The abdication of the U.S. left before corporate power
The principal actor in the world-system is the state. It was conquering European states that imposed world-system structures on the world; and when resistance emerged, it took the form of the colonized peoples appropriating structures of modern European states, demanding the rights of their states to sovereignty. Today, the Third World movements envision a just and democratic world-system that is characterized by mutually respectful commercial and diplomatic relations among sovereign nations, without interference in the internal affairs of states by the imperialist powers.
We today are in a Third World War, which is an ongoing endless war between imperialism and the enemies of imperialism. Even though imperialism has become increasingly aggressive and reckless, a sign of its desperation, the outcome remains in doubt. The elite that rules the declining hegemonic power increasingly indicates that it will opt for global military dictatorship before surrendering to the vision of a more just and democratic world-system.
World War III is a war between, on the one side, corporate-controlled core states, seeking to impose their imperialist agenda on the world; and on the other side, historically peripheralized states that act in defense of the sovereignty of their nations and the social and economic rights of their peoples, above all their right to development. It is a war that is central to the consciousness of the Third World peoples, and thus it has transcendence beyond the key nations that are the central antagonists. For the peoples of the Third World, there is a relatively high level of ideological clarity: in any particular nation, the people must unite and take control of the state, and direct the state to wage battle with corporate-controlled states of the core, in defense of national sovereignty.
In this global scenario, the responsibility of the left in the core nations is to mobilize their peoples toward the taking of political power from the hands of the corporations in their particular nations, so that the delegates of the people, with power in their hands, can direct the state toward the protection of the social and economic rights and needs of the people, and toward policies of respect for the sovereignty of the nations of the world.
Unchecked corporate power in the USA
Since the birth of the American Republic, big bankers and merchants, and later big industrialists, have sought to attain indirect control of the state. According to the classical rhetoric of the national discourse, sovereignty resides in the people; but the reality is that the economic and ideological power of concentrated capital undermines the sovereignty of the people, blocking the state from acting in their defense.
In the age of Jefferson, the defenders of the people against the power of the big bankers and merchants believed that the sovereign power of the people could be protected through the wide distribution of agricultural land, thereby forging a nation of small-scale agricultural producers, who could defend their interests in popular assemblies and organizations. But this vision was rendered outdated not only by the growth of cities and the expansion of industry, but most importantly, by the emergence of concentrated industry in the age of the Robber Barons.
The Founding Fathers had created a political system of checks and balances, in which the power of the people in legislative assemblies could be checked by the executive branches, which more likely would be under the control of the big bankers and merchants, and by an independent judiciary. But the emergence of big industry in the second half of the nineteenth century changed the political game. The concentrated power of the corporations enabled them to control not only the executive branch of the federal government but also the universities, the press, and the establishment churches, thus empowering them to frame public discourse, so that an ideological façade of democracy could be invented and disseminated.
In the late nineteenth century, with corporate control of public discourse not yet fully attained, the unchecked power of the corporate Trusts gave rise to the resistance of the people, which resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission during the administration of Grover Cleveland and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. These reforms, however, were not effective in exercising control; the historian Richard Hofstadter, in The American Political Tradition, describes the reform as a sham designed to respond to the clamor of the people.
With continuing public outcry, the issue came to a head in the presidential elections of 1912, when the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson and the independent progressive candidate and ex-President Theodore Roosevelt proposed similar comprehensive plans for placing the corporations under the effective restraint and regulation of the government. For both, it was a delicate issue of how to facilitate continued corporate contributions to national economic productivity, but get them to do so in a form that was in accordance with the needs and interests of the people.
Woodrow Wilson arrived to the presidency on the basis of a campaign that formulated a clear view on regulating corporations, avoiding the reckless and idealistic radical rhetoric that he held in disdain. On the one hand, he believed that political power must be in the hands of the people; and that the purpose of the federal government is to protect the people against monopolies. “The business of government,” he had declared during the presidential campaign in 1912, “is to organize the common interests against the special interests.” On the other hand, he was not opposed to concentration in industry per se. He supported what he called “natural concentration,” which emerges from fair competition among competitors. He was opposed to concentration that was forged through unfair and illicit competition, which included such tactics as blocking credit and raw materials to competitors, squeezing out a retailer who buys from a rival, or supporting politicians who support tariffs on foreign competitors. Seeking to eliminate the concentration that emerges from unfair competition, concerning which the Robber Barons were masters, he maintained that the solution was to regulate the corporations through good laws that were enforced by the courts.
Wilson delivered on his campaign promises. “The conceptions set forth in Wilson’s speeches of 1912 were translated into legislative with remarkable success and fidelity,” Hofstadter writes. Wilson’s economic program included: lowering tariffs; placing banking and the credit system under public control; the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, which was to prevent illicit competition; and other measures that supported farmers and workers. Wilson declared to the Congress on December 8, 1914 that his legislative program for the regulation of business was complete.
