The “American experiment” is dying. What will replace it?
Art by Matt Rota for Foreign Policy
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The United States is considered the longest standing “democracy” by bourgeois thinkers because it’s never actually been a democracy, and has survived so long by undemocratically suppressing its proletariat. The jingoists who say it’s a republic and not a democracy are at least being honest about the nature of the social order they support. The USA was designed to be a modern version of Rome, an empire that only represented the interests of those who most directly benefit from the violence against the oppressed nations. Those being the rich, and the social base that’s bribed to align with the interests of the rich.
The founding fathers modeled their empire after Rome because Rome was one of history’s most powerful societies. What they didn’t consider was that the way in which the Romans gained this power, that being theft from other civilizations, came at the cost of making their own republic unsustainable.
America’s increasingly shaky foundations of parasitism
When a society is parasitic, reliant on stealing from other civilizations for its wealth, after its imperial influence inevitably falls apart it resorts to eating itself. The slaver republic loses its democratic facade, inequality grows within its borders, and the types of violence the empire has inflicted abroad come to afflict the empire’s center. As Michael Hudson has written: “If some Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher had persuaded Sumerian, Babylonian or other ancient rulers to follow today’s neoliberal philosophy, civilization could not have developed. Economies would have polarized – as Rome did, and as today’s Western economies are doing. The citizens would have run away, or else backed a local reformer or revolutionist to overthrow the ruler who listened to such economic advice. Or, they would have defected to rival attackers who promised to cancel their debts, liberate the bondservants and redistribute the land.”
If you’re an American today, and are paying attention to the instability the country has been experiencing, Hudson’s description of a fracturing empire sounds familiar. Insurrectionists are carrying out attacks, threatening to secede from the union, attempting coups, and occupying federal lands. Unlike Marxists, who can’t afford to go on the offensive at the current stage, the dissension of these reactionary rebels is rooted in anxiety that they’ll lose access to the benefits imperialism gives them. These aren’t the types of radicals who intend to dismantle settler-colonial land relations and fight for socialism, they’re white supremacists that want a bigger share of the colonial occupation’s spoils. They also tend to be petty capitalists and labor aristocrats, ones who don’t trust the federal government to protect their parasitic interests. Actual revolutionaries who seek a new social order aren’t aligned with them. But the rise of their presence is a symptom of U.S. imperialism’s decline.
As Washington’s hegemony has waned, it’s adopted policies that redistribute wealth upward. When inequality grows, the potential for unrest grows along with it. The country is a tinder pile for instability, and the ruling class can’t stop adding more wood to the heap; what choice do they have? The system is being forced to cannibalize itself.
The more severe these contradictions get, the closer we become to a point where the unique type of equilibrium that the USA depends on to remain stable gets shattered. In A People’s History of the United States (one of the books the jingoists are now frantically seeking to ban), Howard Zinn observed how thoroughly the U.S. bourgeois dictatorship is able to control its people:
The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media--none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty.
The problem with this control model is that it depends on the perpetuation of extraction from the neo-colonies in order to keep itself viable. When that extraction gets cut off, the arrangement falls apart.
The only way to have so many flexibilities within a bourgeois dictatorship, especially one that rules over such a huge country as the United States, is by making that dictatorship intensely subjugate and exploit billions of people outside of the core. The extreme despotism and overwhelming poverty the American population would otherwise be experiencing is displaced onto those in the exploited countries. Like how capitalism’s crisis of overproduction can only be solved by exporting capital into the peripheral countries, the social crises capitalism causes can only be lessened in the core by relocating them to the neo-colonies.
The more imperialism wanes in its reach, the less the bourgeoisie can afford to grant these relative benefits to the core’s people. And these benefits were always relative, not absolute, so as the core declines it starts off from an already damaged state. Poverty, especially Black poverty, was a severe issue in America during the civil rights era. Then with the crises imperialism underwent following the Vietnam War and the 1973 oil embargo, the ruling class reacted by embracing neoliberalism, and this poverty has since been getting progressively worse. With the rise in wealth inequality has come a rise in political inequality, where corporate money gets more normalized and legalized within the electoral system as restraints on big business get stripped away. The country has come to increasingly resemble what the neo-colonies looked like prior to neoliberalism’s implementation: most of its population living in poverty, stunted in its economic and infrastructural development due to rampant corporate looting, and shedding its “democratic” pretexts.
