time made the same recommendation about releasing Leonard Peltier, and a similar recommendation that member states, primarily Australia and New Zealand, reform their child protection policies to prevent the removal of children from Indigenous communities. In both instances, member states ignored the Forum’s recommendations.
Roth says that the Forum needs to do a better job of following up with its recommendations and working to hold agencies and countries accountable. That includes mobilizing allies in the U.N. system to follow the Forum’s recommendations, working with human rights bodies and experts to coordinate advocacy, and pressuring member states to take the Forum’s recommendations seriously.
“The Permanent Forum is not merely a single event,” Mejía Montalvo said. “Each and every one of us, stakeholders in our struggle, will return to our agencies, our region, our countries, our territories, and we will continue our work.”
But some Indigenous leaders say that for action to truly take place, the U.N. system itself needs to change – and provide Indigenous peoples access to international negotiations to influence policy, a fight Indigenous advocates have been advancing for a century, beginning in 1923 with the League of Nations. Currently, Indigenous leaders are excluded from high level U.N. bodies like the General Assembly, which decides the U.N. budget, elects member states to the Security Council, and sets other key international goals and policies.
In the 1920s, Chief Deskaheh of the Cayuga Nation and Māori leader T.W. Ratana were blocked from speaking at the League of Nations, a predecessor to the United Nations
“We have no voice at that level,” said Kenneth Deer, a member of the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee who has worked to increase Indigenous peoples’ participation at the U.N. since 1987. “We need a voice there to defend our interest.”
The ability to wield more influence in international negotiations may be getting closer though. During this year’s Permanent Forum, Csaba Kőrösi, President of the General Assembly, held a final hearing on enhanced participation of Indigenous peoples, which refers to a process that would put Indigenous leaders closer to the level of member states. “While member states are the decision makers, Indigenous Peoples have an opportunity to significantly shape those decisions. Indigenous Peoples must have those opportunities,” Kőrösi said.
Kőrösi will prepare a summary report on the hearing to circulate to all member states, observers of the General Assembly (GA), and Indigenous Peoples by September, his office confirmed. “The next steps in this process will be decided by intergovernmental negotiations in the framework of the GA,” said spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, Paulina Kubiak.
“The future of the planet is at risk,” said Hannah McGlade, an Indigenous Noongar member of the Permanent Forum from Australia. “Indigenous people have to be at the forefront of responses to climate change. We can’t do that unless we are properly empowered here at the U.N., and I’m sad to say that we are not at this time.”
Attendees say that the Forum is far from perfect. Indigenous leaders who attend the Forum are given three minute windows to speak, and must share the event’s timetable with non-governmental organizations and member states–the process takes days with more than a thousand speakers hoping to get their message into the Forum’s final report. One attendee, Wilfredo Tsamash, who is Awajún and a representative for the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, waited three days to deliver a statement at the Forum about the dangers of carbon markets and violence against land defenders in the Amazon, but was never called on to speak. “The Permanent Forum needs to change and they need to prioritize the messages coming from Indigenous organizations,” he said. The Forum’s report only includes one brief mention of the Amazon.
High costs also restrict Indigenous peoples from participating. Many Indigenous organizations can only afford to stay for a few days of the two-week gathering. “New York is a very expensive place to be for the ordinary person of the United States, let alone Indigenous peoples who come from remote and rural communities that are struggling just to be here to make a statement,” said Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Maya Leaders Alliance of Southern Belize.
During the Forum, non-governmental organizations hold dozens of side events, and with strict, limited time during the Forum’s main sessions, the events provide space to discuss crucial topics. But they come at a cost: renting a United Nations conference room can run from $586 to nearly $2,000 for an event, making spaces available almost exclusively to advocacy organizations with deep pockets. Binota Moy Dhamai, a member of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from Bangladesh, said that these costs are discriminatory against smaller organizations. “If they want to organize this kind of event, they simply can’t do it, because they don’t have money,” he said.
In his closing statement, Mejía Montalvo said that he personally heard one member state say that speaking out on certain issues would cause suffering. “That is in no way, now or at any point, acceptable, and such statements cannot be made,” Mejía Montalvo said. “They cannot, and must not, face reprisal when returning.” One attendee told Grist they delayed returning home due to safety concerns after accusing their country of human rights violations. A source familiar with the matter added that an additional two attendees have been unable to return home for fear of government retaliation. Their identities have not been revealed for their protection.
“This is our life we’re talking about,” said Cristina Coc. “That three minutes of taking the floor could result in our death.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declined to comment on threats made to Forum participants. Mejía Montalvo urged member states to guarantee the safe return of all Forum participants.
Next year, the Forum will focus on a theme of self-determination and Indigenous youth. Meanwhile, the report will wind its way through the U.N. system to the General Assembly for a vote this fall to reaffirm non-binding human rights standards for Indigenous Peoples.
Histories of the Cold War in Latin America often center the United States’ bloody footprint in the region. And with good reason: US crimes in the region committed in the name of anticommunism included propping up dictatorships, overthrowing democratic governments, and enabling genocide. A new book by historian Vanni Pettinà takes a different approach. His […]
On March 3, the largest civil disobedience action in recent Norwegian history came to an end. 16 Sami activists occupied the lobby of the Oil and Energy Department, and over 1,500 demonstrators attended in Oslo, including around 100 activists partaking in the occupations. Beginning as a single day occupation to spread awareness about the illegal construction of wind turbines on Indigenous land, the demonstration ended as a burgeoning, semi-mass movement.
