Concentration of power in legislatures
The cases of the USA and Cuba
In Federalist 48, James Madison expressed concern for the danger of concentrating power in a state’s legislative assembly. In Madison’s view, the problem became evident in the governance of the thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War. Legislators were consistently interfering in the administrative affairs of the executive branch, creating a dysfunctional and inefficient administration, seriously hampering the conduct of the war. Madison and the framers of the new constitution concluded from this unhappy experience that the executive power cannot be made subservient to the legal power in a well-functioning political system. Madison maintained that a popular republican government required the existence of a responsible and independent executive power and not a structure of legislative domination.
Class struggle in the American Revolution
A take different from that of Madison is provided by Eric Foner,Robert Shalhope, and Howard Zinn, who analyze the class dynamics within the American revolutionary process. The revolution was caused by measures enacted by the British Parliament from 1763 to 1774, which were designed to finance payment of British debts (accumulated during the Seven Years’ War) through taxes and duties that were detrimental to the interests of American merchants. The measures stimulated a movement of opposition to British commercial policies and to British control of the American colonies.
The movement was led by the American elite, a wealthy educated class consisting primarily of merchants and large planters. Lawyers, editors, and merchants of the upper class mobilized popular energy through writings and speeches that used the language of liberty and equality. Utilizing newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and mass meetings, the educated elite rallied the mass of citizens from the urban middle class (small merchants, lawyers, ship captains, and clergy) as well as the urban working class (artisans, seamen, and laborers) and small farmers. The use of writing and publication to reach the popular classes was a new step for the educated elite, who had previously confined themselves to writing solely to an audience of fellow gentlemen.
But the mobilization of the people by the elite was a double-edged sword. Much of the anger that energized the people was rooted in accumulated grievances against the American elite itself. In recognition of this reality, the elite attempted to channel the popular rage toward the British and the pro-British sector of the American elite. The rhetoric of Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, which was vague on class issues, played a key role in this regard.
However, in spite of the capacity of the elite to mobilize action against the British, popular aspirations with respect to class inequalities could not be contained. In the period 1775 to 1777, the movement had become into a popular democratic movement in which small farmers, artisans, and workers played an important role. During this time, all of the constitutions of the thirteen colonies were rewritten or substantially modified. Setting aside property and educational requirements, they granted the right to vote to common men of European descent. They vested power in the legislative assemblies established by this broadly-based vote, giving the assemblies authority over the executive and legislative branches of the government. They had many other democratic provisions, including programs of aid for farmers and artisans, systems of taxation that were more egalitarian, programs for the redistribution of land, and limitations on the accumulation of property by one individual. During this period, it was impossible for the elite to prevent such constitutional reforms and measures, because the elite was totally dependent on the support of the people in its war to the death with the British government.
Once victory in the war of independence was attained, a reactionary movement seeking reversals of the reforms of the state constitutions was launched. The Constitution of 1787, which replaced the Articles of Confederation, can be seen as the culmination of the reactionary project. The Constitution transferred significant powers to the federal government. It also established much larger voting districts for the House of Representatives, thus making it much more difficult for men of modest means to be elected, and tilting the playing field in favor of educated and wealthy men. In addition, the new constitution transformed the separation of powers into the balance of powers, facilitating that the executive and judicial branches and the upper house could check the action of the lower house, should the lower house fall under the control of actors animated toward defending the interests of the popular classes.
Madison’s characterization of the Articles of Confederation could be interpreted in the context of this unfolding class struggle. Was the concentration of power in the assemblies inefficient and dysfunctional, as Madison claimed, or was it detrimental to the interests of the elite? Was the structure of the separation of powers designed to check the abuse of power by legislators, or was it designed to check the reasonable exercise of power by legislators in defense of the interests of the people that had elected them? Was the balance of powers a structure designed to check the power of the people and to empower an elite that constituted a numerical minority of the population?
In empirical support of certain answers to these questions, the proposed constitution provoked a reaction from small farmers, traders, artisans, and workers, who formed associations and published pamphlets and newspapers. The anti-Federalists were repressed by the governments, giving rise to their advocacy of such rights as freedom of speech, press, and association. They were able to compel the adoption of ten amendments to the Constitution that came to be known as the Bill of Rights, although even this apparent guardian of the people’s liberties contained ambiguities.
The popular democratic movement of the last quarter of the eighteenth century was limited in important respects. The British settlers in North America were accumulating capital through the sale of food and animal products to slaveholders in the Caribbean, and there was no call to end these advantageous commercial relations on moral grounds and on the basis of democratic principles. Indeed, the great majority of the people had no economic interest in the abolition of slavery or in the rights of people of color in the nation or in the region, and the popular movement did not address these rights. Nor did the movement address the rights of women.
But the people’s movement of the late eighteenth century should not be held accountable to standards that did not become normalized until nearly two centuries later. We should appreciate that the popular democratic movement in the early American Republic was progressive for its time.
