No one likes to be the object of criticism, Americans no more than any other people. And when someone is the target of criticism, he should not be expected always to agree with it. It is important, however, to comprehend that criticism, to take it seriously on its own terms, and not just dismiss it as inspired by malice, jealousy or ignorance.
The criticism that the French New Right (NR) has leveled at America has earned it an unjustifiable label of being inspired by some kind of hidden French chauvinism or “anti-American” phobia. And too often the New Right’s criticism has been poorly understood. Some Americans—who are themselves critical of what their country has now become and the way it has evolved—assume that the criticism is aimed primarily at the America of today. This is not true. The criticism the NR addresses against America is aimed, in fact, at the very foundation of what we call the “American ideology”—an ideology going back to the Founding Fathers. Or to put it differently, this is not a criticism of multiracial (or “multicultural”) America of modern and postmodern times, but primarily a criticism aimed at the America created by Whites and Anglo-Saxon Christians.
As a way of adding some final touches to Tomislav Sunic’s book, I’d like to outline the general thrust of this criticism.
Europe has never declared war on the United States. It is clear, however, that from its very beginning, the United States of America has had a score to settle with Europe. America was born out of desire to break up with Europe. What immigrant communities in the New World first and foremost desired was to dispense with the rules and political principles that prevailed in Europe. The American nation was born in a contractual form during the era of modernity, evoking largely the “primal scene” as imagined by Sigmund Freud: the children get together in order to kill their father and afterwards they draft a contract sanctioning the relationship between equals.
Evidently, the father in that scheme was Europe. It was necessary to make a clean break with the past in order to create a new humankind. Thus, in the Federalist Papers we read:
Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered,no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America and we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.
Likewise, it was against Europe that in December 1823 James Monroe stated the central tenet of his famous “Doctrine,” that is, that no European intervention should be tolerated at any point whatsoever on the American continent. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” exclaimed for his part the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century. “In many respects,” as Dominique Moisi and Jacques Rupnik remark,
America is anti-Europe. It was born out of desire to create a “new Jerusalem” on earth in order to overcome the limitations and errors of the European history.
Given that U.S. citizenship is founded on a contract between immigrants of diverse origins, it follows that all cultural idiosyncrasies must be relegated into the private sphere, which means that they must be temporarily held outside the notion of citizenship. This requirement perfectly matches with the individualist philosophy of the Founding Fathers. It was in America, for the first time ever, that a society was construed composed exclusively of individuals and not of groups, just as capitalism itself presupposed a brand of individualism oriented first toward the property possession.
Sometimes the indifference of the Americans toward history is explained by a relative short duration of the existence of their country. This explanation does not sound convincing. After all, two centuries is a long stretch of time. In fact, the problem is not so much that Americans “have no history” but rather that they do not wish to have one. And they do not wish to have one because, for them, the past is reminiscent of their European roots, which they once attempted to discard. “This is the only people without any roots and genealogy,” wrote, quite fondly, the liberal author Guy Sorman. Thomas Jefferson expressed the same idea by saying that each generation forms a “separate nation.” “The dead,” he said, “have no rights.” Daniel Boorstin, the former director of the Library of Congress, wrote that “the notion of hyphenated Americans is un-American.
I believe that there are only Americans. Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, or African-Americans are an emphasis that is not fertile…. Americans prefer to be called by their first names and abandon the names of their heritage. The same applies to objects, the trend being toward the unsustainable and the disposable.
The same observation was made by Christopher Lasch, who wrote that in the U.S. “the removal of the roots has always been seen as the prerequisite for increased freedoms.” Hence, America can be described as a civilization of space and not a civilization of time. Its founding myth is not the origin, but the frontier, which in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner interpreted as the most representative notion of the American ideal, that is, the aspiration toward “the conquest of space.” “What other people experience as history,” observes Jean-Paul Dollé, “the Americans perceive as a sign of underdevelopment.”
And the Americans did not wish to break up with only Europe. They also wanted to create a new society that would regenerate mankind. They wanted to create a new “promised land” that would become the model of the Universal Republic. This Bible-inspired theme, based on the idea of the “chosen” America, has, from its outset and by a purported divine choice, constituted the foundation of a “civil religion” and of American “exceptionalism.” It has kept resurfacing as a leitmotif throughout American history, ever since the days of the Pilgrims, as for instance when the Massachusetts Bay theologian John Cotton suggested the adoption of Hebrew as the official language for the former British colonies. John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1629, asserted:
We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill.
