Posted by: exiwp | August 9, 1986

The Divine Right of White Americans (1986)

by Deborah Green and Fred Newman

The Divine Right of White Americans: Eurocentric Ideology in the United States” first appeared in Practice: The Journal of Politics, Economics, Psychology, Sociology & Culture, 1986, Vol.4, No. 2. It was reprinted in History is the Cure: A Social Therapy Reader, published by Practice Press in 1988.

Ideology (as we will use the term) and ideological institutions are the immediate organizers of bourgeois society: they mediate the relationship between the underlying material and economic realities and people’s experience of everyday life. Ideology and ideological institutions are peculiar to class-conflicted society. Indeed, they make their first and only appearance in bourgeois class society.

The religious theology of pre-bourgeois societies could rationalize naked exploitation by one’s “natural superiors” without needing the spectacular alienation that is the particular accomplishment bourgeois ideological justifications of wage slavery. On the other hand, post-bourgeois (socialist) societies are post-ideological: the socialist state is openly proclaimed as the tool of the working class and is vigorously propagandized as such–having abolished exploitation, there is no historic need for it to seem “above” exploitation, and propaganda–pure and simple–replaces ideology.

This paper will examine the rise and fall of American ideology, or–to make the historical-materialist point–the ideology of America’s rise and fall. Ideology doesn’t rise and fall; a civilization rises and falls and ideology accompanies civilization on that trip, rationalizing all along the way.

In order to study, from a Marxist point of view, the change in American ideology from 1776 to the present, we must examine how this very complex set of beliefs, symbols, myths, logic, and philosophy has been subtly altered and transformed so as to justify a system of exploitation that has likewise gone through subtle and not-so-subtle changes since the eighteenth century. Exploitation itself has a history. It transforms and changes as the social, economic, political, and cultural conditions of a civilization transform. Thus, ideology must also change in order to continue to serve as the rationalization of that evolving mode of exploitation.

To say that ideology “rationalizes” exploitation is perhaps not sufficiently dialectical, for it seems to imply that the exploiting class somehow conspires to invent a pack of lies to successfully deceive the oppressed classes and conceal the source of their oppression. But while it is tempting and not wholly inaccurate to identify the U.S. ruling class as a pack of liars, this understanding of ideology ascribes to the dominant class a false voluntarism and denies that they themselves are historically determined. The social function of ideology is not so much to hide the truth with blatant lies, but rather to establish that how things are is how things need to be. Ideology springs up from the class struggle between the feudal ruling class and the bourgeoisie, as the mode of interpretation of the victorious class. Even as it functions as a rationalization for a system of exploitation, ideology grows in some fundamentally organic way out of the system of exploitation itself. It is the intellectual, the attitudinal, the symbolic product of the system of exploitation itself. Therefore, it is identifiable not as some superimposed myth or symbol; rather, it comes to be identified as natural, as exactly what any rational human being would believe. (In bourgeois society, rationality comes to be linked to private property. According to John Locke (MacPherson, 1962), only men of property were capable of rationality and thus only they were competent to be parties to the social contract of bourgeois society.

Though profoundly biased, ideology is not biased by virtue of having been created in some fictional manner by the bourgeoisie. It is biased in the manner of science, not of the novel. It is produced by the organization of production itself, and the control of the ideology is to some extent merely a byproduct of the control of the means of production that yields the ideology.

Ideology explains how the world has to be if production is to go on and we are to survive. And how the world has to be is fundamentally how it is. The essence of ideology is the exclusion of historical understanding from society’s epistemology. The bourgeoisie need not propagandize that this is the “best of all possible worlds”; it merely asserts that this is the only world possible. It can do this as long as the social material conditions that gave rise to the ideology continue to be coherent with the ideology–that is, as long as people in their everyday lives find that the ideology makes sense–“seems natural” to them.

Consider, for example, the principal component of bourgeois ideology, the social contract (in its most developed and sophisticated form, bourgeois democracy). The contract of bourgeois society asserts that the people in the society are free–that is, that the people, not the government, are sovereign and the government rules only by consent of the governed. The social contract guarantees “freedom” and it can be made to accommodate historically changing notions of fairness. As long as people have the experience that this is true, that they can make the system work for them (through the struggle for reforms or elections, for example) there is no great incoherency between the ideology and the material life of which it is a biased interpretation.

During most of U S history, the ideology of democracy has been sufficiently coherent with people’s everyday understanding so as to virtually guarantee that there could be no revolutionary break. This is not to say that there were not moments of extreme crisis, the most extreme, no doubt, caused by pressure exerted by the disenfranchised segments of the population who were de facto (and, in some cases, de jure) excluded from the social contract. The Civil War, the union struggles, the social unrest following the Great Depression, and the civil rights struggles of Blacks and women all come to mind here. However, it each critical juncture, the bourgeoisie was able to reconcile the crisis at hand (or rather, resolve it semi-progressively, while raising the historical contradiction to a new level).

American ideology, American democracy, could adapt to these pressures–indeed, the bourgeoisie could synthesize its opposition and effectively eliminate it as a revolutionary force. And the very resolving of these crises through reforms (which were, on a Marxist view, merely a postponement of the crisis and the raising of it to a new level) provided the material basis for the ideology of American exceptionalism (a “history-proof” ideology).

Some capitalist societies have not had the extraordinary material conditions and resources that American society has had at its disposal. These bourgeoisies have not had, in moments of extreme crisis, the resources to put their money where their ideological mouths were, to synthesize independent revolutionary forces through progressive bourgeois reforms. These societies (Nazi Germany provides the prototypical example) could not close the ideological gap between the state and the oppressed classes. The liberal ideology of bourgeois society is a luxury that a state trying to maintain control of a society that is economically ruined can ill-afford. In such cases a new mode of interpretation is necessary if the bourgeoisie is to maintain its class domination of the society. The social contract that binds together oppressor and oppressed as “equal citizens under the law” disintegrates in the now violent and irreconcilable contradictions of civil society. The bourgeoisie finds it necessary to wage open class warfare for the second time in its history, this time against the class which it brought into existence–“its own gravediggers.”

In such moments of extreme crisis in capitalist production, a most fascinating (and fascistic) thing happens, ideologically speaking. In those moments, some people do conspire to develop an ideological perspective that they then successfully, through political action, insert into the normal channels of institutional, ideological brainwashing; and a society’s understanding of the world is profoundly transformed in a relatively short period of time, despite the fact that the content of this new ideology is bogus on its face, something that no “rational” human being would believe. This ideological transformation can be accomplished because the complex system for the dissemination of ideology–all the institutional channels–is so identified as normal and real by virtue of its coherent relationship to the material system of production and distribution that it is possible to insert what is even contrary to common sense, and have it believed. One comes to depend so much on the reliability of certain features of society’s infrastructure, like the delivery of water, that it would be possible to put something foul-tasting, even poisonous, in the water, and people would no doubt consume it (indeed, they have), believing that nothing harmful could possibly come out of so normal and natural a system of distribution. We are conditioned to believe in these social, natural, and ideological systems through decades and centuries of institutionalization.

These moments of backroom capitalist ideology-making are moments which we identify in political terms as fascism. In such periods, relatively small groupings of people (typically, petit-bourgeois elements) seize control of the political apparatus and literally insert poison into the ideological system (thereby gaining enormous credibility for myths that are completely outrageous) even as capitalism remains strategically in control.

One need only look at the fundamental tenets of the Nazis or of apartheid South Africa, or the premises of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–of social oppression in its most extreme and virulent forms. How can any rational person hold these beliefs? In the case of political fascism, one buys in on these beliefs by virtue of the fact that they are presented in the same cup as the more traditional ideological expressions, and so one drinks them down.

To study the ideology that accompanies the rise and fall of American civilization involves first studying the ideology that justified exploitation in its “normal” form, the form that contributed to the growth of the most powerfully liberal (indeed, bourgeois-utopian) society in the history of human civilization. Then we must examine the evolution of the new American ideology, which is the ideology necessary to justify the distinctly coercive, non-reactionary–indeed, potentially fascistic–form of exploitation that this country and civilization are moving toward, as all capitalist societies do in their decline.

What was the “normal” form of exploitation that characterized the period of American capitalism’s rise? Capitalism, in all national sectors, has its genesis in a process that Marxists call primitive accumulation, the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. The history of this expropriation of the feudal lower classes by the emerging bourgeois class is, as Marx points out, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (1967, p. 715). Robbery, conquest, enslavement, and murder were the means employed to establish the conditions of capitalist production, which alone are capable of producing the surplus value to be accumulated, and / thus of producing capitalist property.

A look at the historical-material origins of American capitalism reveals that its genesis is inextricably tied to racist exploitation. The expropriation of people of color was as fundamental to the rise of the American form of capitalism as the enclosures were to the development of capitalism in its “classical” form in England. In America, the primitive accumulation of capital needed to establish the foundation for capitalist production was accomplished through the total expropriation of the Native Americans (from whom was extracted the land, the first factor of production) and the super-exploitation of African slaves (who supplied the labor power).

To be sure, as Marx (and later, more extensively, Rosa Luxemburg) pointed out, the expropriation of people of color was a world-historic (and not simply a local) event, and was always an essential feature of world capitalist accumulation (primitive and “normal”) … the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World” (Marx, 1967, pp. 759760).

However, the unity of history, the world-historic nature of exploitation, while visible and relevant to revolutionaries, is not so to local ruling classes, who are concerned first and foremost to rationalize to the populations on which they depend the local mode of exploitation that is the direct experience of their societies. Specifically racist expropriation was not the everyday reality of emerging European capitalism. But enslavement and extermination of nonwhite peoples were structurally integral to the birth and early development of American capitalism, and racist exploitation at home (through the maintenance of a permanent underclass) and abroad (through the imperialist expansion that started even before the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783) has been the essential and recognizable economic ingredient in America’s phenomenal prosperity and privilege. American ideology has thus had, as its primordial task, the justification of racism; and the American weltanschauung has been over-determined by this fact. The far Right in this country, vulgar racists that they are, understands this fact much more profoundly than the infantile U.S. Left. The right wing understands that there cannot be a bourgeois America that changes its fundamental perspective on the exploitation of the Afro-American population.

