America on the March: International Relations Framework

The war machine grinds on. It is inseparable from the structural-ideological process of US capitalist development, itself a unified historical track in which structure and ideology are mutually reinforcing, the latter more causative, an independent variable unlike in most other societies, because of the way capitalism arose in America. Go back to the inception of the society. America as a fragment of, the projection from, and colonization by Europe, had largely left the institutions of feudalism behind (not however slavery, which, on close inspection, had already assumed capitalistic form—the one institution theoretically premodern that by virtue of having escaped the past had become modern). Absent the feudal systemic-cultural heritage, that which remained in Europe a structural impediment to capitalism, America essentially broke free from history: it was born capitalistic, and did not have to become so. Nor therefore did it have to experience revolution as the means for achieving modal change. This is to say, its capitalism was if not still-born then at least pressed into a mold of finality, a fully-formed capitalism, petrifaction its inner motif, certain of itself, mature at birth—in conventional terms, Lockean in origins.

Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America developed the argument about the absence of feudalism in shaping American historical development, the result of which, in his view, was a pattern of consensus on fundamental values, a puristic form of capitalism (although he did not use the description) which was linear rather than dialectical and hence was characterized by the comparative lack of social protest in the American past. We were all capitalistic, we were all Lockean, protest itself occurring strictly within the boundaries of capitalism. The consensus formulation is saturated with conservative meaning: no protest to speak of, nothing then to protest against, and America Voltaire’s best of all possible worlds predicated on abundance, justice, equality.

This is not the America I knew and studied, yet in the 1950s as an unerring sign of the Cold War and the historiography accommodating itself to meet it, we saw Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform engaged in revising and transvaluing the past into a capitalist paradisiacal bliss in which “radicals” were lost liberals who just more vociferously affirmed capitalism or else, outside the consensus, demonstrably irrational, the source of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, reprehensible, unworthy of further mention. Radicalism had no moral standing in America. (My first professional venture was a scathing critique of Hofstadter’s book .) The collection of essays, The New American Right, contributors including Seymour Martin Lipset, reinforced the consensus thesis, including discrediting those that did not fit, and somehow the agreed target was American Populism, the term populist itself entering the political vocabulary as a retrograde social force/movement par excellence—to this day. Hartz, on the other hand, was a non-polemical scholar dwelling in the abstract heavens of theory. Yes, his consensus formulation muted or discounted social protest, but in our conversations and as a reader of my dissertation on Populism he was prepared to modify the consensus thesis and credit Populism’s incipient radicalism.

Hartz’s Lockean construct nonetheless has value because it emphasizes America’s preponderant regard for capitalism, which, when taken from there (where he did not go), from every vantage point, especially the ideological, de-legitimates radicalism, and makes intelligible what concerns us now: the US unilateral pursuit of global hegemony, a quest which step-by-step can be seen beginning in the late-18th century with the American Revolution confirmatory of the nation’s non-revolutionary course, and if anything the releasing of mercantilist energies (and corresponding class formation), that by John Quincy Adams and the Monroe Doctrine made America an international player in market penetration. In foreign policy, Hartz, though not his interest or intent, may have been entirely right, the single-minded hegemonic thrust into world politics and economics, so that throughout the late-19th century one sees the Open Door as the aggressive statement and practice of market imperialism (a subtle shift from mercantilism to the imperialism of free trade), which under Theodore Roosevelt—and just prior, the War of 1898, again confirmatory, here the next step—becomes the militarization of expansion, including territorial acquisition and the Battleship Navy.

When we thus look around, to say 1910 and thereabouts, America has lost any Innocence it claimed for itself, and with the domestic structure now fully caught up with foreign policy, i.e., the concentration of industry and banking, under TR’s Progressive dispensation, business-government interpenetration under the watchful eye of the House of Morgan, the US Coming of Age is more or less complete. From here on out, America can be expected to behave like every world-class imperialist power, except that in place of traditional imperialism via closed trading areas and colonialism, it sought a broadly counterrevolutionary role in international politics, the world open to American trade, investment, raw-materials extraction, and market penetration, all in all, construed to mean, as needed, the meddling in the internal affairs of the countries subject to penetration. No bounds, no limits, inherently expansionist AND antiradical, so that after the coming of age we put a candle on the birthday cake, Wilson’s Siberian Intervention for the purpose of destroying Bolshevism. By 1920 and through the further consolidation of American business during the decade of the ‘twenties, trade-association activity an important facilitator, the US has taken a major step in capitalist structural-financial advancement.

This historical, developmental placement squarely in the framework of monopoly capital, accompanied and integrated by an unabashedly probusiness ideology so intense and pervasive as to be identified with 100% Americanism, did in fact fix ideological limits on FDR, the New Deal, and America’s response to the Great Depression. At best, the logjam was broken on social welfare and labor policies, and much that I find in the New Deal was profoundly beautiful and commendable, from WPA and the Wagner Act to the Farm Security Administration. FDR, faithful to his Groton principles of Christian stewardship, as well as personally through overcoming the deadening spiritual (but not physical) effects of polio reached out to an American people broken, out of work, dispirited, and instilled hope in them and the future and tried through government programs to restore their vanished sense of dignity: a high water mark in American leadership, an authenticity of regard for the poor, the unemployed, a biracial America, not seen since, in the catalogue of US presidents, a galaxy of mediocrities and, judging from the interventions and wars, worse.

