Wednesday, 12 August 2020

“Once-Upon-a-Time America”. But is it really so?

  • Category: Texts
  • Published: Wednesday, 12 April 2017 22:15

Overcoming an instinctive rejection crisis, we return to the subject of post-election USA, which has confirmed what we have been arguing for decades about the role of “armoured democracy” (or “democratic dictatorship”) in drugging the “sovereign people” and pushing through what are – with all due contradictions – the primary needs of Capital - a topic already discussed with regard to Brexit1. The generalized chaos, the challenge to situations that seemed fully consolidated, the somersaults and about-turns in domestic and international politics (together with the many, now “chronic” wars scattered around the world) dominate the international panorama: evident proof to us that, beyond any rashly optimistic judgements from the “experts”, the economic crisis is pursuing its course undeterred and, above all, preparing new upheavals. As to what is going on in the United States - still the most powerful imperialism, battered and breathless as it may be – this is revealing, since it represents none other than the amplification of dynamics destined to develop (or become more radical) elsewhere.

It’s as well to repeat ourselves

Firstly, let us recall what we wrote at the time when Barack Obama was elected: “We communists have always denied a) that individuals make history and b) that it is the institutional offices (such as the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister or anyone else) or democratic institutions (such as Parliament, rather than the local council) that “do politics” – being offices and institutions whose only purpose is, perhaps to amplify, like actual sound systems, a purely ideological line of “national” consensus, wholly functional to the interests of capital. It was never the demagogic oratories of Mussolini from the balcony in Piazza Venezia or Roosevelt’s ‘fireside talks’ on the radio (or, today, the parliamentary debates or TV talk shows, often undistinguishable one from the other) that ‘make history’ – as far as capital is concerned, history, far less noisily but far more materially, was ‘made’ and is ‘made’ by the banks, the financial institutions, the cartels, the trusts ... and, at the given moment, by the cannons. But the words and the speeches served and still serve to fill people’s brains: to reassure them and make them exalt, when and to the extent that it is necessary to smooth the path of the nation’s capital. Now, in the midst of its crisis, the United States (as any other country undergoing a crisis) is also experiencing the crisis (domestic and foreign) of the ideological discourse of national consensus: that ideological glue capable of holding together the ‘body of the nation’, denying the existence of antagonistic or incompatible interests and preparing it to swallow its bitter medicine, whilst leading it by hand towards a progressive series of outside conflicts, first “cultural” and ideological, then diplomatic and finally in the form of outright warfare. Succeeding in making the ideological glue efficient on a wide scale again – this is the problem that faces the US ruling class […]” 2.

It was 2008 and, drugged by Obamian fine feelings, the “sincere democrats” never dared (or could) take a look below the surface, where things really mature and start to go on the boil.

The same article continued: “In the meantime, the new President mixes the ingredients for the glue: one for the hare and one for the hounds. And there is no doubt that he will have to pass measures to ‘relaunch the economy’ (the poor automobile!), to ‘cure social ills’ (the disastrous healthcare! the growing poverty! the increasing unemployment!), ‘to reorganize the finance and banking system’ (mortgages! speculation! shaky institutions!). He will have to do all this to avoid social rebellion. But (and here the ‘But’ is truly monumental!) he will have to get hold of the money for all this: and he will get hold of it by a) greater exploitation of the American proletariat (who will thus lose three times as much as what is demagogically conceded to them), b) an increasing internal debt (which will be offloaded onto all the countries that are already financing it now: virtually the whole world, including ... the suckers!), c) growing commercial, and thus also military, aggression. And it is here that the glue will have to prove itself, both at home and abroad”.