In addition, the people’s movement of that era established the principles that would guide the subsequent struggles of the people for their democratic rights in relation to their imperfect constitution. Subsequent struggles forged by women and blacks would embrace the proclaimed democratic principles of the American Constitution and would seek to expand their application and deepen their meaning, seeking to move the nation toward the fulfillment of its promise of democracy. They had significant success in this project, which of course, remains unfulfilled.
Legislative assemblies in Cuba: A different experience
While the American political structure seeks to balance the powers and check one branch of power with another, the Cuban revolutionary practice has taken a different approach, namely, in the first place, establishing a National Assembly as a body that is controlled by the people; and secondly, concentrating power in the hands of said assembly, so that the people can defend their revolution against powerful foreign enemies.
The class dynamics in the Cuban revolutionary process were fundamentally different from those of the American revolution. In Cuba, following the triumph of the revolution, the national bourgeoisie was liquidated as an economic and political class. It was a self-liquidation. In the early 1960s, Fidel invited the Cuban big industrialists to redefine their political objectives in accordance with a national vision of autonomous post-colonial economic development, thereby allying itself with the triumphant revolutionary movement. But the Cuban industrial bourgeoisie fled the country, opting to continue subordinating its interests to those of U.S. corporations in Cuba, thus incorporating itself into the counterrevolutionary project directed by the U.S. government. With the failure of the counterrevolutionary project, Cuban industrialists were reduced to exiles in the USA, without voice or credibility in their native land.
With the absence of the Cuban bourgeoisie, the Cuban political process could proceed without the subversive influence of an elite class using its considerable financial resources to influence the political process in accordance with its interests. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Cuban revolutionary government based its authority in the Constitution of 1940, combining political and legislative functions into a revolutionary government consisting of a president, prime minister, and departmental ministers. It enjoyed legitimacy, with exceptionally high levels of support from highly active and allied mass organizations of workers, neighborhoods, women, and farmers.
In the 1970s, revolutionary power was institutionalized through the creation of structures of people’s power. The Constitution of 1976 established municipal assemblies of people’s power, elected by the people in direct elections across the island, without the participation of political parties. The delegates of the municipal assemblies in turn elect the deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power, which is the highest authority in the nation. Power is concentrated in the National Assembly of People’s Power: it is empowered by the Constitution to elect and recall the executive branch, to enact legislation, and to elect and recall the highest members of the judicial branch.
The deputies of the National Assembly are not professional politicians. They meet in full session three or four times a year, and they serve on legislative committees between sessions. They receive reports from the executive branch when they meet in full session. They enact laws to establish legal guidelines, and they supervise the administrative ministries.
Unlike what is said to have occurred with the state governments under the Article of Confederation, there has not been in socialist Cuba constant meddling in executive affairs. It is a process that functions without division. Assembly debates are dignified, with deputies freely expressing their opinions, but in the context of the national consensus and conducted without rancor.
Since the deputies of the National Assembly have been elected by the people without the need to raise money for electoral campaigns, they are indebted to no one other than the people. This structure favors the cultivation among delegates and deputies a sense of duty toward the people. There does not exist an economic class above the process, which would have structural incentives to use their influence to attain the implementation of particular policies, which could imply ideological manipulation of public discourse in support of the implementation of said policies.
Accordingly, Cuban political structures liberate delegates, deputies, and ministers from the need to create deceptive arguments in order to justify the requirements of particular interests. They are free to dedicate themselves to understanding the common good and explaining things to the people, as best they can. They do not appear to be saying one thing but meaning another, and it is not because they are morally superior to their counterparts in the USA. It is because they pertain to a political system that has arrived to the more advanced stage of people’s power, in which no one can interfere with the attainment of consensus by the legislative assembly, and no one can interfere with the dedicated implementation of the consensus by the executive branch.
The Cuban experience suggests that the inefficiency of the states under the Articles of Confederation was not due to the concentration of power in the legislature, but to the intrusion of powerful economic actors in the political process. The key issue is not the question of concentration of power in the legislative branch versus a balance of powers among the branches. Rather, the key issue is the relation of the economic elite to the political process. To have efficient and politically accountable government, a political system needs above all else to be insulated from economic actors, so that those who have political power in their hands can act in defense of the people, without the subversive influence of elite economic actors.
What should be done?
I write on this theme to correct what I take to be a widespread mistaken assumption in the United States, namely, that the balance of governmental powers is necessary to prevent the abuse of power. I find this belief to not be universally true, inasmuch as I have observed a political structure in which power is concentrated in the legislative branch, and it works well to defend the interests of the people.
Once we leave aside this mistaken assumption, and comparing the United States and Cuba, we can see more clearly that the great danger is the distorting influence of money on those who hold political power. This is perhaps a universal truth, independent of the design of the political structure and the powers of the state.
This leads us to the question: How can we in the United States free candidates for federal and state legislatures from the need to raise money for electoral campaigns? If we knew the answer to that question, we perhaps could figure out how to eliminate the systemic corruption of our political process.
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See Joseph Postell, Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional Government (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017), Pp. 21-28.
Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).
Robert E. Shalhope, The Roots of Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760-1800 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990).
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005).