Similar statements were made by William Penn, the chief of the Quaker colony of future Pennsylvania, only to be echoed by the settlers of Virginia. As early as 1668, William Stoughton exclaimed: “God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain over into this wilderness.” For Daniel Webster, the United States is a “promised land,”
if indeed it be designed by Providence that the grandest exhibition of human character and human affairs shall be made on this theatre of the Western world. Thomas Jefferson defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all men. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, these rights were held to be universal and valid in all times and places. On November 13, 1813, John Adams exhorted the Americans to “our pure, virtuous, public spirited, federative republic that will last forever, govern the globe and introduce the perfection of man.” Even in 1996, the “conservative” U.S. Senator Jesse Helms exclaimed, “The United States must lead the world with the moral torch… and serve as an example to all peoples.”
The goal is not just welcoming the poor and the outcast, as proclaimed in the inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she [Mother of Exiles]
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The goal is also to enable the newcomers to take revenge against the country of their origin. And also to continue to proceed in a manner that would eventually lead the whole world to impregnate itself with the idea that the American society is the perfect society and that the descendants of the Puritans are God’s elect. Besides, it is the Puritan theology of the “covenant” that inspired the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, as put forward by John L. O’Sullivan in 1839:
Our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only; and so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity…. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?
In other words, if God had chosen to favor the Americans, they should be entitled to convert other peoples whichever way they see best and most expedient.
Hence, on the one hand we are witnessing isolationism—America must separate itself from the outside world, which is seen as corrupt. On the other hand, there is a need for the “crusade”—the world must gradually be penetrated with the universal values of the American system. In economics, free-trade policies have never prohibited the use of protectionism, whenever this was deemed necessary; similarly, in foreign policy, isolationism, coupled with the spirit of “crusade,” can march hand in hand. These are the two sides of the same messianic vocation and a typical example of how political universalism is just a mask for ethnocentrism, that is to say, a peculiar model with planetary ambitions.
This underlying certitude explains the extraordinary stability of the U.S. system. In the course of its history, the United States has known only one important political model, a model which has virtually remained unchanged ever since the days of the Founding Fathers. The Constitution, largely inspired by Locke, and generally speaking by the philosophy of Enlightenment, and vetted through Puritanism, has become a sort of sacred monument that makes of Americanism a genuine religion. Be they on the right or on the left, all Americans are in agreement that they have a mission to spread “the word” to mankind. Even the most frenzied utopians do not call into question the authority of the Constitution or the superiority of individual initiative. The system can be tentatively improved or reformed, but it must be remain fundamentally unchanged, insofar as it meshes with the very existence of the country. Whereas in Europe it is still possible to refer to some of the countless political models that existed in the past, the political debate in America reduces itself to discussions about the relative merits of Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, et al. Fascism and Communism have never had any real impact on the United States, nor has the idea of counterrevolution, nor critical Marxism, nor revolutionary syndicalism, nor anarcho-syndicalism, situationism, etc. At universities, Political Science courses often evolve around long discussions about the work of the Founding Fathers, who are portrayed as people of unsurpassable legacy. Even the eternal debate between Federalists and Anti-federalists, between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, is, in fact, a family feud, which never calls into question the underlying political consensus.
American domestic politics is often reduced to a competition between the two major parties, which in the eyes of the Europeans say more or less the same thing. Electoral competitions, with their conventions organized as circus shows, are entirely dependent on money. “Democracy” in America equals financial oligarchy. The elections are financial effusions of the billionaire class. For the Americans, it is considered natural that politicians must be rich—in my view, society should be extremely skeptical of anyone who is rich and powerful at the same time—just as it is natural for the politicians to exhibit their wives and children in public meetings, while multiplying religious slogans in their speeches. In continental Europe, a head-of-state addressing his constituents with “God bless you!” and inviting the parliamentarians to a day of prayer and fasting would be viewed by many as a person ripe for the mental asylum. . .
The flip side of this institutional paralysis is formidable conformism and extraordinary monotony of a society that, decade after decade, asserts, with the same docile conviction, that America is a “free country,” while adhering to the same modes, abiding by the same conventions, repeating the same slogans, and, of course, wearing the same uniforms (jeans and T -shirts with a logo of a university that one never attended or a baseball team of which one is not a member). This monotony was already described by Alexis de Tocqueville, who noted that the sequence of commotion and fleeting fashions never augur anything new in America. About the same time the Countess of Merlin also remarked that life of the Americans is “an eternal course in geometry.”
