Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Few Notes of My Own...

... on nationalism, with some help from DeToqueville. In a few recent blog entries, I've been citing George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism," because some of his thoughts apply to the United States today, even though he was writing of the English intelligentsia at the time of the end of WWII.

Good explanations for American nationalism can probably be found in Alexis DeToqueville's Democracy in America, first published in 1837. It was in that volume that DeToqueville coined the term "American exceptionalism," that democratic rule was the unifying force in the America of the time, and was the force which would propel it to the forefront of history. It is this notion of DeToqueville's which has been seized upon by current nationalists, while some of his lesser aphorisms and observations on America go unnoticed or ignored. It's likely, too, that the America with which DeToqueville was familiar suits current nationalists and Republicans. That America was democratic, but not for all. In 1837, those who could participate in democracy, who could vote, or be elected to office, were overwhelmingly white, male and possessed property.

What unified and drove Americans, though, was not so much democracy as profit (think of democracy as a vehicle and profit as the destination). Of this, DeToqueville said: "As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?" While it is now fashionable to quote Ben Franklin in his role as a commenter on the Constitutional Convention ("You have a Republic, ma'am, if you can keep it"), most of Franklin's thoughts ran to the subjects of thrift and profit--indeed, much of Poor Richard's Almanack can be thought of as the investment tips newsletter and the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People of his day.

What DeToqueville was hinting at was that democracy was a great tool for the merchant class, which had been transplanted to America from Great Britain--that merchant class could make its own rules about taxation, about transfer of goods across state and international borders (that Commerce Clause of which so much has been made of today), in short, that it could tailor its government to its primary interest, profit. It could, at the state level, create corporations and then, at the federal level, tax them (or not tax them) and/or subsidize them according to the desires of those who would most benefit. Those interests were very often represented by their own Senators and Congressmen and judges.

Some the earliest crises in the new government stemmed from such desires to use government for private and party gain. Adams and Hamilton edged government toward the service of the aristocratic right, mistrusting the "rabble," by getting the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 passed. Adams used the threat of war with France to increase the power of the Federalists and to squelch anti-Federalist public opinion. Behind it all was the desire to consolidate the power of wealthy New York mercantile and banking interests and to minimize the power of the Southern agricultural centers.

Likewise, events which led to the censure of Andrew Jackson pitted the Northeastern banking interests against the Southern agriculturalists because of Jackson's determination to thwart the establishment of a second Bank of the United States.

Almost from the beginning of the government, the desire to use that government to obtain larger and larger slices of the available pie was virtually unrestrained. While there was a moral component to the Civil War with regard to slavery, economics played a strong role in the reasons for the war. Northern manufacturers were unhappy with the premium prices charged by the South for cotton. Once the war started, those manufacturers used their banking power to buy cotton from Egypt (the price of Egyptian cotton rose 50% during the four years of the Civil War) and the devastation of that war ensured the near-term political and economic dissolution of the South. Northern manufacturers, having established a secondary source of cotton during the war, could then set prices after the war, and once again act as internal colonialists, obtaining raw materials from the South at bargain-basement rates and returning finished goods to the South at premium prices.

From the start, no one particularly minded territorial expansion, because there was money to be made. Jefferson was not particularly excoriated for essentially making his own deal with the French in the Louisiana Purchase, even though Congress had been pretty much left out of the negotiations. Monroe's Doctrine regarding the western hemisphere would put the rest of the world on notice that America had expansionist ambitions, and no one was fooled by the religious component in the concept of manifest destiny. It was all about money. Zachary Taylor's incursions into Mexico were generally applauded, and paved the way for the annexation of much of the West. Commodore Perry's first trip was hailed in the press for opening relations with the inscrutable Orient. On his second trip in 1854, he used the threat of military attack on Japan's capital city of Edo to force the Japanese to sign a very disadvantageous trade treaty. By 1868, that treaty had destroyed Japan's economy.

By the 1890s, the robber barons of the United States had their sights set on Latin America, and particularly, China, and despite all the talk then about God's will and divine duty, the real reason was, again, unrestrained economic rapaciousness. During debate, Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana seemed to let the cat out of the bag, saying, in promotion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, that it was "the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world" and as if to reassure the business community, went on to remind his colleagues and the public of "China's illimitable markets... just beyond the Philippines."

