The Increasing Loneliness of American Exceptionalism

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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’.

9 Responses to The Increasing Loneliness of American Exceptionalism

  1. Disaffected says:

    Awesome post, kC! Little do Americans know, but the US had a brief window when out and out socialism had a chance in the early 20th century, and then again during and after The Great War and The Great Depression. That window was slammed shut in the aftermath of WWII with the Dems rejection of Henry Wallace, followed by the shit-show paranoia carnival that was the 1950’s, and culminating in the public executions of the KKK (Kennedy, Kennedy, and King) triumvirate in the ’60s. Scott Nearing (1883-1983), one of the loudest American proponents for socialism, wrote long, hard, and accurately even in his day about all the evils that plague us to this day:

    The apparatus for waging and winning war is part of the institutional equipment of states. When the war-making apparatus becomes dominant, a civil state becomes a warfare state. In a warfare state waging war is a standard aspect of state policy as periodic war becomes permanent. Warfare states minimize persuasion and accept armed violence as the chief instrument for enforcing policy.
    Item: One of the declared objectives of present day statesmen is to keep civil authority dominant and the military subordinate. Yet one of the outstanding features of present day civilization is the military coup d’etat, the seizure of state power by the armed forces and the subordination of civil authority to military power.
    Item: Western civilization today is directed by a community of warfare states in which civil government is subordinate to military authority. The current arms race between the chief powers is one phase of the preparation for total, permanent war. Item: The ceaseless, grab-and-keep struggle presently labeled “western civilization” is having four decisive results: (1) replaceable natural resources, such as forests and fertile land, are being depleted, and irreplaceable resources such as minerals are being exhausted; (2) human population, doubling every thirty years, presses increasingly against subsistence and despite increasing productivity, poses the threat of destitution and malnutrition; (3) human society continues on its spiral, through a succession of civilizations; (4) man survives the logical and probable consequences of his own stupidity, bad judgment, folly, and outright wickedness and continues to mature his inventive, constructive, and creative capacities and capabilities, embodying them in an escalating human culture which currently is passing from the power age into the space age.

    Item: At the present moment the forces arrayed against the continuance and escalation of destructivity are relatively inconsequential. The momentum of destruction brushes aside opposition and continues the mad race to Armageddon. No effective alternative is in sight.

    Item: Life struggle is unceasing. Whether we like it or loathe and resent it, we participate. We have no choice in the matter. We can take some part in determining direction and the day-today course of the struggle. Thus we may help to win the perilous fight by leading humanity beyond civilization into the promised land of equalized opportunity and shared experience. To attain this goal we must keep humanity aligned with the forces that improve the social pattern and assist in the expansion of an expanding universe.

    Nearing, Scott. The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography (Good Life Series) (pp. 295-298). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Hey Deena, why don’t you reply?

      • Disaffected says:

        That was indeed a fine refresher on the American Capitalist “legend” Deena. I’m old now (58) and late to education (BBA in 2006, MBA in 2008, both admittedly at second rate schools short on budget and academic rigor), but I’m a Distinguished Graduate from what both Scott Nearing and I lovingly refer to as the School of Hard Knocks (his was most assuredly harder than mine). To my “great credit”, in spite of a ho-hum lower middle class upbringing in the American great midwest at the hands of two totally undistinguished and well-meaning, but totally and willfully ignorant losers, followed by a likewise totally undistinguished and mostly well-meaning military career, I managed to retain just enough of my innate childhood intelligence, cynicism, and wit to become the incorrigible fucking pain in the ass I am today.

        Comments: The UN, or at least the idea of the UN, was a product of Woodrow Wilson, a (at least moderately) deranged former Presbyterian minister and borderline religious psychopath). US directed and focused (City on the Hill) right from the start. Predictable beginnings, predictable results. Nearing eviscerates him, especially since they were both at the height of their influence at the same time.

