On Economic Patriotism: Capitalist Nationalism and the Making of American Political Identity

Photo by Metro Centric | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Metro Centric | CC BY 2.0


It is frequently said that Americans are the most patriotic population in the world. From childhood we are taught that we are the highest-minded, richest, most free, most democratic country, and therefore most fit to be the global hegemon. School kids don’t get ‘hegemon’, so they are taught that their country is the world’s sole superpower, and, for the safety of the world, must remain so. Surely something to be proud of. Since the end of the Second World War, a swollen media and entertainment establishment has drummed this message into our heads ceaselessly. The effectiveness of this kind of indoctrination is evident in a uniquely American phenomenon, the display of the flag everywhere – at checkout counters, on cars, on lawns, from home windows. Only in America. Even as Americans disapprove of this or that war, the flag is never taken down.

Most of us are inclined to call this an expression of super-patriotism. But nationalism is what is at work in America. Patriotism is an inexact term, connoting love of country. But do Americans “love their country”, however one construes that phrase, more than do the French or Brazilians? ‘Nationalism’ is not so vague. The phenomenon is a major political force, yet it no longer receives the attention from the Left that it did in the old days. Perhaps the broadest usage of the term was during the First World War, when (most) Marxian socialists opposed the war as a paradigm case of inter-imperialist rivalry, with colonial powers scrambling to carve up the world to the economic and political competitive advantage of their ruling classes.

Socialists, communists and anarchists urged their fellow nationals to oppose the war on the grounds that its only beneficiaries were the initiators of the war, the ruling classes. Support for the war entailed the perverse conviction that working people had more in common with their class rulers than with the other workers of the world. The “national interest” was in fact the interest of the ruling class, and support for the war, put forward as commitment to the nation, was in fact an identification with one’s class masters rather than with those with whom one shared one’s deepest interests, the global working class. In this controversy the meaning of nationalism was clear: it was a matter of identification. And that with which one identifies is, strange as it may initially seem, partially constitutive of one’s selfhood. The apparent strangeness of this idea vanishes when we reflect on the precise meaning of nationalism.

What is Nationalism? Think of Racism and Sexism

What everyone knows about racism and sexism is directly transferable to nationalism. Racist ideology teaches that e.g. the white race is superior to other races, and, equally importantly, the white racist sees himself as essentially white. His whiteness is an element of his very nature or selfhood, and an element of which he is magnificently proud. He is personally superior by virtue of the superiority of being white. Thus, he slips up badly when he says “If I were black, I wouldn’t support affirmative action.”  The statement is gibberish. The “I” who removes his skin color in order to put on a different skin color, presumably the way one changes shirts, removes also his life history and all the life experiences of his white self, and replaces them with the historical experiences of his non-existent black self. Yet the referent of ‘I’ is supposed to retain his identity through the change. Who can make sense of this? Talk of race is talk of personal identity; to lose your race is to lose your identity. (I am writing here of common usage and understanding, the appropriate subject matter for this discussion. I prescind from the scientific groundlessness of the concept of biological race.) And if your racial identity confers upon you a superior self, a challenge to racism is a blow to one’s personal pride and integrity. It’s a loss of prized status, a personal demotion. Of course it’s met with fierce resistance.

The point is perhaps most evident in the case of sexual identity. The male sexist talks nonsense, says something neither true nor false, when he proclaims “If I were a woman I would not support affirmative action.” If I am a man, that is no merely contingent feature of my selfhood, as is the color of my hair. I know what it would be like were my hair red rather than black (read: gray). I have no conception what it would be like were “I” a woman. We take our gender to be an essential component of our selfhood. Where manhood is taken to be superior to womanhood  -greater capacity to lead, superior analytical powers (the Lawrence Summers axiom), predominance of clear reason over blind emotion, etc.-  the man’s selfhood is exalted. To challenge sexism is not merely to reject a political ideology, it is, to the sexist, a diminution of his very personhood. He resists like crazy.

There is very much at stake in racism and sexism. There is as much at stake with respect to nationalism, and for the same reasons.

