The need for consensus in the USA
An appeal from a patriotic American
I have spent the past month visiting my extended family in the USA, after more than two years of international travel. The experience deepened my appreciation for the fact that the United States of America is in the midst of an ideological civil war, in which neither side respects the other nor listens to the other; and in which both sides hold each other in dismissive contempt, regularly putting forth caricatures of the views of their enemies. Both sides are suffering emotional pain with respect to what is happening to their country.
As a patriotic citizen of the United States of America, I am truly saddened that we have arrived to this place. I today send a plea to the citizens of my country to rethink what they are doing. Instead of trying to hurt one another, let us creatively search for the road to consensus; not, it should be noted, compromise, but consensus.
I propose that the road to consensus involves reframing each of the issues that divides us. My proposal could be understood as progressive/radical with respect to U.S. foreign policy, and conservative with respect to U.S. cultural issues. This has been my orientation all my adult life. When I encountered the student/anti-war movement in the late 1960s, my thinking was transformed by the anti-imperialist critiques of intellectuals tied to the movement. But I considered it irresponsible and potentially self-destructive to experiment with drugs or “free love.” I had friends in both the anti-war movement and the Newman Club, the Catholic student organization.
The grandson of Irish and Italian immigrants to the United States, I was profoundly impacted by “rap sessions” with radical black students on campus. I subsequently arrived at the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago, a teaching and research center with a black nationalist orientation. Jacob Carruthers, for whom the Center is today named, was my thesis advisor. I experienced what the Catholic philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan called an “intellectual conversion,” and it provided the foundation for the revolutionary intellectual work that has shaped my life journey from that day to this. (See “An intellectual autobiography”).
It seems to me that a synthesis of conservative values and radical anti-imperialist politics is a tendency in revolutions of the Third World. For example, among black students and professors at the Center for Inner City Studies, I discovered colonial (anti-imperialist) analysis, but I did not find an orientation toward a “hippie” lifestyle or a defense of gay rights. Years later, encountering the Cuban Revolution, I found policies and values that in some respects are pro-family.
Some of us have discovered for ourselves the mission of doing intellectual work tied to revolutionary movement, seeking to clarify the philosophical foundations, societal goals, and political strategies of the evolving revolutionary projects. In the current historic moment, we revolutionary intellectuals of the USA have the duty of educating the peoples of the United States toward consensus, which could provide the foundation for the political capacity to implement decisive steps toward social change. It seems to me that a revolutionary program that combines an anti-imperialist foreign policy, a progressive socioeconomic agenda, conservative cultural values, and a patriotic orientation has much more of a possibility to attain consensus among the people than the conventional discourse of the Left in the United States.
On subjectivity and the quest for objective understanding
In my view, a fundamental source of our divisions and confusions is the erosion of the epistemological consensus that the nation once had, according to which it was assumed that there are objective truths, and that reason guides us in the search for truth. There has been since the 1960s a gradually expanding post-modernism, according to which there are different truths based in subjective perceptions. In a post-modern world, debate in not grounded in respect for facts; all are permitted to manipulate facts to advance their personal agenda or to marshal support for the political agenda of their particular social group.
When I encountered colonial analysis at the Center for Inner City Studies, I could not overlook the fact that black scholars and white historians/social scientists understood the history and reality of the USA and the modern world in fundamentally different ways. This raised a question: Is objective historical social science possible, or does truth depend on social position?
For me, to accept the epistemological concept that truth depends on social position was unacceptable, because it meant that truth ultimately depends on power. Truth would become what those in power say it is. This is bad news for the politically weak of the nation and the world, who have long held that truth is their most potent weapon. Without the arm of truth, they are condemned to eternal political weakness and economic impoverishment, even though they are spiritually enriched. In contrast, the dependency of truth on power is good news for the rich, for it leaves the poor without means to transform the world. Post-modernism serves the interests of the power elite.
I worked through the dilemma posed by the relation of truth to social position through study of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan in the 1970s, guided to study of Lonergan by Fordham’s beloved priest/sociologist Joseph P. Fitzpatrick. Reflecting on Lonergan’s epistemological insight, I arrived to the understanding that objective knowledge could be attained, not with certainty but with a high probability of being correct, on the basis of listening to persons of other social positions, taking seriously their insights, and reformulating your own understanding on the basis of their insights. This process of listening in search of understanding has guided my approach to understanding Latin American reality and Latin American perspectives.
