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

Friday, July 04, 2008

Reflections on July 4th 

I was thinking about the holiday a few days ago, and recalled my stereotypical response: a day meant to honor the values of a new nation state announced in 1776 has degenerated into yet another time to genuflect before the altar of US militarism. And, indeed it has, obscuring the fact that the creation of the social consciousness required to support a new country was a profoundly political achievement.

Given the way the holiday is currently celebrated, one is tempted to say that the Declaration of Independence starts with an invocation of Maoist intimidation, Power flows from the barrel of a gun, in place of an exaltation of enlightenment humanism, We hold these truths to be self evident. But the militaristic displays current in vogue are closer to the truth than we want to admit. One of the primary reasons that people in the colonies wanted to secede from Britain was the refusal of the British to permit colonists to cross through the Cumberland Gap into the Ohio River Valley. Colonists wanted to seize Native American lands for privatization and settlement, preferably through coercion but through violence if necessary.

Nor was it long before the American elite had developed an appetite for new acquisitions. As I observed in my November 12, 2006 review of Sidney Lens' book, The Forging of the American Empire, the revered Alexander Hamilton could be described as the first neoconservative, because he was already engaged in intrigues for the purpose of seizing Florida and potentially the rest of the Caribbean in the mid 1790s. In other words, the US had imperial aspirations since its inception, and acted promptly to realize them. Jefferson's decision in 1803 to purchase the enormous Louisiana Territory from France ensured that the US would eventually stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His decision to overthrow the ruler of the Barbary States, and the method by which he accomplished it, foreshadowed the interwoven exercise of soft and hard power in the Middle East in the 20th Century.

The question as to when the US aspired to become an empire with global influence is not one for academics, it has contemporary relevance as I noted in my book review:

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.

Based upon such an erroneous understanding, there is a tendency to believe that if we could just return to our republican roots, the US could take its place in the world without seeking to militarily and economically dominate others. Or, to put it differently, there is a positive alternative associated with the founding of the country that provides a way to escape the violent, militaristic cul-de-sac we find ourselves trapped within today. There's just one problem: it isn't true.

Economic values that we now call neoliberalism were also a prominent feature of the country upon its birth. Again, as I said in the book review:

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.

Regrettably, if we want to make the world a better place, a world wherein we overcome the brutalities of neoconservatism and neoliberalism, we are going to have be more creative in our search for the implements to do so than romanticizing an American past that never existed.

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