My study of Hofstadter invites the following questions. Is it possible that Wilson’s economic program could have been decisive in enabling the corporations to contribute to economic productivity, yet avoiding the surrendering of the power of the people to them? Could it be that a reformulation of the American concept of checks and balances had been formed, taking into account the emergence of concentrated industry and banking, a reformulation based on a check by government on the corporations, in defense of the interests of the nation and the people? And could it be that this historic moment was created by a combination of popular anti-corporate outcry and responsible presidential leadership?
But we cannot know. The new laws and regulations were not implemented, forgotten during U.S. participation in the World War, which economically began for the USA in 1915, with allied war orders. Profits from the manufacture and sale of arms and supplies to the allies were critical to overcoming the serious depression of 1914, and war profits during the war were central the continuation of U.S. economic ascent. This fusion of economic and military interests created the practical need for unchecked corporate productivity.
Following the war, a possible return to effective state regulation of the corporations in defense of the long-term needs of the nation was subsequently cast aside by inter-war imperialist interests and by ideological confusions and divisions among the people. Subsequently, following World War II, a permanent war economy was established, justified by the Cold War ideology. So the nation never learned how to control the corporations in a form that took advantage of their productive capacities yet directed production toward the satisfaction of the needs and desires of the people. Profit through arms was given priority, and the people were ideologically manipulated toward the unlimited attainment of profit.
The corporations themselves could not see beyond short-term profits, so unchecked corporate power meant disaster for the nation and for the world-system. The corporate elite and the people embraced the Cold War ideology and the permanent war economy that it implied, without regard to the increasingly evident need for the nations of the world to develop peaceful and cooperative relations. When the neocolonial world-system entered a period of stagflation in the 1970s, having reached the geographical limits of the earth and the end of its historic road of economic expansion through conquest, the global elite expanded and deepened its mechanisms of neocolonial penetration, thus throwing the system into a sustained structural crisis, which it is incapable of resolving.
The Abdication of the Left
The left in the USA has been ideologically incapable of responding to the usurpation of power by the corporate elite. In the post-World War I era, the left was not able to renew popular support for the anti-Trust economic program of Woodrow Wilson. Following World War II, in those moments when the left criticized the emergence of a military-industrial complex, it did so without formulating an alternative comprehensive plan for the nation’s economy, thus leaving the people skeptical concerning the left’s level of practical intelligence. Often, the left implicitly acquiesced to the permanent war economy, confining itself to support for the demands of workers for better wages and compensation, which at best is a limited and partial form of struggle against corporate power.
There emerged a form of working-class politics related to labor unions, which was limited in both influence and understanding by anti-communist expulsions, a prevailing tendency to social reformism, and a Marxist conceptualization that was not adapted with sufficient creativity to U.S. conditions. Working-class politics was rendered outdated by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the student anti-war movement, and the black power movement. But the New Left was not able to construct an alternative ideological consensus that grounded a long-term organizational presence, due to its political immaturity and the superficiality of its analyses.
Thus, when the world-economy entered a sustained structural crisis in the 1970s, the Left was unable to block the turn to aggressive economic and militarist imperialism.
Central to the ideological weakness of the U.S. left is that it is ill at ease with its national identity. To some extent the left has an ideological tendency toward a limited form of global politics, the practice of which occurs in UN agencies and international NGOs. Although this often is noble work, such global institutions are too weak to effectively challenge the transnational corporations, because the corporations own the most powerful states and the largest mass media of the world, and therefore they have military forces, economic sanctions, and ideologically directed and well-paid diplomatic staff at their disposal. Although they speak in the necessary direction, international agencies are politically unable to defend the common interests of humanity against the interests of corporations in access to markets, cheap labor, and natural resources and their morally unconstrained pursuit of profit, disregarding the sovereignty of peoples.
Associated with global political practice has been the emergence of a global identity among persons with a progressive orientation, who may or may not be connected to progressive, international institutions. Such persons think of themselves as citizens of the world rather than citizens of a particular nation. They tend to favor open migration among nations, envisioning their own nation as a nation without borders, without analyzing the economic implications of such a view. They tend to consider patriotism to be an antiquated, ethnocentric notion. They for the most part are not effective participants in the political processes in their own nations, because their unpatriotic posture reduces their influence among fellow citizens.
If global identity is not the answer, neither is politics based on racial, ethnic, gender, or personal identities. At the time of the founding of the nation, most citizens were English and Protestant. Waves of immigration diversified the population, so that the nation came to be composed mostly of people of European descent who were Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The arrival of these immigrants provoked a more inclusive adjustment in the national narrative, but it did not change the fundamental narrative of a nation formed by people who arrived to American shores in search of greater religious and political freedom and economic opportunity, which was made possible by the various factors that promoted the economic ascent of the nation.
Indentured servants, slaves, blacks and other persons of color were a part of the American reality from the beginning, but they were acknowledged in the prevailing American narrative merely as footnotes, not changing the essence of the narrative. As the African-American movement developed during the period 1917 to 1988, it for the most part sought a reformulation the American narrative that more fully embraced African-American economic and cultural contributions to the nation, and the need of the African-American community for political empowerment and social and economic development (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021 and “The Rainbow Coalition challenges the establishment,” April 27, 2021). It was a reformulation fully in accord with the demands for sovereignty and equality of Third World nations and peoples. At the same time, the African-American reformulation of the American narrative could subsume Latino and Asian immigrants, which were expanding in number.