Although the movement forced the current government to meet with movement’s leaders, unfortunately nothing was won; the demonstration ended without the government agreeing to a single demand or concession. Despite an apology and recognition of their violation of human rights, the government has made clear that they will continue constructing wind turbines. But the movement did not end entirely in defeat: a militant, indigenous-led environmentalist movement able to mobilize thousands across the country was born. The lessons of this movement, both positive and negative, are of international significance for the creation of such an alliance elsewhere.
Greenwashing of Norwegian Colonialism
Internationally, very little is known about Norway’s role as an imperialist and colonialist power. Thanks to the reformist Left, many American socialists view Scandinavia as the model for socialism today. While it is true that Norway has a high standard of living, a welfare net, and some nationalized industries, this does not mean that capitalism has been abolished. The “Nordic model” is simply capitalism with a welfare state, which has largely been gutted since the 90s. This romanticization of Norwegian capitalism also provides left cover for the historic colonization of Sápmi, a tragic historical event that this movement has brought to international attention.
Sápmi is the traditional territory of the Sami people, an Indigenous peoples whose occupied territory lies between Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The colonization of Sápmi by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark began in the 16th century. While the Scandinavians had traditionally occupied the South and the coast, the Sami traditionally occupied the North, center, and inland areas. As capitalist relations began to emerge, the ruling classes became more and more interested in exploiting the “untapped” North. Sami people were forcibly pushed off their traditional lands to make way for settler communities to open up mines, mills, and fisheries. The Sami people were forced into hard unpaid labor in mines, as well as guiding settlers in hunting, cutting trees, and any other difficult jobs settlers did not want to do. A process of forced assimilation ensued with the goal of eliminating Sami culture, the traditional values and economy of which stood in the way of the primitive accumulation of capital.
The government hides behind concessions made to the Sami community throughout the twentieth century to present modern Norway as a “post-colonial” state. Despite certain legal, social, and political concessions, the same fundamental colonial relationship exists. In the past decade, massive industrial expansion on Sápmi has been cynically sold as environmentalism. It is this “green colonialism,” as Sami activists have called it, that is at the heart of this conflict.
The main focus of the protests is over the construction of over 270 wind turbines in Fosen, of which 150 are currently in use. Fosen is a coastal area in Trøndelag, a municipality consisting of most of central Norway, overlapping with the furthest southern territory of Sápmi. When it is finished, it will be the second largest wind turbine project in the whole of Europe. As ruled by the Supreme Court in October of 2021, these windmills were illegally constructed on traditional reindeer herding territory. Not only is reindeer herding the main source of income for many families, it is also a traditional cultural practice for even more. That the Norwegian state can continue this development against the ruling of the Supreme Court shows that, no matter what symbolic gestures or reforms they make, they will always override the self-determination of Sami people in favor of profits.
Despite the paper-thin excuse of environmentalism, that is what this turbine park is about: profits. The European market is in desperate need of energy. The market for oil and gas has been volatile throughout the pandemic, and especially now, due to the war. The cost of production of wind energy is now cheaper than that of oil and gas. Not only do the turbines themselves come at great environmental cost, destroying the landscape and disrupting ecosystems, but the markets they are sold into are far from clean. The government has discussed the energy shortage in Europe, as well as the need for energy for industrial development in northern Norway, predominantly on Sami land, as a justification for the turbines. These industries include gas and oil refineries, mines, battery and hydrogen factories, and many other fossil fuel intensive industries.
For several years, the greenwashing of capitalism and colonialism had divided the Norwegian environmentalist movement. The Norwegian Left has also been divided on whether to support the construction of turbines. While the Sami people in Fosen and elsewhere have always been clear, the mainstream environmental movement and, with some exceptions, “socialists” have ignored them. Even among those who opposed the turbines, declarations of solidarity rarely extended beyond the local level. But this latest movement, organized entirely independently of the established parties, shows a massive layer of youth not only breaking with the arguments of green capitalism, but also embracing a much more militant strategy in opposing it.
Eight Days that Shook Norway
On February 23, the occupation began. To mark 500 days since the Supreme Court’s ruling, 16 Sami activists planned a one day symbolic occupation of the Oil and Energy Department’s (OED) offices in Oslo. The key organizers were three leading Sami members of Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth, NU), Norway’s largest environmentalist organization, which also represents the Left wing of the environmentalist movement. The goal was to direct media attention to the issue itself and their demands: a stop to further construction and the removal of all existing turbines.
The expectation was that the occupiers would be forcibly removed by the police within the day, which would spur the media to get involved. But the police did not come, and the occupiers stayed overnight. However, they did not have food, medicine, bedding, or anything else. A recent report from a Norwegian paper shows how the police and the OED weaponized this. For over 48 hours, the occupiers were denied the possibility of accessing food, medicine, water, or anything from the outside. The OED officially stated that this was for “security reasons,” but the activists described it as an “involuntary hunger strike,” with one occupier saying, “We felt like they were trying to smoke us out by denying us food.”
The next day, the police and OED allowed the activists one hour in which they could receive food, so long as everything going in was inspected by the police first. Most likely, this was to avoid the potential scandal of having forced the activists, who were steadily getting more media attention, into a hunger strike. Scandalously, the police finally decided to physically remove the occupiers at 1:30 A. on February 27, nearly four days after the occupation began. This was clearly done to avoid having the media take pictures of officers arresting the occupiers and tearing down their flags.
