American centuries, old and new

The United States ended the twentieth century as the unchallenged global superpower, and its ruling class are determined not only to keep it that way but also, if possible, to extend their control over world events. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, for instance, which is due to be introduced in 2005, will enable the US to rule the roost in Central and South America, using cheap labour and preventing other countries from imposing import controls. Already, the North American Free Trade Agreement has helped ensure that most ordinary Mexicans are poorer than their parents were, to the benefit of US financial and industrial companies.

One particular vision of the future along such lines is contained in the documents of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) (see their website at, from which the quotations below are taken). This is a think-tank and pressure group whose members include top politicans and industrialists; many past members are high up in the Bush administration, so it is in no way a fringe organisation. They argue that cuts in US defence spending (so-called) in recent years have made it difficult to sustain American influence around the world, so such spending needs to be significantly increased (recall that it is at present nearly $400 billion per year!). Armed forces that are ready for “tomorrow’s battlefields” will serve the nation well and act as a deterrent against any possible upstart. In their own words:

“At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.”

“The willingness to devote adequate resources to maintaining America’s military strength can make the world safer and American strategic interests more secure now and in the future.”

The PNAC were of course strong advocates of the US attack on Iraq, claiming that a regime change would lead to democratisation not just of Iraq itself but of the whole of the Middle East, “an objective of overriding strategic importance to the United States”

Not much critical scrutiny is needed to see through this language of strategic interests and a safer world: the aim is to control access to raw materials (oil in particular), to ensure the availability of cheap labour, and to enable military bases to be sited and maintained where the US rulers wish. At the end of the 1970s, the US was powerless to prevent or undermine the takeover of the Iranian government by the ayatollahs, and the ensuing rise in oil prices; this is just the kind of situation that the US rulers and their mouthpieces seek to render impossible in future.

It may be felt that the capitalists in PNAC simply wish to get their snouts in the trough and to gain their firms’ share of the massive US military spending. No doubt this is part of the truth, and there is some degree of conflict between companies that benefit from the defence budget and those that do not do so but still have to pay taxes. However, there is no firm and unvarying line between corporations that have big government orders placed with them and those that miss out on this jamboree. Most big companies stand to receive some gain from increased military spending – or hope to do so – and they are the ones that have the biggest say in determining government policy. But it is not simply a matter of some having their greedy fingers in the big-spending pie: such policies really are undertaken in the interests of the whole ruling class.

This, then, is the vision of America’s rulers for the coming century: an enormous US military presence on a global scale, laying down what other countries can do, intimidating them into acceptance of the US order, and bombing them into submission when they forget their place. A world of “free trade” where the biggest bully in the playground enforces treaties and agreements in its own interest. A world of massacres and dictatorships, where the American capitalists rake in the billions, and ordinary people, wherever they live, are just pawns on the profit-oriented chessboard. Already, as the military budget grows under Bush, US spending on health care and education is being cut: teachers are getting the sack, and thousands of workers are losing health cover.

The other side
For a contrasting view of the USA, we can look at Studs Terkel’s book My American Century. Terkel, who was born in 1912 and is still going strong, is a superb interviewer and oral historian who is able to get people to talk in eloquent and often moving ways about their lives. My American Century is a selection from his publications over the years, from Division Street (1967) to Coming of Age (1995), and provides an unforgettable portrait of twentieth-century America, mostly through the words of ordinary people. It is worth reading just for the story of CP Ellis (from American Dreams, 1980). Ellis was once president of a local Ku Klux Klan branch; he had joined because the Klan gave him a chance to “be something”, which had been beyond him as a poor white worker. But gradually he came to see that the rich were using him and his Klan colleagues to keep ordinary workers, black and white, in their place, and that all workers had the same problems. When Terkel interviewed him, Ellis was a union official, elected by a predominantly black membership.

Terkel’s own position can be seen from the heartfelt opening of his introduction to Working (1972):

“This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”

Time and again, Terkel’s subjects talk of the boredom and meaninglessness of work, of how they feel they are treated worse than the machines they operate, of how they have no control over their job and feel no pride in it. But some kinds of work are rewarding. Tom Patrick, firefighter:

“I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s shit. You’re looking at numbers. But I can look back and say, ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody’. It shows something I did on this earth.”

But despite their frustrations, workers feel unable to find a real way of fighting back: as CP Ellis says, “Hatin’ America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it.”

Another remarkable theme is the way that workers look back to past times and see them as examples of solidarity and co-operation. There is quite likely some viewing the past through rose-coloured glasses here, but the way people value mutual help is clear over and again, especially in descriptions of the thirties:

“That period was the high point of my life. It was the Depression, when working people had a feeling for each other. We helped each other out in times of trouble.”

“A lot of times one family would have some food. They would divide. And everyone would share.”

Here’s Tom Patrick again:

“I like everybody workin’ together. You chip in for a meal together. One guy goes to the store, one guy cooks, one guy washes the dishes. A common goal. We got a lieutenant there, he says the fire department is the closest thing to socialism there is.”

Not quite – but workers who combine together towards a common goal in their own interests point far better towards the future than the plutocrats who want the whole world to become a means to their own wealth and power.

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