America is the Fyre Festival of countries. It is pure hype with little to no positive results. It is a back-alley drug deal culminating in a sweaty palm gripping a wrinkled bag of oregano. It is broken promises, shattered dreams, and shameful regret. All our lives we are told with inflated enthusiasm, with charismatic apologia, that America is a spectacular monument to freedom and democracy, a “shining city upon a hill” and a beacon to lesser nations. We are told our country is “exceptional.” And all our lives we wait for supporting evidence to verify these sensational claims as we gawk with confusion at our surroundings.
In a sense, the “exceptionalism” narrative is true, but not in the sense the propagandists and gatekeepers from prominent institutions had intended. As we reevaluate the very notion of American policing — from its origins in southern slave-catching patrols, to its use as a violent deterrent against labor and civil rights struggles, to its ruthless enforcement of Jim Crow and the War on Drugs — we are also faced with a more profound question regarding the very nature of our “great” nation.
America is a political project founded, at first, by the violent ethnic cleansing of its indigenous inhabitants, then, by the colonizing of the blood-drenched land mass and, finally, by the instituting of industrial capitalism through a slavery-based economy. The European colonizers fought resolutely to maintain this barbaric system of kidnapped, forced, torturous, uncompensated labor in what historian Gerald Horne refers to as “the counter-revolution of 1776.” The subsequent development of white supremacy as a ubiquitous ideology then served the economic elite faithfully as a successful “divide and conquer” mechanism for decades and centuries to come.
As V.I. Lenin’s groundbreaking observations regarding imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism” foresaw, the U.S. began expanding beyond its own borders — those which were initially forged through violent conquest, land theft, and treaty violations. In a stage of neocolonial domination beginning primarily with the Spanish-American War and continuing with covert military coups and death squads in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, the U.S. brutally secured natural resource acquisition for Western capital. The American military, globally perceived as the greatest threat to world peace, has an estimated 700 bases in 130 countries. In recent decades, the so-called “War on Terror” has taken the lives of approximately 1.3 million people. This inherently bellicose organization serves as a de-facto police force for the World Bank and the IMF, punishing any attempt at national sovereignty outside the confines of Western neoliberal capitalism.
The domestic effects of neoliberalism display themselves with such starkness that multi-billion dollar PR industries and corporate news media organizations make it their livelihoods to gaslight us and whitewash our own tangible material conditions. As the brief foray into a “prosperous” standard of living was dismantled by bipartisan Reaganomics, disillusioned Americans rejected their own ostensibly enlightened political process by refusing to vote in elections. Wealth concentration continued unabated, with three men now owning more than half the population. The prison population increased unabated, and is now the highest in the world. The for-profit healthcare system, claiming tens of thousands of innocent lives each year, continued unabated, and is now an outlier in the so-called “developed world.”
As the federal government doubled down on its commitment to serving the interests of private capital, public institutions and services were systematically gutted. This profound dedication to “profit over people,” specifically in the realm of healthcare, set the stage for America’s exceptional death toll in the wake of the voracious coronavirus pandemic. The flip side of this carnage is, of course, the ability of the ruling class to further enrich itself amidst the chaos. In a natural evolution of what Naomi Klein refers to as “disaster capitalism,” we are now well on our way to anointing the world’s first trillionaire.
If America was a political satire film, the coronavirus pandemic would be its whimsical climax; its Dr. Strangelove mass-nuking scene juxtaposed with a comforting musical score. Once again, we are exceptional, but in a rather insidious and villainous sense. In a black humor sort of way, America is the laughing stock of the world. The Global South must think our chickens are coming home to roost, just as they had on 9/11. Our lofty ideals are effortlessly unraveling before the eyes of billions, culminating in an unsightly mountain of corpses and petroleum-based consumer goods. Indeed, the empire wears no clothes.
As the late comedian George Carlin said, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” In lieu of the fabled “land of the free,” what persists is simply an empire in decline; something more resembling an American Nightmare for the vast majority of those affected, both domestically and abroad. All possibilities for revolution or even reform have failed. America is the Titanic of countries; an ostentatious facade naively heading toward utter destruction. The question now is who will survive this final, epic, prolonged plateau; this dark moment while the glimmering vessel ominously rests vertically, partially above water; this death rattle before rapid descent into oblivion.
This piece has also been published by The Hampton Institute.