Thus, American ideology is an “exceptional” capitalist ideology. I is a unique bourgeois development, though of course a logical (not to mention historical!) extension of the ideology that rationalized the centuries-long purgatory of the European peasant-turned-proletarian. Let us examine briefly the development of this European bourgeois ideology that our so-called “Founding Fathers” imported (along with their Madeira, their furniture, their altar cloths, and other products of “advanced civilization”) and transformed on American soil.

In the American colonies, capitalist property walked ashore with the first gentlemen-adventurers, in the form of a royal charter for the mercantilist exploitation of crown colonies. In England and on the Continent, however, it required a series of revolutions and momentous upheavals to make its appearance. Europe in the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century went through the economic, religious, social, and cultural upheavals that replaced feudal exploitation with capitalist exploitation. As Marx points out, the starting point of the development that gave rise to both the capitalist and the proletarian classes was the change in the servitude of the laborer from serf or bondsman to wage laborer (Marx, 1967, p. 715). The process of alienating the producer from his means of production, accomplished primarily through the total expropriation of the agricultural producer, transformed the social means of production into capital and the immediate producers into “free” proletarians, hurled onto the labor market.

The European bourgeoisie evolved out of the same population (culturally, socially, and racially) as the proletariat, and to a significant degree, shared peasant class origins with the proletariat. The Europeans had the practical experience of two new classes emerging (and bitterly struggling with each other) in the context of the rapidly revolutionizing mode of production called capitalism. In an incredibly short period of time, whole branches of industry would be revolutionized, producing an abundance of goods that no one could have dreamed of, and a depopulation and decay of the countryside that was likewise unsettling to traditional ways. The agricultural sector was likewise a scene of startling transformations–a 99-year lease or tenancy-in-lives would expire and a peasant family’s way of life, which stretched back to the Middle Ages, would be “torn asunder” by the erstwhile feudal lord converting their mutual feudal title to the property into his capitalist title.

In spite of the calamitous social dislocations caused by the transition from feudalism to capitalism, no one could deny that the result was progress. The gradual shift from artisan production organized by the guilds, to manufacturing organized by the bourgeois class had a quantitative impact on demand, which quickly outgrew the productive forces as they were then organized. This increased world demand was, as Marx says, the motive power for calling into existence both the possibility and necessity for big industry. With the development of mass production through the application of machinery to the productive process (the Industrial Revolution), the social demand for manufactured commodities increased dramatically and qualitatively transformed the entire society.

The capacity to mass produce cheap (relative to the products of artisan production) goods transformed the mass psychology of the population. The bourgeoisie, in demonstrating what “productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor” (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 66), transformed not only their own class but the entire society’s concept of human nature. Mankind, not God or nature, was now recognizably the producer of all value. The enormous productivity of this new economic system called capitalism was evident to all and ultimately beneficial (though very unevenly) to all. And the ideology that grew organically out of this historically transforming mode of exploitation (serf labor into wage labor) at the same time that it rationalized this incredibly productive form of exploitation was the Ideology of progress.

For Europeans, progress is understood as evolving directly from class conflicts: on the one side, the aristocratic class, the forces of reaction and absolutism, on the other, the champions of freedom (“freedom” associated explicitly in the seventeenth century with private property), the bourgeoisie and those they recruited to fight “the enemies of their enemies”–the proletariat. The ideology of progress was elaborated in the works of the social contract philosophers, including Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, among others. These early bourgeois ideologues used the paradigm of the social contract as a way of explaining how the power relationships in the emerging market economy needed to be organized in order for a society that acknowledged the freedom and equality of individuals to keep from tearing itself apart. The feudal hierarchy (and its crumbling under the onslaught of main bulwark, the Church) was the market economy (and the Protestant Reformation); men more and more confronted each other as buyers and sellers of commodities rather than in relations of reciprocal personal obligation. Having dissolved those bonds of reciprocal obligation, men were “equal,” in the civil sense, or to use a more Hobbesian conception, they were equally insecure before the vicissitudes of the marketplace (Macpherson, 1962), and acted there in complete freedom from the fetters that bound them in the traditional feudal society.

The social contract philosophers were concerned to devise a theory of human nature and a political science that accurately depicted this new reality, this society that had slipped from the moorings of a static, traditional order. At the same time, as partisans of the emerging bourgeois class, they were concerned with advancing a justification of this evolving order. In describing the formation of the social contract–the contract of society by which men simultaneously surrender to a sovereign power the rights they would have to defend themselves if there were no common power to protect them–the philosophers were not concerned with history studied scientifically in the manner of Engels’ description of the origin of the state. In describing the “nasty, brutish, and short” existence of men “in the state of nature” (before the advent of civil society), Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were not confronting the historical question, “How did this social contract, how did this covenant of bourgeois society, come to be?” On the contrary, they were concerned first and foremost with pseudoscientific ideology, with an interpretation that answered the wholly class-circumscribed question, “Why was this social contract necessary?”

The bourgeoisie gave various answers to this question, corresponding to the level of their own development as a class. As Marx and Engels have pointed out, England provides the classic example of the development of a capitalist economy, while in France we can view the development of the bourgeois class in its prototypical form (Marx & Engels, 1964, p. 61).

