The iron polygon: power in the United States

In case it’s not already clear to my readers, this small but discerning bunch, one of our many goals here at UR is to paint a simpler, more compelling picture of present history than either the official story, or any of the many well-known counter-narratives.

Last week I covered the US’s caste structure and communal factions. This week we’ll be looking at power: what it is and who has it.

As a formalist, I define power as the ability to change the rules, or to clarify them when no rules exist. In a mature, sclerotic megastate like the US, it can be very hard to see where the power is, because (by historical standards) there is almost no change in the US.

But this does not indicate an absence of power. It indicates a balance of power. It means the various forces exerting pressure in various directions cancel each other, at least mostly. One of the best features of the current US regime, and one of the worst, is that it’s much easier to prevent change than to create change. The compromise is generally the status quo. But if some deus ex machina could remove one of the opposing power centers, or point one in a new and unopposed direction, we’d see instant and explosive change. The whole city of Washington is in the power business, and they don’t screw around.

Indeed, kids in school are taught that the US is balanced by a separation of powers. But the power structure they learn is the original design of the Constitution, as borrowed from Montesquieu—legislative, executive and judicial. This is like saying a Camaro has 250 horses under the hood. It’s true in a certain metaphorical sense, but it’s not actually true. In the same sense, the Roman Empire never thought of itself as anything other than the Roman Republic.

By my count, Anglophone North America ex Canada is on its fifth legal regime. The First Republic was the Congressional regime, which illegally abolished the British colonial governments. The Second Republic was the Constitutional regime, which illegally abolished the Articles of Confederation. The Third Republic was the Unionist regime, which illegally abolished the principle of federalism. The Fourth Republic is the New Deal regime, which illegally abolished the principle of limited government.

Of course, all these coups are confirmed by the principle of adverse possession. Otherwise we would find ourselves looking for the rightful heirs of Metacom, or Edward the Confessor, or whoever. Nor is there any automatic reason to treat any of these five regimes as better or worse than any of the others. If, like me, you’re tired of the Fourth Republic and would like to see it abolished, all we know about its successor is that it will be the Fifth Republic. It has no need to resemble the Third, the Second or the First.

The real legal nature of the Fourth Republic is that, like the UK, it has no constitution. Its legitimacy is defined by a set of precedents written by New Deal judges in the 1930s. These have obscure names like Footnote Four, West Coast Hotel, and Wickard v. Filburn.

These precedents establish the Fourth Republic as a universal and absolute government, subject only to a few isolated limitations, which in practice do not matter at all. For example, no European country has any clear equivalent of our First Amendment, either in its original meaning or in its Footnote Four restatement. If dissidents are being lined up and shot in stadiums in Europe, I have somehow remained ignorant of it. “Constitutional law” in the Fourth Republic is a very real and very substantial body of law, but its connection to the original charter of the Second Republic is entirely nominal.

No, the US government is the 800-pound gorilla. It sits wherever it wants. But “it” is not one entity. It is, again, a network of competing power centers.

The closest well-known equivalent to the way I see the Fourth Republic’s power structure is a concept that dates to the ’60s, the iron triangle. The iron triangle is certainly real, but for some reason—no doubt related to the agenda of the official intellectuals who created it—it’s missing most of its vertices. In fact, what we’re looking at here is an iron polygon.

The key to power in the Fourth Republic is that no one who has power wants anyone to think of them as having power. For example, in the traditional iron triangle, legislators do not have power. They are just expressing the will of the people. Civil servants do not have power. They are just making public policy. Lobbyists do not have power. They are just communicating their concerns.

This is a profoundly Orwellian situation. The root of the problem is that the modern English language has no word which means “power,” but carries only positive associations.

Perhaps the most important fact about power is that the powerful are almost always sincere. They honestly believe they are doing good. Every Sauron considers himself a Boromir. And—as Acton observed—every Boromir has an inner Sauron. Since this is widely recognized, and since “power” is generally associated with “evil,” the people in the US who have actual power do not and cannot think of themselves as having power.

However, there are euphemisms for it. Perhaps the most common is “responsibility.”

A good way to find the most powerful people in the US is to find the most responsible people. No one in the US is scheming for power. A lot of them seem to be working for change. No one in the US is brainwashing the masses. A lot of them seem to be educating the public. No one in the US is ruling the world. A lot of them seem to be making global policies.

Having power means you have a choice. Mandelstam’s poem on Stalin comes to mind—“he sticks out his finger, he alone goes bang.” Stalin was certainly one of the most powerful men in the 20th century, if not in human history. Most of us think he was evil. He would probably disagree. But if Stalin had woken up one day and decided that yesterday, he was evil, but today he would be good—by my definition of “good”—by definition, he would have used his power to do good. To be, in other words, responsible.

The New York Times is a paragon of “responsible journalism.” It, or at least its journalists, would like us to be concerned about global warming. We can tell this by the fact that they write many stories on the subject. Surely if they didn’t want us to think about the subject, it is within their personal discretion to avoid it. They don’t. And since many people read the New York Times, many of us are concerned about global warming.

But if these same journalists were to wake up, one day, and decide that instead we should not be worrying about global warming, but about black crime or Iranian outrages or the menace of marijuana, they could write those stories instead. Granted, if they just turned on a dime this way, they might surprise us a little. It would probably work better if they gradually phased out the global warming and phased in the black crime. But at bottom, this choice is their discretion—and since we have freedom of the press, no one can stop them.

Let’s say that to be a “major vertex” of the Polygon, you need two attributes. One, a vertex must have power—that is, responsibility. Two, it must be protected from public opinion—that is, insulated from “politics,” that is, democracy. If you have one of these but not the other, you are at best a “minor vertex.”

The press (aka “MSM”) is a major vertex because, as we’ve seen, it has power. And it is doubly protected. First, no one elects the press. And second, if journalists were elected, they’d simply elect themselves, since they pick the “credible” candidates. These would all be journalists—by definition. See how nice this system is?

The White House (customarily referred to as the “President”) is only a minor vertex. Its legal power is considerable, but its protection is lousy. It was national news a few years ago when an open mike caught the President insulting a New York Times reporter. How often do you think that one goes the other way? The White House can challenge the Polygon’s program on a few issues, which necessarily thus become high-profile. But the Fourth Republic, at any one time, is doing thousands and thousands of things. Almost all of them are done the Polygon’s way, and when they are not it is deeply shocked and offended. So in general are the voters, for obvious reasons, so there is a strong reason to minimize these deviations.

The Polygon might be defined as the “extended civil service.” It consists not of those who hold actual formal GS rank, but those whose position demands a sense of civic responsibility—real or fake. The major vertices of the Polygon, by my count, are the press, the universities, the judiciary, the Fed and the banks, the “Hill” (congressional staff), the civil service proper, the NGOs and transnationals, the military, the Beltway bandits (defense and other contractors), and corporate holders of official monopolies (such as “intellectual property”).

I suppose this would make it an “iron decagon,” but the count starts to get a little fuzzy. Anyway. I will discuss some of these actors in later posts. I hope this has helped you clarify your perception of the strange and awful world we live in.