In a recent series on Operation Werewolf, Jack Donovan, and the Wolves of Vinland, I noted how much of the ideological and mythic territory from which they operate once belonged to leftist and post-colonial movements. Anti-globalisation, for instance, is now no longer to be found within American antifascist and leftist politics except in some fringes (which are constantly under suspicion for being crypto-fascists). Instead, in the last few years we have seen the New Right, Alt-Right, Republicans and Fascists include anti-globalisation in their political analysis.
Trump, for instance, promised to end many of the international trade agreements against which the WTO protesters fought 17 years ago. These trade agreements have done just as much damage (if not much more) to poorer nations as they have wrought upon American workers, yet the 2016 election pitted a right-wing demagogue against a liberal candidate who advocated for even more of these agreements.
Trump hasn’t actually done what he promised to do (of course), but that should not surprise us. The globalisation of capital is always good for the American capitalist, and both he and Hillary Clinton made their commitment to capital relentlessly clear even before the election.
What should interest us more, however, is why anti-globalisation is no longer a political critique on the American “Left,” despite the fact that elsewhere (especially in the global south), rage against the damage caused by globalisation still fuels massive protests and mass movements.
There Is No “Us” in “America”
There are a few aspects of this question that are not precisely easy to unravel for an American audience, especially for readers who have not spent any significant time outside the United States. Whether by poverty, preference, or provincialism, there’s a good chance that many reading this have not lived in another country for several months, or have not had exposure to communities and thinkers outside of America. Thus, many have not had to undergo the (rather painful but enlightening) process of understanding how exceptionalist, isolated, and Nationalist the politics, morals, and people of the United States are.
Merely going to a grocery store in another country can begin that uncomfortable initiation. What is available, and the prices for which they are available, and how many competing brands of each are available usually cause quite a shock. In America you can buy fifty types of fake coffee creamer, seven brands of the same cereal, or forty types of sliced bread, but if you don’t have much money you won’t be buying local vegetables or meat (if local food is even available).
In much of Europe it is quite the opposite: usually only one or two brands of the same item, much of the bread made locally (often in-store) and seasonal vegetables all grown relatively close, and everything priced at shockingly low prices.
Such a confrontation challenges a deeply-held (and invisible) myth under which Americans–even many anti-capitalist Americans–unconsciously operate: that whatever else it is, America is a land of abundance. Encountering more abundance, and more readily-affordable abundance, in a tiny store outside the US begins a process which eventually leads you to see the shape of American exceptionalism. The traveler or expatriate soon begins to see that the ideological framework of Americanism has been invisible to them their entire life, and that what makes you “American” is much more complex than what you suspected.
A case in point. I have always been an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-American. As such, I’d arrogantly believed I’d done a lot of work to dismantle my American-ness, until a German friend asked me why, as an anarchist, I still insisted on saying “we” when referring to America.
I had been speaking about American history and the way that the US government had arrested anarchists during World War I, and I said something like, “We still arrest anarchists in America.”
“Why do you keep saying we?” she asked. “You don’t do that. The US government does.”
That is, I had been unconsciously identifying myself with the US government, taking collective responsibility for their actions, and never noticed.
Such identification with America, disciplined and trained into Americans from birth, is quite invisible until you encounter someone from a different culture, in a different land, who notes how odd such a thing is. Saying “we” when speaking about America is not just a mere quirk, however—it is a re-enforced allegiance to a mythic national construction in which each American is expected to hold both responsibility and benefit from the collective nightmare of America.
Such allegiance and identification informs American politics on both the left and the right. On the left, it leads to notions of collective responsibility and guilt (for foreign wars or for slavery) as well as a compulsion to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with the United States, rather than destroy it. On the right, the collective responsibility and guilt exists as well (particularly in questions of moral character), but it more obviously functions as a bludgeon of social cohesion during times of war or crisis (the nationalism after 9/11, or the “Make America Great Again” slogan of Donald Trump). In all cases, it creates an exceptionalism born of an ‘us’ in contrast to a nebulous ‘them’ (or many ‘thems’), be they victims of US policy or enemies of the US.
Nationalist Citizens of A Global Empire
Our collective us-ness is of course false. I can have just as much in common with a Dubliner or a Parisian as I do with a New Yorker, except that a New Yorker was probably just as indoctrinated into American-ness as I was, while neither the Dubliner nor Berliner experienced that American social programming.What do I actually have in common with a highly-paid tech worker in San Francisco? Or a farmer in Iowa? We aren’t even neighbors anymore; I live in Europe.
While one might be tempted to say that a Dubliner or Berliner experienced similar programming to what we do in America, just the German or Irish version of it, this is not precisely true. Both Ireland and Germany are new nations, neither of which occupy conquered land where previously lived indigenous peoples slaughtered to found a nation. And while both countries have colonial pasts (Ireland as colonized, Germany as imperialist and then later Nazi colonizer), neither are currently colonizing the rest of the world with their culture or with massive militaries.
