'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, November 12, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: The Forging of the American Empire (Part 1) 

A few months ago, I was wandering around Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco after a march (about the war in Lebanon, I believe), and I perused the tables of various booksellers. One caught my interest because of its eclectic selection. My eyes were drawn to a book written by Sidney Lens in 1971: The Forging of the American Empire. Having never encountered it before, I paged through it, and reluctantly decided to buy it.

To date, I have only read about a third of it, but decided to post about it, anyway, as it is a delight. If this book is any indication, Lens was one of those rarities, someone capable of presenting complex historical research and analysis in a conversational form that is easily understood. Unlike many writers, he had a voice, and it is a friendly one that engages and captivates.

His fascination with American history as an intimate political and social phenomenon beyond the confines of theory shines throughout. There is a free will associated with the large cast of characters, whether Tecumseh, Jefferson or Tyler, among others, an individuality that persists as they participate in the narrative, and, in a deterministic age defined by The Clash of Fundamentalisms, there is a nostalgic charm to it.

While he walks us through the paces of the political decisions of the leaders of the day, Lens rarely loses sight of the collective social dimension that, in some instances, dictated them, or, in others, lead to unanticipated consequences and outcomes. For example, in regard to the War of 1812, he describes the imperial motivations for it, and initial public enthusiasm, but then reveals the unwillingness of many Americans to subsequently fight it, an unwillingness taken to the extreme of refusing to finance it, or even come to the assistance of forces under attack by the British. He emphasizes something that is often marginalized in the popular consciousness of this period: the extent to which fears over possible succession by various parts of the country at different times constrained the expansionist impulse, even before the slavery question became so contentious.

Similarly, the distinction between war, conquest and property theft was slippery, socially, more so than politically, as Lens highlights the role of filibustering, attempts by the hardy, the restless, and the lawless to establish private empires of their own in relatively unoccupied regions (translation: predominately Native American areas under the nominal control of Mexico). Filibustering played a prominent role in the acquisition of West Florida (the coastal regions of Alabama, Mississippi and most of the current Florida panhandle), East Florida, as well as, of course, Texas. Filibustering was an endeavor that the federal government lacked the capacity to suppress, even if it had been inclined to do so. Cormac McCarthy's great novel, Blood Meridian, is a harrowing account of a variation of this activity, the killing of Native Americans living on land under contract for white settlement.

All of this, however, would limit the significance of the book to the realm of history, even if we acknowledge that Lens' possessed an acute understanding of how it is shaped by politicians, the populace and economic developments. But there are additional aspects that deserve our attention today. First, and most importantly, Lens exposed the myth that the United States did not display imperial aspirations, and act upon the, until much later, say, 1898, with the Spanish American War. It is important, because there remains a belief to this day that the US was originally a republic devoid of territorial ambitions. It was, in other words, an idealized place where farmers, merchants and shippers sought commerce with much of the rest of the world despite the obstruction of foreign mercantilist powers. Echoes of it can be found among libertarians, Gore Vidal and even Chalmers Johnson. Lens emphasizes that many prominent political figures openly expressed, since the country's inception, the urgency of obtaining large territories to the north, south and west, by war, if necessary.

Indeed, by Lens' account, Alexander Hamilton could be accurately described as both the country's first neoconservative and first neoliberal. Neoconservative, because, like the contemporary ones, he distrusted the masses, promoted the creation of an executive branch with powers analoguous to monarchy and possessed a fondness for intrigues, military force and territorial expansion. He tried, unsuccessfully, to provoke a war with France in the 1790s so as to seize the Floridas, Louisiana, and conceivably, most of Central and South America. Meglomaniacal grandiosity, it appears, did not originate with the participants in the Project for a New American Century.

Hamilton also simultaneously possessed neoliberal qualities as well. He funded the national debt as Secretary of the Treasury, and, here, we observe the beginnings of a system whereby debt interest serves the dual purpose of promoting the primitive accumulation of capital, by redistributing income from laborers to financiers through taxation required to make bond payments, contributing to the outbreak of the Fries Rebellion in 1796, and, quite predictably, rendering these same laborers more economically vulnerable and constricting the ability of the government to assist them. He also, according to Lens, extolled the virtues of child labor, much like transnationals traverse the globe today, looking for the most impoverished places to obtain a docile workforce, including children, to manufacture and assembly their products.

Second, Lens provides a brief, fascinating account of the Barbary States conflict, one that foreshadows the methods of future US involvement in the nearby Middle East. Discontented with the rapidly escalating costs of paying tribute to the rulers of these North African states to ensure safe passage for maritime shipping, President Jefferson found himself in a conflict with them, which could not be won militarily. Jefferson then, rather reluctantly, supported what we would now call a covert operation, an effort to remove the Pasha of Tripoli and replace him with his brother. The ragtag force succeeded, but Jefferson accepted the Pasha's favorable settlement offer, apparently because of the possibility that the Pasha might kill 300 captured American prisoners.

Today, the most striking aspect of the story is the practicality displayed in reaching this settlement, and avoiding a potentially more violent, calamitous conflict. At that time, it was not necessary that the Pasha govern according to the prescriptions of US advisors, purchase weapons for US arm manufacturers and privatize his economy for the benefit of Wall Street brokerages and transnational corporations. The unmolested passage of American ships along his coastline was enough. By the end of the 20th Century, the US could no longer achieve its far more intrusive objectives through such indirect means, resulting in the application of direct military force, with disasterous consequences in Iraq.

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