During the 1990s, with the “minority groups” or “persons of color” approaching majority, the quest for the inclusion went in an entirely different direction. This turn abandoned the teachings of the exceptional leaders of the African-America movement, including the call of Malcolm X for economic and social development through black control of black community institutions, of Martin Luther King for an alliance of the poor of all races and ethnicities, and of Jesse Jackson for a coalition of all the sectors of the people. What emerged was an “identity politics” that downplays national identity, fragmenting the people into distinct ethnic identities and undermining the necessary unity of the people in facing common national problems. Like competing ethnic groups in a neocolonial state, identity politics unleashes a competition among ethnic groups for resources controlled by the state, which itself is commanded not by the people but by the transnational corporations. The political establishment in the United States has adopted identity politics, seeing its capacity to divide the people, in accordance with the interests of corporations.
Building upon identity politics, the new racial politics of recent years has sought to reformulate U.S. history and contemporary reality from a black middle-class perspective, and it uses rhetorical racial trump cards to coerce and manipulate acquiescence from Latinos and whites. Not only does this method provoke discord, it also is far less than what the historic moment requires. What is needed is a reformulation of the American narrative in a form that takes into account the experiences of the diverse ethnic groups and classes, and taking into account as well questions of gender and ecology. Racial politics disdains any such effort toward an inclusive reformulation of national identity. It undermines the potential unity of the people and destroys the potential capacity of the people to take political power and to defend itself against corporate power. (See various articles on Race listed in the About Page).
It cannot be considered accidental that corporate support for the new racial politics emerged in the aftermath of the Occupy Movement, which symbolized the delegitimation of established political power structure in the USA, and which had articulated the notion of the 99% against the 1%. Although the Occupy Movement made evident the limited political consciousness of the people and the political immaturity of “activists,” it nonetheless had put forth a slogan that was both accurate and threatening, not known in American political activities since the student anti-war movement chanted “power to the people” in the late 1960s. From the point of view of the elite, something had to be done to change this still immature but potentially dangerous spontaneous rebellion. The new racial politics, with corporate backing, did the trick.
The necessary reformulation of the American narrative
Traditional American conservatism values the nation. It seeks to defend the nation, out of appreciation of the universal historical importance to humanity of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution; and as a result of sentiments of patriotism toward the nation, rooted in pride toward its historic achievements and in personal relations and experiences. Leftists in the United States are often dismissive of such sentiments, seeing them as primitive or ethnocentric. But a popular movement with sufficient support to take control of the state cannot be formed without patriotic sentiments. I am a personal witness to the fact that patriotism and respect for the constitutional foundation of the nation are standard fare among Cuban revolutionaries, who know something about how to make a revolution, as we all should appreciate.
I wonder if American leftists should read more of what American conservatives write, taking notes on their concept of what a nation is. And perhaps American conservatives should read Cuban revolutionaries, taking notes on what a revolution is. What I am suggesting is that a revolutionary reformulation of the American narrative that takes into account the objective and subjective conditions of the current historic moment would have to involve appropriating some conservative values, including pride in and affection for the one’s nation; not to mention belief in eternal truths that constitute the moral foundation of the ancient human quest for social justice.
In reformulating the American narrative, we have to come to grips with imperialism and racism, and here there are certain common-sense principles that ought to guide us. First, no one today should be judged as guilty for, or should feel guilty about, the social sins of the nation that occurred before he or she was born. Secondly, all social sins of the past should be understood in their historical and social context, with appreciation of the fact that domination and superexploitation has been a central human tendency since the Agricultural Revolution, which occurred nearly simultaneously in various regions of the world five to ten thousand years ago. Indeed, domination and superexploitation have been the foundation of the great empires and civilizations of human history, in all geographic regions of the world.
Thirdly, we should study and develop empirically-based understandings of the various ways that past social sins create injustices in the present. In this regard, we should appreciate that imperialism today is more important than racism, because imperialist policies are pursued today by the global powers, a fact that has been declared central by peoples in revolution in the Third World today.
Fourthly, we have to reformulate the American narrative is a form that, while recognizing its past and present social sins, embraces the historic virtues and achievements of the nation. A narrative that affirms the Constitution as the document that binds the diverse peoples of the nation into a single people, in spite of our different histories, ethnicities, values, religions, and ideologies.
Any anti-imperialist projection that comes across an anti-Americanism is politically suicidal, because, among other reasons, it gives the impression that we are not comfortable with who we are. Anti-Americanism reflects an infantile political immaturity, and it is a common disorder in the left. In our appeals to the people, we American socialists and others of the left have to make clear our appreciation of American history, our respect for the American people, and our commitment to the Constitution of the nation.
It is a question of reformulating the American narrative through a creative synthesis of ideas with diverse social roots, making possible the unity of the people in a common cause; a unifying discourse that is capable of effectively calling the people to sacrifice, heroism, and a redefined greatness.
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