While the French bourgeoisie evolved its revolutionary ideology as a tool in its efforts to smash a lingering feudal system that was stifling it, in England bourgeois ideology (with the social contract as its main pillar) evolved as a way of rationalizing a new productive system that had already emerged. As Macpherson (1962) points out, in his Leviathan Hobbes was actively polemicizing with his countrymen, urging them to bring their thinking, their notions of morality and justice, in line with the mores of the emerging market society. Observing the capitalist class in action, Hobbes discounted as fantasy feudal notions about human nature:

To which end we are to consider, that the Felicity of this life, consistent not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost any) nor Summum Bonum (greatest Good) as is spoken of in the Books of the old Moral Philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose Desires are at an end, than he, whose Senses and Imagination are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, That the object of men’s desire, is not to enjoy once only, and for one instant of time; but to assure forever, the way of his future desire (Hobbes, 1968, pp. 160161).

The “Felicity” of this new man consists not in the idle enjoyment of glittering luxuries, but in the steady accumulation of capital, not in the hoarding of use-values, but in the unlimited expansion of exchange-value. That state is best that facilitates men’s innate desire to compete with and “invade” one another in satisfaction of their pursuit of happiness (identified in bourgeois political philosophy with private property), and concerns itself chiefly with maintaining an orderly market (so that men may invade each other “peacefully”), and with protecting the fruits of that competitive struggle-property. Hobbes argued that without a “sovereign power” there can be no property; protection of private property becomes the basis of political obligation to that sovereign, in addition to being the motivation for forming the social contract in the first place.

In Leviathan, Hobbes forthrightly describes, based on empirical observation and sparing no cynical details, the behavior of that emerging class of speculators, slavers, and capital farmers who were revolutionizing English society. However, in generalizing this description to a concept of human nature, and in positing the “equality of insecurity,” Hobbes ends up believing that favorite paradigm of bourgeois economics, “perfect competition,” and with it a theory of political obligation which, on its own terms, would not include within its scope the losers in the marketplace: the vagabond, the beggar, and the “servant” (wage laborer) “who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but a hiding” (Marx, 1967, p. 176).

It was left to Locke, one of the great founders of the liberal tradition, to reconcile an all-inclusive social contract (whose sine qua non is the natural right to property) with a society that was polarizing into owners of capital and property-less workers. He accomplishes this through recourse to “the state of nature,” which for the British empiricists was a retroactive extrapolation of the actual behavior of contemporary men. In contrast to Hobbes’ conception of human existence prior to civil society–“Warre of every one against every one” (Hobbes, 1968, p. 185)Locke’s state of nature exhibits a full-blown commercial economy where men make contracts sanctioned by their natural reason and natural right to property. All men are born with equal natural rights, including the natural right to property in one’s person and capacities, and all men are free and rational.

However, as men exercise these rights and faculties in the state of nature, inequalities of property, and thus class differentials, arise.

Men bring these inequalities with them into civil society: the social contract, in enforcing the rights of property, enforces and perpetuates these inequalities. Thus, it is not the social contract per se that creates inequalities–in fact, it rests on postulates of equal natural right, which is the basis for obligating everyone under it. However, the inequality of property, which arose in the state of nature and thus is inherent in civil society, creates inequality in “rationality” (proprietorship of one’s person and capacities being the measure of humanity) and thus inequality in the capacity to be a party to the social contract. This was Locke’s justification for excluding wage laborers–the property-less–from the franchise: those who were without property were of necessity reduced to a bare subsistence existence and thus not capable of rationality, the prerequisite for exercising rights and privileges in civil society (Macpherson, 1962). Class differentials are thus natural.

Locke considered the true end of civil government to be to protect the property of rational men, who follow the law of nature, from “the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men” (Locke, 1976, p. 75). If not for the existence of the latter, there would be “no necessity that men should separate from this great and natural community [the state of nature] and associate into less combinations [civil society]” (Locke, 1976, p. 75). As we saw above, he justifies the limited franchise under the social contract with a similar argument–property-less men are, in a sense, degenerate (i.e., irrational and incapable of following natural law). Thus Locke carried over pre-capitalist (indeed, pre-feudal) notions of the inferiority of those who work (and their incapacity to rule themselves) and gives these notions a specifically bourgeois justification: these people are not inherently unequal or Inferior; their inequality results from their own failure “in the state of nature” to amass a primitive accumulation of wealth. Thus primitive accumulation, as Marx observes (fully appreciating, no doubt, the Calvinist overtones of this ideology) “plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology” (Marx, 1967, p. 713).

In the New World, as well as in the imperialized sections of the Old World, this ideology was ideally suited to justify the claims of “civilized” men to the land and natural resources, at the expense of “primitive” societies that had no conception of private property. The “Red Indian” of the Americas crops up constantly in the literature of bourgeois political philosophers, in England and on the Continent, as an either idealized or degraded example of the human species before the advent of civil society and the protection of property such society affords. The actual, communal property relations of the Native Americans, and other imperialized peoples (not to mention the fast-disappearing communal property of the European peasantry) was systematically disregarded.

