by Deena Stryker
When in 1629, the Puritan Minister John Winthrop told British colonists that America would be ‘as Christ’s city on a hill’, he was issuing a warning: with ‘the eyes of the world upon us’ our behavior must be above reproach – or exceptional. For almost three hundred years, two oceans kept the United States isolated from the give and take between neighbors on other continents. America remained alone and proud of it, interacting with the rest of the world only to ensure that it served our needs, bought our products and agreed with our definition of freedom. Now, after one hundred years of almost continuous intervention, we find ourselves increasingly alone, as the world coalesces around our former enemies to tackle new challenges. How could such a transformation happen?
The answer, I believe lies in our history. In my 1989 book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde, published in France with a grant from the Centre National du Livre, and in America Revealed to a Honey-Colored World, I trace the fundamental difference between American and European definitions of democracy to their diverging views of freedom. The American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Human Rights lay down the same legal protections, but the young nation’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ left mutual responsibility out in the cold, in contrast to revolutionary France’s proclamation of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. That motto eventually led most of the world to build welfare states, while the United States continued to deny the community’s responsibility for its citizens well-being in the name of freedom. Last year, American enemies of solidarity shut down the government in their efforts to kill Obamacare, as a world committed to universal healthcare looked on in astonishment.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the fledgling United Nations includes among others the right to work, to equal pay for equal work, to form and join trade unions, to a reasonable limitation of working hours, and periodic holidays with pay. Specifically: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
How can the United States, the primary impetus behind the founding of the UN, be the only nation in which a powerful minority believes that each individual must go it alone? The Puritans, who exiled religious dissidents from their colonies, could not have survived without solidarity; however, when their descendants threw off their British king, they created an enduring suspicion of both government and foreigners. Americans suspected of sympathy for a foreign power became the object of legislation as early as 1798, with the four Aliens and Seditions Acts. In 1917, Congress passed another Sedition Act, and in 1918 it passed the Espionage and Aliens Act.
The progressive movement that came into its own with the fight against slavery was a victim of that trajectory. Like Lenin, Mao and the Castro brothers after him, President Franklin Roosevelt was a member of the upper class, but he knew that robber capitalism leaves too many people out in the cold. Its corporate-owned press conflated FDR’s New Deal with socialism, and socialism with ‘foreign’, strengthening right-wing resistance to all things progressive. In 1938, Congress created the infamous House un-American Activities Committee, unleashing a witch hunt against suspected Communists beholden to ‘a foreign power’, as Senator McCarthy did likewise in the Senate.
The paranoia that defines the United States could have faded during the rebellious sixties, but the flamboyant raiments of the counter-culture’s political message only succeeded in fanning the flames until it was ‘born again’ under the neo-conservatives. The rest of the world knows that fascism unabashedly serves the few, while democratic socialism serves the many, yet the American press confounds these two ideologies and overlooks the fact that Islam’s God demands that humans treat each other with dignity, equity and respect.
Early on, the stunning wealth of America’s natural environment spawned the notion of equal ‘opportunity’, as opposed to equity. Later, the drive to the West fostered entrepreneurship, leaving the less daring to become ‘wage earners’. An imagined threat from countries organized around the principle of solidarity brought us the Reagan Revolution and neo-conservatism, and finally, we got Wall Street Wizards who divided us into consumers and debtors, as they bankrolled the plundering of the world’s wealth.
Today, with government a tool of capital, we are only ‘citizens’ when we vote, and if needed services are not profitable, ‘we’ don’t get them, because they cost ‘tax-payers’ too much. Our elegant architecture of checks and balances relies on volunteers for services that should be met by society as a whole, while right wing propaganda fosters a lazy attitude among government employees, reinforcing the impression that government is wasteful and inefficient.
Individualism touts well-being, yet the notion of each person’s intrinsic worth, based on his conscience, which I call ‘internal authority’, is ignored. Not only have we eliminated the individual’s say in how her money is spent, we believe we cannot afford solidarity to ourselves.
The legal sidelining of our two hundred year old constitution began with a 19th century Supreme Court clerk’s stroke of the pen that granted corporations the advantages of personhood. Money and perks have always been used to make government responsive to certain interests, but in no other country has this practice been codified, as it was in the 2012 Citizens United decision that granted corporations the free speech rights of individuals – in the form of money to sway elections.
Another major factor in America’s gradual transformation from ‘indispensable nation’ to pariah has been the media’s loss of independence. The New York Times nineteenth century definition of purpose was beyond reproach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Times):
We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good;—and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform. We do not believe that everything in Society is either exactly right or exactly wrong;—what is good we desire to preserve and improve;—what is evil, to exterminate, or reform.
As advertising chipped away at lofty ideals, journalists were tamed to serve corporate needs, while isolationists continued to brand things foreign as either inferior or threatening. The Russian Revolution reinforced America’s suspicion of all things external, and after the United States rescued Europe in two World Wars, that suspicion justified the Cold War. Questions about the lack of international news in the American media are still answered with finality that ‘the American public is not interested in foreign affairs’, even as the world marches on without it.
