On American Revolution

Photo by Eli Christman | CC BY 2.0

My fellow U.S.-Americans, we’ve never had a revolution.

It’s true that slaveowner Thomas Jefferson’s July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence (DOI) articulated the revolutionary notion that the people have the right to dissolve a government that no longer serves their interests.  But the “American Revolution” was a national independence movement led by wealthy landowners, slaveowners, and merchants who feared uprisings from below.  They wanted more breathing space to develop further systems of racial oppression, territorial conquest, and class rule.  For them national independence was required among other things to prevent social revolution.  The last thing the nation’s wealth aristo-republican Founders wanted was a world turned upside down.

One of the grievances the signers of the DOI raised against the British king was that “he has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.”  Another purported sin of King George was that he “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”  This vicious charge against the Native Americans was a total inversion of reality. It was the Euro-American invaders and settlers, not the Indigenous inhabitants, who practiced genocide.

The U.S. Constitution that the Founders enshrined thirteen years after breaking off from their capitalist parent and mentor England was a shining monument to the privileging of property rights – the rights of the propertied Few – over human rights and democracy. In the Constitutional Convention debates that produced this most un- and anti-democratic charter, the leading Framer and slaveowner James Madison backed an upper U.S. legislative assembly (the Senate) of elite property holders to check a coming “increase of population” certain to “increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.”

Who were “the people” in the early U.S. republic? White male owners of substantive property holdings. This left out: Blacks, most of whom were branded and exploited as chattel slaves; Native Americans, reviled as “savages;” women of all races; much of the white population, which was considered too poor to be trusted with citizenship (though they were welcome to give their lives to fight the British).

American Independence was a calamity for the nation’s Indigenous people.  The British had antagonized the North American settlers by setting some limits on the colonists’ territorial expansion.  With Independence, the violent white North American predators were released to push First Nations’ people considerably further out from the eastern seaboard than before.  It’s not for nothing that the Iroquois gave America’s revered “revolutionary war” genera; and first president the title “Town Destroyer.”

Independence was an atrocity for the Black population as well.  Lands stolen from the Native Americans were open for cultivation with slaves. The chances for West Indies-style insurrection faded as new land opened for dispersal of the slave population and for the dilution of the Black-white population ratio with the immigration from Europe. With the rise of cotton and the industrial revolution, the racist torture regime that was U.S. slavery would become the key to the United States’ emergence as a major economic power in the world.

Seventy-six years after the DOI, the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered perhaps the greatest oration in U.S. history, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”  By the reckoning of Douglass, himself an escaped slave, the great national holiday was “a day that reveals to [the slave], more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Further:

“To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

There was of course, the Civil War, which the Progressive Era historian Charles Beard famously called “America’s Second Revolution.”  It led to the formal end of Black chattel slavery in the U.S. South during and after a great sectional conflict that forced the North to enlist Black soldiers to defeat the Slave Power, the southern Confederacy.  But emancipation emerged less out of principle than from military necessity. De facto slavery and Black bondage was reinstated in various forms in the war’s aftermath.  Meaningful and radical “reconstruction” and concerns for racial equality were abandoned as the nation entered a new age of capitalist industrialization in which Blacks were still subjected to backbreaking cotton toil. Millions of new European immigrants crowded into giant tyrannical mines, mills, factories, and slaughterhouses owned by Robber Baron capitalists who joined with leading financiers in buying up national politics, resources, and media, and turning government into their own private for-profit fiefdom.

As the nineteenth century came to an end, the racist United States armed forces were already exhibiting in the Philippines and Cuba what would be one of its key roles in the coming century: suppressing national independence and social revolution in other and poorer nations around the world.  The American Empire would serve as the enemy of revolution and national self-determination again and again, from Mexico to Russia, the Caribbean, South America, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and even Western Europe.

Reflecting on the plutocratic essence of the corporate-managerial capitalism that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the leading American philosopher John Dewey noted in 1932 that U.S. politics was “the shadow cast on society by big business.” Things would stay that way, Dewey prophesied, as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

It might seem that Dewey spoke too soon. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though not racial inequality) and an increase in the standard of living of millions of working class Americans occurred in the United States. This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the rise and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by Communists and other radical left militants), the spread of collective bargaining, the rise of a relatively pro-union New Deal welfare state, and the democratic domestic pressures of World War II and subsequent powerful social movements.

By the early 1950s, the claim was even seriously advanced in Readers’ Digest that post-WWII America had replaced capitalism and its old class distinctions with “mutualism,” “industrial democracy,” “distributism,” “productivism,” and/or “economic democracy.” This was quite naïve.

No revolution occurred.  Not even close. Dewey’s point held. Core capitalist prerogatives and assets – Dewey’s “private control” and “business for profit” – were never dislodged.  This was consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change. The gains enjoyed by ordinary working Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the United States economy (and empire) in the post-WWII world. When that position was significantly challenged by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, the comparatively egalitarian trends of postwar America were reversed by the capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. Working class Americans have paid the price ever since. For the last four decades, wealth, income, and power have been sharply concentrated upward, marking a New or Second Gilded Age of abject oligarchy.  Along the way, and intimately related to the neoliberal regression, US and global capitalism have pushed the environment to the edge of a grave, possibly irreversible catastrophe.

We need a revolution now, a first American Revolution. The United States is a corporate-oligarchic nation where: the top tenth of the upper 1 Percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; ordinary people have essentially no political representation while the wealthy corporate and financial few get pretty much whatever they want from government; 15 million children – 21% of all U.S. children – live at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (more than 1 in 10 U.S. children ages 0-9 is living at less than half that level); half the population is poor or near-poor and without assets; millions drink from poisoned water systems; an imperial military devours more than half of all discretionary federal spending and accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending; more people are incarcerated (in extremely racially disproportionate ways) than in any nation in history (a curious achievement for the self-described homeland and headquarters of “liberty”); a deeply entrenched and carbon-addicted corporate and financial sector is leading the world over the environmental cliff through the championing of endless growth and attendant “anthropogenic” (really capitalogenic) climate destruction.

The last problem mentioned is arguably the greatest and most urgent. The U.S.-headquartered, growth-addicted global profits system is speeding humanity to a lethal, Antarctic-dissolving 500 carbon parts per million by 2050 if not sooner. That’s “game over” for livable ecology. If environmental catastrophe, rooted in Dewey’s system of “business of private profit through private control,” is not avoided in the very near future, then none of the things decent people care about beyond livable ecology are going to matter all that much.

The new royal brute, the Twitter-addicted orange-haired beast and malignant narcissist called Donald Trump, appointed a militant climate change denier who is dedicated to tearing down the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) to head… the EPA. EPA chief Scott Pruitt wants to “empower” the 3% of Earth scientists who question the existence of “anthropogenic climate change.”

That is a call for the capitalogenic extermination of the human species – a transgression that will make the worst crimes of homo sapiens so far pale by comparison.  It is also a call for revolution.  “The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 15 years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.” It’s “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” at the current stage of capitalist-led ecocide.

Nowhere is the need for such a movement urgent than what is still the world’s leading and most powerful capitalist state, the U.S.

There is one piece of good news here: young adults. A recent Harvard University survey finds that 51 percent than half of U.S. Millennials (18-to-29-year-olds) “do not support capitalism.”

Good. Let’s work with that and build our forces for a first American Revolution.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).