They followed their food. They came from Northeast Asia: men, women and children wrapped in fur and hides lashed with sinew, walking between glaciers, across ice floes, over moraines and through wide river valleys where the megafauna of the fast receding Ice Age still roamed. Or they paddled through the kelp forests of the western ocean, staying close to shore and surrounded by their prey – dolphin, seals, otters and perhaps even schools of saber-toothed salmon coming of age.
They settled across every bio-region of the land: enduring and sometimes thriving, in peace or at war with each other, but always living lightly on the land. They multiplied but did not overpopulate.
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, perhaps fifteen millennia after these first peoples had arrived, the Europeans showed up with, as Jared Diamond puts it, guns, germs and steel. After eons of co-habiting with animals, which Europeans had domesticated to more easily harvest their flesh, take their milk, tan their hides and render their bones, the new arrivals came carrying zoonoses, pathogens swapped between the species; and their very arrival was dependent on the great technical and knowledge revolutions that they had achieved after the stagnation of post-Roman Europe. The native populations were helpless before these biological and technological assaults.
The Unites States is thus a country born of Imperialism. North America beckoned as a land that might be consumed, its peoples killed (deliberately or by biological hazard), the survivors enslaved and its resources ravaged. Europeans, having so thoroughly partitioned their own lands to the advantage of the few (the aristocracy and other landed classes) and to the detriment of the many (the peasants), saw an opportunity to begin again – to escape a time-worn feudalism and more equitably exploit the riches of North America.
This time, carried on the ideological wings of late eighteenth century liberalism, land would be available to all and its government arranged for the benefit of its many owners. What could be fairer than that? But Jeffersonian Democracy carried within it the demon-seed of agrarian capitalism, developed in the Old World and now, in the New, primed to burst into an un-fettered expansion. Teamed with mercantilism, which was energized by the triangular trade anchored in Old World centers of production and which pivoted to North America for raw agricultural materials and to Africa for the slave-labor to farm them, capitalism became the dominant ideology of the United States.
The competition inherent in capitalism plays out as a deep rift between winners and losers – the rich and the poor – as predatory accumulation leads to an organization of society that marshals labor against capital, whites against minorities, urban areas against rural, elite education versus popular and politics against social life – as power, all the while, accrues to the wealthy. The ability of the rich to shape the rules of the game has promoted these characteristics as they manifested first in mercantilism and agrarian capitalism, then nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial capitalism and now neoliberalism.
The great heat-sink of late-stage capitalisms is the so-called middle class – essentially a creation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and an essential partner to mechanized production. Once those dark satanic mills really got humming it was necessary to find consumers. Thorsten Veblen understood that conspicuous consumption was essentially a display behavior practiced by this new interstitial class (encouraged by the dark arts of marketing), which slotted between blue-collar workers and capital. Together they established a compelling new tri-partite division of labor, consumption and capital.
Marx’s notion that bourgeois ideology (whose charms extend across the ‘lower’ classes) blinded citizens to the exploitation to which they were subjected, was prophetic: it foreshadowed the entirely passive acceptance of an inherently oligarchic government by the majoritarian middle classes. Our government has enshrined the ideology of capitalism and its concomitant, the rule of the few over the many, from its conception – it is no aberration that George Washington was reputed to be the richest man in America. Our democracy, a shell game played every two years, remains in the duplicitous hands of the country’s wealthiest citizens.
Our current Sun King, radiant beneath his gilded halo, is but a petty pretender: but his election speaks to the American fealty paid to wealth as he acts, in his buffoonish way, as the supreme symbol of the neoliberal oligarchy. While he makes gestures towards curbing this latest iteration of capitalism, spouting nationalist, protectionist, high-tariff rhetoric, current evidence suggests that the stock market remains hugely confident that he understands, like Coolidge (and every president since Grant), that the business of America is business – and that that business is now irrevocably global.
Imperialism ‘adds value’ to the production process by sourcing materials or labor (and often both) at a competitive advantage in territories beyond the market base of its end products. This exogenous capitalist enterprise has been complicit, since at least the seventeenth century, in the metastasis of capitalism throughout the globe. Time was when this activity involved the actual conquest of foreign lands. Now capitalism – enshrined as neoliberalism in this age of globalized production and international trade – is supercharged by the wage disparities between the global North and South. This hemispheric division largely reflects the divide between the old Imperialist nations and their former colonies and serves as the playground for the neoliberal game of global labor arbitrage.
While industrial production is increasingly based in the global South, this does little to enrich those lands, instead, it has reinforced the accumulation of wealth in the North and led to the immiseration of the urbanizing labor force in the South. At the same time, as John Smith points out in Imperialism & the Globalization of Production (University of Sheffield, 2010) profit making is more and more centered on ‘Financialization’ whereby the profits of production are diverted into financial speculation and private equity mergers and acquisitions. Meanwhile, the hard currency earned by the producing countries (most notably China) is loaned back to the United States so that it can continue to purchase the consumer products which find their way, via laden container ships, to the shelves of Best Buy, Walmart, Bed Bath and Beyond and the like. Smith suggests that we are witnessing “a perverse ‘Marshall Plan’ in which some of the poorest countries in the world finance the overconsumption of the richest”. The EU, NAFTA and the TPP were all structured, in part, to increase access to centers of cheap ‘offshore’ labor by Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan.
The race to the bottom in terms of global competitiveness inevitably impacts the remaining centers of production in the global North where wages are pushed lower to ensure their continuing viability. It has not gone unnoticed that the industrial heartlands of this country contributed mightily to the Republican victory in the recent presidential election. Voters were gambling that the new president would more effectively control the primary manifestations of global labor arbitrage – migration and outsourcing – by reaching back to the ultranationalist and right wing ideologies of the 1930’s. Fat chance, but we should nevertheless prepare ourselves for neoliberalism with a fascist face.
It is tempting to assume that darkness has only recently befallen this country: congruent, perhaps, with what we might call our own, low-wattage, Orange Revolution. But the chthonic – the shadow of the underworld – has been endemic since the European Imperial powers colonized what is now the United States. The unrelenting psychic gloom is only occasionally pierced by sunny periods – moments that have often been attributed to the rule of Presidents and Congress but as Howard Zinn shows in his The Peoples History of the United States, 1980, can be more reasonably attributed to the push-back of the governed.
At the height of its twenty-first century financial and military power, the United States remains deeply shadowed by its prevailing ideology which, by its very nature, entirely discounts individual and societal well-being. At this moment of presidential effulgence – its brazen light illuminating the tawdry manifestations of extreme wealth – we the people are experiencing an existential darkness at noon.