Try Some Radical for a Change


This image of the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture, is the journal’s logo. In the words of managing editor Connor Kilpatrick, “Because as much as the idea of Jacobinism is associated with a single nation, the Haitian Revolution is the story of how an ideology that sprang up in a country thousands of miles across the ocean could make it’s way over and inspire the most oppressed to rise up and accomplish the impossible.”

What a welcome surprise to find that young writers are thinking and writing about radical change, and are even–dare I say– agitating for socialism. I just discovered a new journal that demonstrates (once again) the poverty of Liberalism in its many guises. At the same time, it strives to rescue Marxism from ideological and jargon-induced irrelevance. Jacobin is the brainchild (when am I going to have one of those?) of Bhaskar Sunkara who just got a nice write-up in the New York Times. 

I checked out their back issues and discovered this gem: “Burn the Constitution”. Seth Ackerman lays bare the ugly (and simple) reality behind what we are so often told is the marvel of human political thought, the American Constitution. In actuality, the Constitution enshrines a system created by a band of landowning white men to guard against “mob rule”.

[They] rendered it virtually impossible for the electorate to obtain a concerted change in national policy by a collective act of political will. The Senate is an undemocratic monstrosity in which 84 percent of the population can be outvoted by the 16 percent living in the smallest states. The passage of legislation requires the simultaneous assent of three separate entities — the presidency, House, and Senate — that voters are purposely denied the opportunity to choose at one time, with two-thirds of the Senate membership left in place after each election.

Not to mention the Amendment process:

[The] entire system is frozen in amber by an amendment process of almost comical complexity. Whereas France can change its constitution anytime with a three-fifths vote of its Congress and Britain could recently mandate a referendum on instant runoff voting by a simple parliamentary majority, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the consent of no less than thirty-nine different legislatures comprising roughly seventy-eight separately elected chambers.

Yes, we should all have remembered this, but what makes Jacobin‘s brand of up-to-date radicalism so compelling is the kind of analysis Ackerman offers next concerning what has happened to thinking about the Constitution more recently. After WW I, when the desire for radical change inspired Europeans to curtail the privileges of elites, American progressives began to challenge the rigidity of the political system here. That, in turn, inspired a backlash which has solidified resistance to change. Presently, we are consumed by Tea Party-inspired Constitution fetishism and what have Liberals done to combat it? In defending the Constitution against Right-wing interpretations, Liberals take it as an article of faith that the document is actually a living document whose meaning is open to constant negotiation. Hogwash, concludes Akerman, the Constitution is little more than a “charter for plutocracy”.

Ackerman’s article (not the Constitution) should be required reading on Sept. 17, Constitution Day, which itself is a Senate invention of very recent vintage (2004). By law,  Constitution Day must be recognized by all schools receiving federal funds. Next time SIUE (or any other public university) holds this remembrance it may be worth noting that this is not an outpouring of civic pride but a government mandate.

There is much more to recommend Jacobin as well. Find out for yourself.


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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One Response to Try Some Radical for a Change

  1. Rolo Baez says:

    While I’ve found most myself nodding my head towards most of your blog posts, I couldn’t help, but shake my head at this one. First, I think Ackerman completely misunderstands the purpose of the senate. The senate was created so that smaller states that didn’t have large populations could have more of an equal voice within America’s legislature. The senate is thus not an undemocratic monstrosity, but rather a fine example of democratic fairness. If the senate didn’t exist then only the interests of states with large populations would be heard leaving the smaller states left out.
    Second, Ackerman’s claim that the constitution is a barrier to political and social change is demonstrably false given the sweeping changes that have overtaken America and even the constitution over the centuries. The America of the “Founding Fathers” is a far cry from today’s America and today’s constitution is incredibly different from the one ratified several centuries ago. I don’t want to provide an overview of American or constitutional history in this comment, but I don’t think Ackerman deals with the dramatic reforms America has undergone with the constitution as its legal basis.
    Third, as Paul Krugman, no fan of the tea partiers mind you, himself has stated America’s government is actually one of the oldest in the world. While the vast majority of countries in the world are older than America, the fact of the matter is that most of these countries have undergone revolutions or regime changes in the last hundred years or so. America, however, has not. It still has the same system of government it had several centuries ago.
    This alone is a powerful testament to the resilience of the American system of government as outlined in the constitution. If America’s constitution based government is as inflexible as Ackerman claims than it would be highly improbable that it would have survived all this time. If it really was inflexible then it like many other governments would have been decisively swept aside by the profound changes wrought upon the world by the 19th and 20th century. It hasn’t. This strongly suggests that contra Ackerman the constitution offers a highly flexible system of government able to withstand and go along with a variety of challenging social and political changes. I hope this comment hasn’t been too long, but I just wanted to get my thoughts out clearly. Hope your summer is still going well Professor Tamari.

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