The same messianic certitude inspires American foreign policy, whose main principle is that what is good for America must also be good for the rest of the world—which, in turn, must allow America to expect from its allies financial contributions and applause. As a secularized guise of the Puritan ideal, foreign policy is based on the idea that only the lack of information or the intrinsic evil of foreign leaders explains the reluctance of people around the world to embrace the American way of life. As Jean Baudrillard wrote, the United States is a society
whose naiveté can be described as unbearable and whose fixed idea is that America is the perfect completion of everything that others dream about.
“International relations” is nothing but a global diffusion of the American ideal on the planetary level. Since they assume that they represent the model of perfection, American do not feel obliged to get to know others. It remains for others to adopt the American way. “The tradeoff is uneven,” observes Thomas Molnar, “because America has nothing to learn but everything to teach.” And indeed, everything that happens in America must eventually happen elsewhere in the world. In other words, foreign policy has for a goal the creation of unified humanity no longer in need of any foreign policy. Under such circumstances one must not be surprised that setbacks encountered by the United States in the international arena are often the results of America’s inability to comprehend that other peoples think differently than they do. In fact, for the Americans, the external world (“the rest of the world”) simply does not exist, or rather it exists in so far as it becomes Americanized—a necessary precondition to become comprehensible.
Many observers have noticed the importance of religion in the American society. “In God we trust” is written on all banknotes, and since 1956, it has become a national motto. In the United States, almost all official ceremonies are preceded or followed by a prayer. As of 1923, the Reverend J.B. Soames declared in Washington, during a solemn blessing of the military equipment: “If Jesus Christ came back to Earth he would be white, American and proud of it!” Tocqueville already observed,
It is the religion that gave birth to the Anglo-American societies. One must never forget this; in the United States, religion is therefore intermingled with all the national habits and all the sentiments to which a native country gives birth.
Religion is often redefined in an optimistic sense, consistent with the requirements of practical materialism and aspirations of the people who has never ceased to believe in the virtues of technology and who spontaneously assume–given that the sense of the tragic is alien to it—that somehow things will always sort themselves out in the end. The well known American professor Thomas L. Pangle, in his study on Montesquieu and his influence on the Founding Fathers, suggests the adoption of liberal, commercial republicanism and the spirit of commerce as the best regime
fundamentally opposed, not only to insecurity, but also to both the austere civic virtue of republican antiquity and to religious self-transcendence or otherworldliness.
The bottom line is the reconciliation of religion with optimism inherited from the Enlightenment and embedded in the direction pointing toward the future and the mystique of progress. From John Winthrop to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Americans have never given up on the belief in progress, which often leads them to the conclusion that material and technological developments will also bring about the betterment of mankind. In this world of ours, only through the hoarding of material goods can a person be saved. Hence the idea of “redemption” through the conversion to the American way of life. Calvinism had already tried to solve this problem of “predestination” by interpreting material success as a sign of divine election. The glorification of individual performance, the spirit of capitalism, the pacifying virtues of “smooth trade,” all of this nurtures hopes that the accumulation of wealth will someday erase all evil. Evil becomes a “mistake,” a state of imperfection that must be eventually surpassed by increased trade and economic “development.” From now on, it is no longer ethics that justify interests but interest that attempt to justify ethics. In his letter of 1814, addressed to Thomas Law, Jefferson wrote: “The answer is that nature has constituted utility to man the standard and best of virtue.” One hundred years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes added,
the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
It seems that in America truth has become a commercial issue.
Televangelists preach the “prosperity gospel”—getting rich is a sign of getting saved—before making their constant fundraising appeals.
The Puritans had retained from Locke the idea that all other human rights derive from “natural right of property.” For Madison, “the first goal of the government” is to ensure the acquisition of property. In 1792, he said: In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” Rights are interpreted as inherent attributes of human nature, something that individuals possess because of their membership to the human species, and it is those rights that governments are bound to “ensure.”
The New Right totally rejects this notion of subjective rights, which are absolutely opposed to the traditional notion of objective law. In this view, law is an equity relationship, enabling everyone to get what he deserves. Similarly, the New Right rejects the idea that private property must be an absolute.
Such an idea of man was inherent to the foundations of a society, aptly described by Ezra Pound as a “purely commercial
civilization.” His words echo Tocqueville’s:
The passions that agitate the Americans most profoundly are commercial passions and not political passions, or rather, they carry the habits of trade into politics.
America is certainly not the first commercial republic in history, but it is the first one to have posited that nothing whatsoever should limit economic activities, as it is the cherished means of achieving the betterment of all mankind. Being on his own, the individual counts in so much as his external activity keeps growing. Naturally, only his economic performance will properly measure his worth. “In America,” wrote Hermann Keyserling, “people really believe that the rich are superior simply because they have money; in America, having money creates, in fact, moral rights.”
