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The Empire Strikes Out

Photo source jqpubliq | CC BY 2.0

Watching the debacle unfold that is the contemporary U.S. is like watching a tsunami approach an ocean shore and knowing that it’s pretty much time to kiss, well, readers can catch the drift of this line of thought without too much reliance on imagination.

Now we stand on the precipice and the conclusion is not absolutely necessary, but it increasingly looks as if this species is headed for disaster. That cataclysm could come through war, but it is most likely going to come from environmental destruction.

Contemporary history begins with the U.S. ascension to the throne of superpower status that was solidified after World War II. The society had a myriad of contradictions during and after the war years, especially with the beginning of the end of trade unions in the 1970s, the lack of an endorsement of women’s and LGBTQ rights in that same decade, and the continuing issue of the lack of equality for people of color. Masses of people were marginalized by the twin forces of globalization and hate. Their treatment is a testament to the fatal flaws in the human heart and mind and the political and economic systems that the elite use to govern.

But there were glimmers of hope in the New Deal, and in the New Frontier and Great Society of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. All three epochs of change, however, were degraded by racism and militarism. FDR could not rise above the racism of the day, except with small measures, and Kennedy was molded by the Cold War, as was Lyndon Johnson.

Reading David B. Woolner’s The Last 100 Days: FDR At War And At Peace (2017), while looking out at the current absolute debacle that is the U.S. government and U.S. society in general, is like inhabiting two worlds or dimensions at the same time. Critics know that FDR saved capitalism from its worst inclinations during the Great Depression and World War II (saving capitalism may have been largely due to the war and war industries), but those who held the levers of power during that historical epoch had a sense of what progress meant and the value of human beings. They were to some degree products of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Even if government programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps had limited success, and reflected the inequality of the society, they still sought to provide the hand up that is so obviously lacking in the current landscape. Today, we have a degraded moron (with a mean-spirited Congress and a useless and reactionary Supreme Court) calling the shots with a base of support that is Neanderthal at best. Arguments can be made that FDR initiated the Cold War with the Manhattan Project, that he ignored the humanity of Japanese-Americans, that he bowed to political pressure and allowed lynching to continue as the grotesque face of racism, and those in themselves were fatal flaws of the political, economic, and social agendas and systems in the U.S.

One of the most prophetic observations of FDR in The Last 100 Days, as he headed for the conference at Yalta in 1945 with England and the Soviet Union, was about democracy surviving in the U.S. and in the larger world after the war: “The institutions of democracy could not survive in the United States if the wider world was dominated by ‘the gods of force and hate.’”  A casual observer must conclude that the existence of “force and hate” was often hastened by U.S. interventions around the world and found its own life in the U.S. in the reality of racism.

The left’s dislike for liberalism is a well-founded belief that comes from decades of watching the slow cancer of reaction grow like a storm shadow across the land. Liberals, then neoliberals, to a degree, accepted the destruction of unions, the march of the Cold War and the War On Terror, and the growth of grotesque levels of income inequality. Some neoliberals have always been ready to jump into bed with the forces of reaction.

Those who were involved in the protest movements of the 1960s and early 1970s know what kind of poison Trump et al represent: They are the existential threat writ large. While “Don’t mourn, organize!” is intelligent advice for those on the left, the atomized movements to counter Trump’s agenda have not been triumphant and the U.S. is not recognizable in the way it existed 50 years ago.

Marx had it right in the 19th century: the predatory nature of capitalism would only get worse. What he had wrong was the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat. The working class always was bought off by both the middle class and the economic and the political elites. The dictatorship he envisioned on the way to a better world, perverted that world in many cases.

But a better world sought by leftist revolutionaries was murdered in its infancy by the militaries and through the subversion of powerful capitalist governments. Salvador Allende’s overthrow in Chile in 1973 is a prime example. Even moderate reformers like Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 were ruthlessly overthrown by the West. So, there really aren’t good examples of leftist governments that were allowed to develop on their own. No matter what the valid criticisms of Cuba are following the 1959 revolution there, its left government was subverted from its beginning by the U.S. The CIA, now headed by an overseer of torture (Gina Haspel), was instrumental in these subversions of democracy and revolution.

The elite of the world now is much like the main character, J. Gatsby, in Fitzgerald’s paean to 1920’s individualism and wealth The Great Gatsby, without Gatsby’s good qualities. The rollicking parties he hosted were great while they lasted, but they couldn’t continue on forever and they left a terrible mess behind to clean up. Now, not many have the will to clean up the grotesque mess left behind by this political and economic system, and in any case they are not holding the reins of power.

 

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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