We shall examine the transformation of Lockean property theory on American soil later on. Locke’s social contract theory, with its corollary theory of liberty as ownership of property (i.e., freedom from dependence on others) was a masterful adaptation of traditional natural law theory to what he empirically observed to be going on in Great Britain, circa 1690: the rising dominance, politically and economically, of a new class that lived by the exploitation of wage labor. In contrast to the Continental bourgeoisie, the English bourgeoisie owed their class dominance to evolutionary political processes (paralleling the evolving capitalist economy) rather than to revolution. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 put control of the state solidly into the hands of the Whigs, the party of capital, but left the English with a constitution that was still, in the words of our own Tom Paine, “the base remains of two ancient tyrannies [the King and the House of Lords], compounded with some new republican materials [the House of Commons]” (Paine, 1953, p. 7).

The ideology that evolved organically out of the particular experience of the English bourgeoisie consolidating itself as a class was empiricistic and liberal. For the English empiricists, the power of human beings lay in their ability to adapt and conform to “nature”–nature understood, as we saw above, relative to historically determined human perception of it, as an extrapolation of human behavior. The political practice that accords with this philosophy is liberalism. The liberal state that began to emerge in seventeenth century England could claim to represent all the people (capitalists as well as wage laborers) because it did not have as its function the enforcement of distinctions or rank among people–that was left up to the competitive struggle among individuals, which for Locke took place in the state of nature, and for Marx in the sphere of civil society. The accomplishment of this liberal bourgeois state, as Marx points out, is to abolish inequality in the political sphere, while presupposing class differentials in civil society:

The state abolishes, after its fashion, the distinctions established by birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it decrees that birth, social rank, education, occupation are nonpolitical distinctions, when it proclaims, without regard to these distinctions, that every member of society is an equal partner in popular sovereignty . Far from abolishing these effective differences, it only exists so far as they are presupposed. (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 8).

In Locke’s time, the state had still not “abolished” such distinctions as religion, property, and rank. The history of liberalism is the history of reform (not revolution)the successive political emancipation of different layers of society, as such emancipation was necessary for the progressive consolidation of bourgeois power. As capitalism developed in England the dispossessed passed from the traditional political disregard of the Middle Ages to open persecution (Locke himself was an advocate of draconian anti-poor legislation), to political emancipation and enfranchisement as the bourgeoisie were “compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena” (Marx, 1964, p. 112).

On the Continent, the bourgeois class was likewise obliged to appeal for assistance to the lower orders of society in its struggle with the ancient regime. The political theory of the social contract, developed for example, by Rousseau, was more revolutionary than that of the English empiricists, corresponding both to the rationalist philosophical tradition of the Continent and to the undeveloped state of the bourgeois class and the bourgeois system of exploitation. Hemmed in by the anachronistic persistence of feudal economic conditions and the political power of absolute monarchy and the Church, the Continental bourgeoisie, particularly in France, embraced a political theory of liberty that was more ideal (or universal) and less grounded in the material economic realities of class exploitation than that of the English empiricists (for the simple reason that the French did not have, before their eyes as it were, empirical evidence of such an unfettered capitalist exploitation). “The theory which for the English still was simply the registration of fact becomes for the French a philosophical system” (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 112).

The Continental bourgeois ideology evolved from the philosophical tradition of rationalism. This tradition comes complete with a transcendental view of nature that is much more liberated than the empiricists’ conservative view that what is real is what can be perceived–a view that is thus intrinsically grounded in the status quo. For the rationalists, what we perceive instantiates a larger, truer reality, or “nature”; the task, then, is to get at the truth behind the appearances, and from this flows the profound rationalist commitment to pure reason.

In contrast to the empiricist view, the rationalist posture toward nature is not to adapt. Man should recognize his position as past of that transcendent nature that has been repressed and distorted by sovereign powers that are against nature and reason: “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains” (Rousseau, 1968 p. 49). Men are free by nature; it is only due to the illegitimate (and unnatural) usurpations of the contemporary political order that men are enslaved. Rousseau’s social contract is not a rationalization of the status quo, but a radical rejection of it that extends to men in general (and in the abstract) and not to a particular class. Rousseau explicitly rejects the assumptions of acquired inequality that Hobbes and Locke derived through empirical observation of their capitalist society. Such inequality, whether or not it arises in the “state of nature,” is not the natural condition of man: “But if there are slaves by nature, it is only because there has been slavery against nature. Force made the first slaves; and their cowardice perpetuates their slavery” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 32). The question Rousseau takes up in Du Contrat Social is: How can men recover and perfect their natural state of freedom? Unlike earlier social contract theories, Rousseau’s social contract does not conclude with the surrender of power (either provisionally or permanently) to a sovereign individual or body of individuals: “These authors show us the human race divided into herds of cattle, each with a master who preserves it only in order to devour its members” (Rousseau, 1968, p. 51). For Rousseau, the community formed by the contract of society may be self-governing in the most perfectly democratic way. There is no distinction between ruler and ruled and each individual alienates himself totally to the community, forming thereby an artificial “public person” or republic which, since it is identical to the individuals in society, is not set over against them.

Finally, since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one; and since there is no associate over whom he does not gain the same rights as others gain over him, each man recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has (Rousseau, 1968, p. 61).