The attacks on global democracy that the U.S. empire carried out with its 60s and 70s coup spree have been getting applied to the U.S. itself in equivalent form throughout this slow-motion corporate power clampdown. The core’s bourgeois state has been growing less flexible in the tools it uses to maintain control, resorting to militarizing its police, restricting voter access, and fusing corporations with the government to a degree that makes the “democratic” mask no longer truly present.
These developments towards a more inwardly oriented form of imperialism, where the American people get treated less and less like they’re supposed to be treated in the country’s founding mythology, have happened at the same time as the key events in imperialism’s decline. The Iranian revolution, the breakaway of many Latin American countries from neo-colonial control, Russia’s rejection of client state status, China’s rise, the failures of recent U.S. regime change attempts, the Global South’s rejection of the Russia sanctions; these defeats for imperialism have collectively made our ruling class double down on their embrace of anti-worker policies. Capitalism can only survive in its modern stage by colonizing ever more of the planet, and when it’s deprived of this need, it intensifies extraction from the population it still has control over. The bourgeois dictatorship therefore grows more brittle, more dependent on brute force and intimidation, less willing to give “handouts” or raise wages.
This process of imperialism consuming itself can only last for so long. When the breaking point is reached, the final stage in the collapse will begin.
A desperate U.S. government will treat its people like Baghdad during the insurgency
The threshold between the empire’s expansive and stable Pax Americana stage, and its severely diminished and chaotic fortress America stage, is not one definite event. It’s a long, incremental process, one that arguably started all the way back when the imperialists lost the Indochina wars in the mind-20th century. The empire started to decline as soon as it reached the height of its power. Because the system’s contraction has been consistent over these last several generations, as reflected by the progressive decline in U.S. profits since World War II, the ruling class has been working to intensify exploitation for most of this time. Neoliberalism was a way to engineer a collapse of the prosperous society which imperialism could previously afford to cultivate in the core, while acting like America had entered a “morning” of renewed strength.
The longer the empire carries on under this illusion of continued dominance, where all signs of internal decay are viewed as unimportant next to the fetishized power of America’s military, the closer we get to that point where the empire must face reality. The perpetual increases in U.S. military spending aren’t indications of strength, but of weakness. Our government is neglecting the needs of its own people, no matter how severe these needs grow, so that it can keep waging a desperate global war against the inevitable multipolar trend. As a consequence of this top-heavy nature the country is taking on, where a facade of imperial might hides a decaying society, we’re already nearer to the end of the collapse than to its beginning. The country has deteriorated so much that following the damage done by the pandemic, most of the population is effectively living in poverty (up from the half who were poor prior to 2020). This is evidenced by how more than 50% of the public now on average has zero money, due to how indebted it’s become. And because greater inequality produces greater polarization, the country is now experiencing routine far-right massacres of leftists and racial minorities.
These outbreaks of reactionary violence are going to keep getting worse, and the outbreaks of revolt from the empire’s internal colonies are going to keep getting more intense. Eventually, the government will respond in a way more heavy-handed than it did during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, where some cities had curfews, deployments of the National Guard, and agents who put protesters into unmarked vehicles. This next stage in the escalation of our government’s repression will be like the dictatorship that the U.S. military imposed on Baghdad during Iraq’s anti-occupation insurgency. That prediction isn’t coming from me, it’s coming from the retired Army colonel Peter Mansoor, who was interviewed last year for a Foreign Policy article on a potential U.S. civil war:
“You have to control the population,” Mansoor said. “In Baghdad, we did that by segmenting off the city with cement barriers, by instituting martial law and censuses. There was a curfew. There were checkpoints all over the place. We went into people’s homes in cordon-and-search operations looking for arms and munitions. We had a full-scale intelligence operation to ferret out the terrorist and insurgent leaders. We had an unblinking eye over the city taking 24/7 surveillance. It’s very invasive for civil rights. It became essentially impossible for the terrorists and insurgents to move or communicate.” Areas of population were broken down by ethnicity and by 12-foot steel-reinforced blast walls. Citizens were interrogated every time they left or entered their neighborhood. Anyone suspicious was arrested. “This is the other thing that would occur. Massive detention centers across the United States where people who were suspected of being disloyal or who were disloyal would be warehoused on a massive scale,” Mansoor said. The United States is already the most incarcerated society in the world. An attempt to clamp down on domestic terrorism would make it vastly more so.
