“Capitalism, as (Walter) Benjamin observed, called on human societies to embark on a ceaseless and futile quest for money and goods … It enslaves nearly all its adherents … The suffering visited on Native Americans, once Western expansion was complete, was soon endured by others, in Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The final chapter of this sad experiment in human history will see us sacrificed as those on the outer reaches of empire were sacrificed. There is a kind of justice to this. We profited as a nation from this demented vision, we remained passive and silent when we should have denounced the crimes committed in our name, and now that the game is up we all go down together.”
The above is the final paragraph of an article by Chris Hedges that appeared in Truthdig and other online publications. At first glance it has a radical ring to it, but on closer inspection it omits some salient facts and thus leads to an erroneous conclusion.
First fact: The Western expansion of U.S. capitalism rested not only on the genocidal practices directed at Native Americans, but also on the enslavement of 4 million people of African descent, the unbridled exploitation of immigrant labor from Europe and Asia, and the theft of land and labor of peoples of Mexican and Amerindian origin. My point isn’t to diminish the horrific atrocities visited on Native American peoples, but to underline the exploitative, criminal, and racist sweep of capitalism in its infancy.
Second fact: People didn’t simply “endure” imperial expansion on the edges of empire. They resisted it in a thousand ways and continue to do so to this day. What is notable about the present moment is the difficulty that U.S. imperialism encounters at every turn.
Iraq and Afghanistan are not successes, but counter-insurgency failures. Latin America is no longer the “backyard” of the United States, but the site of powerful left-leaning movements that were elected to power. And not least, new competing powers – to U.S. global hegemony – China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa – are emerging worldwide.
In other words, there is little room for American triumphalism in this century. If anything, the balance of forces on a global scale is turning against U.S. imperialism.
Third fact: To say that the American people remained passive and silent in the face of capitalism’s exploitation, oppression and expansion is, at best, a one-sided reading of history as well as present-day developments. Indeed, resistance to imperial expansion occurred in the heart of the empire as well as on its edges.
In recent decades, for example, millions of Americans opposed the war in Vietnam; masses of people spoke out and demonstrated against the buildup of nuclear weapons in the Reagan years; and Americans took to the streets in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One can argue that the movements were neither big enough nor durable enough, but that is quite different than suggesting that the American people were uniformly and consistently passive in the face of U.S. imperial aggression and atrocities. The historical record doesn’t support it. And we should bear in mind that it is much easier to be an opponent of U.S. imperialism outside of the “belly of the beast” than inside of it. In this sense the American people can take pride in their opposition to U.S. expansionism.
Fourth fact: The lion’s share of the riches from westward expansion and imperial reach have gone to the ruling classes, not to the exploited and oppressed. Thus to say that “we profited as a nation from this demented vision” obscures an important class reality: Working people and especially the racially oppressed fight and pay for wars of aggression and empire.
The truth is that many of the crisis conditions facing the American people remain insoluble as long as the government spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on military weapons, personnel and bases and our foreign policy is driven by the insatiable needs and profit maximizing logic of capitalism.
Final fact: The game isn’t up, as Hedges claims. There is world to win. Hedges surely knows that as well as anybody. This week’s May Day rally and march on Wall Street at which Hedges spoke is emblematic of a country and movement in transition to a better future, to a world in which people come before profits.
Photo: Exhibit at the Museum of Westward Expansion. St. Louis. Lucas Count Choppers // CC 2.0