The people in the republic are both state (their passive, governed aspect) and sovereign (their active, governing aspect), and are directed by the “general will,” which Rousseau takes to be the norm of society, the natural inclination of men of reason, the harmony of interests among human beings that makes society possible in spite of the existence of individuals with individual wills.

Nor is the creation of civil society a negative contract (as it is in the liberal tradition) under which men, compelled by the necessity of protecting their property, must give up a portion of their liberty. Totally rejecting the Lockean view of the state as a necessary contrivance to protect the liberty and property of industrious men from the “covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious” (Locke, 1976, p. 21) property-less masses, Rousseau views the state as positively promoting the welfare of men by redressing the imperfections of what may have Y transpired in the state of nature:

. the social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right (Rousseau, 1968, p. 6).

In civil society, men most completely realize their liberty because they acquire “moral freedom”–obedience to a law they make themselves, as opposed to natural liberty, a form of slavery where one is governed by appetite alone Rousseau thus launches the idealization of the bourgeois national state, the ideal of the state as a progressive force that lifts mankind from a lower to a more advanced condition. This idea was brilliantly developed by Hegel (and fruitfully critiqued by Marx) and became an important but less dominant tradition in bourgeois ideology. It is the philosophical foundation of the extreme left and right ends of the spectrum of bourgeois ideology, while the broad, dominating center is informed by the tradition of contractual liberalism.

Compared with Locke’s conservative advocacy of majority rule and denunciation of absolute, arbitrary power (which in realpolitik terms meant supporting Parliament over the king)

Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social made the revolutionary call for democracy. The very backwardness of the French national sector forced the French bourgeoisie to be a revolutionary class. The English bourgeoisie had a vested interest in characterizing what is real as what could be perceived–what existed already. The ideology of the French bourgeoisie, in order for it to be a spur to rebellion, needed to characterize what was real or natural as what could be.

Having liberty as an ideal rather than a reality tended to universalize it–it was the right of all people. It was both the strength and the weakness of the French revolution of 1789 that it was a multi-class revolt. The actual experience of the bourgeoisie fighting side by side with the lower classes against a reactionary ruling class gave a basis to the claim that the goals of the revolution–liberty, equality, fraternity–were the rights of man and not just of a particular class or rank. The outcome of the revolution–and in this sense it was a true bourgeois revolution and not just a civil war ending with reforms–was a republic, not merely constitutional limits on absolutism. On the other hand, to the extent, that the economic basis for the existence of the bourgeois class was not fully developed in France (and the ideology thus deprived of its positive economic content) the bourgeoisie could not immediately consolidate its revolution and its class domination. Subsequent, less pure revolutions (1830, 1848, 1851) were required–in the words of Marx, history repeating itself as farce–before the bourgeois class became hegemonic in France.

With the export of capitalism and the bourgeois class to America, the European ideology of progress transformed into a uniquely American variant–the ideology of destiny. The concept of America as the Land of Destiny, where capitalism and bourgeois democracy would attain their ultimate realization, is critical to understand as the ideological companion piece to forms of exploitation (genocide and slavery) that were not only repulsive and extreme than the European version, but that also did not, in historical fact, bring progress to the exploited as well as to the exploiter.

Progress alone could not justify genocide and slavery; destiny was required.

The founders of the American republic, almost all of whom were either slaveholders or those whose mercantile fortunes were founded on the slave trade, were themselves profoundly organized by this conception of destiny. The notion of a people uniquely favored by Providence with an enormous “empty” continent, fabulously rich in natural resources, a kind of political tabula rasa on which they could for the first time in history construct a form of government ex nihilo (treating Native Americans as “nothing”), conforming to the requirements of the bourgeois class, with no anachronistic fetters–this was the quasi-religious conception that rallied the American bourgeoisie at each crisis in its struggle to create the American utopia:

We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present has not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months (Paine, 1953, p. 51).

For Thomas Paine (perhaps the most “French,” the most truly revolutionary of all early American bourgeois ideologues) America’s cause of democracy was transcendent–the “cause of all mankind.” But as this social vision was actualized in the creation of the American state and American capitalism, this progressive impulse from the Enlightenment underwent a gruesome transformation into the “manifest destiny” of white American capitalists to deprive other races of their life, liberty, and property.

The essence of American ideology is this contradiction: the importation of the ideology of progress from Europe (where it had evolved out of what was a progressive class struggle) and the use of that ideology to justify a no-contest fight with Native Americans and the enslavement of African people. In Europe, as we have pointed out, the primitive accumulation of capital needed to establish the capitalist system of production, and the consolidation of the bourgeois-democratic state needed to consolidate bourgeois class domination, were accomplished in fits and starts in a long struggle within the nation state, among people who shared a common ethnicity. (Indeed, nationalism was often one of the impulses that coalesced the classes and propelled the revolution.) Though the victory belonged to the bourgeoisie (because, as Marx points out) the historical movement was concentrated in the hands of the bourgeois class) the bourgeoisie had in the process brought the proletariat into existence as a political class, as partners bound to them by the new social contract of wage labor.