After being released from the police station in the middle of the night, the occupiers headed to the NU offices in Oslo to mobilize and escalate the action. Mobilizing their base, the movement quickly escalated: in the course of a few days, sixteen occupiers turned to one hundred, one occupied department turned to ten, and hundreds of sympathizers began to join in and rally in solidarity. Images and videos of Greta Thunberg being physically removed from the blockade alongside other occupiers brought, for the first time, international attention and discussion about the situation in Fosen.
After a week of struggle, the protesters had effectively blocked the government out of their departments. They forced the government to apologize for continuing the construction of wind turbines in Fosen, as well as publicly acknowledge that they are committing a human rights violation. Any government meetings had to be shifted outside their department offices due to the occupation. This forced Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre to meet with the lead organizers. In this meeting, the demonstrators put forward their demands:
Tear down the turbines (Riv turbinene)
At the very least: Stop the turbines (I det minste: stans turbinene)
Change the ministry that is handling this case (Bytt departement som håndterer saken)
Since this meeting, the Norwegian Prime Minister has promised to take action quickly, but without any concrete measures. In a week after the meeting, when he was asked about the demonstrators demands, he stated contemptuously:
“It is not they who decide how this should be done. We must follow what we believe to be the correct procedure.:
This is empty politician-speak: the Labour Party will do everything they can to rhetorically agree with the activists to cover their betrayal.
At the end of the week, on Friday March 3, the demonstration came to an end. This decision coincided with a regularly scheduled dinner hosted at the Royal Palace between the Norwegian king and leading politicians. The organizers had discussed blockading the castle to prevent the meeting from happening, but decided against this in favor of a “symbolic blockade,” in front of the castle as opposed to physically blocking the Palace’s doors. An estimated 1500-2000 people showed up on the final day, marking the second largest civil disobedience action in Norwegian history. The demonstrators covered the street between Parliament and the castle with Sami flags and colors and gathered to hear the last speeches.
Although the action ended, the leaders of the action made it clear that the struggle was not yet over. Hætta Isaksen, one of the leading Sami activists, stated in her speech:
“It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to smile. Because what we have done, we should be immensely proud of. The government will never forget what happened here. They will remember the power we have in us, and we will keep an eye on them going forward. It’s decisive that they don’t betray us again. And we are ready to take action.”
Since the end of the action, the government has done nothing to follow up on its promises. In subsequent parliamentary sessions, Labour Party candidates have all but said that they will do nothing to stop the turbines. With a strong likelihood of further demonstrations, this movement will prove to be a school of struggle for this generation of Norwegian youth.
The Significance of this Movement
Unfortunately, the movement ended before any gains were won. The head organizers were scared of escalating the conflict, thus facing the full repression of the state, potentially isolating the movement and scaring off supporters. Especially without further efforts to consolidate and organize the thousands of people who joined in, this overreliance on spontaneity is a mistake. The willingness of people to struggle is not something organizers can turn on and off like a faucet just by calling further demonstrations.
While spontaneity is, overall, an ineffective strategy, it is a near inevitable stage in the birth of a new movement. It also has a healthy, progressive side. In Norway, there are two major socialist parties and one environmentalist party: The Socialist Left Party, the Red Party, and the Green Party. Apart from some statements and local participation in demonstrations, these parties have done next to nothing for the struggle in Fosen. The spontaneity of the demonstrations allowed for a necessary break from the bureaucratic-reformist leadership and strategy of these parties. The independence from these reformist parties allowed for the use of much more effective and militant tactics which would not have been permitted by these “socialists.”
This, in turn, allowed for the rise of a leadership which was not only more representative of the youth in terms of age and militancy, but also composed of Indigenous activists. All over the world, Indigenous land defenders are at the forefront of the struggle against climate change. It has been estimated that Indigenous land defenders are responsible for protecting up to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The reformism and, at times, chauvinism of the labor leadership, as well as the consumerist individualism of the environmental movement, has historically prevented an alliance between these struggles.
This movement shows that the unity of these struggles is possible, and can mobilize masses of people. But it is not possible without a break from strategies which do not confront the capitalist system directly. By studying the experience of these international struggles, socialists can learn how to make such a strategic break a reality here at home.
In December 2023, the infamous Monroe Doctrine will be 200 years old. For some people, the name refers simply to a long and complex foreign policy document with constitutional status, but it is far more than that.
In his seventh annual message to Congress, US President James Monroe used six minutes of his hour-long speech to espouse his future plan for the continent, then in the midst of a war of liberation from Spanish colonial domination. This six-minute vision became known as the Monroe Doctrine.
By 1823 most of Latin America had successfully declared independence, and liberation armies, commanded by Simon Bolívar and other freedom fighters, were in the final stages of defeating a Spanish military counteroffensive. With Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the sale of Louisiana to the US in 1803 and the loss of Haiti following a slave rebellion in 1804, France’s American empire had already collapsed. These momentous developments offered rich pickings in the New World to “Perfidious Albion” (a term that referred to Britain’s bad faith and duplicity in international relations).
Monroe Doctrine promoters believed that only by controlling the whole of the Western Hemisphere and the new republics would the US consolidate, expand and remove the threat from the European empires. The main threat to the US came from a substantially strengthened British empire that had Canada to its north, the strategic islands of the British West Indies to its south, and strong relations with Native American tribes. Furthermore, Cuban and Puerto Rican Creole oligarchies remained loyal Spanish colonies, allowing Spain to maintain a strong military presence in the Caribbean.
