Tuesday, 16 July 2013

American Progress.

The painting by John Gast of American Progress should be looked at with the advantage of hindsight and situated in its historical context. Note the way in which the barbarity of civilisation is externalised onto the Native Americans. You can see Winthrop's Protestant claim of America as a 'shining beacon' converging with the technological innovations of nascent capitalist society. The white settlers laid claim to both faith and reason in their colonisation of the New World. Significantly, when Native Americans first encountered white settlers they regarded them as just another rival tribe to be bartered with. There was no recognition of the encroachments into the New World that the process of settler-colonialism would necessitate. The tribal pluralism of Native Americans may have held them back from seeing the threat for what it was. It was easy for the settlers and backers in Britain to divide and conquer the indigenous population and expand ever westward. The push for independence only came in the Thirteen Colonies after King George III had tried to slam the breaks on expansion in 1763.

The millions of Africans kidnapped and transported were members of a variety of tribes. As David Roediger has noted the slave ships were incubators for black identity in that the people imprisoned aboard them were wrenched, brutally, from the context of tribal life. Paradoxically, it was the inhuman conditions of slavery which created the basis for Black nationalism and pan-Africanism to emerge. This is not to defend slavery or settler colonialism, but to acknowledge the immense contradictions in the anfractuous passages of history. Since it first was an outpost of British power,
America has seen not just one but two revolutionary ruptures. The most obvious one was against the British Empire and the second came in the form of the Civil War between industrial capitalism and slaveocracy. The Civil War brought a period of primitive accumulation to an end in the South, furthered capitalism and significantly centralised the state. Then came the first imperial adventures (to cross saltwater) in the late 19th Century.

In coming decades there will be much more scepticism shed on America's founding point as its imperial hegemony begins to go into decline. The growing criticism may well be further facilitated by the technological advantages that we enjoy today. Unlike the British Empire the first cracks of scepticism are already visible in the American ideology, almost pre-emptive of the breakdown.

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