In America, the primitive accumulation of capital needed to establish capitalist relations of production was accomplished in the manner of comprador bourgeoisies–through forms of exploitation that engender a surplus but that do not transform the exploited class into a modern proletariat, but rather reduce it to a marginal existence. The American bourgeoisie did not struggle with a feudal ruing class but with the British bourgeoisie and the paternalism of the British mercantile system–that is, with their capitalist competition. And the object of their struggle was not the revolutionary reconstitution of class society but a shift of the center of economic empire.

As to government matters, it is not in the power of Britain to do this continent justice. The business of it will soon be too weighty and intricate to be managed with any tolerable degree of convenience by a power so distant from us and so very ignorant of us; for if they cannot conquer us, they cannot govern us . Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care, but there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island (Paine, 1953, p. 26).

In the American ideology of destiny, geography itself is presented as a rationalization, first for independence–“Even the distance at which the Almighty has placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other was never the design of heaven” (Paine, 1953, p. 23)–and then, for imperialistic expansion. As Weinberg remarks, American ideologues early seized on “geographical predestination” as a justification for bending traditional natural law principles of foreign relations to suit their imperialistic intentions. [T]o quote Thomas Jefferson, “Our geographical peculiarities may call for a different code of natural law to govern relations with relations with other nations from that which the conditions of Europe give rise to” (Weinberg, 1935, p. 29). Invoking their “natural right to territorial security,” Americans negated the right to self-determination of others, thus perverting the fundamental principle upon which all the natural right philosophers of the European Enlightenment based their ideological systems: the universal right to political liberty. The justification for the pragmatic adjustment of “natural law” (which is already, in its Enlightenment version, a bourgeois construct, like nature, itself), was a construct from a reactionary, essentially religious outlook–the notion that Americans are God’s chosen people with a mission to lead the world.

The religious ideal of destiny sustained the American colonists as they took up their white man’s burden” and began taking possession of the Promised Land from its indigenous inhabitants and converting it into a sphere of capitalist accumulation through the exploitation of slave labor. The birth of a working class emerging from the original struggle to accomplish primitive accumulation was not the history of this country. The presence of the frontier (what Frederick Jackson Turner described as the ”gate of escape”) actually discouraged the growth of a proletariat. Instead of being steadily forced into the utterly precarious position of having only their own labor power to sell, the white peasantry, throughout the period of primitive accumulation, had the option of moving farther west and preserving their status as petty commodity producers.

Similarly, the lumen-proletariat thrown off by European society, and the indentured servants and debtors imported in an unsuccessful attempt to deal with chronic labor shortages in the colonies, had always before them the option of striking out into the wilderness arid seizing land from those more helpless than they. In Europe, the peasantry was steadily forced into the proletariat; in the United States up to the time of the Civil War, potential proletarians were constantly escaping in peasantry. Furthermore, the restrictions imposed on the development of industry and manufacturing in America by British mercantile system (before the Revolution through legislation like the Navigation Acts, and after the Revolution through Britain’s comparative commercial and industrial advantage) kept the American colonies and the young republic as an agricultural, mercantile, economy; dependent on agricultural staples for the export trade, which in turn were produced by the labor of Black slaves. This slave labor force and the expropriation of the Native Americans allowed American capitalism to expand for so a long time without a bona fide proletariat.

These material conditions in which American capitalism developed put a particular stamp upon the American experience: racism is both a base and a super-structural phenomenon, both the material basis of America’s “exceptional” experience and the ideology that justifies that experience. It is another name for the “destiny” invoked by Founding Father, pioneer, robber baron, and statesman.

In America, people of color were not only extra-contractual (in the manner of the European working class before its political emancipation) but extra-societal as well. The body politic referenced in the preamble to the Constitution, “We the People of the United States.” did not embrace within its sovereignty Native Americans and Blacks. Native Americans were considered aliens, a foreign nation with which the federal government reserved the right to negotiate. Blacks were “other persons” in the famous “three-fifths” clause–a non-citizen population added to the southern states to make the representation and tax burden more commensurate with that of states that had larger white populations.

In the other two clauses of the Constitution where slaves are mentioned explicitly, it is to admit of their status as property: the slave trade was to be permitted for 20 years (and “imports” taxed!) and fugitive slaves would be returned to their owners. Subsequent interpretations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court made absolutely clear that not only slaves, but even emancipated Blacks were not to be included in “the People.” The basis of the exclusion was explicitly racial, as was clarified in the infamous Dred Scott case, where Justice Taney ruled that:

The words “people of the United States” and “citizens” are synonymous terms and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives . The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea of abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty. We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 404405 (1856)).

In the framing of the United States Constitution, the contractual and conservative liberalism of Locke predominated over the more transcendent and absolute notion of the “rights of man” of the Continental tradition, reflecting the propertied and slaveholder status of its ratifiers. However, this imported liberalism, as we pointed out above, was not organic to the American experience, and it assumed the pragmatic and commercial cast of the Founding Fathers from the outset. As William Pinkney (a southern lawyer who urged Congress to admit Missouri into the union as a slave state) pointed out, the Constitution sanctions the notion that slavery is not inconsistent with natural law and republican institutions: “The Constitution, then, admits that slavery and a republican form of Government are not incongruous. It associates and binds them up together and repudiates this wild imagination which gentlemen have pressed upon us with such an air of triumph” (Hollingsworth & Wiley, 1961, p. 278).