Did that glue prove strong enough? Only up to a point and only for certain sectors of America’s (and by reflection the world’s) population. In the meantime, however, the crisis continued to consume space after space, removing brick after brick from that fine construction of smiling optimism (“Yes, we can!”). Thus, the day after Trump’s election, whilst the world seemed to divide into the “prostrate” (anti-Trump) and the “exultant” (pro-Trump), while all this was happening, we wrote:

 

Will the prostrate ever ask themselves how eight years of the much celebrated and much loved Man of Providence can possibly have left us with a scenario of such profound ill-being, of such furious resentment? Will they still, timidly, try to pull out of the top hat the health reform and immigration reform, those two massive con tricks (as we demonstrated at the time, figures in hand), aiming to provide a palliative for the minute sector of the half classes, terrorised at the idea of being plunged deeper into the abysses, and leaving the others to struggle in the mud and shit of daily life? Will they ever understand that this is how, once again, Capital has celebrated its own pomp and splendour beneath the banner of divide et impera, at the same time accumulating contradictions that it is incapable of managing? Some fine spirit (some philosopher, some columnist) has commented meekly: ‘We are divided…We are two nations….’! Well, how about that! And the exultant – what will they say when the same higher interests of Capital rage against them, further massacring entire regions, towns and cities that have already been massacred, already left to rust, to dry up or drown? When, after the Big Words and the chorus girls are over, ‘their’ Man (or Woman) of Providence, will have to come to terms with what is dictated to him (or her) by the impersonal and unavoidable laws of Capital, and at that point will only be able to spread his (or her) arms, invoking the supreme good of the Nation, the Fatherland, the National Economy and run off to find a new temporary Enemy?” 3.

The Emperor has no clothes on

And so the umpteenth US election fairground has come to an end amidst enthusiasm and consternation. And it was, indeed, a fairground, even more so than usual: exchanges of low accusations between candidates, suspicions of cheating and foreign interference, a “people’s” vote in favour of the democratic candidate (65 million votes against 62) overturned by the outcome of the Electoral College (the “presidential electors”), who gave 304 votes to the republican candidate and 227 to the democratic one, and we shall leave aside other aspects relating to – so to say! – custom. This would suffice to show what “democracy” is made of!

The new President is thus the … cherry on the cake … Do you really still believe in it all? Even after so-called Brexit and Donald Trump? To us there are no surprises. As always, Capital has made its demands felt. The cautious measures – actually, cautious only up to a point – adopted by the previous administration (which also responded to the needs of Capital) were insufficient to put back on the rails an economy and a society that continue to be seriously out of breath and undergoing a perennial crisis: whole regions out of kilter both economically and socially, a problematic labour market, growing social tension (have we already forgotten the ongoing murders of young black people by the “forces of law and order”? And what is on the boil in the “rust belt” made up of out-of use factories and communities abandoned to their own devices, where the highest rates of suicides and deaths due to drug and alcohol abuse are recorded?), an unsatisfactory performance on an international panorama marked by instability and growing competition… A change of direction was required, new aggressiveness, new decision-making. Enough intellectual and multicultural “fine feelings”! The upper middle classes have had their little rewards, both material and ideological: now they can lie down again and keep quiet! Now what is of concern are the chronically sick, the middle and lower-middle class (including the white, working-class aristocracy) who have seen the hands of the clocks advancing and their money in the bank retreating, who still have the nightmare of the mortgage and all those “financial products” that have continued to pop up like mushrooms over recent decades – before and after the 2008 crisis. They must be brought back into line, neutralized with a massive dose of populist demagogy, pride in the “stars-and-stripes” (“America First!”: but, with a different subject, isn’t this the slogan of all ruling classes?!) and appeals to gut-feeling, with loud shouting, inspired by the bars-beer-and-ballerinas, against the establishment, the Government, Wall Street… the repertory is vast, there is no lack of actors: and, if they, too, fail to play their part properly, well, there’s always a change of guard at the ready. Saint Democracy!

So much for the ideology. But democracy and the needs of Capital go arm in arm: does it come as any surprise, then, if “Trump’s troupe” consists exclusively of army men, billionaires, the ex-CEOs of multinationals…? All hard at their good (super-paid) work as communicators, door-to-door salespeople, the loudspeakers of the “superior demands of the Nation”. As mentioned, the world scenario is uncertain and there’s no more need of bullshit: what’s needed is muscles! “But,” some may ask, “how do we explain the bewilderment running through the ranks of the Republican Party, too, or some sectors of big business and the media? (Wall Street, nonetheless, is cheering – for the moment). Again, does this come as any surprise? It’s the sign that we have been indicating for quite some time: under the pressure of a crisis that is proceeding along its own path, the contradictions (including those within every national capital) are multiplying and growing deeper and, most important, the ruling class is increasingly less able to manage them: to control the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. If you like, the boorish vulgarity of a Trump is a revelation: a ruling class incapable of “generating” anything other than this sort of figure as its representative - its spokesperson - why, this is a ruling class fit for the junkyard!