Because this is what one begins to understand most about the United States when you have left it for any period of time. American culture is terrifyingly dominant and dominating, drowning out cultural differences anywhere it goes, demanding conformity to its forms and its preferences.
The moment you’ve heard an American couple complaining how a French server didn’t speak English or how the Coca-Cola ‘tastes funny’ elsewhere in the world, and particularly when you start to note how Americans demand that the world around them conforms to what they believe to be the right and natural way to do things, you immediately understand that American-ness is more than a mere nationality—it is a colonialist ethic.
Within America, the conceit seems to be that some are more guilty of such behaviors than others, and you can somehow determine who is more ‘American’ by race, gender, political, or sexuality markers. This becomes patently untrue outside of America, though: I have witnessed the same imperialist behavior from a Black lesbian traveler as I have from white straight men—they both act just as ‘American.’ What determines whether someone is going to act like an imperialist ass has nothing to do with their oppressed status within America, but how much work they’ve done to actually interrogate their American-ness.
So too in politics: while Trump declared America needed to be made great again and Clinton retorted that America was great because it is good, both essentially argued that American greatness (with its global imperialism and indigenous slaughter) is a sacred, unassailable thing.
This is American exceptionalism, which is rooted in the founding horror of the United States itself. America is a colonial ritual, initiated through slaughter of indigenous people, alchemically transformed by stripping displaced Europeans and enslaved Africans of their identities in a great alembic of nationalist horror. From that transformation was born a new kind of global capital, a new sort of cultural imperialism, and a new sort of Empire which follows an American everywhere they might go.
Worse, it is utterly invisible to the American, especially the American who has never tried to live anywhere else. And the American cannot help but continue to colonize and slaughter, unless they finally choose to fight America itself.
The invisibility of American exceptionalism to the American helps explain at least to some degree why American leftists abandoned anti-globalisation politics faster than leftists elsewhere. Within the protests against the expansion of global capital throughout the world was an internal contradiction, one which struck directly at the heart of American identity. Because the expansion of global capitalism meant that what came to define the American ‘way of life’ (its products and services, its urban uniformity, its hyper-consumerism) would be made available to the rest of the world. Since many Americans–even leftists–believed that what they had was the way the world ought to be, the expansion of global capitalism seemed like an expansion of freedom, democracy, and progress.
That is, globalisation made the world look American, brought American-style ‘democracy’ and products to the primitive, uncivilized, unenlightened peoples of Paris, Berlin, and São Paulo. This was the ‘interconnectedness’ which urban American elites touted as the primary benefit of globalisation, but that interconnectedness can just be easily named ‘assimilation.’
Two decades of the expansion of global capital through ‘neo’-liberal policies has created a new global class of interconnected assimilated people who now share the same values, purchase the same products, and vote as a global bloc. Connected through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, they “like” unique photos of travel and local cuisine that look remarkably like every other travel and dinner photo in every other gentrified hip neighborhood of the world.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of an urban class against which the Communists and Anarchists waged war–and failed. Another such class has risen, transforming everything it touches, marching to the orders of global capital, crushing local resistance under its vintage-shod feet.
The grand conceit of the globalist was that such ‘interconnection’ would lead to more peace. If people in Barcelona, Toronto, Chicago, and Tokyo all use the same iPhones and drink the same Starbucks coffee, they would be less likely to want to go to war with each other. Through that commonality, ideas like Democracy and Equality would also spread from the “free world” to the rest of the world.
There is another word for this, though, and one that describes what has actually happened a lot better than globalisation or interconnection. That word is colonization.
Each Starbucks I see in a foreign city feels like an embassy or a military outpost of America, much like what it must have felt like to see Catholic churches in South America after Spanish and Portuguese conquest.
The point we must remember is that the colonization of global capital is mostly invisible to those who were long ago colonized by it. Where an American might see a McDonald’s in Europe or Africa and be relieved, they cannot see the violence and cultural erasure that led to the creation of that McDonald’s. It is even more true with cultural forms, ideas, language, and politics.
Far-right and fascist groups in the United States are some of the few who still offer a criticism of global capitalism, but they are very, very wrong in what they want to do about it, as well as whom they blame for the destruction of cultural difference. It is not the immigrant Muslim fleeing wars, nor the immigrant Mexican fleeing poverty, who has changed the shape of society and destroyed what makes peoples and communities unique.
It’s capitalism, and the United States is its largest supporter. So, too, are the American corporations who spread its gospel throughout the world, and unfortunately the Americans who have not yet understood that they will always be a colonizing, imperialist force until they fight America itself. Taking up that fight will require Americans not only to question their own colonial indoctrination, but also their complicity in support for the global capitalists within the United States who spread the American religion to the rest of the world.
I hope they take up that fight.
Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch.
He is currently in Dublin, Ireland.
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