Justice Taney rejects the possibility that the founders of the republic were hypocrites for asserting that all men were created equal, while at the same time holding men in slavery: “Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men–high in literary acquirements–high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting” (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 410 (1856)). From an objective point of view they were, of course, profound hypocrites. The “common consent to exclude from the body politic people of African ancestry was not as universally accepted in the “civilized and enlightened portions of the world” as Justice Taney implies and the Founding Fathers were sufficiently challenged by the more radically egalitarian notions of human liberty coming out of France to mount a political and legislative offensive against them during the 1790s (the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798).

“I know not what to make of a republic of 30 million atheists” was John Adams’ disapproving commentary on the French Revolution (Spurlin, 1969 p. 93).

Yet it would be a mistake to believe that they were simply hypocrites. The ideology by which these Americans were organized (and which they used to organize their class power) arose organically out of the particular forms of exploitation that were making this new bourgeois republic possible.

The Lockean ideal of the liberty of man in society–to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent of the governed–could coexist with slavery precisely because it was slave labor that created the material conditions (the primitive accumulation) for the foundation of a bourgeois state and a capitalist economy in this country. The use of populations that were extra-societal to do the dirty work of launching the development of U.S. capitalism reinforced the ideological image of the white population (both bourgeois and proletarian) of America as the land of milk and honey, where the streets were paved with gold. This development on the basis of a permanent underclass spared the white proletariat from being themselves the sphere of primitive accumulation as they had been in Europe. Imported at a later date to fuel the expanded reproduction (as opposed to primitive accumulation), the white European proletariat enjoyed an objectively privileged position which made them vulnerable to the ideology of the American Dream, which can be accurately described as the myth of a society with no working class. The privileges that white America enjoyed (and still enjoy!) in this land of opportunity were made possible by the vicious exploitation and expropriation of peoples beyond the pale of that society. This arrangement was portrayed as one of the special dispensations of Providence to its chosen people. The contradictions of this arrangement were rationalized by the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

The European bourgeoisie struggled to get God out of the nation state, to replace the divine right of kings with the secular notion of popular consent that is fundamental to the ideology of bourgeois democracy. As this ideology transformed in America, Locke’s theory of popular consent (the people consent to the state) was pragmatically synthesized with Rousseau’s notion of the sovereignty of the people (the people are the state) to produce a very ambiguously defined state whose internal conflicts are played out in the ongoing antagonism between the federal government and states’ rights. In Europe, having dispensed with divinely inspired hierarchies that all questions of right, the bourgeoisie viewed the human condition as a conflict between the liberty of the individual and the welfare of the commonwealth; the bourgeois resolution to this conflict was either the social contract, which brought civil society (Hobbes, Locke) or the metaphysical negation of the distinction between the welfare of a (rational) individual and the welfare of the commonwealth. In the United States, this conflict was reinterpreted as the liberty of the American individual versus the liberty of non-Americans (first Native Americans and Blacks, then Mexicans, Cubans Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Hawaiians, Dominicans, Hondurans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Vietnamese. etc.), and could be resolved only by putting God back into the state: instituting the divine right of white Americans.

Separation of church and state notwithstanding, God and his lightning bolt, Destiny, have been a permanent part of US history. But until very recently, He did not run for President.

Now, with America fast turning from normalcy to structural and perpetual crisis, neo-fascistic Fundamentalism–always latent in American society–has become a more manifest fundamental political phenomenon.

During the normal period of American history, God ruled from on high. Now, the earliest stages of its final crisis, the Deity walks among us in the white racist garb of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert, Phyllis Schlafly, and the 20 million voters whom they control. Like the foul water that everyone is willing to drink because it pours from normal faucets, Fundamentalism quickly makes its fascistic face seem normal because God and Destiny were always a core–albeit liberally repressed–component of American ideology. Reagan’s barely subliminal message in 1984 and the Fundamentalists’ explicit message for now (and as long as they last), is clear and must be remembered well by all Americans of progressive inclination. What is the message? “Long live the divine right of white Americans!” Such is the history of American destiny.


Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 US 393, 404405, 410 (1856).

Hobbes, T. (1968), Leviathan, England, Penguin Books.

Hollingsworth, JR. & Wiley, B.I. (1961), American Democracy, A Documentary Record, Volume I, New York, Thomas Y Crowell.

Locke, J. (1976), The Second Treatise Of Government (An Essay Concerning The True Original Extent And End Of Civil Government, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Macpherson, C.B. (1962), The Political Theory Of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes To Locke, London, Oxford University Press.

Marx, K. (1967), Capital, Volume I, New York, International Publishers.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1964), The Communist Manifesto, New York, Washington Square Press, Marx, K, & Engels, F (1970), The German Ideology, C.J., Arthur, editor, New York, International Publishers.

Paine, T. (1953), Common Sense And Other Political Writings, Nelson F. Adkins, editor, Indianapolis, The Liberal Arts Press.

Rousseau, J.J. (1968). The Social Contract. England: Penguin Books.

Spurlin, P.M. (1969), Rousseau in America, Alabama, University of Alabama Press.

Weinberg, A.K. (1935). Manifest Destiny: A Study Of Nationalist Expansionism In American History, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press.


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