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno observed from their perspective:
Here in America, there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position, and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man’s inner character. Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth..
Capitalist competition represents the most ethical tribunal: the rich are the “winners,” and the “winners” are the righteous. This is the primacy of civilization of having over the civilization of being.
Such traits do not lend themselves to meditative thinking and inner reflection. When the link to others is solely nurtured by the respect for material goods and the Dollar Almighty, the result is alienation with no bounds. For the Americans, notes Anaïs Nin in his diary, “it is a sin to have an inner life.” These words may sound excessive, yet they reflect the same conclusions made by the American Christopher Lasch. In the United States there is a consistent trend to believe that intelligence must be reduced to technical knowledge and that the fixation on economic matters should help dispense with the world of pure ideas. Whoever attempts to express an original and profound idea runs the risk of encountering the answer: “Don’t be so negative. Keep it practical! Stay positive!”
For the Founding Fathers, the purpose of the government was to ensure the “inalienable rights” of individuals who were “created equal.” Thusly, political life was reduced to morality and law. The American dissident HL Mencken quipped that the very opposite was true:
The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top, there is no limit to oppression.
In the United States, political action must always begin with a sudden surge of moral awareness (“Something must be done about it!”), which invariably leads to a “technical” examination of the subject matter under consideration. The law itself is a mode of expression that sets legal forms of moral characteristics inherent to the ideology of human rights. Hence, the extraordinary importance of lawyers in American politics, which Michel Crozier calls the “delirium of the proceedings” and “legal madness.” Meanwhile, the intrinsic superiority of private over public life must be loudly declared everywhere; “civil society” over the world of politics, business and economic competition over the common good. “An American, be he a government official or man on the street,” writes Thomas Molnar, “is convinced that politics as such is a bad thing and that people need to find something else in order to communicate and establish peaceful relations.” As I stated above, the Americans are inclined to think that evil could disappear and that it is possible to remove the tragic trait of human existence. That is why they want to abolish politics, while at the same time bring history to an end. “America was constructed in order that it can exit history,” wrote Octavio Paz. The American “neoconservative” Francis Fukuyama believed to be
able to announce its end.
Waging war has always meant for the Americans a morality “crusade.” This is why it is not enough for them to obtain military victory only. They must also annihilate the enemy, who is invariably depicted not as a leader or state that happens to be an adversary but as the incarnation of evil. Under the guise of “humanitarian intervention” or battles against “terrorists,” American wars are always “just wars,” that is to say, justa causa wars—and not wars against a justus hostis (“just enemy”). Hence, the enemy must be invariably described not just as the enemy of the moment (who could eventually also become an ally in the future), but as a criminal who deserves punishment and re-education.
The differences seem to be profound between the political thought in the continental Europe and the American mentality, marked by an economic, commercial and procedural view of the world, by the omnipresence of biblical values, as well as by technological optimism, contractualism, the language of “rights,” and the belief in progress.
I think I know the United States well, as I have sojourned there on many occasions. I have travelled in all directions, from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, from New Orleans to Key Largo, from San Francisco to Atlanta, from New York to Chicago. I have, of course, come across a number of things that I enjoyed very much. Americans are friendly and welcoming (even if human relationship is often superficial). They have a tangible sense of community. Their biggest universities offer working conditions that the Europeans could only dream about. I can’t forget the influence that American movies had on me at a time when they were not limited to special effects or superhero nonsense. Especially impressive for me were American literature figures such as Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, et al. But I also detect the reverse side of the “American way of life”: culture viewed as perishable commodities, or as “entertainment,” a technomorphic conception of human life designed to transform people into extended remote controlled terminals or computers, fake gender relations, automobile civilization and commercial architecture (there is more genuine sociability at an African local market than at an American supermarket—a prime symbol of Western nihilism), obese children groomed by television, glorification of “winners” and the obsession with consumption, fast food, a mixture of Puritans decrees and hysteric transgressions, hypocrisy, corruption, etc. Yes, I am aware of the risk of being accused of bias. But I must admit that for the America of “golden boys,” of “rednecks,” of “body-builders” and “bimbos,” of the “American dream” and cheerleaders, of “money makers” and “brokers” on Wall Street, I have no sympathy at all.