Thus, there is some truth to the notion that truth depends on social position. But the revolutionary cannot let the matter rest there. Revolutionary commitment requires doing the intellectual work that takes one beyond the assumptions and horizons of one’s particular group, seeking to move toward a more universal understanding on the basis of personal encounter with persons of diverse social groups.
In my encounter with el mundo latino, I discovered that Third World revolutionaries take as given the assumption that the true and the right can be understood and can be taught to the peoples through education. In other words, Third World revolutionaries discern fundamental objective truths in facts and values. They believe, for example, that the modern world-economy has been shaped to serve the interests of the colonizer; that the resulting unjust structures must be transformed by the struggles of the colonized and neocolonized; and that in the long run, a world-system with unjust structures is not sustainable. The believe that all nations have the right to be sovereign, and no powerful nation should interfere in the internal affairs of other nations to obtain access to natural resources and markets. They take these beliefs to be objective, rooted in science, reason, and universal human values. It is for them not merely a relative truth that reflects their vantage point as neocolonized peoples. Rather, they believe that their position as neocolonized peoples capacitates them to discern universal truths for all of humanity.
There is, therefore, among Third World revolutionaries very little in the way of post-modernism. As the Honduran activist Sara Rosales said to me twenty-five years ago, “Our children do not have enough beans to eat; this is wrong, and everybody knows it is wrong.”
But post-modern tendencies have emerged in the United States. The emergence of a post-modern world in which personal subjectivity reigns especially is evident with respect to issues of sexuality. I always have been disturbed by the immaturity of those who want to flout long-standing conventions in human societies with respect to sexuality. I maintain that if you want to indulge in free love or have sexual partners of the same sex, that is your private affair. If you want to be open about, no one should persecute you for your disregard for longstanding religious and social norms. But you should not tear society apart by demanding societal endorsement of your personal subjectivity. When Bohemians of the early twentieth century shocked through unconventional comportment, they were not expecting the approval of society; that would have taken the fun out of it. Today, there is an immature post-modern demand for endorsement of an unconventional lifestyle, offensive to those with personal commitment to a more conventional lifestyle, thereby unnecessarily dividing the people.
Nature creates a binary reality with respect to biological sex, with biological features associated with being female and male; specifically, with respect to females, these biological characteristics are XX chromosomes, female genitalia, and gonads that produce eggs rather than sperm. The binary biological reality of the human species is seen in the fact that 99.98% of the human population have either all or none of the biological features associated with being female. Only 0.02% of the population are intersex individuals, who have some but not all the characteristics associated with being female.
But post-modern ideologies give personal subjectivity priority over nature. They propose that the traditional definition of a woman, an adult human female, be replaced or supplemented by a definition of a woman as a person who has the gender identity of a woman. The Human Rights Council defines gender identity as “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.” Thus, in the post-modern world, biological sex differences are set aside by individual conception of self and self-perception.
How different is the individualism of post-modern personal subjectivity from the individual liberty of the Declaration of Independence! That historic document proclaimed that there are self-evident truths and that among them are the natural rights humans possess because they are endowed with them by their Creator. Is it a surprise that in the land of individual liberty there is pushback against the notion that one’s gender is a matter of personal choice, with new laws and policies being imposed without meaningful public discussion on whether such a philosophical refoundation is necessary or desirable? Is it not a sign that the nation has lost it direction and its soul, when activists, academics, and politicians, posing as leftists, cast aside the fundamental principles of the American Declaration of Independence, while that same document has been cited and embraced by the great leaders of the Third World revolutions, from Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro, not to mention Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Revolutionaries should avoid taking sides in a divisive cultural and ideological war. They should call for mutual tolerance and mutual respect regarding these issues. They should call for meaningful discussion of the founding documents of the nation. Moreover, they should call all the people to unified participation in a process of structural political-economic change at the local, national, and global levels. All committed persons should be welcome in the revolutionary process, regardless of their beliefs and practices with respect to their personal and private affairs and religious questions.
Understanding the history of the USA
Both sides in the U.S. cultural war display an appalling ignorance of American history, which renders them incapable of grasping the sources of and solutions to the problems that the nation confronts. On the one side, there is a Eurocentric and superficial take, which completely overlooks the role of conquest, colonialism, and slavery in capacitating the economic development of the United States and the European powers. On the other side, there is a superficial and partial understanding of U.S. imperialism, accompanied by a strong dose of moral superiority.
