Monday, 27 March 2017

Bonapartism and Presidential Systems

In recent posts I have compared the regimes of Trump and May to the regimes of Putin, Erdogan, Netanyahu, and with the right-wing populism of parties in Europe such as the Front National of marine Le Pen, and the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders.  Comparison, obviously does not mean equation.  None of these regimes are the same as or interchangeable for another.  What all share is a similar appeal to a mass society, and to its amorphous and atomised elements.  They are right-wing parties that claim to be "workers-parties" on the basis of an appeal to this amorphous mass, and their claim to defend its interests against some alien "other" - usually foreigners in general and often in particular, but also the so called "metropolitan elite", which is suitably left vague and undefined.
The appeal to this amorphous mass, and claim to be a "Workers Party" is backed up by national socialist rhetoric, and policies.  For example, Le Pen and Melanchon both put forward policies for large scale fiscal expansion via public works, and infrastructure investment.  Trump having been knocked back by the Tea Party elements in the Republican Party, now looks set to try to win support from Democrats for his own programme of fiscal expansion and infrastructure spending.  May's government has rowed back, but initially reduced its commitment to further austerity, as well as throwing in talk about putting workers on company boards,
What each of them also share is an increasing tendency towards authoritarianism.  Trump has clearly been taken aback by the fact that he cannot operate as President in the same way that he did as head of a company.  He has been knocked back by the courts over his Muslim Travel ban, and by his own House Republicans over the repeal of Obamacare and introduction of Trumpcare.  His response has been to use extra-parliamentary resources, via social media, and friendly mass media outlets to attack and undermine his opponents in these other arms of government.
May's government sought to cut out Parliament from having any say over the Brexit Bill, and when the courts struck down that attempt, a similar attack on the judiciary was undertaken by the governments supporters in the right-wing media.  The government kept discussion of the Bill to a minimum, and now proposes to insert so called Henry VIII clauses into the Great Repeal Bill, that will again remove parliamentary control over the government, and grant it dictatorial powers in implementing its policies in relation to withdrawal from the EU.
It is also the case that Britain's parliamentary democracy has increasingly taken on some of the features of a Presidential system in recent decades, which led former Tory Lord Chancellor Quentin Hogg, to describe it as an elected dictatorship.  Talk about Theresa May or Gordon Brown not being "elected", meaning elected via the electorate via a General Election, reinforce those trends, by suggesting that a General Election is about electing a Prime Minister, rather than about electing a Parliament.  The introduction of Presidential style Leaders Debates at election time is another facet of that development.
In this post, therefore, I examine the relation between Bonapartism and Presidential systems.
The Brisbane Workers Liberty leaflet here: Support the Workers Not Chavez makes the case that Chavez is a Bonapartist dictator. Part of the argument is that he has been backed by business leaders. If that was the primary condition for being a Bonapartist then almost every political leader in the West would be similarly described. Another part is that he has concentrated power in his hands. I will examine that below.
The leaflet states:
Chávez has won eight elections. But he’s concentrated power in his own hands. He appoints his own vice-president and has no prime minister. He has sole power over military promotions and a big say in the appointment of judges. He can dissolve the
National Assembly and declare a state of emergency”
But this seems to reflect a lack of understanding of basic comparative politics, the difference between the kind of Parliamentary system that exists in Britain with the presidential systems that exist in other parts of the world, most notably France and the US.
DeGaulle came to power in a coup in 1958. He maintained a close relationship with the military thereafter. At the outset of the Fifth Republic there was supposed to be a bicephalous allocation of responsibility between the President and the rest of the Executive responsible to the Prime Minister. The transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic was legalised by Coty. De Gaulle made it clear he did not accept the idea of a limited presidential sector. At his press Conference of 31st January 1964 he asserted that “the individible authority of the state is completely delegated to the president by the people who elected him”. This claim to supreme and uncircumscribed power was defended by the Prime Minister Pompidou.
Pompidou, and subsequent Presidents have also assumed this supreme power of the President. Within the French presidential system the President has eight traditional presidential powers which have been transformed from formal into real powers, and seven prerogative powers, which do not require Ministerial countersignature.
The prerogative powers are.
1) The appointment and dismissal of the prime Minister. This power has been used several times by Presidents including recently to dismiss Prime Ministers that had not been defeated in Parliament.
2) The right to send messages to parliament, for example, announcing referenda
3) The right to call referenda on non-constitutional modifications to government organisation
4) The right to dissolve the Assembly
5) The right to nominate one third of the Constitutional Council
6) The right to assume Emergency Powers under Article 16 of the Constitution, giving him the power to take whatever measures are required for as long as he requires.
7) On the basis of Article 15 and under a decree of 1964, giving the President as head of the Armed Forces sole right to use the nuclear force.
The traditional powers are:
1) The appointment and dismissal of Ministers.
2) He is Chairman of Council of Ministers, effectively the Cabinet
3) He is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and presides over the national defence committee.
4) He promulgates statutes