Our foremost ally, the British monarchy, accepted the ‘Welfare State’, followed by the other countries of Western Europe, their governing majorities alternating between capital and labor. Although Europe’s southern tier resents German-imposed austerity, Angela Merkel’s re-election for a third term rested largely on her commitment to Germany’s social model, in which workers’ representatives sit on company boards. Until Bernie Sanders came along to let the social democratic cat out of the bag, Americans were still being told that only market capitalism is compatible with individual freedom.
A century after the start of the First World War that ended American isolationism, governments representing the majority of the earth’s inhabitants – the BRICS, plus most of Latin America, Africa, Asia and much of Europe – have decided that America can no longer run the world. They want wars to be replaced by decisive steps to save the planet from global warming, in a delayed continuation of the movement that began with the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The Bolsheviks were able to take power because the social democrats failed to insist on reforms when the industrial revolution brought intolerable living conditions to workers. After the first World War, Democratic socialists came to power in Germany and Hungary in response to devastating economic conditions, leading the upper classes to Fascism, epitomized by Horthy, Mussolini and Hitler. (1) At present, after seven years of economic downturn, an unstoppable tide of refugees from the Third World is boosting a populist form of fascism in Europe, while Washington still emulates what became posthumously known as Hitler’s salami tactics. (2)
During the Vietnam war, American resisters found refuge in Canada: today, as America’s 1% tries to make the 99% redundant, whistle-blowers reveal government secrets from safe-havens in Moscow or Berlin, both capitals of former enemies. In what is likely to be recognized, with hindsight, as a planetary turning point, it is Russia, convinced that society must protect its individual members from want (to use Franklin Roosevelt’s famous but long forgotten phrase), that defends the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter, joining with China in a formidable opposition to American hegemony.
It’s probably not thanks to the KGB that Putin knows he must counter-balance the competing claims of society, but rather the socialist ethos he grew up with. More powerful than any White House resident, Putin keeps his oligarchs in check, nurtures Russian Orthodoxy, promotes traditional values, rejects mindless consumption and encourages modernization in the federation’s Islamic republics. Watch ‘his’ English language channel (rt.com) for a few days and you will realize that Russia, far from throwing the solidarity baby out with the Communist bath water, is closer to a social democracy than to US-style capitalism.
In At Home in the Universe, the biologist Stuart Kauffman borrows systems concepts to describe three possible states that societies can be in: one of equilibrium, one of near equilibrium – both being closed systems – and a far-from-equilibrium, open state that brings energy from outside and evolves toward a new dynamic regime. Paraphrasing Kauffman’s formula, from the seemingly haphazard ‘edge of chaos’ created by increased energy flows, an open system can bifurcate to a new, ordered regime, where poor com-promises are found quickly (totalitarianism), or a chaotic regime where no compromise is found (revolution). In periods during which counter-balancing enables the system to maintain a steady state, far from both entropy and chaos, relatively good compromises can be achieved, and this is democracy. But representative democracy is a constant oscillation between the rigidity of oligarchy and the lack of democratic cohesion that plagues multiparty systems. While it ensures peaceful alternations of power, it does not solve the problem of equity, because powerful interest groups exclude the majority of citizens.
It is now clear that fundamental change could not occur in the US by putting a Black, educated, intelligent man in the White House. This will happen only if a majority of voters overcome a carefully nurtured prevention against the state. Rather than a pariah that feeds off its citizens, government must be viewed as the means by which the solidarity of the community toward the individual is implemented.
For this to happen, the flow of bottom-up energy through an open system needs to increase until it provokes a bifurcation. Because the outcome of a bifurcation cannot be known in advance, fear that we could end up with either fascism or anarchy has discouraged organized action in the United States until, in the fall of 2011, Occupy surfaced, touting decentralization and direct democracy, labelled as anarchy. Bernie Sanders is the first American politician to dare mention the ideas of the early twentieth century Progressive Movement. As he tried to capture the Democratic nomination, pundits put forth varying skewed definitions of democratic socialism, overlooking the fact that both socialism and anarchy are about individual responsibility, precisely as Sanders emphasized. His presidential campaign was ultimately destroyed by the Democratic party ‘machine’, even though polls showed he had a better chance of beating Donald Trump, who is all the more fearful in that many of his backers have guns.
Enchanted by cinematography, which makes the most unlikely fantasies seem real, Americans long ago abandoned most of their internal authority to the daily spin of a government which, behind a facade of democracy, favors the wealthy few. A century of fairy tales prevented the United States from adapting an equitable form of government, and today its fairy tale of exceptionalism is to Americans what seventy-four Virgins are to Islamists. Still evoking its civilizing mission after dozens of wars, Washington issues orders from its City Upon a Hill to a world below that is no longer listening.
Creativity is capitalism’s greatest claim to superiority, but no country has achieved a fair distribution of wealth without government involvement. Denying that evidence, exceptionalist America can continue to view the world as a closed system embroiled in ever-increasing violence, or it can join the emerging players in fostering an open system that will permit civilization to reach the higher level of organization represented by equitable develop-ment.
(1) Admiral Horthy introduced Fascism to Hungary before the rise of either Mussolini or Hitler.
(2) Hungary’s post-war Communist leader, Matyas Rakosi, claimed he successfully eliminated the other political parties by slicing them off one by one. Alluding to the ‘piecemeal tactics’ by which Hitler conquered one European country after another, it became known as ‘salami tactics’.