As the article’s author Stephen Marche observes, this blunt model for trying to suppress revolt will indeed be employed within U.S. borders, because it’s still the counterinsurgency model the military uses and that’s not likely to change. Marche says the tools for fighting insurgencies the U.S. has used abroad, which simultaneously include turning cities into big prisons, murdering civilians to try to intimidate the population, and doing awkward outreach efforts to the youth, “have the smack of desperation in their operating modes. The military holds on to these strategies because at least they are strategies, not because they work. For decades, the U.S. military has been defined by its ineffectiveness against insurgencies in foreign countries. Why would it do any better at home?”
With death squad-centered counterinsurgency operations like Plan Colombia, and unofficial repressive campaigns like Washington’s backing of the violently anti-communist Ukrainian regime, these tools have been supplemented for paramilitarism. Foreign policy elites have celebrated Plan Colombia as a success, but because it hasn’t resolved the contradictions that led to civil war in Colombia, the country’s guerrillas have regrouped and expanded in their reach since the official peace plan. And the Kiev regime’s CIA-backed fascist death squads have provoked the Donbass people into a revolt even more successful than the one in Colombia, creating two independent breakaway republics that are here to stay. When Washington domestically employs some mixture of the Baghdad occupation and the Ukrainian militia project, it will provoke the equivalent types of popular resistance.
This is why our ruling class will exhaust every other option before it resorts to a domestic military intervention. When it does this, it knows there will be no going back. It will be committing to a quagmire of the kind it’s still experiencing in Iraq, except in U.S. borders. Communists shouldn’t wish for the death and destruction this domestic war would bring, but if it proves itself to be inevitable, we need to be ready to navigate the conditions we’ll be facing. Because if we don’t turn the situation towards revolution, the outcome will be a paradigm of violence that our society remains locked into indefinitely.
Building a new social order in the ruins of the old
The only reason why our government hasn’t yet applied the Baghdad/Kiev warfare model to its own people is that the liberation movements here aren’t yet developed enough to pose an immediate threat of revolution. Trump wanted to take those most extreme available measures in 2020, but less reactive minds within the ruling class prevailed. The Democratic Party was able to co-opt the uprising, a feat that required a domestic counterinsurgency operation but not so much a military one; the main counterinsurgency tools the state employed during the protests were sending agent provocateurs into demonstrations, media psyops that portrayed the police as on the side of anti-racism, and modern COINTELPRO tactics that frustrated revolutionary organizing. Using these dual strategies of suppressing the movement’s radical elements and redirecting popular anger into bourgeois electoralism, the state managed to delay a scenario where it would have to fully employ its hard power.
What will change the state’s calculus when it comes to taking drastic repressive action, and elevate the views of fascists like Trump into being the government’s counterinsurgency strategy, is the advancement of our liberation movements towards being serious threats to the state’s future. The decisive factor in this will be when these movements evolve from being mere spontaneous articulations of the present discontent, to something more cohesive. Something with the organization, education, and leadership to be able to wrest power from the state, and protect itself against liberal co-optation attempts.
Under our conditions, this mobilization of the people likely won’t include armed struggle to the extent that it did in China or Cuba. Like in Cuba, the state’s demise could involve the mass strike as a pivotal factor, except without the same need for guerrilla warfare. At least not for guerrilla warfare in the same iteration as would be the case in a Global South country. Communists in the U.S. must physically prepare for a Colombia-style civil conflict scenario, because that is possible. But we should do so while recognizing that the events here probably will unfold quite differently. The conditions are different, so the revolution will look different.