On the other hand, this issue is not of interest to the United States alone, though inevitably the strongest imperialism lays down the law in this field, too: the whole world is undergoing upheaval and as contrasts become keener the ideas of the national ruling classes on how to manage the crisis become more and more confused and the “political caste” distinctly reveals that it is the offspring of the social parasitism that always accompanies capitalism’s imperialist phase. Everyone struggles to find the “recipe” but there is no “recipe”: the study on the “course of capitalism” that we are publishing demonstrates this, figures in hand. Suffice it to think of the continual wavering between free trade and protectionism, the incessant polemics accompanied by threats and retorts regarding customs duty (other peoples’), the game of this evening’s alliances and sympathies, which are already being questioned the next morning, the constant, and increasingly worn recourse to the demagoguery of “all against all” (today the term “populism” is fashionable: but in actual fact it’s an age-old beast, if anything rendered more vicious with the passing of time)...

How long is all this going to last? Until it becomes necessary to play the final hand: that of actual preparation for a new, generalized conflict, no longer local or confined to one area, but worldwide (and in fact the arms industry is doggedly pursuing its course). At this point, faced with the “Enemy of the Hour”, the ruling class will be obliged to close ranks and bring itself to order (above all imposing discipline!), showing a single face – that of open anti-proletarian repression, at home and in the theatres of war.

In the meantime, under an increasingly naked (and crude) democracy, we proceed down a path consisting of accelerating processes and intensification of measures. Some now speak openly of “fascism”: but what has not been noted is that “fascism” was already there, disguised and made up as “democracy”. And it was acting undisturbed, since it was and is “democratic”, it was and is acceptable – indeed, necessary. It came into and comes into the normal course of things.

The Emperor has no clothes on!” shouted the boy in the fairy tale. “Democracy has no clothes on!” we say: and it is increasingly revealing its true face, what it is really made of.

“American values”? “The Statue of Liberty”?

Continuity?” the “sincere democrat” will ask, scandalized. Yes, continuity, as becomes evident if we look beyond the empty formulae and thundering rhetoric. Let us give just one example, regarding immigration and the measures for containing it that have been causing such an uproar ever since Trump took up the presidency: the famous wall with Mexico, deportations, the black lists, the bans on entry for the citizens of certain “Muslim countries”, etc. One forgets only too easily (the other face of “democratic right-thinking” is in fact rapid memory loss) that half of that wall already existed, having been built and perfected, using sophisticated tools, by all the presidencies of the past fifteen years (Obama’s included); that deportations have never ceased over all these years; that the much-celebrated Reform of Immigration “legalized” a situation that regarded only half of illegal immigrants and even in that form had strong class prejudices (in practice it legalized the positions of those who could afford it: i.e. certain petit-bourgeois sectors) 4. And so on. This is the continuity. Not wanting to realize that processes are accelerating and measures are being intensified means obstinately trying to imagine that, in the tumultuous and anarchical path of the capitalist mode of production, particularly when hit by an economic crisis like the one we have been experiencing for decades now, harmonious phases are to be found, miraculous and pacific intermezzos, the placid suspension of time: thanks to one Man (or Woman) of Providence…

