The promises Americanism claims to represent are of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are the fundamental assumptions of the American system, and are usually pointed toward as proof of American exceptionalism. Apparently, the rights of citizenship established in the US are superior to that of citizenship anywhere in the world, making the United States unique as “the greatest country on earth.” This is, however, little else but a mythology, and a fading one as demonstrations and rebellions across the country against police violence and anti-Black racism draw the attention of the world to the fundamental limitations of Americanism.
Americanism is at its roots an iteration of the political system and ideology called liberalism. This does not mean only the colloquial sense of this term, which refers to people who as a general rule favor some limited forms of positive rights (a right to something), such as the state promoting “equal opportunity” in employment. Liberalism refers to a political ideology which supports a society fundamentally based on individual rights to private property and capital, legal equality of citizens, a capitalist market economy, and a focus on negative rights (freedom from something). Liberalism is inseparable from capitalism, meaning a society where production is done for the primary purpose of market exchange and the means of production are owned privately by capitalists, whose capital has value added to it by workers who do not own their own capital or means of production.
One of the first issues which comes up with liberalism is its concept of the citizen, the fundamental unit for an individualistic political system. A citizen is one who is considered to belong to a political community, usually a nation-state, holding the rights which entail and being obliged toward loyalty to that community. What is rarely directly addressed is that the category of citizen, both in the strictly legal sense and the social sense of in practice enjoying citizenship rights, is limited. Those who are not citizens have little to no rights within the political community. The United States treats vulnerable migrants horrifically, up to and including a long and ongoing history of forcible sterilization in the context of brutal exploitation of migrants as a cheap, precarious source of labor.
Even many citizens are not in reality full citizens. It has recently come to the forefront of national discourse that the US’s system structurally tends to disenfranchise poor Black and brown people, whether by demanding documents which poor people are less likely to have (such as a driver’s license) in order to exercise certain rights, or by criminalizing these communities and then depriving felons of the right to vote. These structures were not created blindly. There is a long history of intentional disenfranchisement of working class people in the United States, in particular Black people post-Reconstruction. Bundled together with this is a similarly thriving history of de jure and de facto segregation, which has changed very little since official desegregation was mandated by law. Thus, that the citizen is on paper given a series of negative rights and rights to participation in the political community holds little water in practice.
In the words of one of the United States’ most famous critics, Malcolm X, during his 1963 interview at UC Berkeley:
“If the white people really passed meaningful laws, it would not be necessary to pass any more laws. There are already enough laws on the law books to protect an American citizen. You only need additional laws when you’re dealing with someone who is not regarded as an American citizen. But whites are so hypocritical, they don’t want to admit that this Black man is not a citizen so they classify him as a second class citizen to get around making him a real citizen. If he was a real citizen, you’d need no more laws, you’d need no more civil rights legislation; when you have civil rights you have citizenship, it’s automatic.
“White people don’t need laws to protect their citizenship because they’re citizens but they don’t want to tell us we’re not citizens. And at the same time they don’t want to pass laws that are meaningful enough to protect us as if we were citizens. The Supreme Court desegregation decision is the best example I know. That’s a law! From the Supreme Court! Ten years have gone by, no desegregated schools. It hasn’t been implemented beyond 9%, I think, in ten years. So this just shows you the hypocrisy of the American white man; they talk out of both sides of their mouth.”
These issues are not merely of individual prejudices. In fact, individual prejudices do not fall from the sky, they are the living legacy of history and a thriving racist social system. When non-white people, particularly Black people, are the most likely to be low-income, experience poor health standards, which has been made painfully clear by disparities in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to be killed by police, there is clearly something more at play than a few random people holding backwards beliefs.
At most, non-structural explanations of racial disparities in society lazily hand-wave this away by attributing it to deficiencies in culture and individual choice. This is laughably limited, being unable to view people as part of a society with a history of colonialism, slavery, and genocide, and instead viewing people’s choices as individuals changing a society regardless of the history or historically created conditions of it. It is essentially an indirect way of race science explanations, but stated in an individualist manner. Which brings us to the very issue of liberal citizenship, and how it relates to all of the above described disparities.
Ultimately, the liberal citizen is an abstraction. The citizen is defined as something against society, they have a right from interference which can only make sense if the citizen does not see cooperation and freedom through such collective projects as meaningful for their personal goals. The citizen does not have a positive content as a particular person or group, but is a bundle of rights. They have little concern with positive rights, rights given to them by society such as a right to food, a job, housing, means of living. Instead, it is as if they do not even live in a society. Citizens are a series of isolated, atomistic individuals instead of people interconnected through the cooperative links and interdependence which compose all societies.