All are aware of the spectacular U.S. ascent from 1789 to 1971, but almost no one could explain the factors that drove the U.S. ascent. It is necessary to list them. They include: the lucrative trading relation with the Caribbean sugar plantation owners and slaveholders, enabling farmers and merchants in New England and the Mid-Atlantic to accumulate capital from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, positioning them to take advantage of the modernization of industry resulting from European colonial conquest of vast regions of Asia and Africa; the trading relation between the U.S. slave South and the emerging industrial North in the nineteenth century, promoting the economic development of the northeastern United States and the underdevelopment of the South; the conquest of the indigenous nations and territories as well as the acquisition through war of a considerable part of the territory of Mexico, enabling a territorial expansion and settlement that became the basis of further economic development; the concentration of capital in the second half of the nineteenth century, forged by the Robber Barons, who ignored ethics and sidestepped laws as they greatly increased the productive capacity of the nation and, at the same time, took control of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of the nation; the militarization of the U.S. economy and society during the period of the two world wars and the Cold War, enabling the United States to develop the most advanced arms industry on earth; and U.S. imperialist policies in Latin America and the Caribbean, providing the U.S. national economy with access to the raw materials, cheap labor, and markets of the region.
As is evident, conquest, forced labor, and the imposition of outward oriented economic structures played a central role in the spectacular economic ascent of the USA. To be sure, the peoples of the United States had a strong work ethic during the decades of the U.S. ascent. But this could hardly explain the nation’s spectacular ascent.
When we observe the historic details of the U.S. ascent, we can see that the United States was able to insert itself strategically and advantageously into worldwide structures of colonial domination forged by the European powers from 1492 to 1914. These colonial economic structures survive today in a global neocolonial political-economic system, and the USA preserves its advantageous position in the world-economy, although it has been eroding since the 1970s. This means that the U.S. economy continues to depend on the political control and economic superexploitation of other regions. Therefore, any proposal for U.S. cooperation with the nations of the world, if it is to avoid idealism, must understand that any departure from its historic engine of economic growth could have negative economic consequences for the United States. Accordingly, any proposal for cooperation in foreign affairs must include a comprehensive plan for future economic development. However, one does not see long-term comprehensive economic plans being put forward.
When we grasp the factors that promoted the spectacular U.S. ascent, we see that slavery in the Caribbean and the U.S. South played an important role. However, focusing on slavery does not in and of itself explain the other factors the drove the U.S. ascent. In addition, zeroing in on slavery does not in and of itself explain that forced labor in a variety of forms was central to the colonial economic structures imposed on the peoples of all regions of the world from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. Moreover, attention to the modern dynamic of European colonial domination of the world leaves aside reflection on the fact that conquest and forced labor have been the foundation of the empires and advanced civilizations that humanity has developed since the agricultural revolution, which occurred independently in seven or eight regions of the world from five to ten thousand years ago. All of which suggests that focusing on African slavery in the New World paints a historically inaccurate portrait of the human story. I am unable to forget one of teachings of Fidel: revolutionaries must never lie to the people.
Understanding that conquest has been central to the human story and its civilizational advances does not mean that conquest is good or desirable or even acceptable. Quite the contrary. The positive consequences of conquest, with respect to advancing human productivity, reached their historic limit a half century ago, when the territorial expansion of the modern world-system reached and overextended the geographical and ecological limits of the earth, giving rise to sustained and irrepressible anti-systemic movements among the colonized, making world peace impossible without fundamental structural change in the system. This means that humanity must set aside conquest and the modern neocolonial dynamic. Humanity must now make a decisive turn to cooperation and mutually beneficial trade, in order to continue to economically advance; and in order to have realistic hopes for a future world of peace and prosperity, utilizing continuing scientific and technological advances.
Divisions on the domestic front
The necessary role of the state in the economy. In light of arbitrary economic policies imposed by the English crown, the American Republic was born in an ideological context that saw a state with a limited role as essential to human freedom. But the emergence of concentrated industry in the late nineteenth century forged a different political-economic reality, in which the people needed a strong state to defend themselves against the arbitrary actions of the great corporations.