Once-Upon-a-Time America,” read the headlines of the Italian, “left-wing” daily, Il Manifesto, on 29 January 2017: as if “once upon a time” on the other side of the Atlantic (or Pacific, accordingly), there had been a “golden age” or at least a rosy age to look back on nostalgically. For his part, at his leave-taking, when responding to Trump’s heavy-hitting declarations, Obama (the good cop, alternating with the bad cop!) urged people not to stray from … “American values”. Right then, let’s take a closer look at this facile democratic rhetoric. Has there ever been, in the history of North America from the 1600s onwards, an age in which society, divided into classes, failed to make its brute power felt? In which the capitalist mode of production, having put down its roots ex novo in the continent, failed to lord it over peoples and classes? For the time being, let us leave aside the genocide of the native people and the horrors of slavery, which are all, however, to be attributed to the tumultuous and ruthless history of how capitalism took root in those lands. We can even start from the end of the Civil War (1865), by which the process of political and economic detachment of the New World from the Old World was completed. It must be remembered that behind the rhetoric of “free the slaves”, stood the necessity for big, industrial capital to have at hand, within a capitalist market that now extended across the whole of the North American continent, a “free” labour force: free, that is, to be hired and fired, drawn to wherever capital wanted it, blackmailed and liable to be blackmailed, mobile and “without ties” apart from those of the market laws. And this “liberation” transformed the ex-slaves into salaried slaves in the fields and in the cities. And from this moment onwards came the real start (doors flung wide open) of the great flux of immigration at the service of US capitalism’s overwhelming development, which in the space of just over three decades was able to overtake the, by then, aging economic predominance of Great Britain. Yes, immigrants welcomed with open arms… We’ve read and heard it over and over between January and February. “That was America! A country that welcomed and didn’t turn away!”

But, oh suckers! Those twenty-one million Italians, Spaniards, East-Europeans, Turks, Cypriots and so on, who entered the United States between the end of the 1800s and the 1920s, what did they do in the cities and towns of the east, the west, the north and the south? They laboured fifteen hours a day, men, women, children and old people, in factories and “sweat shops”, in unhealthy buildings, massacred by consumption, the savage pace of work, accidents in the work place, fires, sometimes fighting amongst themselves over a piece of bread but more often fighting back magnificently even though in desperate political isolation, with strikes lasting weeks and months, with open fights against the legal and illegal gangs of entrepreneurial and state repression, to defend and attempt to better their living and working conditions. “Once-Upon-a-Time America”: but this is what America was for the immigrants – whether they came from Europe or from Central and South America or Asia. They were useful: they were commodities, they provided labour from which profit could be extracted. Not exactly a “golden age” for the immigrants! “Golden” was what the age was for capital.

Over those few days when yet another ramshackle spokesperson of US capital announced a ban on entry for citizens of a certain number of “Muslim countries”, there was an indignant outcry of: “What?! And the Statue of Liberty, those words engraved on the plaque at its base: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, etc…’? What has become of that America?”. Well, let’s take a clearer look beyond the raised torch. Let’s remember what stands behind it, because this is exemplary of the whole of the “immigration issue”. The Statue of Liberty, with its powerful symbolic significance that has never ceased to exert itself right up to today, was inaugurated in 1886 (and the plaque with the famous lines of poetry was added to the base in 1903). Between

1881 and 1920, around twenty-one million immigrants entered the United States. BUT… only two years before the inauguration of that “symbol of freedom and welcome”, Congress had approved a law integrating previous legislation (and that would be renewed and made permanent in 1903): the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884 explicitly banned any further entries into the United States by Chinese workers (the only “categories” exempt from the law regarded diplomatic staff and their service personnel). A small island in San Francisco Bay was made into a “sorting centre”, where immigrants from China remained for months before being sent back home: an immigration and detention centre (Italian CIE) of the time. So whilst the gates were flung open to the east, those in the west were ruthlessly sealed. “American values”?

This law (made even harsher in the mid-‘Twenties, was to hold until 1943, when – for reasons strictly connected to the world war – it was abrogated: fifty-seven years of exclusion!) had dramatic consequences: there were, in fact, several tens of thousands of Chinese who had already immigrated into the United States before 1884 and were labouring in the mines of the West, building the great transcontinental railroads, working in laundries and in restaurants. They were mostly young males who, as always happens in migratory flows, trusted that in a few years they would be joined by their wives or fiancées or the rest of their family and instead, because of that law, found themselves transformed with brutal violence into “single men” – the “bachelor society” as it was called. Exploitation, loneliness, isolation, deep traumas.

Meanwhile, the torch of the Statue of Liberty continued to shine for those who were arriving from Europe. Only up until 1924, though, when another turn of the legal screw, accompanied by vicious racist campaigns, placed a strict limit on the flow of European workers, too, especially Italians and Jews from East Europe. “American values”?