Is globalism today synonymous with Americanism? One is tempted to answer in the affirmative. The fact is that the United States has never stopped exporting its problems to the rest of the world, starting with Europe. In the opinion polls, hostility towards globalization is often accompanied by the rejection of American hegemony. Politically and culturally, globalization largely means a process of Americanization, as the dominant superpower continues to exports its merchandise, its capital, its services, its technology, but also its “industry of the imaginary,” its culture, its language, its standards of living and its own worldview.
But instead of Americanization, should it not be more appropriate to speak of “Westernization?” Many Americans consider themselves “Westerners”—with some of them even using the term “The West” as a synonym of the “white world” (politically a meaningless expression).
Etymologically, “The West” is a place where the sun sets, a place where things perish, and where history comes to an end. In the past, this term designated one of the two empires (pars occidentalis) born out of the dismemberment of the Roman Empire. Subsequently, the term became synonymous of the “Western civilization.” Today, like many other terms, it is in the process of taking on an economic aura as Western countries are primarily designed as “developed” countries. This is not a term, however, that I myself use in a positive sense. In my view, “The West” has now become the vehicle—in contrast to Europe—of a social model that has become a mirror image of nihilism. During my travels around the world, I have witnessed what happens to rooted cultures when they are affected by “The West”: traditions quickly turn into folklore for tourists, the social bond is undone, the folkways become utility oriented, the American language and the music permeate the mind, and the passion for money becomes overwhelming.
It is often understood by the expression “The West” the aggregate composed of the United States of America and Europe. But this aggregate, provided that it has ever existed, is already crumbling, as was noted some years ago by Immanuel Wallerstein. The transatlantic gap widens every day more and more. Globalization, while exacerbating competition, reveals profound divergences between European interests and American interests. On the geopolitical level, the divergences are even more glaring—the United States is a maritime power, whereas Europe is a continental power. As was shown by Carl Schmitt, the logic of Land vs. Sea represents the two conflicting logics. The Land is opposed to the Sea just as politics is opposed to commerce, the boundary to the wave, the telluric element to the oceanic element. Therefore, I do not identify as a “Westerner.” I am a European.
Seen from the angle of economics, capitalism was not born across the Atlantic, although it was there that it became incorporated into the national ideology: the primacy of contract, the downsizing of the state, the criticism of the “big government,” the advocacy of competition and free trade, etc. It is also in the United States that the concept of “governance” was born—firstly applied to business and then to political and social life. It must not come as a surprise that since 1945, the U.S. economy has become the central stage of the international financial system. It was the United States that established in 1947 the Internatioanl Monetary Fund (IMF) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), succeeded in 1995 by the World Trade Organization (WTO.) Those were the institutions that liberated capital movements in 1974 in order to finance America’s deficits. In the realm of financial capital, America still retains a much higher share compared to its industrial sector. It sets the rules for international trade, whereas its monetary policies remain the chief mechanism of regulating the financial accumulation across the globe.
Just like many Europeans, I am amazed that America’s self-titled “conservatives” defend, almost without exception, a capitalist system whose expanded methodically destroys everything that they supposedly wish to conserve. Despite the structural crisis that the capitalist system has experienced over the last couple of years, American conservatives continue to celebrate capitalism as a system that allegedly respects and guarantees individual freedom, private property, and free trade. They believe in the intrinsic virtues of the market, whose mechanism they cherish as a paradigm of all social relations. They believe that capitalism has something to do with democracy and freedom. They believe in the the necessity of perpetual economic growth. They think that consumption equals happiness and that “more” is synonymous with “better.”
Capitalism, however, is not “conservative.” It is the very opposite of it. Karl Marx already observed that the dismantlement of feudalism and the eradication of traditional cultures and values are the result of capitalism, which, in turn, drowns everything in the “icy water of egotistical calculation.” Today, the capitalist system, more than ever before, is poised toward the over-accumulation of capital. It needs more trade outlets, more and more markets, and more and more profit. Well, such a goal cannot be achieved unless everything that stands in its way is dismantled, starting with collective identities. A full-fledged market economy cannot operate in a sustained manner unless people first internalize a fashionable culture, consumption, and unlimited growth. Capitalism cannot transform the world into a vast market—which, to be sure, is its main objective—unless the planet is flattened and all people renounce their symbolic imaginations and continues to indulge in a fever for the endless accumulation of something new.
This is the reason why capitalism, in its attempt to erase borders, is also a system that has turned out to be far more effective and far more destructive than Communism. The reason for this is that the economic logic places profit above everything else. Adam Smith wrote that the merchant has no homeland other than the territory where he makes the biggest profit. It is this logic of the commodity, inspired often by the United States of America, which the New Right firmly opposes.
Translated from the French by Tomislav Sunic