Neither the American political establishment nor the American labor and farmers’ movements adequately addressed the challenge. Theodore Roosevelt earned famed as a trustbuster, an orientation that culminated in a comprehensive plan proposed by Woodrow Wilson and approved by the Congress. The Wilson package might have been effective in stimulating the productive force of big industry but directing it toward the benefit of the nation and the people. However, Wilson’s well-conceived plan was not implemented. It was cast aside by the expanding market for arms caused by World War I, never to be revisited.
FDR’s New Deal regulated the big companies in defense of the people. But the New Deal was not sustainable, in that it was based on uncontrolled deficit spending and on the superexploitation of the neocolonies of the American Empire. When the world-economy began a sustained structural crisis in the 1970s, the political establishment rejected the New Deal and returned to the nineteenth century concept of a limited state. It undertook an ideological attack on the state, blaming Big Government for the various problems of the nation. After half a century, neoliberal policies have demonstrated their inadequacy, with numerous negative consequences in both core and peripheral zones of the world-economy.
As a result of a century of inadequacies in American political theory with respect to the role of the state in the economy, the people of the United States are confused on the question. The people are beginning to become aware of the false assumptions and claims of neoliberalism, and revolutionary intellectuals ought to deepen this process, explaining further the contradictions of neoliberalism.
At the same time, during the last half century, China, Vietnam, and Cuba are responding effectively to the challenges posed by big industry. They are developing models of a strong state that formulates a national plan for economic development and that grants space for private industry and its productive capacities, under the direction of the state.
The increasingly evident failure of neoliberal capitalism, combined with the increasingly evident gains in productivity of the new socialist model, provides an empirical context for revolutionaries in the United States to educate the people concerning the necessary role of the state in promoting the development of the national economy.
In clarifying the necessary role of the state in the economy, revolutionary intellectuals would be rejecting the conservative concept of a limited state, but embracing the conservative notion that private enterprises contribute to the society through their productivity. At the same time, they would be siding with the U.S. Left in supporting a strong role for government, but they would be reconceptualizing the role, turning away from conventional conceptions of the U.S. Left in defense of big government, and basing their conception on successful examples in China, Vietnam, and Cuba.
The question of race. From 1966 to 1972, I encountered the black power student movement at Penn State and black nationalist thought at the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago. Black students were angry, and they sometimes related to me, let us say, in a discourteous manner. But I looked beyond discourtesies, because I sensed from the beginning that they had some important things to say.
Retrospectively, I would say that the black power movement and black nationalist thought of that era were putting forth three important and interrelated insights. First, the question of identity. The goals and hopes of the black community and the self-conception of blacks must be liberated from the pervasive influence of the institutions of white society. I took this insight to be valid, and it suggested to me a reformulation of American ethnic relations in accordance with the principle of cultural pluralism. My master’s thesis at the Center for Inner City Studies was dedicated to the question of cultural pluralism. (It turns out that a number of European immigrant intellectuals had proposals along these lines, swept aside by the push for the assimilation and Americanization of the European immigrants).
Secondly, the question of power, and the call for the empowerment of local communities, so that educational, housing, and criminal justice institutions would be under the direction of the leaders of the local neighborhood. Malcolm X was most forceful in advocating this in 1964 and 1965, as he repeatedly declared that “all of the institutions of your community should be under your control.” But following the civil rights reforms of 1964 and 1965, there occurred what the sociologist William J. Wilson called the “outmigration of the black middle class” from the historic black neighborhoods, creating a phenomenon of residential class separation within black society, and promoting the incapacity of the historic black section to attain socioeconomic development. The black middle class became more attentive to residual forms of white racism and discrimination in education and employment than in the socioeconomic development of the black community.
Third, the question of colonialism, and the transition to neocolonialism, which leaves intact the core-peripheral economic relation that promotes the economic development of core countries and the underdevelopment and deepening impoverishment of the majority of the countries of the world, mostly in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. A critique of neocolonialism has practically disappeared from the discourse of the United States. Ironically, many of the descendants of African slaves living in the United States materially benefit from worldwide neocolonial economic structures.
I have in previous commentaries discussed the important insights of the African-American movement, from Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. During the course of six decades, it proposed a society based on the political, civil, social and economic rights of all citizens, regardless of race; and a foreign policy of cooperation with the colonized and neocolonized nations of the world. See “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021; “The black middle class defends its interests,” April 20, 2021; “What became of the vision of black power?”, April 23, 2021; and “The Rainbow Coalition challenges the establishment,” April 27, 2021.