In Europe, the Holy Alliance, a coalition of European monarchies whose reactionary objective was to eradicate all traces of republicanism and liberalism in the Old World and Latin America, had plans to restore the American colonies to Spain. Consequently, to survive and develop the US needed to exert its rising influence over the Caribbean, Central America and the whole hemisphere, simultaneously helping to consolidate the new republics and keep the Europeans out.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary George Canning thought that British interests would be best served if not only were there no Spanish colonial restoration and other European powers were prevented from predatory incursions into former colonies, but also if the US did not gain hemispheric influence at the expense of Britain’s commercial relations with the new republics. He suggested to President Monroe that Britain and the US work together to keep the rest of Europe out of Latin America. Canning’s proposal would also have given Britain veto power over other hemispheric developments, including any US expansion southwards.
Unsurprisingly, Monroe ignored Britain’s request, and his “doctrine” sent a stern warning to the foreign ministers of Europe that no part of Latin America could be considered for future colonisation by any European power, and any attempt at colonisation would be regarded as a hostile act against the US.
For Monroe, Jefferson, Adams and other presidents, the United States was an example for the world, and the Monroe Doctrine was a vehicle to promote US principles. As such it became the precursor of the “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by journalist John O’Sullivan in his 1845 essay in support of annexing Texas. He argued: it is “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” US leaders believed that given the virtuosity of its people and institutions, God had assigned the US with the duty to shape the rest of the continent and the world by expanding its dominion and spreading democracy and capitalism. Deeply racist, it posited the “civilising” of indigenous peoples of all North and South America, including dispossessing the former from their lands—all predicated on Anglo-American racial superiority.
US territorial expansion, at the expense of indigenous lands and Mexico, was staggering. From the 13 original colonies in 1783 (1,100,00 sq km), after adding the Louisiana Purchase (2,140,000 sq km, 1803), Florida (170,310 sq km, 1819), Texas (695,596 sq km, 1838) and 55% of Mexico’s territory (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming, 1,370,000 sq km, 1848), the US’s geographical size increased fourfold to 5,475,906 sq km. Ominously for Latin America’s future, the US used military means to annex Texas (Mexican-Texan War, 1834-36) and half of Mexico (Mexican-American War, 1845-48).
1823 also marked the year when annexationist and future president John Quincy Adams drew his famous ripe fruit analogy: “if an apple severed by its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union.”
The US threatened war to prevent the transfer of Cuban sovereignty, and in 1823 former president Thomas Jefferson advised President Monroe to oppose, with all US means, most especially Cuba’s transfer “to any power by conquest, cession or in any other way.” The US strongly coveted the island, which was key to its commercial and military hegemony over the Caribbean.
Cuba was an exception to independence. Haiti’s revolution (1791-1804) had led Cuba to become the substitute world sugar supplier; therefore, it had imported large numbers of enslaved people to work in its expanding sugar economy. The numbers of enslaved people in Cuba rose from 44,000 in 1774 to nearly 370,000 by 1861; in 1841 the black population was greater than the white.
Monument to Carlota Lucumí, leader of the 1843 slave rebellion at the Triumvirato Sugar Mill in Matanzas.
Following the example in Haiti, enslaved people mounted rebellions in Cuba in 1812, 1826, 1830, 1837, 1840, 1841 and 1843. Cuban elites concluded that independence might lead to not only the end of Spanish colonial domination, but also an end to the enslaved labour they relied on. The social forces required to dislodge peninsular elites could, as they had in Haiti, extend to displace the criollo oligarchy. In the circumstances, they preferred to remain a Spanish colony.
The expansion of the sugar economy drew Cuba closer to the United States rather than Spain. “By the 1840s, almost half of Cuban trade depended directly on North American markets and manufacturers,” says historian Louis A Pérez in his book Cuba, Between Reform and Revolution. “Sugar, molasses, and hides went out, vital foodstuffs, sugar machinery, and, increasingly, [US] capital came in.” In 1848 president James K Polk offered US$100 million to purchase the island. In 1854 President Franklin Pierce raised the offer to US$130 million.
Although many in the Cuban elite were not seeking independence, Spain was increasingly unable to protect its colony from rebellions, and the US was incapable of taking the island due to the domestic polarisation between slave and free states. Sections of the Cuban oligarchy thought annexation to the US would both make slavery survive and be the salvation of the sugar economy. However, following Spain’s abolition of slavery, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a Cuban landowner, freed the enslaved people on his land and sparked the first Cuban War of Independence (1868-78).
Despite intense pressure, US President Ulysses Grant, who was strongly anti-slavery, accepted Cuban revolutionaries’ belligerent status but remained neutral. It would be entirely different in Cuba’s second War of Independence (1895-98). In 1898, President William McKinley declared war against Spain, ostensibly for having blown up the warship USS Maine and to help “liberate Cuba,” but in reality to prevent its independence.
Cuba’s revolutionary leader, José Martí, painfully aware of the US’s hegemonic intentions, believed Cuba’s timely independence would prevent the US “from extending itself across the Antilles and falling with greater weight upon the lands of our America.” Just when the Cuban rebels were about to succeed in 1898, with an army of 17,000 the US took military control of the island, defeated Spain, and, confirming Martí’s apprehension, went on to occupy Puerto Rico, extend the war against Spain to the Philippines (which it also occupied militarily), annexed Hawaii, and took the island of Guam.