Given that the citizen is an individualistic bundle of abstract, negative rights, and has little concern for daily subsistence needs, they appear to resemble a particular interest in modern, capitalist society rather than all people. Who is more concerned with society not interfering with their daily activities, particularly the holy right of property, than being a cooperative part of society? Who is unconcerned with positive rights? It would have to be those who do not have to be concerned with them, who already have something like a guaranteed income. All of these come together into a picture of a particular group of people: capitalists, owners of private property which is worked by themselves or others to produce for market exchange and competition. And it is unsurprising, since the original theorists of liberalism (John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill) were uniformly capitalists.
As a result, liberalism can only be said to work for everyone rather than this limited faction of citizens, what is sometimes termed the community of the free, if either everyone is independent, not stuck in coercive relationships such as a need to sell their labor for a wage in order to access basic subsistence needs, or everyone is abstracted from the real production relationships of society. People would have to have no particular characteristics, no particular places in society, merely be citizens and citizens alone. Ironically, considering this is a common anti-communist talking point, everyone would have to be exactly the same. Of course, both of these options are impossible for the United States, much less any society which has ever existed.
Therefore, wherever there are distinctions in class or caste, liberal citizenship is first and foremost meaningful for the most powerful in society. Those who hold little social power are frequently structurally excluded from the fruits of citizenship. Negative rights mean little for someone who has to scrounge desperately for their basic needs every day. They matter more for someone who does not have to concern themselves with that very much, if at all. Wealthy people are more likely to vote, as they know the US’s system works for them. Non-voters are largely low-income people. The absolute right of property and capital become the absolute lack of rights for non-owners, for workers, who are coerced by their relations of dependency on owners for their subsistence needs. The rights of the owner represent unfreedom for those who work their property.
For the United States, our political system and citizenship is inseparable from this dialectic of freedom and unfreedom. For something to be dialectical means that opposite things are not mutually exclusive, but intertwined. For example, the concepts of particular and general are opposites, but one cannot be removed from the other. Fruit is a general category, but cannot exist without particulars within that category, like apples and oranges. One cannot touch a fruit-in-general, but one can touch an apple. Apples and oranges cannot be fully understood except as part of the general category of fruit, which is united by common characteristics. With the dialectic of freedom and unfreedom, the kernel of the dynamic is that the freedom for some is maintained through the unfreedom of others.
This dialectic is at the very core of the two institutions which have been described as the twin original sins of the United States: settler-colonialism and slavery. The Anglo-American colonies which became the US were established with the long-term project of usurping the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their homelands. The ability of poor people from Europe to own property of their own, and therefore be active participants in a democratic political community, could only be bought by attacking the claim of Indigenous peoples over their homelands. Following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, which convinced the Chesapeake colony’s ruling class that it was necessary to sharply distinguish white and Black people in status, they transitioned into a staunchly racial capitalist system inseparable from the institution of African chattel slavery.
These twin original sins are even at the core of the so-called American Revolution. Most of the impetus behind the Patriot movement was directed at the limitation by the British Crown of settlers moving past the Proclamation Line of 1763, meant to retain a peace between settlers and Indigenous people by protecting the latter from the former’s expansionism, as well as at growing fears of slave revolution and British support for abolitionism. These crop up in the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence:
“He [King George III] has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands[…]
“He has excited domestic insurrections [of slaves] amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
The basic ideas of property in the US are grounded in settler-colonialism and slavery. The common property of Indigenous peoples was overthrown wherever possible in the name of the private property of settlers, a sharp contradiction indeed. The absolute right of slavemasters over their property, slaves, is the origin of much of the property and states right discourse which still plays out today. “Freedom” in the United States has always been the freedom of genocidal settlers, slavers, and exploiters, bought through the unfreedom of Indigenes, Black people, and the working class.
The very spine of the United States’ claim to legitimacy lies in the usurpation of Indigenous sovereignty and its right to the spoils of slavery and slavery-like conditions which countless Black people have been continuously subjected to well over one hundred years after the de jure abolition of chattel slavery, except as punishment for a crime. The rights of the citizen in the United States are grounded in the unfreedom of these peoples within the bounds of this political community. The project of Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty is inherently antagonistic to the system of the US Empire, as is the demand for Black liberation from super-exploitation and racial oppression. To recognize group rights is to recognize a right beyond the liberal capitalist system, to recognize this country’s imperial structures.
The dialectic of emancipation and dis-emancipation, by the late 19th century, began to be exported beyond what is today the continental United States, which only established itself through bloody warfare with and slaughter of Indigenous peoples defending their homelands. This is recognized as the commencement of US imperialism, though it is difficult to really say if this is the beginning. Manifest Destiny was inherently an imperialist project. The United States was always an empire and not a democracy for Indigenous, Black, and Mexican peoples, and it was always truly totalitarian for non- or second-class citizens. Nevertheless, the US was recognized as entering the pantheon of Western imperialists during the Spanish-American War and the coup d’état against the Indigenous Hawaiian monarchy in 1898 and 1893 respectively.