But the important insights of the African-American movement from 1917 to 1988 have been cast aside by the anti-racism theory in vogue during the last decade. Black identity has become a rhetorical maneuver to obtain political-economic goals of the black middle class. Power is no longer conceived as the empowerment of local communities but as the forcing of concessions from the power elite through periodic demonstrations, not necessarily nonviolent, by indignant persons. Colonial analysis has been forgotten; colonialism is recalled merely as a rhetorical device for the moral condemnation of supposedly persistent white racism.
In the synthesis and reformulation that we need, the important insights of the American-American movement from 1917 to 1988 must be revisited.
Safety in the streets. Both sides have a superficial view of the issue of gun violence and “the right to bear arms.” Neither side emphasizes that safety in the streets requires the development of strong local neighborhoods and communities, and doing so takes us far beyond the question of whether or not individuals have the right to carry small firearms for self-protection.
We must develop cooperative and community-based protection of neighborhoods. Something like a neighborhood watch, but well integrated with local police and under state wide guidelines based on study of the situation in local communities. I am reminded of Malcolm X’s call for the black control of local black communities, which he saw as the basis for development of the black community. New and creative structures of local policing ought to be developed, integrated with structures of policing of the larger city, state, and federal jurisdictions.
In the context of developed structures of local policing, some citizens may want to develop their personal skills of self-defense, which could include a small handgun. I see nothing wrong with this for individuals who are so inclined. Such steps are necessary in a society and world increasingly characterized by crime and violence, with the police unable to guarantee the physical safety of its citizens. To say otherwise is to be talking nonsense, with ideas not connected to the reality in which we live.
The police play a necessary role in the community. They fulfill a task that is difficult and often dangerous. While we have the obligation to ensure that the police always conduct themselves in accordance with the law and the principle of the rights of all, we nonetheless must avoid careless rhetoric. Local communities and the nation are not served by general and exaggerated denunciations of police behavior.
Instead of shouting at one another with respect to the one question of the appropriate laws with respect to gun ownership, let us commit to working together in building strong and safe local communities, in all the different kinds of communities in which the people of the United States live.
Abortion is a complex and difficult issue, casting two kinds of rights against each other. Cuba is often admired by pro-choice advocates for its legalization of abortion. It is true that abortions are legal in Cuba, and costs are paid entirely by the state, as are all medical procedures. But Cuba actually takes a middle of the road position on abortion. In practice, abortions generally cannot be obtained after eleven weeks. The public health system considers later term abortion to be detrimental to the health of the woman; and some of the people believe that, inasmuch as the fetus has developed a human form, later term abortions would constitute murder. In addition, a minor (under 18 years of age) cannot obtain an abortion without the consent of one of the parents. Cuban law and policies with respect to abortion are widely accepted among the people without controversy or division. The Revolution has been able to forge consensus in support of moderate policies that represent a reasonable practical approach to a complex moral issue.
Respect for the Constitution of the USA
A common respect for the constitutional foundation of the nation would help in the creation of civil debate. The Constitution created a balance of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, as a check on the possibility that the will of the people, as expressed in the legislature, might become a kind of irresponsible mob rule. However, another concern emerged during the twentieth century, namely, a tendency for both the executive and judicial branches to overreach their constitutional power.
The revolutionary cause should demonstrate full commitment to the principle of the balance of powers. It should not try to use partial influence over one branch to advance policies that do not have the support of the other branches nor the consensual support of the people. This strategy, followed by both ideological bands, undermines public faith in the government in the long run. The revolutionary cause should attain its objectives through effective persuasion of the people, making possible a consensual majority, which eventually would lead to support from all three branches.
The Constitution also establishes the principle of federalism. The federal government is not a national government, but a federal government. All issues not directly addressed by the Constitution are reserved to the states. This implies that certain questions should be addressed by the states, which different laws in different states being possible.
The road to structural reform involves the establishment of consensual majorities that make possible constitutional amendments and laws, ensuring that the reforms have a solid constitutional and legal foundation, and therefore have legitimacy in the eyes of the people, even among those who are opposed.
As I said at the top, I write as an American patriot with a heavy heart. Let us search for common ground rooted in shared fundamental principles, so that we can become a united people, with the capacity to defend ourselves against an amoral and manipulative elite that has betrayed our nation in defense of its privileges.
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