Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Definitions, XVIII: The English Constitution

The Hobbesian Absolutist State was the framework within which Walter Bagehot developed his political and economic theories. According to his analysis, published in 1867 in The English Constitution (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press, 1997), a relatively small economic elite (not to be confused with the "Upper Ten Thousand" that ruled "society") were the real power in the country. They had gradually usurped political power since the days of the Tudors, and (according to Bagehot) properly so.

Bagehot carefully distinguished leadership in "society" (meaning parties, balls, race meets, and so on) from leadership in government and the economy. The Queen (a "retired widow") and the Prince of Wales ("an unemployed youth") were the leaders of "society" and played an important role in providing the lower classes with the easily understood fallacy that the monarch ruled the country. Bagehot called this the "dignified" aspect of the English Constitution, a social convention to pacify the unintelligent masses.

The real power, according to Bagehot, resided in the House of Commons, the House of Lords being another "dignified" aspect of the Constitution of the country. The House of Commons was "efficient" as opposed to "dignified," and, so far as the traditional structures of government allowed, ran the country essentially as a business corporation. The propertied classes were (in a sense) the shareholders of the national corporation. Common unpropertied people, as well as aristocrats whose wealth and power were in decline as agriculture diminished in relative importance, were to some extent supernumeraries, that is, redundant employees and pensioners of the national corporate State.

"Corporate State" can be taken here both as meaning a nation run as a private business enterprise for the benefit of the economic and financial elite, even if ostensibly for the benefit of all citizens — whom Bagehot held in open contempt — or as a proto fascist State, an almost inevitable outcome when the "slavery of past savings" is the basis of the economic order.

The House of Commons, elected by a relatively small number of voters, was, essentially, the board of directors of the country, "a class . . . trained to thought, full of money, and yet trained to business." (Ibid., 66.) In other words, the governing body of the British Empire was a carbon copy of the owners and upper management of the Great East India Company, a private enterprise that governed India for the Crown until 1858, eight years before Bagehot wrote The English Constitution.

Contrary to his assertion that ultimate power resided in the House of Commons, Bagehot did not support popular sovereignty. The electorate at the time he wrote, 1867, was extremely small, and composed exclusively of men of property, a financial elite which thereby secured a self-perpetuating political power — the "pocket" or "rotten borough" system. This was only right as far as Bagehot was concerned. He believed that the masses were too stupid to be able to vote or do anything other than take orders:

  •"We have in a great community like England crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago; we have others, even more numerous, such as the best people were a thousand years since. The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated 'ten thousand', narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious." (Ibid., 6.)

  •"We have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution." (Ibid., 23.)

  •"A free nation rarely can be — and the English nation is not — quick of apprehension." (Ibid., 74.)

According to Bagehot, "The principle of popular government is that the supreme power, the determining efficacy in matters political, resides in the people — not necessarily or commonly in the whole people, in the numerical majority, but in a chosen people, a picked and selected people." (Ibid., 17.) [Emphasis in original.] Not surprisingly, one of the "defects" Bagehot listed in the American system is the impossibility of a dictatorship in times of national emergency. (Ibid., 20.) Another problem is that Americans do not accept the opinions of their betters without question: "They have not a public opinion finished and chastened as that of the English has been finished and chastened." (Ibid., 13.)

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