Timothy Snyder and Gore Vidal on the American Imperial (“Tyrannical”) Presidency

Timothy Snyder, in the following video, notes that the Presidency of Trump has the earmarks of tyranny.

I agree with what he says, except for his praise of the Constitution. He thinks that the Constitution was designed to prevent tyranny through a division of powers. That may well have been the intention. But the Constitution is flawed in many respects.

Among these flaws, the most egregious one is in having created the office of a President, elected by an electoral college and mass democracy. A better system would have been to have a prime minister nominated and elected by Congress, and even better one would have been a system with two co-equal prime-ministers, nominated by two parties with each minister having veto power over the other, as was the case in ancient Roman Republic with their two consuls. But a still better system would have been to imitate Switzerland and have four political parties nominate a seven-member executive council and cabinet, which would then be confirmed by Congress.

The present system allows persons of low caliber to be elected as Presidents. Worse, once elected Presidents have enormous powers in nominating cabinet posts and federal judges, and they also have great discretionary powers as military commanders-in-chief to declare martial law, and send troops to quell uprisings. For example, the so-called American Civil War, was not a war against a foreign aggressor, but was taken to be a domestic rebellion, which did not require a Congressional declaration of war, but was entirely within the powers of the President. And President Lincoln decided to send troops to the south to squash this “rebellious secession” of the South — a mopping up operation, as it may be called, which cost over 600,000 lives.

Timothy Snyder does not seem to appreciate the fact that the exercise of power which Trump is exhibiting is granted to him by the Constitution, and the mechanism of impeachment is too weak to curtail his abuse of these powers.

The Constitution, as it exists, is geared to making sure that the rich are in control. How so? Well, given mass democracy it will be the rich who will predominate in Congress because of election expenditures. And, let’s not forget, the Senate, as originally established, was to be selected by State legislatures, which themselves would be controlled by the rich, and would elect Senators who were friends of the rich. Furthermore, the Senators were to serve six years which would outlast any temporary political upheavals.

Anyway, several years ago, Gore Vidal gave a very insightful analysis of the existing Imperial Presidency:


I know that it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy about what will happen to humans — there are too many factors to consider. Nonetheless, there are some generalizations which can be made. One is that the sun will burn out is some 4 to 5 billion years. Another is that given finite resources, infinite growth is impossible. It is this last generalization which has been at the horizon of my thinking — made explicit by Thomas Malthus, who in 1789 published an essay noting that resources (specifically food) grow arithmetically, while populations grow exponentially. The conclusion seemed obvious to me: there is a limit to growth. And a report by that name, “The Limits to Growth” was published in 1973, using a computer to take into account various factors. [Here is a documentary about this project:

The criticism was that the predictions failed. This is true. But the claim that there is a limit to growth with finite resources seems to me to be a truism, as does Paul Ehrich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968). Again, the criticism of these books was not that there is a population problem, but a disagreement about the severity of it, and what will take care of this problem.

We are now living in the midst of an ecological crisis, as well as with other possible global collapses. This impending sense of collapse has been analyzed and proclaimed by a host of people. One of them is Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse” (2005). Below is his 2003 TED talk on this subject:

Recently, I came across the compelling documentary film “Prophets of Doom” (2011):

It includes the following six “prophets”:

  • Michael Ruppert (1951-2014): “Confronting Collapse,” “Crossing the Rubicon”
  • Nathan Hagens
  • John Cronin: “The Riverkeepers”
  • James Howard Kunstler: “The Long Emergency,” “Home From Nowhere”
  • Hugo De Garis
  • Robert Gleason: “End of Days”


    ‘Our House Is Still on Fire,’ Warns Greta Thunberg at Davos, January 21, 2020

  • Karl Popper on a possible “abstract society” and our current practice of cellphone snubbing (i.e., phubbing).

    WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 13: Young adults split their time between the televisied debate and Twitter on their smart phones during a debate watch party at the Local 16 bar and restaurant October 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Democratic candidates Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee squared off on the CNN-hosted debate in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

    Below is a passage from Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), Chapter 10: “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Sect. I. Compare what Popper says here with the articles at the bottom of this posting.