The US military occupied Cuba until 1902 and let it have an independent government by imposing two hefty constraints before lifting the occupation: the Platt Amendment and two military bases (Guantánamo and the Isle of Pines). The Amendment–which was added to the new Cuban constitution–gave the US authority to intervene militarily in Cuba, as it did in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22; furthermore, it prohibited Cuba from signing any treaty with another foreign power.
President Theodore Roosevelt developed the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny into his infamous Corollary: “in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
Roosevelt’s foreign policy method was “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” His Corollary would lead the US to break Panama from Colombia (1903), to the military occupations of Nicaragua (1912-1933), Haiti (1915-34), Dominican Republic (1916-1924), and to several more in Central America and the Caribbean. With the Cold War, the US’s most important interventions were Guatemala (1954), Dominican Republic (1961), Cuba (Bay of Pigs 1961), Brazil (1964), Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976), Nicaragua (1979-1990), Grenada (1983), El Salvador and Guatemala (1980s) and Panama (1989). Literally hundreds of thousands of people were butchered by these US Monroist incursions.
Until the Cuban Revolution, Cuba was a de facto US colony. Speaking to a US Senate Committee in 1960, former US ambassador to Cuba Earl E T Smith said: “Until Castro, the US was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”
By 1959, US direct investment in electric power and the telephone service was 90%; raw sugar production, 37%; commercial banking, 30%; public service railways, 50%; petroleum refining, 66%; insurance, 20%; and nickel mining, 100%. Furthermore, the island had become a paradise for gambling, the Mafia, and prostitution, and, being a single-crop economy, large sections of its population endured poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and chronic unemployment.
The Monroe Doctrine with its enhancements, the Manifest Destiny and the Roosevelt Corollary, is a US template for hegemony. The Cuban Revolution broke the vicious cycle of US domination in the island, but US Monroist aggression continues as proved by 61 years of blockade and ruthless US attacks on progressive governments in the 21st century.
In 2019, the fanatical cold warrior John Bolton claimed that the “Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” He is right. US racism, exploitation and military interventions–with their horrible trails of violence, exploitation, poverty, destruction and death all across Latin America and the world–are, appallingly, very much alive. Humanity has endured 200 years too many of this damn “doctrine.”
There’s no reason to venerate the framers of the US Constitution. The document they created was explicitly designed to check the democratic will of ordinary people and protect the plutocratic interests of the propertied elite.
The US Constitution was designed to protect capitalist social relations from democratic challenge. (Getty Images)
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the notorious far-right congressperson from Georgia, recently made headlines for her call for a “national divorce” between red and blue states. This did not stop her, of course, from showing up in lower Manhattan to protest the arraignment of former president Donald Trump and to garner more media coverage for herself.
Whether the likes of Taylor Greene actually believe what they say is somewhat beside the point. Such calls for a national breakup are a recurrent feature of US politics — we fought one of history’s bloodiest civil wars in the 1860s — and remind us of the uneasy compromises that underpinned the drafting of the Constitution in 1787.
US political culture venerates the Constitution for its supposed genius in setting up a system of government that could last forever, if only we could abide by its timeless wisdom. The conflict and dysfunction that plagues our political system, in this view, stems from a heedless disregard of the framers’ intentions, not the system itself.
This view still predominates, but there seems to be a growing sense that a constitutional framework established in the late eighteenth century may not be up to dealing with the challenges of the twenty-first. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, for example, has been writing a running commentary on our “constitutional stagnation” and what might be done to break out of it.
Robert Ovetz is a lecturer in political science at San José State University. His new book, We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few, provides a detailed but accessible critique of the Constitution as a system designed to protect capitalist social relations from democratic challenge. Our constitutional system, Ovetz argues, cannot address the many crises we face because it was designed precisely to frustrate and contain collective action, not facilitate it.
He spoke to Jacobin’s Chris Maisano about the book, whether meaningful change can be achieved through the current political system, and potential alternatives rooted in decentralized, directly democratic political institutions.
There seems to be renewed interest in constitutional questions on the Left today. Why do you think that is?
We’re seeing a resurgence of class struggle in the United States. I think there’s some dissatisfaction following the past two elections and the failure to get important legislation passed. Many of the people who have been involved with electing democratic socialists to Congress and trying to get Bernie Sanders the Democratic presidential nomination are turning toward labor organizing because they see things are blocked in terms of being able to elect the right person and having that result in meaningful changes in policy.
Also, the long-running crises we face continue to go unaddressed — gun violence, climate catastrophe, homelessness, explosion of housing costs, low wages, anti-union repression. As a result, people are looking for a more systematic explanation and analysis for why we can’t get things done. We’re starting to look at the design and organization of the political process itself.
Walk us through some of the main themes and arguments of your book.
We can’t understand our undemocratic constitution without understanding our capitalist constitution. Many who write about the Constitution don’t take its political economy into account. As someone who teaches political science, we often focus on the rules, procedures, and processes.
But what I argue in the book is that the framers (who are also called the “Founders” or “Founding Fathers,” a term I greatly dislike) designed a system that protects the interest of property. There are what I call “minority checks” throughout the Constitution that constrain political democracy and prevent economic democracy. The “minority” they sought to protect are not who we think of today as ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, but the minority of the propertied elite.
We can’t understand our undemocratic constitution without understanding our capitalist constitution.
The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, the country’s first system of government after the end of the Revolutionary War. Historians call the 1780s the “Critical Period” because there was a lot of social, economic, and political conflict that put the future of the new country in question. Why did the framers feel the need to come up with a new system to replace the Articles?