A person’s nationality is part of who she is. “If I were Chinese…” Huh? One’s incorporation into a linguistic and cultural community is no less powerful a contributor to one’s selfhood than is the history of one’s racial or gender experiences. To be acculturated as an American is to acquire an identity participating in the transcendent greatness of the country. “Proud to be an American” has a lot more built into it than “Proud to be Spanish.” As a trust fund heiress friend of mine recently pronounced, “Poor people here don’t complain because they know that if they were poor in Africa they wouldn’t have cars and TVs like poor people here do.” Set aside the matryoshka of falsehoods implicit in this remark. The spirit of the comment reflects Americanism: no matter how miserable you might be, you’re better off for being American. Because America is the greatest place in the world. And you, whether you know it or not, are a beneficiary of that greatness.

Absolute superiority is not the only distinguishing characteristic of America. It is probably the only country in the world where capitalism is incorporated into national identity.

Un-Americanism and Anti-communism

The distinguished political economist and economic historian Robert Heilbroner once commented that Americans were the only population that exhibits what he called “economic patriotism.” For the reasons elaborated above, I prefer the more precise ‘economic nationalism’. The postwar witch hunting of communists featured the preposterous House Committee on Un-American Activities. During the peak of anti-communist hysteria, being a communist, essentially a rejecter of capitalism, was defined as being Un-American. To be an American was by nature (but of course not exclusively) to wave the flag of capitalism. Rejecting capitalism was to reject, to renounce, America, to be “against America.” Same for denouncing American foreign policy, i.e. overthrows and wars, pursued in the name of anti-communism. In no other country is being a communist regarded as e.g. a renunciation of Italy, or of Sweden or… If one’s identity as an American is to include one’s commitment to capitalism, an American is a walking, talking incarnation of self-expanding exchange value. Communism is then a threat to Americans’ personal integrity the way calls for sexual and racial equality crucify the personal identity of the racist and the sexist. American communists were in effect self-hating Americans, much as Jewish anti-Zionists are called, by Zionists, self-hating Jews. Just as, for Zionists, commitment to Israel is part of what it means to be Jewish, so for Americans being anti-communist was supposed to be essential to being American. No wonder the stubbornness of anti-communism among Americans. Who wants to stop being who they are?

Very many Americans were successfully acculturated into this metaphysic. This must be an element of an answer to “Why is there no socialism in America.” It’s at least in part about Economic Nationalism.

Is American Identity Under Transformation?

There is a silver lining to this cloud. It is an outcome of great historical moment that the grip of economic nationalism has been loosened in recent times. Two historical developments have contributed.

The charge of communism was always associated with a corresponding accusation of treason. Anti-communist politics had in its formative Cold War years been associated with Washington’s archenemy the Soviet Union. Communists or “communist sympathers” were alleged to have pledged allegiance to a foreign enemy. “If you think communism is superior to capitalism, why don’t you move to Russia?” American anti-communism needed the Soviet Union to keep it alive and thriving. The dissolution of the Soviet republics dissolved much of the tangibility of anti-communism. The communist “threat” was gone. It came to be no longer threatening to think soberly about socialism. A major obstacle to reflecting on alternatives to capitalism had bitten the dust.

Americans have always conflated communism and socialism. That the most popular politician in America now, according to surveys done by Fox news and others, is a professed socialist is something none of us would have thought possible a few years ago. No matter that Sanders is no socialist. An American precedent has been broken: it is now possible in very many circles to raise the question of socialism’s superiority to capitalism without being dismissed as a crackpot. A 2009 Rasmussen Reports national poll revealed that “only a slight majority of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.” No matter that most surveyed probably had only the vaguest idea of what ‘socialism’ means. What matters is that many Americans are now capable of construing the economic system as a construction external to themselves and subject to change with no threat to their integrity as Americans. If this is the case, then Americans’ political identity is in the process of transformation. With this can come transformative social and political possibilities. It looks to me that we have entered a new era. In itself, it promises nothing. But with effective popular education and militant organization, it can contribute to making all the difference in the world.

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Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College. His website is:http://www.alannasser.org.  His book, United States of Emergency American Capitalism and Its Crises, will be published by Pluto Press early next year. If you would like to be notified when the book is released, please send a request to nassera@evergreen.edu

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