        Nearing also implies (and I believe he’s correct) that the Bolshevik Revolution had an out sized impact on the at the time still nascent corporate capitalism in the west and especially in the US, which almost certainly influenced the western politics and economic policy for the rest of the 20th century and to this day. I think I already knew the facts of all this before, but until reading Nearing recently (and listening to Oliver Stone previously) and putting it into context anew, it never really clicked for me. Capitalism and capitalists were legitimately on the ropes in the first half of 20th century, and it was by no means a done deal how it was going to turn out! PERSPECTIVE!

        Finally, the notes on bottoms up bifurcation and system equilibia are well taken, although I’m not sure anyone currently alive has thoroughly conceptualized where we’re going just yet. My bottom line remains, and I hate to sound like a broken record again, but we have THREE totally intractable existential problems remaining to be solved:

        1. Humanity is now at least a century and a half into overshoot. (Catton, 1980) ~7B+ people must be reduced by approximately 90% almost immediately to affect meaningful change. This DIRECTLY affects points #2 and #3.

        2. The natural resource that has enabled and demanded human overshoot – oil – is now, and forever will be, in increasingly short supply. This represents nothing less than a permanent cap on, and essentially the end of, the debt-based, exponential growth, industrial economy.

        3. Global climate change, induced by the release of a millennia of carbon based stored sunlight in less than 200 years for blatantly selfish human-centric reasons, and with 50-100 year delays between cause and effect, will likely make both points 1 and 2 moot.

        Anyway. Cheers, and thanks for the well thought out post!

        DA

  2. Disaffected says:

    Had to do a doubletake when I read Greer saying this in response to one of his commenters today:

    As for oligarchy, nah, we had that in the first half of the twentieth century, and have now moved into the stasis that comes when power is so diffuse nobody can muster enough of a majority to change anything. What comes next, as Polybius pointed out better than two thousand years ago, is some form of monarchy — in American terms, the election of a charismatic leader to the Presidency with enough of a mandate to overturn the status quo and impose an entirely new order on things; cf. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

    I think he’s off his meds this week, or whatever it is that keep former Archdruids sane. The oligarchy exists as sure as I’m typing this response in the form of a (mostly invisible and unidentified) controlling elite who control both political parties, mostly by catering to the electorates values – which they could give two shits about – and offering up the self-same, barely concealed policies – which they definitely do – from both. The key being that even politically illiterate voters recognize their values when they’re in play, but actual policies are usually now so complex and easily bullshitted and/or reneged on later that low information voters just give up and vote purely on the values being allegedly promoted by each candidate.

    That said, I don’t know who deserves the most blame: the cravenly cynical politicians who will say and do anything to get elected, or the butt stupid American public who allow themselves to be so easily manipulated. Probably both.

    And we might well have our next “charismatic” leader(s) again when the Hill & Bill Show returns to Pennsylvania Avenue in early 2017. Not that they’re going to be in any sense “great,” but I can easily imagine her becoming a ruthless authoritarian at the flip of a switch, which could very well come with a major synthetic terror Shock Doctrine event soon after her coronation.

    • Disaffected says:

      To put the above in context and to be fair to Greer, this week’s post was about the sunset of liberalism (yet again historically, apparently) and it’s now totally irritating use of values based, identity politics, which I think most of us agree is just totally noxious at this point in the hands of its primarily Democratic practitioners. He makes many good points as always, although his insistence that politics should be baldly and purely about interests and check the values at the door seems a bit over stated to me. But he’s right that conflating the two, especially in the hands of the skilled political practitioners of today, allows the public to be bamboozled just all that much easier. But I should add that his stubborn insistence that absolutely every current cultural event/trend falls neatly into this or that historical slot and can thus be explained away dispassionately as just so much more “we’ve been there, done that before,” gets pretty grating over time. [I believe that he revealed he’s borderline Asperger’s or some such in one of his posts. Not sure that has anything to do with it.]