The Critical Period was a time when economic elites were kicked back on their heels in many states. They were losing some significant battles in what I call the three insurrections.
First, there were slave rebellions, which escalated during the revolution. Remember that most of the slaves that ran away joined up with the loyalists and the British, and the rebellions continued when the fighting stopped. Next, there was organized Native resistance to white settler colonialism. Out in the West, Native peoples were getting organized into a confederation to resist the theft of land and genocidal attacks.
Finally, there were uprisings of small white subsistence farmers, who for the most part were outside the cash economy. They grew what they ate. They were in conflict with large commercial farmers, merchants, bankers, and traders. And in some states, they were a powerful force to be reckoned with.
They organized their own political parties, and if they could meet the property requirements to serve in office, they or their allies would get elected. They were able to pass some significant forms of economic democracy in their state legislatures under the Articles of Confederation — things like debt relief and land banks that provided cheap loans to small farmers using their land as collateral. They issued paper money and allowed it to be used to pay private and public debts. Some states taxed imported goods from other states to generate revenue and lower taxes on the local population.
The framers were extremely concerned about these three insurrections. They referred to the economic majority as the “meaner sort of people,” or my favorite phrase, the “people out of doors.” They thought the people who were literally outside working with their hands and getting them dirty should not be inside the meeting rooms with their hands on the levers of power.
The framers thought the people who were literally outside working with their hands and getting them dirty should not be inside the meeting rooms with their hands on the levers of power.
This was a short period after a revolutionary period of upheaval when ordinary people shared power with elites. Because some states were unicameral with short terms, few had an executive veto, and none had judicial review, it was easier to pass new laws quickly. State laws were the final word because Congress didn’t have “supremacy” power or judicial review. While they still had property requirements to run for and serve in office, these democratic elements are mostly missing from our current Constitution. This is not to idealize the states but to show how the Constitution was a reactionary outcome to the revolution.
People on the Left have usually seen the state and local governments as bastions of reactionary power and sought federal government intervention against them. The Constitution created the federal government that has often played a progressive role in US history, in relation to the states in particular.
During the 1950 to 1960s, the center left looked to the courts and the federal government. But conservatives also used federal power to intervene against liberal or progressive states to shoot down what they were trying to do. Each side uses Article VI federal “supremacy” power when they have it to intervene and suppress any attempts at innovation by the other side.
We should forget about the partisan use of supremacy power and think about why the federal government has it at all. The center left sees supremacy power as something we can use to push our policy demands forward. But the reality is that the framers inserted the supremacy power into the Constitution because they wanted to give a minority check to propertied interests to block innovations at the state level that threatened property.
Instead of deciding which level of government is “best,” we need to look at why the federal government gets the final say in our system. This was intentional, because the framers wanted to have a brake on democracy from below to prevent any movement that today we would call socialism.
You briefly mentioned the national debt earlier, but it was such an important issue that we should talk about it in more depth. The country had huge debts coming out of the Revolutionary War and was having trouble paying them off. Why did the framers feel they needed an entirely new federal government to address the national debt?
The revolution was very costly. They borrowed, by Alexander Hamilton’s estimates, several hundred million dollars — and that’s the valuation from the 1780s, not adjusted dollars.
The states and Congress issued multiple types of IOUs and paper money. They also borrowed money from the Spanish, the Dutch, and the French. The Confederation Congress actually defaulted on a loan by the French shortly after the revolution ended. Because there wasn’t enough gold and silver in circulation, paper money was needed to get economic activity going. Furthermore, economic elites were on a capital strike because they refused to borrow or invest, and foreign loans stopped. This was a period of deep fiscal and financial crisis.
An early 20th-century portrayal of Daniel Shays’s forces fleeing from federal troops after an attempt to lay siege to the Springfield Arsenal in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Wikimedia Commons)
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress didn’t have the power to tax. So they would tell the states, this is how much you have to contribute to the national treasury — what was then called “requisitions.” They didn’t even have a good way of figuring out what each state’s share should be. Each of the states pretty much paid its share during the revolution, but when the fighting stopped, most stopped paying in full or at all. As a result, Congress couldn’t pay its debt and went into default with France. Only a few of the states were able to pay off all or some of the debts by using internal tariffs called “imposts.”
In some states, like Massachusetts, the conservatives tried to impose numerous taxes on the economic majority to generate the revenue to repay creditors. That triggered the famous Shays’s Rebellion in 1786, by small white subsistence farmers who were Revolutionary War veterans. When creditors tried to foreclose on their farms and meager possessions, they put on their old uniforms, took up arms, and marched on local courthouses in the western part of the state to shut them down.
The taxes were very unpopular because many farmers were mad they were never paid for fighting in the revolution — they were “paid” with those IOUs. Desperate for cash, many small creditors sold their IOUs to creditors, and soon most of those IOUs ended up in the hands of a very small number of rich speculators. One of the most famous speculators was Abigail Adams, the wife of soon-to-be-vice-president John Adams. Although they bought the IOUs for pennies on the dollar, the speculators demanded them to be paid at their face value from when they were originally issued, not at what they paid or their depreciated value.
There was a lot of political opposition to raising taxes to enrich the speculators. This was widely seen in class terms as an attempt to redistribute wealth upward that would result in many losing their land and being forced into wage work — what Karl Marx later called “primitive accumulation.” Also, the Congress was unable to pay not only rank-and-file soldiers but also officers, which almost resulted in an attempted coup by military officers when the fighting stopped.
