Saturday, May 28, 2011

American Exceptionalism and Socialism, or, the old methods of avoiding it won't work anymore

American Exceptionalism has traded on the idea, from the very start of the US, that freedom and liberty are just naturally there, that the United States in colonial times already possessed great fairness and equality, liberty and freedom, and that the goal of society and social intervention since then should simply be to preserve this unique heritage.
Reading the Jacobin writings of Robespierre, a figure who turned bloodthirsty but who was also eloquent, they indicate that in the radical French Revolution one of the ideas was to put into action the same principles of the Enlightenment in society that American thinkers felt already existed in the United States. The Declaration of Independence talked about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and yet after the creation of the Constitutional system large inherited plantations were preserved, along with slavery, and indentured servitude persisted although it declined. Liberty, and freedom to make something of yourself, was thought to be guaranteed by the wide open frontier to the west of the colonies, where farmers and small businessmen could move when the concentration of wealth in a particular area grew too much. Class society could theoretically be avoided by giving these opportunities. Slavery as well presented an American Exceptionalist safety valve, in that white Americans in the South had an objectively higher standard of living in that the hard work was done by unfree labor. Slaves in a sense could be thought of as taking the place of the working class, thereby making free whites more able to share in economic prosperity without, theoretically, serious class divisions arising among them. Immigrants too were a source of a safety valve for the combination of white supremacy and American Exceptionalism, and remain so today. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the hard work of society, in the north, was done increasingly by immigrants from Ireland, Eastern and Southern Europe, and in earlier times Germany, where people from these backgrounds took the place of poor Anglo whites doing the dirty manufacturing and service jobs that they would most likely not want to perform. When it was seen that the increasing importation of folks from non-Anglo/Irish/Germanic countries had the possibility to jeopardize the racial and ethnic composition of America, strict rules were put in place that essentially stopped immigration from Italy, Poland, Russia, and elsewhere. Convenience was not worth the potential long term effects.
Similarly, today Mexican laborers take the jobs that no one wants, that would cause an uproar in the white community if regular white people were forced to take them, and the emergence of class divergence is delayed. Geopolitical factors also played and play a part.
After the destruction of both the Soviet Union, Japan, and Europe in World War II, the United States emerged as the only intact power, able to rev up its factories to sell its goods to the rest of the world that was trying to reconstruct itself from the ruins. With the end of the war, America entered a golden economic age where it appeared that, no class society would not emerge here, and that the only thing needed to stop injustice was a few social programs here and there. The prosperity of America in this case was dependent on the desolation of other nations, and once those nations recovered the American economy started to stagnate because it couldn't effectively respond to the competition with better products, although it's a heresy to say as much. However, the lack of quality was possibly made from the top down. Now that the economy has once more tanked due to neoliberalism, the second time after the engineered shock therapy induced in the late Carter administration and the early Reagan administrations by Fed Chief Paul Volcker, what's being presented to us is evidence that American Exceptionalism, American economic Exceptionalism and the issues associated with it, is a flawed idea in a fundamentally capitalist system.
One can dispossess Native Americans and expand westward out to the frontier, can import slaves from Africa, import immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in Europe, and invite workers from Mexico to the United States to work for nothing, but capitalism itself will still assert its tendencies and the preference for greed over social and economic justice will lead to a situation of collapse and inequality. And it will affect not just those on the bottom but the previously privileged classes, both ethnically and economically, up to a certain point, and they will feel the pain too. America as a bastion of free market economics sustained by an Exceptionalism guaranteed by a unique political and social path is unsustainable, and a socialist reckoning with both inequality and the way that economic decisions are made is inevitable.

No comments: