“Your celebration is a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” — Frederick Douglass, 1850
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” — Karl Marx, 1852
In announcing his retirement from the absurdly powerful U.S. Supreme Court during a press event at the White House, the gabby octogenarian Stephen Breyer recently held up his pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and waxed sentimental on the greatness of the nation he loves. Breyer said that the USA was a great democratic “experiment” – “an experiment” that is “still going on…My grandchildren and their children, they’ll determine whether the experiment still works. And of course, I am an optimist, and I’m pretty sure it will,” Breyer said.
“Revolting Barbarity and Shameless Hypocrisy”
The United States was an “experiment” alright – an experiment in racist savagery and class rule. I wonder if Breyer has ever read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a harrowing account of life under Black chattel slavery written more than half a century after the ratification of Breyer’s holy constitution. I wonder if he’s ever read Douglass’s brilliant 1850 speech “What to the Slave is the Meaning of the Fourth of July?” – the address in which Douglass observed that:
“to the American slave, …your Fourth of July…[is] a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
The Man of Business on the Mountain: “Silent Profits” and “the Quintessential American Story”
In retirement Breyer might also want to read up on the author of the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence (DOI), Thomas Jefferson, who was anti-slavery in his youth but went on to prevaricate about the slave system that paid his debts. One of many wealthy white widowers who used young female slaves for sexual release before and after the American “revolution” (which was fought partly to ensure the survival and expansion of North American Black chattel slavery), Jefferson enjoyed prominence as a “revolutionary leader” while keeping some of his own children as slaves. Justice Breyer can start with Henry Wiencek’s heralded volume, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (2012), which dug into previously overlooked evidence in Jefferson’s papers and new archaeological work at Jefferson’s Monticello site to paint a depressing picture of Jefferson’s stunted, penny-pinching world. As one reviewer notes:
“Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book based [shows that] … We must… follow the money… Wiencek’s Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the “silent profits” gained from his slaves and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he’d vowed to overturn. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson’s grocery bills. Parents are divided from children in his ledgers… Slaves are bought, sold, given as gifts, and used as collateral for the loan that pays for Monticello’s construction―while Jefferson composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what he himself called “the execrable commerce.” Many people saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had become deeply corrupted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?”
Breyer should also read historian Edward Baptist’s prize-winning study The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and Rise of American Capitalism. Baptist shows that 19th Century U.S. cotton slavery was a highly profitable capitalist project based on the ruthless oppression and systematic torture of Black workers in forced labor camps and rape sites known as “plantations.” Racial bondage and exploitation on a massive scale produced the surplus value that fueled the United States’ emergence as a player in the world of capitalist nations before the Civil War, Baptist shows.
It was one Hell of a profitable experiment, critical to the rise of early industrial capitalism across the Atlantic world.
When Predator Extended the Sphere
Bryer should also consult Anthony F.C. Wallace’s account of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (the “five civilized tribes”) from the Southeastern United States – the mass-murder murderous US removal of Indigenous nations to clear the land for the depredations of cotton slavery. Then he could turn north to read historian Kerry Trask’s study of the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832, critical backdrop for Chicago’s transcendence of Manchester as the miracle city of the Age of Capital and one of many bloody, one-sided “settler” triumphs on the corpse-filled frontlines of “the American experiment.” After some of their warriors challenged the occupation of their sacred lands and homes by white “settlers,” the Sauk and Fox Indians lost 600 people in the August 1832 “Battle of Bad Axe,” in southwest Wisconsin. “While the Sauk refugees were preparing rafts and canoes,” Trask writes, “the armed [U.S.] steamboat Warrior arrived, whereupon Black Hawk tried to negotiate with its troops under a flag of truce. The Americans opened fire, killing twenty-three warriors.” One US officer who “served” in the assault recalled that “as we neared them they raised a white flag and endeavored to decoy us, but we were a little too old for them.” Hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women and children were shot, clubbed, and bayoneted to death at the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers. US soldiers scalped the dead. They cut long strips of flesh from dead and wounded Indians for use as razor strops. The slaughter was supported by cannon and rifle fire from the Warrior, which picked off tribal members swimming for their lives. The United States suffered 5 dead in the “Battle of Bad Axe.”
Another “quintessential American story,” one of countless massacres that pock-marked the white “settlers’” “democratic” conquest of Native North America (Google up the Mystic River, Sand Creek, and Wounded Knee massacres for starters), which included the massive levelling of forests and prairies and the colossal destruction of animal life. The genocidal butchery inflicted on the continent’s original inhabitants by “Predator” (Ward Churchill’s term for the invading Caucasians) was curiously consistent with the DOI’s slanderous description of what the Man on the Mountain called “the merciless Indian savages[’…] known rule of warfare…an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Here Jefferson anticipated the exterminist practices of the nation’s beloved Founder George Washington, known to the Iroquois as Conoctocaurious, meaning “Town Taker,” “Burner of Towns,” and “Town Destroyer.” In 1779, during the so-called American revolutionary war, Washington ordered and organized the Sullivan Campaign, which carried out the annihilation of 40 Iroquois villages in New York.