The revolutionary process in the imperial center will be an unprecedented one, because no country with conditions like ours has so far undergone a revolution. That’s because imperial extraction has kept capital in the core strong enough to delay the people’s victory. But the more imperialism’s extractive power shrinks, the closer the people in the core get to becoming able to win.
Systemic collapse on its own doesn’t bring revolution closer. The key ingredient is the building and training of a party which can guide the masses towards socialism, and seize power when the decisive moment comes. This party’s role in the process is not a passive or reactive one; one of the tasks of its members is to educate as many of the people as possible on the necessary steps towards revolution. Which under our conditions include not just the overthrow of the capitalist state, but the return of land stewardship to the tribes whose territories we all live on. From there all the questions regarding land relations can be sorted out, with the crucial requirement being that land stewardship is controlled by the indigenous nations. This decolonial revolution will go hand in hand with the construction of workers' democracy on the continent. And that’s a crucial reality to understand for any party which wants to lead. Not just because this piece of knowledge is indispensable for building solidarity with the colonized nations, but because settler-colonialism is at the root of the anti-communist violence we’re facing.
The Foreign Policy article’s analysis functions within the predictive framework that only anticipates the forces of settler violence could pose a military challenge to the government in the coming years. That whatever power struggle which emerges will be between a rival settler entity, and the current one. This is why it implies that the U.S. empire’s unraveling can only lead to a future of perpetual chaos and devastation with no foreseeable end: “To ordinary people, to Americans trying to live their lives caught between the random violence of terrorists and the grinding repression of the state, victory and defeat would look much the same. ‘If you’re in a situation where you’re using armed force to try to quell a population, you’re either going to have to kill a bunch of them or you’re going to pull out and let them have local control,’ [General Daniel] Bolger said. ‘You’re never going to talk them into seeing it your way.’ The United States, as an entity, survived one civil war. The question for the next civil war is not necessarily would the United States survive but would it be recognizable after?”
Communists must assert our agency within history, and force “would the United States survive?” into being more of an open question. We must recognize that the only scenario in which the “United States” survives is one in which fascism has triumphed, and has successfully suppressed the forces of liberation. Because the U.S. continues to be a settler-colonial state, and the only outcome in which socialism wins is one where the U.S. gets replaced with something new.
From what I’ve so far gathered regarding decolonial theory on this continent, that new thing will not be a plurinational socialist state, like in China. Our conditions are distinct from that of China’s, a country whose civilization has been developing for five thousand years compared to the makeshift “civilization” the U.S. settlers have been building for a few centuries. National oppression here is distinct in character from how it was under feudal China or Russia, America’s wounds from colonial genocide are extremely extensive and raw. These wounds can only be healed with the abolition of the “United States,” and the full self-determination of the colonized nations under a confederalist model. The conditions here call for neither balkanization nor plurinationalism, but the building of socialism within a framework that’s necessitated by our particular set of contradictions.
Between the decaying old settler state, and the white supremacists who seek to replace it with a new colonial occupier entity, the conflict ahead will have a third player: the movement towards national and class liberation. This movement’s goals are aligned with the majority of the people, including the great deal of whites who don’t own land and therefore aren’t primarily invested in continuing colonial land relations. With the country’s changing demographics, this movement’s base will continue to get stronger; in one decade, whites won’t even make up the majority of the U.S. working class any longer. And working people of all colors will continue to see their conditions deteriorate as the bourgeoisie refuse to give up neoliberalism.
If communists sufficiently work to spread decolonial and class consciousness, while training our cadres for whatever physical tasks the coming turbulence will throw at us, we’ll become prepared to liberate the continent. We’ll be able to turn the implosion of the U.S. empire, and the historic weaknesses the U.S. military has in fighting off liberation struggles, into opportunities for advancing that project.
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Very good article as always, Comrade Rainer