Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Fascist tendencies in the White Republic

The United States has always had a divided soul. America was founded by idealists, lovers of liberty, and those fleeing tyranny. The American Revolution sought to "begin the world anew," quoting international revolutionary Thomas Paine, by offering a constitutional republic sans a hereditary aristocracy or established religion. The 19th century countryside swelled with experimental communities and "rugged individualists" mixing their labor with the land. European travellers marvelled at the American democratic experiment as it seemingly proved that a nation of farmers and mechanics could survive and thrive. This Enlightenment inspired, democratic, and egalitarian ethos is firmly steeped in American culture. However, the United States is a settler society--it exists thanks to a century long genocidal conflict to claim the continent from the natives. It was also a slave/apartheid society--coerced labor and segregation created empires of wealth and subsidized American living standards into the twentieth century. The legacy of this is the ideology of white supremacy--America's imperial religion--also deeply steeped in American culture.

Examining the contradictions of American political culture, Louis Hartz called Americans "irrational Lockeans." We are Lockean because America's material conditions were well suited to Lockean republicanism, irrational because the conditions were so naturalized that there was no need to reflect on what Locke opposed, no ancien regime to overthrow---just land to be settled. On the latter issue, Hitler admired America's brutal efficiency--its "Manifest Destiny"--and speculated that what he saw when he looked east must be what Americans saw when they looked west--living space.

The two souls have a religious character as well. On the one hand, the US has been the repository of anti-nomianism, radical egalitarian religious traditions, and rationalist Christian sects that have sought to create a "Heaven on Earth." On the other hand, the US has also been the home of fatalistic Calvinism. A doctrine where success and failure are due to God's will. This is true for the individual and true for the nation and contributes to the almost messianic mission that the US sees for itself--we are the richest and most powerful because of divine providence.

The divided soul has made many Americans susceptible to irrational populist and quasi-fascist appeals. The establishment of racial segregation in post-Civil War America prefigured fascist organizations. Klansmen, White Knights, Red Shirts, and other paramilitary organizations used terror and violence to prevent the establishment of black political power--keeping America's "White Republic" intact. The rhetoric of "states rights," originally being a warning against centralized and unaccountable government, has become a rallying cry of oppression--the Federal government can't force us to stop terrorizing black people--that would be unconstitutional! The Populist Party of the 1880s and 1890s, originally an integrated farmer and worker movement against big capital, ran aground on the shoals of racism, Plessy v. Ferguson, and political expediency, making peace with agricultural capital and subverting the cooperative commonwealth. In its wake, the KKK reemerged, now as a national organization and one with significant political influence in both the southern Democratic and northern Republican Parties. Following WWII, racism and genocide seemed "less American"--however, the White Republic has lived on, but is more subtle.

America's soul remains divided. The United States in one of the freest countries on the face of the planet. We enjoy a great degree of personal freedom and the state is relatively constrained. Americans are free to debate and criticize their government, organize protests, and hold their representatives accountable. But our twin is still with us, and has matured and become more sophisticated. Today's "Manifest Destiny" is overseas--in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Latin America. Although white supremacy isn't nearly as fashionable as it once was, our culture still oozes with it--false colorblindness in the face of persistent racism, using the constitution to subvert the notion of equality before the law, and our self-appointed mission to defend "western civilization." Coerced and segregated labor, the former overseas, the latter in the form of undocumented workers, continue to subsidize the Empire. It is these latter tendencies which lay the groundwork for an American Fascism.

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