Yet FDR and the New Deal rode the overall dynamic of market imperialism, perhaps more so than had he wanted, due to the exigencies of recovery. But starting with the Good Neighbor Policy, America was in the hegemonic game plan, and also was less than helpful to antifascist popular movements in the mid- to late-thirties. The domestic-foreign dichotomy held even for the New Deal, and to put a not-so-fine point on policy, there was on the domestic side, through the National Recovery Administration, further encouragement of monopolization, carrying forward more systematically (as through code authorities) than TR could hope to realize, the interpenetration of business and government. It required all the work of economic concentration in the 1920s to make effective what followed, an internal business structure not vastly different from European corporatism in Germany and Italy. Thus New Deal democratization, still moderate at best, in its reform and recovery measures cannot or should not blind us to a direction in foreign policy consonant with America’s brand of open-trade imperialism and concern for spheres of influence. World War II was as much for Roosevelt and America in the early stages a fight against closed trading areas as it was one directly opposing fascism as such. In the course of the war, postwar planning was aimed at continuing the march toward global commercial-financial hegemony.


Seventy years have passed, and there has been no alteration of direction. How could there be? The foregoing very brief sketch describes the consistency of imperialist purpose, a continuity of practice only made possible because there have been no internal or for that matter external obstructions to capitalist development—a forward retrogression, if I may, in which development results in closure, greater class-stratification, diminished labor rights, an obviously intrusive social control of the population, all thought to be necessary for the stability of the corporate order and the government to serve its needs. For the public, foreign policy is off limits, in part to ensure a degree of social blindness (i.e., false consciousness) so as not to detect how vital and imperative markets and continued expansion are to the profitability and security of a capitalist system, and more specifically, the extent of intervention and stirrings of war to their achievement. We become soldiers of capitalism, a lock-stepped politics far more consensus-oriented than Hartz ever realized, perhaps because he underrated the consistency of US imperialism as an important structural attribute of the system, particularly its accentuation in America, and the parallel hardening of ideology into place, to supply a repressive cast to individual thought, so as to encourage a patriotic identification with the purposes and goals of business, even if, and especially if, the object of the fervor is the uniform, the flag, war, intervention, all suitable diversions from the ongoing process of increasing capitalist power at home and abroad.

America on the march, never satisfied, seemingly unexhausted, the connoisseur nation because the world is by right its oyster. Most recent, but that is hardly the correct time-frame when in reality the continuity of administrations in foreign policy, suggesting the interchangeability of presidents, has led to where we presently are, Obama is a suave Bush, more effective in extending imperialism while ensuring its military- as well as its market-dimension. Obama is not Metternich, but as an amateur geostrategic planner, supported by a rafter of war-professionals, essentially amoral, bloodless, he has a global vision as ambitious as America has seen, and therefore equal to or more dangerous than usual comparisons to Republicans. Party differences hardly matter in this realm. Yet Democrats are peculiar in their desire for accreditation, the proof-positive they crave to be thought 100% American, perhaps in the delusion their domestic policy is so radical as to call into question their patriotism. It isn’t: they are counterfeit Republicans with few exceptions.

One could envisage Obama coming on the scene as primarily an empty vessel (like Bush)–whose policy advisors have distinguished themselves in their anticommunist rectitude, ideologues in the vein of Forrestal, Kissinger, the Dulles Brothers, Wolfowitz, to name a few, from such an abundant pool—prone to accept the grandiose message or siren song of America’s final triumph over communism by taking on Russia and China together as twin evils to be sliced and diced, weakened, dismembered, converted to the faith (even though, as I’ve written, their respective social systems possess significant elements of capitalism already). Obama aspires to be of the manor born, a world statesman of counterrevolution, the only kind that seems to gain recognition these days, at least from the American perspective—and to qualify requires undoubted credentials of opposing any and all who stand in the way of US supremacy, a test the failure of which makes one an opponent of America and therefore a communist and fair game for harsh treatment. The ethnocentric breakdown, We vs. they, is the ruling mindset.

The fabric of aggression is finely woven, simultaneous attention devoted in the Obama administration, more so than in his predecessor’s, to Europe and Asia as potentially interlocking threats, to be opposed by every available means. The scurrilous phrase, all options are on the table, comes to mind, for Russia, a more avowedly military confrontation, with NATO rubbing up against the Russian border, while for China, for the time being, the military factor is treated more stealthily in favor of commercial-financial encirclement through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This latter course, however, is not to be taken as a sign of irresoluteness because, embodied in Obama’s Pacific-first strategy, the full-scale deployment of military resources underpins the TPP as a highly visible presence. Obama is serious about confrontation. This is low-keyed megalomania, circumspect in order to maximize its deadliness, B52s engaged in joint- maneuvers in Latvia, a veritable armada of heavy seacraft in the Pacific supplemented by aircraft able to deliver nuclear bombs on target. In my recent CounterPunch article on the Germanization of European Unity I may have overstated Germany’s power within the EU and its importance to a confrontation with Russia, although I think its role in imposing austerity via the framework of unity on the other members and its lead in setting the conditions on Greece is crystal clear, both factors moreover decisive to NATO’s continued existence and assigned military posture as anti-Russian.

Similarly, Japan may qualify, as I see it, as the Asian Germany, their similar historical backgrounds during the 1930s and into the Second World War of fascism (Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, using Japan as the model for Asian fascism, is brilliant and relevant) perhaps accounting for the congruity of purpose and execution, and in the period since, for reliable partnership with the US in what has been rationalized as an anticommunist crusade. If Germany especially through the EU and NATO stands as a bulwark against Russia, Japan, with TPP and a pattern of militarization behind it also stands as a bulwark against China. These are theaters of war, notwithstanding financial and commercial factors at play in each, with America instrumental in the formation and maintenance of the respective alliance systems, their military complementation, and enlistment in US hegemonic goals, which include the drastic weakening of Russia and China as rivals for world power. Neither Russia nor China, I surmise, is unaware of this, the US, paradoxically, driving them closer together to their consequent strengthening and survivability.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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