The United States now held overseas colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, and continued to strengthen its imperial power in Latin America. The US set the stage for its claims of empire over the region against European empires with the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, established by then-President James Monroe. The US exercised this right during the 1846–1848 Mexican-American War, after which it annexed half of Mexico’s territory, including homelands of Indigenous peoples only legally claimed by Mexico.
What followed was a very, very long history of US imperialism in Latin America. The US has an infamously extensive track record of interventions in Latin America, including enthusiastic support for genocidal dictatorships. From Operation PBSuccess, to Operation Condor, to the US’s repeated failed coup attempts against the democratically elected government of Venezuela, to its support of the successful far-right Evangelical coup against democratically elected President Evo Morales of Bolivia, it seems the US’s love for freedom is more a love of its own at the expense of others.
These interventions against the US’s sphere of influence, going back to the Mexican-American War, perhaps further, have been justified on the basis of opposing despotism and dictatorships. They have been expressed as “humanitarianism.” In reality, the US has repeatedly lied about political bodies which have threatened its claims to local and global domination, outside of the previous Latin American examples, this is including but not limited to: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 1950 onward, Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran in 1954, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and National Liberation Front from 1961 onward, Nelson Mandela of South Africa from the 1960s to 2008, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan from the 1980s to the early 1990s.
All of this brutality, obstruction of popular will, violent defense of global dominion, is not merely because the United States is cruel. It is defending very real interests. That is, the US is ensuring the safety and prime status of its own investments across the globe. The US ruling class’s standing, the US’s higher standard of living, is bought through the exploitation of the global south. That is, through imperialism, an extractive relationship where value is transferred from an empire’s backyard, either legal colonial holdings or crypto-colonies, into the empire’s metropole or core. This is irreconcilably a relationship of freedom dependent on unfreedom. Liberalism cannot be said to be working for the masses of the underdeveloped world, the developing world, the Third World, whatever on chooses to call it. Liberalism can always only work for a small minority of people.
None of these core issues are mere aberrations of liberalism, where they are corrected by the realization of liberal principles on a more true basis over time. As explained earlier, the freedom of the liberal citizen is by definition limited, and this has been acknowledged from the earliest roots of liberalism stretching back long before Locke and Jefferson. The abolition of legal chattel slavery was won not due to benevolence, but in no small part because slavery was made untenable by the terror of a revolution like that of Haiti, and by the mass strike of slaves from the plantations during the Civil War. It is not that racism, misogyny, and bigotry merely decrease naturally over time as people become more “enlightened.” It is not linear, nor is it dependent on liberalism. Instead, one finds that victories against such institutions have been won by mass struggle throughout history.
It is this form of revolutionary struggle which we socialists advocate as a path forward, as opposed to liberal solutions of reformism and trying to realize the principles of liberalism on a more “true” basis. The freedom of the vast majority of people in the world is incompatible with the freedom of the US Empire. The US Empire’s very existence depends on this absolutely unbridled dis-emancipation and exploitation. The US cannot merely be reformed out of this position, as its fundamental basic claims to existence lay on the usurpation of the sovereignty of other peoples as peoples. If we are to build a society that doesn’t only work for a small minority of people, but for the masses of the world, we cannot move forward within the framework of the US. We need to move forward through a new unity.
The American political system cannot be a pathway toward this reorganization. As described earlier, a large share of residents are structurally excluded entirely from participation in the system through limitation of citizenship and voter suppression. For those who can participate, the efficacy of their political power is severely limited to be close to moot. Instead, the wealthy, the capitalists, dominate the state in absolute. Candidates have little chance of winning without attaching them to one of the two major billionaire-funded parties, the so-called “progressive” one of which conspires to exclude even moderate reformist elements like Bernie Sanders.
The Electoral College, especially in recent years, is in tension with the popular Presidential vote, the now far-right dominated Supreme Court will kill progressive legal structures even more frequently than it already has, and the system of representation for the Senate is rigged to favor the conservative wealthy through unequal representation. One cannot fix a fundamentally broken, rigged system by working through it. Instead, it is necessary to build an independent political movement, one in the vein of Black Lives Matter, Indigenous sovereignty movements like #NoDAPL, and the anti-imperialist tradition.
There is already a basis for socialism in the cooperative, social characteristic of modern production, wherein all depend on all, the need for planning in a chaotic global system, and in the growing disillusionment of the masses of people with the American political and economic system. For those who would propose that the Americanist system is still the best, we must ask: For whom? For the vast majority, or for the capitalists? Liberalism and capitalism have always worked for a minority of people. For the liberation of the working class, the colonized, and the oppressed the world over, we must cease the blood-soaked rain of the capitalist world system. Through this total rebirth, and only through it, can we build a genuinely harmonious society where the particular interest is a genuinely compatible part of the general interest.