As in more contemporary politics, Beveridge's century-old moral protestations only thinly disguised the underlying reason for war. Some, perhaps Beveridge's friends and contributors, were going to make themselves a figurative killing on the literal sort.

And here is where yet another of DeToqueville's lesser observations has been ignored: "All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it." And yet, some Americans had discovered that war was very profitable--as long as the costs of war were borne by all the taxpayers, while the profits were divided among the few. DuPont, largely family-owned at the time, saw its profits soar from $6 million a year before the beginning of WWI to $60 million during the war, thanks to the sale of one of its products--explosives.

It is in the context of this past that today's nationalism makes more sense. Corporations now effectively control the political process--mostly by using campaign money and lobbyists' largesse to gain access to politicians--because the government was set up to enable businessmen to set their own rules of conduct and rates of taxation, and multinational corporations are the inevitable legal outgrowth of the desires of the early merchant class to be rid of King George's levies on their profits.

Similarly, racism and sexism are necessary components of nationalism today--in part because the democratic system in place in 1783 was meant to be moderately exclusive. That limited the shares of the pie. Nationalists today are generally in favor of any action which continues to limit those pie shares--whether of the energy pie, the economic pie, or the international political pie.

Religion, too, is today an essential feature of nationalism, for it gives moral justification for all manner of immoral behavior in the pursuit of profit. Many today wonder how the teachings of Jesus can be warped to the obviously mercenary ends of the modern Republican Party (due in large part to modern marketing techniques being employed in the cross-branding of popular Christianity and Republicanism), and yet, the answer can be found in the origins of the country. Current authoritarian attempts to regulate all manner of social behavior (particularly with regard to reproduction) are grounded in Puritanism, which sought to regulate behavior toward a specific end--economic efficiency. Equally, much of the justification for acquisition of wealth, contrary to Jesus' teachings, can be found in the modern-day equivalents of Calvinism.

The uniformity of thought of current-day nationalists was also anticipated by DeToqueville: "In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own." Modern communications and public relations have turned this process to a near-art form, but the roots of this conformity of thought have been around for some time. Thus, the contemporary nationalist has a uniform body of thought on which to draw which employs traditional stock-in-trade terms such as "freedom" and "spreading democracy," the meanings of which have become distorted over time by rampant profit motive. In this sense, DeToqueville foresaw the ability of the few to convince the many that the aims of the few were universally held, even when those aims were not of benefit to the many.

Even so, while much of the country's history has been rooted in the quest for profit and the unbridled acquisition of wealth by the few, the founders did an interesting thing--they offered up a body of law which put people's interests in tension with the interests of government and which was capable of amendment. For those reasons, current nationalists seem most offended by the changes wrought in the amendment of that law--women's suffrage, the emancipation of slaves, the equal rights of all explicit in the 14th Amendment and the multiculturism implicit in that change.

Equally, current nationalists find pleasure in one-party rule, with Congress limiting its own power and deferring to that of an all-powerful Executive whose programs of perpetual war, economic elitism and imperial expansion serve the interests of unrestrained capitalists. In that, DeToqueville was prescient: "The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through."

After over two hundred years, the aristocracy of kings was broken, and by virtue of self-rule, a new paradigm was promoted, in which were set the rules by which a new aristocracy of entitlement by wealth would be created, which has, in turn, brought about an outcome which was inevitable, given the country's beginnings--the establishment of a government with all the outward trappings of a democracy, but with the inner workings of an oligarchy which uses the power of government to further enrich itself and consolidate its power in government and in society.

And, in that, too, DeToqueville saw further than most with regard to America's future: "We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects."

One of those defects, exhibited by so many nationalists today, is that we are easily led in directions we should not go. Only now, after twelve years of a dedicated Republican effort to corrupt Congress and five years of Bush's autocratic approach to governance, the spectre of all-encompassing electronic surveillance beyond public control and the prospect of neverending war, accelerating debt and our diminished status among international friends and adversaries alike, do we even begin to see that error discussed in the public square, and then, haltingly.

Such is the collective power of the voices standing proxy for that new oligarchy. Even in this, DeToqueville could see the inherent problem: "
In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them."

The task today, then, is to expose the current "majority" for what it is in actuality--a minority of extreme nationalists in service to what FDR accurately defined as "the malefactors of great wealth."


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