This all leads to the Constitutional Convention, in which the issue that’s discussed over and over is how to address the demands of the creditors. This is achieved in the Constitution by establishing a stable government that can set up, manage, and protect the capitalist economy. In Article I, the regulation of interstate and foreign commerce and contracts and the establishment of bankruptcy laws are moved from state to federal authority. Now Congress exclusively has that power. Authority to repay debts and the power to issue money is taken from the states and given to Congress, preventing the states from printing or coining their own money anymore. Article VI says that all debts are the responsibility of the new federal government and must be paid by it.
Once Hamilton became the first secretary of the treasury, the national debt became the means of creating what he called the public credit system, which allowed the federal government to roll over outstanding debts. Hamilton received approval from Congress to consolidate the debt and roll it over into new interest-bearing bonds at very generous rates. This transformed the economic elites of the separate states with various competing interests into a single ruling class with shared economic interests.
The Act of the Maryland legislature to ratify the Articles of Confederation, February 2, 1781. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hamilton also got Congress to authorize the creation of the First Bank of the United States, a semiprivate bank that held all the federal revenue and debts of the federal government. The federal government would now collect taxes and use that revenue to pay the creditors — the same way it works today. From that revenue they also vastly expanded the military and ensured the consolidation of a stable national government.
And as Hamilton argued, this public credit system — in actuality, a publicly funded private financial system — was a prerequisite for creating a new empire. The first targets of the newly expanded, tax-funded military were the native peoples arming themselves in the West against genocidal settler colonialism and insurrectionary white subsistence farmers resisting primitive accumulation. To understand why the United States became the dominant economic and military power in the world, you have to understand how the Constitution provided the tools by which such power was created, and Hamilton immediately put them into action.
Every US movement for social change after the founding period has run into the question of what to do about the Constitution. There were huge debates, for example, in the abolitionist movement over whether the Constitution was a proslavery or antislavery document. People like William Lloyd Garrison denounced it as a “covenant with death,” but others like Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass argued that it provided resources to restrict the growth of slavery and ultimately end it.
The abolitionist debate is essentially repeated in every powerful movement of every generation: does the Constitution allow for systemic change, or tinkering around the edges with reforms that do not threaten the structure of political power and the capitalist economy? If the Constitution does not allow us to make the changes we need, should we try to bypass it and go a different direction?
Here I fall on Garrison’s side. He made the excellent point that slavery was well protected throughout the Constitution — it’s mentioned about twenty different times without actually using the word “slave” or “slavery” anywhere. They use all kinds of euphemisms, like “Person held to Service or Labour” in Article IV and “other persons” in other places.
This all leads to the Constitutional Convention, in which the issue that’s discussed over and over is how to address the demands of the creditors.
Remember that we got the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, when the Confederate states were outside the union. The film Lincoln gets a lot of things wrong, but it shows how hard it was to get the amendment through Congress even when most of the slave states weren’t in Congress. Abolition ultimately required this rupture that we call the Civil War, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, many more maimed for life, and half of the country burned to the ground to overcome the impediments the Constitution put in the way of abolishing slavery.
Fast forward to today: when we attempt to change policy at the state level it’s overturned at the federal level because the courts use the supremacy clause. In the last two chapters of the book, I ask what we can do about the Constitution. We essentially have three choices. Two of the options are in the Constitution itself. Article V establishes the process for amending the Constitution and for calling a constitutional convention. But those are really long shots because of the high supermajority thresholds for all four methods. We’ve had over ten thousand officially introduced constitutional amendments in our country’s history, but only 27 of them were successful — about one-quarter of one percent. The extremely high threshold in the Article V amendment process is an effective minority check that has rarely been overcome.
The same goes for calling a constitutional convention. Right now, there’s an effort to call a constitutional convention backed by the last active living Koch brother. That’s very dangerous for the Left. If they succeed, we are likely to be beaten badly. They are outorganizing and certainly outspending us. A constitutional convention is not going to make any changes in our favor right now.
Instead, we need to use the same strategy the framers did when they bypassed the Articles of Confederation. We need to design a new system of direct democratic self-governance. Instead of creating a new constitutional system, I argue, we can design a decentralized confederation of local and regional worker-controlled economic democracies. It would involve people organizing themselves to take over the economy in a general strike and transform it through direct democracy to serve the interest and the needs of the many rather than the interest of property.
Abolition ultimately required this rupture that we call the Civil War, in which half of the country burned to the ground to overcome the impediments the Constitution put in the way of abolishing slavery.
I can imagine a reader agreeing with your critique of the Constitution while also being very skeptical of the alternative strategy you just proposed.
It’s occasionally possible to make change under the Constitution if it doesn’t threaten the supremacy of property. We have to be careful about how our demands get diffused, diluted, and translated as they are transformed into regulations. When laws are passed, we tend to forget about them and move on to the next issue. But in the meantime, they get challenged in the courts and the regulatory bodies create new administrative law. And over time, those laws get transformed and turned into something very different.
Before we advocate for reform, we need to address the problem of why so many people become dissatisfied with the political process. Every election cycle we become hopeful and energetic. We get involved and we elect people to office who have the intention of doing many great things. And even if we do get good things done, they ultimately don’t turn out to be what we expected them to be.
The Constitution was designed with all these pitfalls and roadblocks that make it very difficult to get the changes we need unless we give the economic elites what they want so they no longer block it. This is how the economic minority is empowered by the Constitution to impede political democracy and prevent economic democracy.