5) Under Article 52 he is empowered to negotiate treaties, controlling foreign policy
6) The President appoints to a wide range of senior judicial, administrative and military posts including Councillors of State and judges, ambassadors and senior officers, prefects and rectors, the divisional heads of ministries, and heads of certain nationalised industries.
7) The president is “protector of the independence of the judicial authority”, he appoints and presides over the higher Council of the judiciary and exercises the right of reprieve.
8) The President can initiate an amendment to the Constitution at the request and with the countersignature of the Prime Minister – who of course is appointed by and can be sacked by the President.
But such Presidential powers are not peculiar to France. They do not reflect its Bonapartist past, or the consequences of the Fifth Republic being the child of DeGaulle’s coup.
The US
The US Presidency enjoys if anything even greater power and autonomy as the war in Iraq and other wars launched by the President without Congressional approval display. Like Chavez the US President also appoints his Vice President as running mate, and if the Vice President resigns, the President simply appoints a replacement.
As with the French President, one of the President’s most important powers is the power of appointment. In the US the top level bureaucrats are appointed by the President rather than being permanent civil servants as in Britain. Although, the Senate can challenge the President’s appointments, this hardly ever happens with the topmost appointments. The President also appoints to the Supreme Court which under the US Constitution can overrule the Congress, and even the President if their actions, or legislation is deemed ultra vires, i.e. that it is inconsistent with the basic rights and freedoms enshrined within the Constitution.
The President can remove Executive officials.
The formal body for co-ordinating policy is the Cabinet, but since 1939 Presidents have pulled control even closer to themselves through the Executive Office of the President. It contains the White House Office, The Bureau of the Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the National Security Council.
The President also controls the annual budget which is done through the Office of Management and Budget. Congress can also block budgets put forward by the President which has happened several times leading to a stalemate, but Congress usually gives in after some horse trading, because they do not want to be seen as bringing the country to a halt.
The President also controls foreign and defence policy through the National Security Council set up in 1947. The President is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and has tremendous power emanating from that role. As Galbraith demonstrated long ago the US political system is characterised by a powerful military-industrial complex. Defence contractors always have a large number of ex-Generals and Admirals on their Boards, and Defence Secretaries are themselves often connected with the military as with Colin Powell. The work associated with military contracts is also significant in economic terms, and as a means of bringing Congress men and women into line in order to obtain lucrative contracts for defence companies in their states, part of the so called pork-barrel politics.
Unlike France the President does not have the power to dissolve Congress, with elections occurring at fixed four year intervals. But that is unnecessary. Unlike France, which retains some elements of Parliamentarism, the US is not at all a Parliamentary, but a purely Presidential system. There is no Prime Minster, because the President is himself both President and Prime Minister rolled into one. The Ministers are not Ministers of a parliament, but members of the Presidents Cabinet, that he can sack and appoint at will. All of the functions that would in Britain be seen as the function of Parliament, and now of Government acting through parliament, are in the US, functions carried out by the President. If anyone’s time is to be cut short it is then that of the President, which can only be done if the President is first impeached. That rarely happens, and even in the case of Nixon he was not actually removed after impeachment, but resigned.
Yet, the US and France are countries where the bourgeois democratic revolution has been more completed than Britain, whilst in these countries power is placed in the hands of the President, which when claimed by others, like Chavez, is described as Bonapartism.  Clearly, a definition of Bonapartism requires something other than purely a description of these executive powers, or else we would describe every Presidential system in the world, as well as parliamentary systems like that in the UK that have similar executive powers, as Bonapartist.
One of the requirements set out by Marx, and by other writers, Trotsky in particular in describing Bonapartism, is not the extent to which these Presidential powers are imbued in the office, but the extent to which the State itself has been able to rise up above society, and exert an independent power largely free from the control and influence of the dominant social class within the society. That was the condition Marx set out in relation to both the first and second Bonapartes in France. In the case of the first arising from the weakness of the bourgeoisie, its reliance on the peasantry, and the continued strength, particularly in alliance with foreign monarchies of the ancient regime. In the case of the second, the continued weakness of the bourgeoisie and continuing reliance on the peasantry and petit-bourgeoisie, as against the rising power of the proletariat.
Such situations are quite rare in history reflecting periods of fairly intense social crisis. In order to describe a regime as Bonapartist it is then necessary not just to point to Presidential powers which are, in fact common to most Presidential systems, but to demonstrate that these powers are exercised on behalf of a state which has raised itself up above society, and freed itself from the control of the dominant social class. It is necessary in doing so to describe the social conditions in which that dominant social class has found itself unable to exercise its class dictatorship, and that invariably means showing that some other class has become strong enough to effectively challenge that class dictatorship.

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