Nonetheless, for all these decades the southern gates (on the border with Mexico and thus towards Central and South America) were and remained open, with a constant flow of more desperate people in search of survival: destined to stay desperate even on US territory, oppressed by ultra-repressive laws (like those prohibiting mixed marriages!) and widespread racism. More commodities to be oppressed and transformed into profit, constantly hounded by the nightmare of the migra (the border police), deportation, induced illegality, poverty: a story worth examining in greater detail in the future. For now it will suffice to stress the basic truth that the “tap” of immigration into the United States has been turned continuously on and off, re-opened and closed again, affecting in turn one “national sector” or another (divide et impera), according to the needs of the capitalist labour market and the needs of the national economy, with the inevitable consequences and additions of ideological mobilization, to identify the “foreigner” of the moment who is to be guarded against. And, let’s take note: in some periods, such as the 1930s, the “foreigner” was the white proletarian, too, travelling around in search of work: the “sincere democrats” could even go and read (or re-read: ah, how fragile memory is!) a novel like The Grapes of Wrath, to get an idea of this…

“Once-Upon-a-Time America”: where? “American values”: which?

 

And the US working class?

At this point we seem to hear the resentful objections of the “sincere democrats”: “Yes, but your working class has voted the racist Trump!” Fine, this allows us a last, brief consideration. Leaving aside the obvious reply: the US proletariat does not consist solely of the stratum (certainly large and growing) of “poor whites”, of white workers in the grip of despondency and themselves victims of the most bastardly and loutish racism. It consists also, and mostly, of blacks and Latinos, certainly not upholders of “white supremacy”: if anything, themselves influenced and drugged by democratic ideology! But above all let us remind ourselves that we communists do not believe that the proletariat in itself, in its DNA, contains a metaphysical, classist and revolutionary imprint: it is a class in itself, defined, statistically within the capitalist mode of production and as such subject to all the pressure and influences of the ruling ideology, the environment in which it lives and works, the family, schools, the church, the workplace, the mass media – formidable tools for the creation and spreading of mainstream ideas. The class in itself is not by nature able to identify its own historical objectives and thus its own “friends and enemies”. We communists know, by means of the theoretical analysis and practical experience coming from two centuries of cruel struggles, that the proletariat is subjected to all these influences; that only in open battle (which it is forced into, not because of infused knowledge but because of the material need to survive) will it be able to attain some degree of awareness of its “friends and enemies”; and it is only thanks to constant contact with the revolutionary party that it will be able to express, from within its ranks, the avant-garde capable of guiding it towards the open clash with the ruling class and its political, union and military henchmen – briefly, with the capitalist mode of production.

After the election there have been ceaseless mobilizations and demonstrations, even firmly convinced ones: they are welcome but if they remain “anti-Trump” and fail to pose the objective of becoming openly anti-capitalist, they will lead nowhere, if not to more despondency, disappointment and disaggregation. Instead, what is going on in the United States (and in the world) reiterates, yet again, how urgent is the hard work of theoretically, practically and organizationally restoring the party-organ worldwide, even though it is still, for some time to come, destined to produce meagre results in the short term. Without this alternative political pole, a minority one and certainly not a mass phenomenon but totally antagonistic to electoral, democratic-reformist, pacifist practices, the proletariat in any country will always be at the mercy of all the ideological and practical forces of conservation and reaction, the most revolting that capitalism has ever generated and will generate: right up to patriotic incitements against “the Enemy”. And so, unless we work towards putting down worldwide roots for the revolutionary party, it is useless to waste tears on the “advance of the right wing”: willingly or not, we are accomplices – that is all there is to it.

 

 

2 “The New US President and Suckers International Ltd”, Internationalist Papers, n. 14/2009. Also on our webesite: http://www.internationalcommunistparty.org/images/pdf/ip/IP-14-2009.pdf.

3 See “The Prostrate and the Exultant; or, the New US President and the Convenient Idiots”, http://www.internationalcommunistparty.org/index.php/en/2048-the-prostrate-and-the-exultant-or-the-new-us-president-and-the-convenient-idiots.

4 In this respect, see again the analysis we provided in the article “USA. Immigration Reform: new bait for the geese”

Il programma comunista, no.2/2013. The same argument applies for healthcare reform: see “USA. Healthcare Reform: the umpteenth scam for proletarians”, Il programma comunista, no.4/2010.   

 

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