      I say all this as I listen to the inane HBO comedy Last Week Tonight in the background where John Oliver is explaining to us why Hillary’s email server scandal just wasn’t all that bad, relatively speaking, as if they haven’t already written very black and white laws that proscribe that sort of thing, and for which “lesser mortals” among us can and do go to jail everyday no questions asked tout de suite. That’s the thing about values. They’re squishy and relative and almost never exactly the same in two people. The same exact action can have two or more possible outcomes, depending on who’s doing the action and who’s doing the observing. A Bush lying about WMDs and the reasons for going into Iraq? Bad, every single time (or at least until you’re running for office later and it’s revealed that you voted for it too). A Clinton lying about a blowjob or a dozen, or a blatantly illegal email server or two? Oh yeah, that’s OK. There were “circumstances,” and “it wasn’t all that bad when you put it into context.” The Clinton’s: making hay at the margins of legality since 1975.

      And the shit show rolls on…

  3. Disaffected says:

    Well what do you know. Just in time to influence upcoming elections, not to mention support a post-election marketing campaign to build support for war with Russia, the MH17 Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has announced that they have sufficient proof to support a criminal case against pro-Russian Ukranians (or just plain Russians) yet to be identified for the shoot down of the ill-fated airliner in July 2014.

    For John Helmer’s discussion at Naked Capitalism: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2016/09/john-helmer-four-mh17-questions-the-answers-to-which-prove-the-dutch-police-ukrainian-secret-service-and-us-government-are-faking-the-evidence-of-the-mh17-shootdown.html

    For the JIT case: https://www.om.nl/onderwerpen/mh17-vliegramp/presentaties/presentation-joint/

    For a Russian response (among others): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbIPo8dW9b0

    For a more nuanced view that explores all the bigger issues (including Conspiracy Theories): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWlAARb0fN4

    As always, it’s not what you think you know from what the official press is telling you, it’s what you don’t know (and will never find out if they can help it) and what they’ll never tell you that matters most. And we thought we’d heard the last about Ukraine! Silly us!

    • Disaffected says:

      In reading the NakCap comments on the MH17 article it become blatantly apparent (once again) that many westerners just can’t even possibly conceive that their own government(s) could be so intrinsically deceitful and just plain evil. [Must be the team sports mentality.] By the way, the evidence, if you care to look at it and stop stubbornly insisting that conspiracies don’t exist (they hide in plain sight everyday), is that MH17 was misdirected by ATC in Kiev to be over the battlefield and was then shot down by an SU-25 (pictures of the wreckage clearly indicating that were put up on the internet by a German pilot immediately afterward, and then suppressed soon afterward) thinking it was Vladamir Putin’s plane, which was also in the air at the time just a few miles away. Which, when you think about it, was a brilliant scheme, had they been able to actually pull it off. Putin shot down by his own troops in a fog of war friendly fire incident. Crocodile tears are then shed by western leaders, before the capitalist hounds from hell are unleashed on all of Russia. Next up, China! Too bad it didn’t actually work out that way. Sometimes there is justice in the world, albeit in spartan doses.

    • Disaffected says:

      Or here’s the Cliff’s Notes version that sums it up nicely:

  4. Disaffected says:

    From Steve Ludlum – aka ‘Steve in Virginia’ – at Economic Undertow:

    In the twilight of modernity we have become intoxicated with the idea of power, to have our way at the expense of others who are unable to do anything to stop us. The idea (appearance) has more potency than does the thing itself, as the exercise of power carries with it consequences.

    American Exceptionalism boils down to a kind of property right; to own human and mechanical slaves, to stake claims against the entirety of nature; the plants and animals and water even the rocks under our feet … to possess whatever is in sight like a chair or pair of pants … and with the same degree of accountability/carelessness.

    There is our pitiless assault on everything, living and non-living, without which there is no ‘our’. The frenzy is to burn the world before someone else beats us to it, to render and distill and catalyze everything into money. Our precious tycoons will burn that as well … we have gone insane.

    The fetishes have us in their thrall: the rifle and machine gun, the tank and the airplane and the hydrogen bomb … also the strip mine, the excavator, the chain saw and the automobile. Also the lies on television.

    If we possessed the wits we would be mortified, would beg forgiveness and search for wisdom … As inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah we are simply cursed to live out the consequences of our own madness.

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