Along the way, the glorious Father of Our Great Experiment in Freedom and Democracy owned more than 300 Black slaves. He expected the Black chattel humans on his 1790s Mount Vernon estate to work from before sunrise to after sunset six days a week. At the end of the U.S. “revolutionary” war, he demanded that the British return all escaped slaves in their possession to their “rightful owners.”
The Great Experiment was driven to “extend the sphere” – James Madison’s imperial recommendation for diluting any chance of meaningful organized rebellion by those at the bottom of the propertarian republic. It stole its vast Southwest and California from Mexico through the barrel of a gun, gaining thereby the task of murdering Comanches and Apaches. The one-sided “Mexican-American War” featured the mass slaughter and rape of Mexican civilians along with the bloody occupation of Mexico City. US-American “Manifest Destiny,” the white nationalist myth that just this war of conquest, had no more moral or scientific legitimacy than the divine right of kings.
After it lost more than 600,000 people in a Civil War resulting from Southern slaveholders’ determination that the election of Abraham Lincoln posed an existential menace to their racist system, the U.S. let the South re-establish cotton slavery in new, post-chattel forms and launched the bloodiest industrial relations and labor history the world had ever seen. During the Great Labor Upheaval of 1877, US troops fresh from slaughtering Sioux children were deployed to crush immigrant workers who were designated as “white savages” by the nation’s capitalist press. The largely immigrant-based workforce in the nation’s giant new “Jungle” of deadly mines, mills, slaughterhouses, and factories was demonized as racially inferior and dangerous despite its European origins. For leading an Eight Hour movement and questioning the class rule of the new industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, Chicago social revolutionaries were executed in grisly short-rope fashion at the behest of the malignant merchandising mogul Marshal Field on November 11, 1887.
Its industrial rise fueled by chattel and wage slavery, the great “democratic” US-American “experiment” would soon expand its sphere-extending predation beyond its borders as it joined Europe in the imperialist division of the world. “Exceptional” America enlisted its gendarmes in the murder of people its forces called “Apaches” and “niggers” in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Central America. The next two centuries would see the United States directly and indirectly exterminate millions, mostly nonwhite (East Asians above all), in the names of “freedom” and “democracy.” (For a summary of the carnage, which was continuous with the savagery of the initial continental sphere-extension, see my 2019 essay “The World Will Not Mourn the End of U.S. Hegemony”).
Who Controls the Present, Past, and Future
This is some of the Trumpenvolk- “triggering” history that Youngkinian Kens and Karens want (in the name of opposing Critical Race Theory [CRT]) their children to never learn. Beneath claims of wanting to protect children from trauma, the real purpose behind their determination to send real US-American history down Orwell’s memory hole is to make past crimes invisible so as better to repeat them. Neo-Confederate palingenetic “Make America Great Again” nationalism requires a whitewash of the past. By absurdly labelling real history CRT, paranoid-style Republifascist thought-controllers get to add a swipe at the intellectual class (always a key fascist target) and to suggest that they are sheltering youth from allegedly dominant “cultural Marxism” and the global communist conspiracy. Never mind that liberal CRT discourse is limited to some law and graduate schools and academic journals. It isn’t actually “taught” in US-American K-12 education. “Who controls the past,” Orwell’s mind-managing ruling Party tells its whitewashers in the dystopian novel 1984, “controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
A Penny on the Dollar “Democracy”
Here we are 246 years after the Man on the Mountain took projection to new heights by calling Native Americans genocidal “savages” in a document that upheld “liberty” and proclaimed that “all men are created equal” even as it helped launch “revolution” to save North American slavery and ethnic cleansing from British suffocation. The vicious “experiment” lives on in a savagely unequal nation – a world-leading mass incarceration, mass shooting, and covid death state where the top thousandth has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent and where (in a remarkable reflection of slavery’s long reach) “black families have just one cent for every one dollar of accumulated wealth that white families have.” Yes, a “penny on the dollar”: you read that correctly.
In other news, democracy is a distant dream in this de facto class dictatorship, where “politics is the shadow cast on society by Big Business” (John Dewey) and majority public and progressive opinion is regularly cancelled by concentrated wealth and power. How could it not be? As the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained in 1940, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” The “exceptional” US-American “experiment” – exceptional among rich nations for the extremity of its poverty, inequality, ill-health, violence, segregation, incarceration, and more terrible to mention – is caught up in a vicious oligarchic circle. The more harshly separate and unequal it becomes, the more plutocratic it gets; the more plutocratic it gets, the more harshly separate and unequal it becomes.
