I am currently living in the northeastern corner of a nation whose “failed revolution” and externally enforced fragmentation has left it devastated. It is an entirely curious place from which to reflect on the US celebration of its Declaration of Independence. So many complexities. So many shared threads.
On the surface the Fourth of July celebrates the moment when thirteen colonies declared their intention to separate their interests from Great Britain, which, in order to finance its ongoing conflict with France, elected to impose increasingly burdensome taxes on colonists who, lacking representation in the House of Commons, could not effectively register their complaints in a politically sanctioned manner. Beneath the surface, however, another scenario was playing out. While nearly all business people in the colonies wanted to keep a larger share of their earnings, it was the business community in the northeast and the plantation owners in the south who stood the most to gain from relieving themselves of these tax burdens. Yet, without the support of the common people, it is unlikely that the wealthy elites could have fielded an army. Here the British came to their aid by compelling common people to pay a relatively larger share of their income on things, such as tea, that they viewed as essential. This gave the wealthy elites their opening.
Did the elites have any intention of shifting this burden come victory? Hardly. If we read the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 we can see that the failure of the 1783 Articles of Federation — the United States’ first constitution — arose chiefly from the continuing reluctance of these elites to shoulder their fair share of the tax burden and their refusal to police themselves. Yet, in the interim, in 1776, the elites could use overburdensome taxes as the reason why farmers, tradesmen, sailors, and laborers should take up arms to free themselves from British tyranny. Interestingly, when we read their diaries and correspondence, these soldiers actually believed that when they defeated the British, they would all have the right to vote, they would be given title to their own property, and they would be invited to actively participate in self-government.
Nothing of the kind in fact happened. To the contrary, in 1783 less than 5% of those who were of voting age actually received the right to vote. Wealthy landowners following the revolution proved even more tyrannical than their British predecessors. And, as for the women who built IEDs in church basements and working men who set ambush upon British forces in house to house combat; well, following the war, the independent states and their wealthy elite legislatures had absolutely no interest in compensating those who had fought and died. And since the Constitution of 1783 gave no authority to the central federal powers, there was nothing whatsoever that Philadelphia could do to help them — no authority to tax, no authority to raise an army, no authority to mint money, regulate commerce, overrule state or local judiciaries. Revolts among slaves and homeless non-slaves in the south; taxpayer and renter revolts in the north.
I am reflecting upon this divided nation not simply to recollect US history; it is very much an image of contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina, a fragmented nation governed by wealthy elites on behalf of wealthy elites who have learned how to rig the national divisions in their favor.
For over two hundred years, anti-federalists have threatened to overturn the Constitution of 1787 — the US Constitution that is currently in force. And, no wonder. None of them were invited to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. They were not invited because they had no stake in the outcome. Then as now, the anti-federalists were composed of the working poor and tradesmen who wanted nothing of shared wealth and res publica, but only individual independence, and businessmen whose short-sightedness and cynicism would not allow them to see why an ongoing civil war would not serve their economic interests and why an educated and economically empowered public might serve these interests. They really did not care if slave revolts spread across the south or if renters revolts spread across the north since they felt certain that they would be able to hang or imprison all of these “freedom haters.”
We will meet up with these same hoodlums a century later in 1865, and then in 1964 and 1965, and then in 1980 and 2000. But that’s another story.
It so happens that when they emerged from Convention Hall with a new Constitution, that Constitution was virtually identical to the Constitution of Great Britain which they had overthrown. Two houses, a high and a low, the smaller composed of the wealthiest Americans, the larger composed by their cousins. A strong executive, not as strong as the King, but much stronger than a Prime Minister. A strong central government, strong centralized institutions, federal law, federal courts. In almost all respects a xerox of the Constitution of the UK, but without a King, and arguably even less representation of the public than even in Great Britain.
So what gives? If we can accept that the neoliberals were the instigating force behind both revolutions, in 1776 and in 1992, then we might also be able to appreciate why 1995 is Bosnian for 1783. Both created horrible, destructive Constitutions. And, yet, the elites in the US had sufficient wherewithal to see that their interests rested with a strong federal and republican system. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is time for the elites to get together in Sarajevo — or, even better, in Tuzla — and, as in Philadelphia, tell the anti-federalists that they are not invited, and write a new Constitution. (However, remember that you will need the French to back up your swagger, as the US did when the British had a change of heart.)
Bosnia and Herzegovina had its Fourth of July. And just like the American Fourth of July it was a disaster. What Bosnia and Herzegovina needs now is its own 1787, a new constitutional convention, and a new constitution.
Which makes me wonder. What ever did happen to Constitution Day in the US? Did it die with the neoliberal coup in 1980?