From Columbus to Clinton

All awful things come to an end. This one ended on 3 November with the

Illustration by George Meddemmen

election of Bill Clinton as leader of what he called in one of his speeches “the greatest country in human history”. After a year of endlessly repeated “Gahd Bless America” and pseudo-debates on network TV between toothpaste models posing as politicians, a minority of the US population decided to vote for Big Mac instead of Wimpy. Faced with the choice between capitalism or capitalism they opted for. . . . Capitalism.

The most remarkable thing about the Presidential contest was that neither side addressed the most pressing question of all: How is it that in the richest country in the world nearly a quarter of the workers are living below the government’s own poverty line? In cities like Detroit and New York and Houston vast numbers are homeless, long-term unemployed, without any health insurance and empty of hope. A quarter of all US families (and 70 percent of black US families) have only one parent, and one in three of them are existing beneath the poverty line. 40 percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of blacks in the US face official poverty.

In 1970 7.5 million American families lived below the government-defined “near-poverty level” (of $13,700 per year for a family of four or more, in 1992 values); twenty-two years later the number of families living below that level has doubled to 15 million, constituting 44 million workers. Again, in 1970 less than half of US families were bringing in two wages, whereas in 1992 there has been an 11 percent increase in the number of two-wage families (to 56 percent), but still the number facing officially-defined poverty has doubled. Furthermore, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages (i.e. the buying power of workers’ incomes) are falling, so that in real terms the average US wage in 1992 can buy 19 percent less than what it could in 1972. In short, the workers are getting poorer.

Neither Bush nor Clinton were prepared to go beyond rhetoric in relation to the problem of poverty. Bush has a lousy record of neglect for those in need. Following Reagan, his Administration operated on the callous basis that the market would sort out those whose needs should be satisfied. Of course, the market responds to profit and not needs not backed up by purchasing power. Bush has presided over a nation where the public provision of health care has been slashed (in Detroit every single non-private hospital has been closed down and they have been transferring the psychiatric patients to prisons after the state of Michigan decided to cut all welfare expenditure); free education has been discredited (the 1980s saw such cuts in Californian public schooling that now only the most impoverished children are sent to what were once regarded as the best schools in the USA); whole inner city areas have become crime-dominated, drug-infested wastelands (for the first time in twentieth century US history a majority of Americans no longer live in cities) and the level of street violence and murder is rising unstoppably.

In the light of such a dire state of affairs the Republican rhetoric of sickening Christian moralising must have offended a lot of American workers. Clinton was afraid to make anything more than indifferent noises about “change” in relation to the poverty issue because he feared that any talk of helping the most disadvantaged workers would lose him the support of the less disadvantaged wage and salary slaves. Clinton’s campaign exhibited all the lack of commitment or willingness to offend the rich which would make him a prime candidate for leadership in the British Labour Party.

Clinton did not win; Bush fell asleep at the wheel and lost. Clinton’s reputation is based upon the ability to indulge in empty phrasemongering of the “gahd bless you all” variety and a semi-eloquent knack of saying nothing. For example, in an interview in the September issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Clinton spoke of the need for greater American prosperity, then stating “we are going to have to reconcile ourselves . . .  to having a higher percentage of people at lower wage levels”. In short, American prosperity under Clinton will mean more workers earning less than they do now. The American workers can look forward to more of the same: falling wages, unnecessary poverty, accompanied by plenty of flag-waving and toothy smiles.

The real Columbus
Of course, 1992 was not only the year of “the greatest country in human history” deciding which hollow grin to be stuck with for the next four years; it is also the year of national celebration of the arrival of Columbus to America five hundred years ago.

Most Americans know less about the real Columbus than they know about Clinton’s shady love life. In Britain the 1492 industry hit rock bottom with the production of the relentlessly unhilarious Carry On Columbus. There has been an ongoing row in the London borough of Lambeth where the local council refused to allow the erection of a Columbus statue outside the Archbishop’s Palace because it would be offensive to local black people.


The memory of Columbus should cause offence. The European “discovery” of America as a land fit to exploit was accompanied by one of the most vicious exercises in human annihilation in the history of property society. When Columbus was governor of Espanoia, the first Spanish colony in America, 50,000 natives were killed within the first six months. They were not killed by accident or even neglect, but as a result of a calculated policy of destroying or enslaving the native Indian population whose lives prior to “discovery” had been characterised by communistic sharing and mutual aid.


Central Mexico, with a population of 25 million, ten times that of England at the time of its “discovery”, was reduced to a population of little over a million by the end of the sixteenth century. In western Nicaragua 99 percent of the native population was exterminated: from a population of 1 million to 10,000 in just sixty years. Peru and Chile had a population diminution from over 9 million to less than half a million due to the genocide.


According to Professor David E. Stannard’s highly informative book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1992):


  All told, it is likely that between 60 and 80 million people from the Indies to the Amazon had perished as a result of the European invasion even before the dawning of the seventeenth century.

That workers are being asked to celebrate this vast global plunder is evidence of the sickness of capitalist national ideology. While Bush piously tells Serbians to refrain from barbarous nationalist deeds, he and his friends, including Clinton, urge us to commemorate the barbarity of Columbus and the murderous robbers who appropriated America as their own.


The truth is that we have more to learn from and to respect about the native Americans who were killed off (only half a million survive in the modern USA, many still confined to squalid reservations) than from their persecutors. The truth is that a clear line runs from Columbus through to Clinton: the line of ultimate deference to the rights of property, and Gahd bless all those who own it. Socialists want neither their imaginary gods, their lousy flags, their oppressive governments nor their arrogant nationalism. We want a world without nations, states, classes or the curse of poverty. In the struggle to achieve that Clinton is our enemy; he is the enemy of anyone unwilling to succumb to the history tyranny of property.


Steve Coleman