    “As a consequence of its loss of organic character, an open society may become, by degrees, what I should like to term an ‘abstract society’. It may, to a considerable extent, lose the character of a concrete or real group of men, or of a system of such real groups. This point which has been rarely understood may be explained by way of an exaggeration. We could conceive of a society in which men practically never meet face to face — in which all business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and who go about in closed motor-cars. (Artificial insemination would allow even propagation without a personal element.) Such a fictitious society might be called a ‘completely abstract or depersonalized society’. Now the interesting point is that our modern society resembles in many of its aspects such a completely abstract society. Although we do not always drive alone in closed motor cars (but meet face to face thousands of men walking past us in the street) the result is very nearly the same as if we did — we do not establish as a rule any personal relation with our fellow-pedestrians. Similarly, membership of a trade union may mean no more than the possession of a membership card and the payment of a contribution to an unknown secretary. There are many people living in a modern society who have no, or extremely few, intimate personal contacts, who live in anonymity and isolation, and consequently in unhappiness. For although society has become abstract, the biological make-up of man has not changed much; men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society.

    Of course, our picture is even in this form highly exaggerated. There never will be or can be a completely abstract or even a predominantly abstract society — no more than a completely rational or even a predominantly rational society. Men still form real groups and enter into real social contacts of all kinds, and try to satisfy their emotional social needs as well as they can. But most of the social groups of a modern open society (with the exception of some lucky family groups) are poor substitutes, since they do not provide for a common life. And many of them do not have any function in the life of the society at large.

    Another way in which the picture is exaggerated is that it does not, so far, contain any of the gains made — only the losses. But there are gains. Personal relationships of a new kind can arise where they can be freely entered into, instead of being determined by the accidents of birth; and with this, a new individualism arises. Similarly, spiritual bonds can play a major role where the biological or physical bonds are weakened; etc. However this may be, our example, I hope, will have made plain what is meant by a more abstract society in contradistinction to a more concrete or real social group; and it will have made it clear that our modern open societies function largely by way of abstract relations, such as exchange or co-operation. (It is the analysis of these abstract relations with which modern social theory, such as economic theory, is mainly concerned. This point has not been understood by many sociologists, such as Durkheim, who never gave up the dogmatic belief that society must be analysed in terms of real social groups.)

    In the light of what has been said, it will be clear that the transition from the closed to the open society can be described as one of the deepest revolutions through which mankind has passed. Owing to what we have described as the biological character of the closed society, this transition must be felt deeply indeed. Thus when we say that our Western civilization derives from the Greeks, we ought to realize what it means. It means that the Greeks started for us that great revolution which, it seems, is still in its beginning — the transition from the closed to the open society.”


    Julie Beck, Ignoring People for Phones Is the New Normal: A study looks at how phone snubbing—“phubbing”—becomes socially acceptable. The Atlantic, June 14, 2016.

    Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen M. Douglas, “How “phubbing” becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone,” Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 63, October 2016, Pages 9-18.

    Critique of Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”

    I keep reading Karl Popper’s book “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), and trying to understand his stand on various issues.

    There is much in the views of Karl Popper with which I agree, but there are some fundamental things with which I disagree.

    Let me start with the things I agree with. I agree with his views on Plato and Marx. He thinks of Plato as a totalitarian, and of Marx as admirable in his descriptions and analyses of capitalism of his day, but as totally wrong in his prophesies. I also agree with him on the need of governments to take a “negative utilitarian” stance — meaning that governments should strive to minimize harm, rather than to try to promote a nebulous good or happiness. I also agree with him on the need to be rational, and the need for an open society which allows for free speech (including the right of assembly and protest). I was also impressed by his description of an “abstract” society — very insightful and prophetic.

    After these agreements, you may wonder what possibly would I disagree with. There are several things: his stance on definitions and “essences,” and, what appears to me to be a disparaging view of nationalism. But here I will not discuss these. The fundamental disagreement which I have with Popper is over his non-critical view of liberal democracy. In other words he approves of mass democracy, with a parliament and a president or a prime minister. And he seems to be nonchalant about the fact that dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler gained power in liberal democracies. Well, it is understandable when some dictator grabs power through a revolution or a military coup. But for liberal democracies to sprout dictators — to use Popper’s favorite method of modus tollens — constitutes a refutation of liberal democracy. But he does not see this. And he does not seem to have the imagination to envision other hypotheses about an acceptable form of democracy. The most glaring omission is that Popper never mentions Switzerland, which is, in my opinion, the best form of liberal mass democracy. The difference between Switzerland and all other forms of liberal democracy is that Switzerland does not place executive power into the hands of one individual, but disperses it among seven co-equal individuals. Furthermore, Popper seems to have no conception of anarchism. He could have cited the anarchism of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1918-21), or the anarchism during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-9). But, he does not.

