America is not just a world power, it is an empire. But why do we fix the arbitrary border of the empire at the 50 states? The Roman Empire claimed all of its conquered territories as provinces of greater Rome. We would learn a great deal by understanding the US global system as comprising not only the 50 states but all of the subject regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Europe ties in too, as a lesser partner in the imperialist center.
Looked at this way, democracy has never been a dominant feature of the US political-economic system. Subject regions, colonies, throughout the world have suffered military coups, oligarchic pressure, genocidal violence year in and year out at the hands of the US. The overthrow of elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the genocidal dictatorship of Rios Montt in Guatemala, the dirty war in Argentina — the list goes on and on, into the hundreds. Let’s also remember the bombing of North Korea in the 1950’s that leveled every large and small city; the war against Vietnam that left three million dead.
There has been a good deal of debate as to whether the white supremacist attack on the Capitol is “us” or not, whether it is an aberration that we can defeat and return to “our democracy.” But one’s understanding of the issue of democracy hinges on the question of where our borders begin and how far they extend. It hinges on whether you believe imperialism is real, whether colonialism still exists or whether it is a remnant from the past.
Looking at the world today, the overwhelming evidence is that colonialism still exists. Sometimes it is in a new form, such as neocolonialism where local leaders are given subsidiary roles, but the economics, and the power, demonstrate that the US continues to own and control the vast majority of their resources and the labor. With six per cent of the world’s population, the US consumes 60% of the world’s resources. It is colonialism for the 21st century. The exploitation is hidden in the extraction resources with little compensation to the colonized population. We blithely claim that people in the “Third World” just work for lower wages, as if they had a choice. Make no mistake, that massive Pentagon budget, those 600 US bases around the world, assure that the wages will stay low, that the resources will be shipped out cheaply.
We talk of the US as a settler colonial country and indeed it is, taken from indigenous peoples. But we must also understand international imperialism, the continuation of the colonial project of all the European countries, the foundation of capitalism. In addition, Kwame Nkrumah described the condition of Black people in the US as “domestic colonialism,” a population colonized inside the US, which is why Malcolm X tied the Black Liberation struggle so closely to the Third World struggles.
When the people of Chile sought to exercise democratic rights by electing socialist Salvador Allende in 1970, the CIA set to work to oust him and they did, utilizing a corrupt military under Pinochet. This resulted in thousands of imprisonments, executions and disappearances of Pinochet’s opponents. Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to president Richard Nixon, rejected the popular vote that brought Allende to power, remarking, “I don’t see why we have to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” That is how democracy works in the greater United States.
And of course, Black activists have exposed the pious claim that we have a pristine democracy that simply needs to be cleaned up. No, under domestic colonial control from the beginning, the Black community has never known democracy. Yes, as in every colony, some are allowed into positions of local power, but this is not democracy. Native American people have suffered the brutal hand of anti-democracy. Other people of color in the US suffer their own versions of colonial oppression, sometimes tied to the colonial domination of their home economy, sometimes marked by local operations of white supremacy, or both.
These are all acts of colonial violence, all negations of democracy in “our” global empire. The reason the US is in perpetual war around the world and in military occupation of US cities, is not because they care about the people of the Third World. It is to secure the control, and the regular flow of tribute, from the provinces of the greater US system. The US economy is a parasitic one — its privilege is based on stolen wealth.
Reeling from the fascist coup attempt of January 6, Joe Biden can intone that “this is not us.” But the killing of Lumumba and Allende and Archbishop Romero, the history of slavery and lynching, the Tulsa massacre and the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others — this is us.
Looking at the US as a world system, we can see that democracy has never been even a small part of the American project. Only a privileged mostly white minority in the imperial center have enjoyed a bit of “democracy.” That is what is meant by American exceptionalism — the idea that somehow the US is clean, is better than those poor countries that are always in turmoil, is exempt from responsibility for these tragic events. We can’t believe it would happen “here” but it has always been happening here if by here you mean inside the US global system.
The empire today is slowly falling — due to its own internal rot and to massive resistance by the colonized. The hope for some benign Biden transition to an FDR-type supportive state is a long shot and would depend on the health of the empire and the continued parasitic extraction from poor countries. With the collapse of empire, with white people seeing their power ebbing, it is not a surprise that white panic, fascism, would be one of the responses. The fever pitch of right wing hatred and the revanchism of a powerful sector of the ruling class are only an indication of the state of the crisis.
And, we need to remember, one of the key definitions of fascism is the methods of colonialism brought home to the mother country. Mussolini’s fascist movement grew out of Italian military slaughter in Libya and Ethiopia; Franco’s fascist army marched on Republican Spain from Morocco; and Germany perfected the industrialization of death from all European colonial aggressions.
We worry about fascism coming to the US, as well we should. But remember that the Guatemalans have suffered fascism, the Iranians have suffered fascism, the Chileans have suffered fascism, the Black and Brown people living under military occupation and with mass incarceration have suffered fascism. What is new? That the chickens are coming home to roost, with a vengeance.
This gives new meaning to the many struggles that have been fought to expand democracy — to people of color, to women. The battle for democracy, real democracy, is a battle against colonialism. And it is crucial that voter suppression should be defeated in order to advance democracy. But the great fear of the founders, that the people with the ballot would actually take power and change economic relations, still haunts the ruling class, including the Democratic Party. As real change comes on the horizon, don’t doubt that the Kissinger warning will come back, that we just can’t let people make irresponsible votes.
In spite of all this, it seems to me that we are actually in a good period. The end of empire, the move to becoming a nation among nations, has to be healthy. But it is certainly a dangerous period. We can only hope for, and work for, the transition out of empire without the eruption of violence that the militia and military types seek to unleash.