This is Happening Now and Here
Stephen Breyer’s “grandchildren and great grandchildren” will “determine if the experiment still works”? Has Breyer read any of the relevant climate research on where the American and related global capitalist experiment is leading livable ecology quite soon? Environmental catastrophe, the natural outcome of capitalism’s anarchic addiction to endless growth and its lethal dependence on fossil fuels, is already underway. It’s happening to all of us and other living things now, with permafrost eruptions and ever more extreme weather events and epidemic drought taking place in the present moment. It’s not even clear how many future generations will survive. And capitalogenic ecocide is intimately related to the fascist threat here and abroad, as Andreas Malm has shown: it promises to bring about precisely the kinds of material societal crises that are the breeding grounds for fascist movements and the consolidation of fascism-as-force regimes.
Fascism “can’t happen here.” Is that so? We have learned just how remarkably close the Orange Fascist Insect (the OFI) and his minions came to stealing the 2020 election. Whole slates of fake Electors were in place to hand contested states to Herr Trump if only Mike Pence had played along on January 6, 2021. Ex-military and ex-police paramilitary Oath Keepers were organized as Quick Reaction Forces positioned just off site “to rapidly transport firearms and other weapons into Washington, D.C., in support of operations aimed at using force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power” on the day of the attempted insurrection.
More than one year later, January 6 is seen as inspiration and prologue – a “great dress rehearsal” (to steal Lenin’s description of Russia’s 1905 revolution) – for millions of Americans and most of the nation’s elected Republicans see it in a favorable light or feel compelled to say they do. Donald Trump’s Hitlerian Big Lie of a Stolen Election is accepted by three in four Republicans. Nearly a third of whom would like to see Biden removed even before the next presidential election. Vast swaths of the white Amerikaner “homeland” believe that political violence is justified now to “save American culture” from the supposedly in-power “radical Left.”
The OFI is back on the hate rally campaign trail, promising (in essence) to pardon the OKs and other “fascist marauders” (Congressman Jamie Raskin’s accurate phrase) who tried to subvert the peaceful, bourgeois-democratic transfer of power last year. (Trump apparently considered trying to offer a blanket pardon to the fascist rioters before he left office). He has made a Horst Wessel-like martyr out of the putschist military veteran Ashli Babbitt and is calling “for the biggest protests we’ve ever had” to terrorize the Black female prosecutors who are investigating his crimes. Responding to the fascist leader’s call, the New York Times reports, “the prosecutor examining Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Georgia immediately asked the F.B.I. to conduct a ‘risk assessment’ of her building’s security.”
Trump has recently endorsed Republifascist candidates in Michigan who advocate pulling the plugs on voting machines and coming to polling places “locked and loaded.” Kyle Rittenhouse, who became a right-wing celebrity by killing Black Lives Matter protesters with an illegally owned AR-15, will surely garner a post in a second Trump administration. As we learn that Trump tried to enlist the military in seizing voting machines in contested states after the 2020 election, the right wing Congresswoman Liz Cheney is right: “He has acknowledged that he was trying to overturn the  election. He is making it clear he would do this all again if given the chance.”
As fascist mobs threaten election, school, cultural, and public health officials and workers (including now even school nurses and librarians!) across the country and as the right bans books that tell the truth about slavery, Native American genocide, sand the Nazi Holocaust, it seems likely that the Republifascist Party and its thugs will soon extinguish previously normative bourgeois electoral democracy and constitutional rule of law.
“Civil war” and national “implosion” seems practically inevitable by numerous highly informed accounts. “The much-proclaimed ‘shining City on a Hill’,” Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian rightly and wryly observes, “is full of fascists.” And not just in rural backwoods and farm towns. The disproportionately petit-bourgeois people arrested for breaching and trashing the Capitol Complex on January 6, 2021, were mainly from “Blue America” suburbs where whites feel threatened by rising minority population. White members of fascist big city police unions can’t wait to pull their triggers on people who protest the Trump or DeSantis coup of 2024-25. The urban police forces that turn out en masse and to great media applause to honor their fallen comrades (like Ella French in Chicago last summer and Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera in New York last week) are loaded with authoritarian personalities and neofascists. These “Blue MAGA” forces are ready to advance white nationalist lawlessness in the name of law and order.
“We have a little less than two years,” says Cooperation Jackson leader Kali Akuno, “before the neo-Confederates and fascists install a reactionary dictatorship by the end of January 2025” – no small matter in world history’s most powerful state. Not merely fascism but white power genocide is on the table in the world capital has made here and abroad.
“The Democrats need to stand up to this,” liberal friends tell me. Know any other good jokes? The Weimar Dems, Sheldon Wolin’s “inauthentic opposition,” are hopelessly wedded to bourgeois democratic institutions that the Republifascists are smartly wiring never to “work” (Bryers’s word) again. They have little to offer beyond passive and hollow resistance.