    Another point. He tries to distinguish “utopian engineering” from “piecemeal engineering.” Put otherwise, he is expressing a faith in social democracy as contrasted with revolution. I find that this distinction is not clear, for the simple reason, that a single piece of legislation could constitute a revolution. For example, according to Crane Brinton, the French Revolution occurred when Louis XVI agreed to the demands of the Third Estate that all three Estates meet together as the National Assembly. Another piece of social engineering — the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which freed the slaves, was a revolution. And I can envision that the following other amendments to the U.S. Constitution which would also constitute revolutions. Introducing a Swiss style Federal Council, or an agrarian amendment giving each citizen the right to a chunk of free subsistence land — would both be revolutions.

    The problem with this approach to “piecemeal engineering” revolutions is that it will not work, because of the structure of liberal democracies. They are structurally controlled by the rich, and the rich will never legislate such revolutionary amendments.

    Ukraine: A Bad Case of Democratic Dictatorship

    As you may or may not know from my previous postings that I regard placing political power in the hands of one person — be it a president or a prime minister — a form of democratic dictatorship. It is democratic simply because the population has elected these rulers directly or through their representatives. As an alternative, the Swiss do not have either a president or a prime minister, but a Federal Council of seven co-equal individuals.

    This unfortunate state of affairs of one-man rule is offset in federal states, i.e., countries which are divided into regions with locally elected governors and mayors, with locally managed police, prosecutors, and courts — as is, for example, the case in the United States. So, in such countries the central dictatorship is limited.

    Not so in Ukraine. Ukraine is not federated, nor, for that matter, even properly decentralized — except for mayors and local legislative councils. The president is elected by the whole country. And he makes five top-level appointments: the prime minister, the head of the army, the prosecutor general, the minister of internal affairs (police), and the minister of foreign affairs.
    (The other minsters are appointed by the prime minister.) The president also has some influence on the appointment and dismissal of judges.

    If any of these appointees does not do the will of the President, they are dismissed. So, do you think they do the President’s will? Specifically, there is central (i.e., President’s) control of whether to prosecute or not, and there is central control of when or where to send the police or army.

    The current President of Ukraine is Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comic with no political experience. The parliament is totally controlled by the President’s political party. He is a Russian-speaker, who is rapidly trying to improve his command of the Ukrainian language. His sympathies are clearly with Russian speakers. This was evident for years in his televised comedy show which was done in Russian.

    Because of the ongoing conflict with Russia in the Donbass region, the President’s will is here especially critical. So, what is his strategy in face of Russian aggression? Any country with a patriotic leader would welcome volunteer troops to fight against an agressor. But not this President. He wants to disperse volunteer combatants, and leave the fighting to the regular army. Furthermore, he is prosecuting volunteer fighters — calling them “terrorists.” And what is he doing with the regular army? He is withdrawing it from the front, and letting the aggressors advance by taking more territory.

    I call this “treason,” but then what can you expect from a Russian democratically elected dictator?

    Capitalism vs Anti-Capitalism

    There seems to be a renewed interest in what is called “socialism.” And there are all sorts of debates available on the internet, titled “Capitalism vs Socialism.” And as I listened to these debates, it is apparent that talk is at cross purposes. For one, no one in the current debates about capitalism seems to know how to define “capitalism.” All proffered definitions are inadequate. It cannot be defined simply as a market economy, because a market economy has always existed — it is called trade or barter. It cannot be defined by the incentive of profit, because that incentive again has always existed. It cannot be defined as a form of chattel slavery or serfdom. And it cannot be defined by an employer-employee relationship, because this too has always existed, as, for example, with mercenary armies.