I live in California, where we’ve been hit by several atmospheric rivers in the last few months. We don’t have time to negotiate with the fossil fuel companies, because they have blocked everything that has been proposed or gutted it when it gets passed. We have to understand the Constitution as the main impediment to making urgently needed systemic changes. We are long past due for a new political strategy that bypasses the constitutional system altogether if we are going to survive.
With the publication of “Organizing Against Autocracy in the US,” Convergence aimed to stimulate the conversation about just what this organizing would look like. Here Aditi Juneja, who has spent the last several years in democracy-protection work, asks us to widen the lens through which we view that task. The work of protecting liberal democracy has grown since the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to the United States in 1831 is one of the most famous journeys in the history of political thought. As he recorded in “Democracy in America,” he found a flourishing and stable society characterized by an “equality of conditions” (among white Americans) and the pursuit of “self-interest well understood.” This was Tocqueville’s only visit to the U.S.; he watched the country’s slide into civil war from a distance. America, he wrote in 1856, had come to disappoint all the “friends of democratic liberty.”
Yet Tocqueville continued to travel until his death in 1859, visiting England, Ireland, Italy and Germany. The country that preoccupied him from the late 1830s onward was Algeria, France’s most important African colony, which he visited in 1841 and 1846. Tocqueville’s writings about Algeria are the most controversial part of his legacy.
French military involvement in Algeria began in 1830, and from the outset, some critics opposed the attempt to create an overseas French Empire. Starting in 1839, resistance from the indigenous Arab and Berber population led France to respond with brutal suppression, embarking on a policy of full territorial conquest and intensive colonial settlement.
Tocqueville was attracted by the possibilities of a French presence in North Africa. As early as 1837, he wrote that he had no doubt France would “be able to raise a great monument to our country’s glory on the African coast.” He wanted to see the country for himself and prepared meticulously for his first visit to Algeria in 1841, accompanied by his travelling companion in America, Gustave de Beaumont.
“As in the U.S., Tocqueville was a tireless investigator in Algeria.”
As in the U.S., Tocqueville was a tireless investigator, travelling far and wide, interviewing as many people as he could, always taking extensive notes. But in contrast to America, what he saw in Algeria was far from pleasing to him. Beneath the beauty of the scenery and the exoticism of the surroundings—the city of Algiers, he told his father, was like something from one of the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights”—Tocqueville perceived a military regime that acted with obvious contempt not only for the Arab population but also for the French settlers. He also saw that the worst excesses of French governmental centralization had been imported into Algeria.
These initial observations informed Tocqueville’s later recommendations on French policy. To create a populous and flourishing colony in Algeria, he argued, French settlers should enjoy the same rights and legal protections as the citizens of mainland France. The exercise of arbitrary government and the excessive power of the military had to be ended.
Much less liberal and conciliatory in tone were Tocqueville’s remarks on how the indigenous population was to be treated. He argued that France had to complete the process of colonization as quickly as possible. He wrote that he had often heard complaints about the French in Algeria—that “we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women and children.” These, he countered, were “unfortunate necessities,” and to which any colonial power “is obliged to submit.”
“I believe,” he continued, “that the right of war authorizes us to lay waste to the country and that we must do it either by destroying crops during the harvest season, or by making those rapid incursions known as razzias, the purpose of which is to seize men or herds of animals.” European settlement and military repression had to go hand in hand.
In later years, and especially after his second visit to Algeria, Tocqueville showed greater concern for the well-being of the Arab population. War alone, he recognized, would not be sufficient to consolidate French conquest. For pragmatic reasons, the colonial administration needed to establish a community of interests between the indigenous population and the settlers. “Civilized peoples often oppress and dispirit barbarous peoples by their mere contact,” Tocqueville wrote, pointing to the U.S. as an example: “The Europeans in North America ended by pushing the Indians off their territory.” Here was a history of conquest that the French should not seek to repeat.
“Despite seeing firsthand the repression and violence entailed in France’s project, Tocqueville did not lessen his support. ”
Still, despite seeing firsthand the repression and violence entailed in France’s project, Tocqueville did not lessen his support for the creation of a French Algeria. The judgment he displayed as attentive and observant commentator on America deserted him in Africa. Why?
Three reasons stand out. First, Tocqueville felt the sense of national humiliation visited upon France after the fall of Napoleon. To become a great power again, France needed an empire. Second, he believed that, if properly managed, Algerian colonization could benefit France’s own population and economy, by turning the unemployed and idle into patriotic and productive settlers. Lastly, while Tocqueville did not endorse a theory of racial superiority, like many of his contemporaries he believed that European civilization was superior to the Muslim civilization he studied in the Quran and witnessed on his travels. French rule would be enlightened rule, and all Algerians, including the indigenous population, would ultimately benefit from it.
In fact, France’s Algerian colony was maintained only at enormous financial cost, and the hope that French settlers would gradually replace the Arab and Berber population was never to be realized. Although Algeria was annexed to France in 1848, military resistance to French rule continued into the first decade of the 20th century. Violent conflict returned in 1954, when Algerian nationalists launched a rebellion against French rule, leading to a brutal war in which thousands died.
The colonial project that Tocqueville supported in the 1830s finally came to an end in 1962, when Algeria achieved independence, leading thousands of French settlers to flee back to France. Tocqueville may have been prescient about democracy in America, but like many other Europeans he misjudged both the ease of establishing a colonial empire and the benefits that would follow.
Mr. Jennings is Professor of Political Theory at King’s College London. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America,” published by Harvard University Press.