What an abject moral and generational surrender it is for an 83-year-old man still enjoying mad privilege at the pinnacle of the imperialist world system to say in the face of all this that the preservation of (so-called) democracy is a project for future generations – and to cheerfully identify himself as an “optimist” and say he’s “pretty sure” the (supposedly democratic) “experiment” will “keep working.” Really, judge? Breyer’s own absurdly powerful body (the Supreme Court) is set to re-impose the de facto female slavery of forced motherhood next June unless millions of US-Americans take to the streets and public squares to stand up for the basic human rights of women of childbearing age on March 8th – International Woman’s Day. The Supremes seem likely also to significantly roll back local gun control in a bitter and divided nation saturated by weapons and plagued by a rolling epidemic of mass shootings. (The Armed American Madhouse already feels overdue for another one of its recurrent, tragically normalized and overdetermined mass casualty gun violence events, be inflicted by some angry white male “radicalized” by right-wing media and by a disintegrating society that the anti-science pandemofascist right has helped turn into a Covid-19 Sanctuary State.)
Imagine an Actual City on a Hill
Speaking of history weighing “like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” I never cease to be impressed by the durable paranoid-style power of the fascistic neo-McCarthyism that lets the U.S. right call both the lying, neoliberal and warmongering Citigroup-Council on Foreign Relations party of the Clintons, Obama, and Biden and the US government “radical Left,” “socialist” and even “Marxist.” The right Amerikaner noise and hate machine has millions of its unmasked followers believing that Joe Biden is “the Trojan Horse of socialism” and Kamala Harris takes instructions from the writings of Chairman Mao!
Imagine if the USA had an actually radical Left government instead of a perverse Manchinian oligarchy well down the overlapping paths of fascisation and terminal environmental catastrophe. It’s a beautiful thing to envision. In a revolutionary socialist North America, the leading financial, media, military, and energy corporations would be expropriated, nationalized, and thoroughly transformed in service to the common good. Fossil fuel extraction and burning would be massively curtailed as part of a rapid transition to renewable energy. Health care and not just health insurance would be nationalized, socialized, and otherwise transformed in service to the common good. The former US capitalist global empire would be thoroughly repurposed and radically transformed to spread global eco socialist transformation. Workers councils would be formed to coordinate with the revolutionary government to transform and repurpose economic activity in accord with eco socialist priorities. Parasitic bourgeois profits and anarchic capitalist “market rule” and competition would cease to exist. The bourgeoisie as a class would be socially and historically abolished, its parties and media rendered harmless. Homelessness and poverty would be abolished. Fascists would face merciless liquidation. Racism and sexism would be designated as official societal enemies and crimes along with classism and ecocide. They would be deeply understood as matters of societal and institutional structure, policy, and practice and not merely as problems of subjective prejudice and belief. Women’s reproductive rights would be fully and immediately restored and guaranteed. Opponents of public health would face severe penalties and have zero right to spread murderous disinformation. Real and honest history would be rigorously taught from K through college and beyond, not to traumatize young people but to inspire them for the popular and democratic liberation of humanity, rescuing and properly telling real stories not only of oppression but also of people’s rebellion, and resistance.
“To Show That What Looks Like a Rational Conclusion is Mistaken”
A rancid imperial superpower turned revolutionary state that did all that would be something like a shining city on a hill. Imagine. It could happen. I get my faith, very different from Bryer’s decrepit and fraudulent optimism, from the many conversations I have in which people agree – despite all the capitalist and revanchist propaganda to which they are regularly subjected – that this is a kind of future that would “work” and that is worth fighting for: revolutionary socialism.
Is my radical conviction and even (admittedly guarded) optimism misplaced? Perhaps but that’s a question for “above it all” odds makers and intellectuals sitting on distant Mandarin perches that hold no interest for those of us who know that it’s now an existential choice between eco-socialism or potentially terminal catastrophe. Believing in the chances for revolution no matter what the betting odds is actually the rational choice. As Noam Chomsky has explained:
“I think an objective observer, from Mars, let’s say, looking at the human species would conclude that they’re an evolutionary error—that they’re designed in such a way that leads them to destroy themselves, probably much else along with them. That would be a rational conclusion. We can decide whether that conclusion is right or wrong. Fate: that choice is in our hands. I don’t think it’s a question of optimism or pessimism. But do we make the choice, the effort, to show that what looks like a rational conclusion is nevertheless mistaken? That’s up to us.”
It’s not about the crystal ball, comrades.
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of eight books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement (CounterPunch Books, 2020); and This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (Routledge, 2022). Paul writes regularly for Counterpunch and Dandelion Salad. Help Paul Street keep writing here and/or here.
Originally published at Counterpunch, Feb. 4, 2022
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