    Capitalism — though it had prior existence — did not loom large until industrialization, i.e., until there occurred large scale factory production which needed workers. It is the method by which workers are recruited (or forced to seek work) which distinguished capitalism from such systems as slavery and feudalism. And perhaps a clear case of “recruitment” is illustrated by the British way of obtaining field workers in Africa — without resorting to slavery or feudalism, — simply by imposing a “hut tax,” which is equivalent to a contemporary property tax on real estates.

    But the root of capitalism is really even more basic. It consists in forbidding people to occupy subsistence land for free. And to enact such a policy there must be someone who by force prevents you from taking up free subsistence land. And that someone nowadays is the government. So, if the necessary condition for capitalism is this exclusion from taking up free subsistence land, and this exclusion is the work of a government, capitalism should be seen as a political matter, and, thus, the study of economics is better referred to — as it was in the past — as “political economy.” It is only, by abstracting the political element that the system thus engendered can be called “economics.”

    The upshot of my discussion is this. Anyone who talks about capitalism without mentioning the necessity of excluding people from taking up free subsistence land, does not know what they are talking about.

    Given this understanding of capitalism, the antithesis of capitalism is — if there is a government — the permission, or the right, of taking up free subsistence land.

    The only one of the recent writers who saw this clearly was Jerry Cohen, who vividly portrayed the situation by using Al Capp’s fanciful cartoon creature, the Shmoo, as representing the fruits of subsistence land.

    What is called “socialism” is meant to be a corrective to capitalism — not necessarily its antithesis, which, rightly understood, is anarchism (or “libertarian socialism”).

    The state or “authoritarian” socialist corrective relies on using a centralized government to institute welfare programs. The nearest remedy or compensation for depriving people of a free access to subsistence land, is something like a negative income tax, or a universal minimum income.

    What is presented by Richard Wolff as the “new socialism” or worker-owned and operated enterprises, seems to be a form of state socialism and social democracy. Wolff offers the Mondragon Corporation as a model. Such businesses are not antithetical to capitalism — and, in fact, are just one form of a capitalist undertaking, as are various communal enterprises, such as the Amish or the Anabaptist Mennonites. They are not antithetical to capitalism as long as their land could be purchased, and they are subject to property taxes.

    Democratic Dictatorships

    It seems to be a widespread, if not a universal, belief that liberal democracy, by which is meant that everyone is entitled to vote, is the best form of government. This may very well be true for a small community of about 150 persons, where everyone knows everyone else. But it certainly is not true for great masses of people — voting in the thousands and millions. Such voting is beyond the competence of the majority of people.

    Where such mass voting takes place, the overwhelming majority of those elected are either rich or the friends of the rich. Why? Because it takes money to persuade masses of people how to vote through advertisement and other forms of mass persuasion.

    Take as an example the Congress of the United States. Most of these representatives are very rich or are, in fact, millionaires. So it is also in every country which has a parliament.

    Now almost all countries have either a President — elected by the masses, and/or a Prime Minister — elected by rich parliamentarians. In either case, both a President and a Prime Minister express the interests of the rich. I know … I know . . . There is always something which is called a Labor Party, or a Socialist Party, or, as in the United States, the myth that the Democratic Party represents the workers. No such thing. They all represent the interests of the rich.

    This is almost inevitable because of mass democracy. Propaganda always wins elections. The question is: who controls the propaganda? And the answer is — the rich.

    And what kind of rule do the rich like? They like the rule of a single individual — either a President or a Prime Minister. In addition to already working for the rich, such “leaders” can also be bribed or threatened — both domestically and by foreign powers. I look upon both a President and a Prime Minister as Democratic Dictators. For the most part — at least in theory — their powers are prescribed. But under some circumstances they can become a Mussolini, a Hitler, or an Abraham Lincoln in which, because of real or invented threats to the national interest, Habeas Corpus is suspended, and martial law prevails — making the Democratic (faux or limited) Dictator into the full blown real Dictator.

    What lesson am I trying to impart? First, that mass democracy does not work for the poor classes. Second, if you do use mass democracy, use it as the Swiss do. Don’t elect a President or a single Prime Minister — elect — what amount to — seven co-equal Prime Ministers, representing different parties and different interests.