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Issue #1487      2  February 2011

Culture & Life

The greatest nation on Earth?

Commenting on US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress, one of the leaders of the Republican Party, currently the dominant party in Congress, made the following remarkable statement: “Limited government and free enterprise have helped make America the greatest nation on Earth.”

He didn’t say it tongue in cheek, he wasn’t being ironic: he was serious. Like many Americans, from all walks of life, he seemed to actually believe it. Incredible, I know, for the evidence that all is not well in the USA is only too visible.

Look at the frequency of school massacres, the huge number of people in prison (especially black people), the constant attacks on science, the mind numbing ignorance and superstition, the blatant disregard for democracy even as the populace is being assured that democracy is the cornerstone of the country’s government.

Look at the depictions of contemporary US cities in films and TV shows. The scene is not credible unless it includes at least a mention of the homeless. Often the homeless become key parts of the scenery, scenery every American recognises as real.

What does not get shown nearly as much is the vista common to the inner city areas of most US cities: endless streetscapes of boarded up blocks of flats, empty, falling into decay and being vandalised, while nearby homeless people sleep over subway gratings or in empty cardboard cartons and count themselves among the lucky ones.

We have written in these columns before about the huge number of US citizens surviving on government food stamps because they do not have the money to buy food, let alone pay rent.

The logical response – why doesn’t the government appropriate all those empty tenement buildings, apartment blocks and factories, make them habitable and house the homeless in them – fails to take into account the dominant US credo: those unused buildings are owned by sections of the “free enterprise” system, who do nothing except for profit. After all, remember, it’s what made America great! That, and “limited government”.

The capitalists who own those buildings, and the governments that serve their interests, would rather they stood idle than that “private” property should be taken over for public housing. The capitalists are not using the buildings, but if someone else were to use them, then the “owners” should get something for … well, simply for being the owners. That is how free enterprise works.

Such is the high cost of living in the USA that many of the homeless actually have jobs – their wages just aren’t enough to keep a roof over their heads. The “working poor” is a large slice of the US population, a slice that is not living or sharing “the American dream”, but it is certainly living and sharing in the American reality.

In his address to Congress, Obama spoke about the “threat” to American jobs posed by the economic development of China. He didn’t suggest to his listeners that perhaps they should look at China as evidence that a state-run economy could outperform a “free enterprise” one, that perhaps close economic ties to China might be the salvation of the USA’s own floundering economy.

No. He posed China as a “threat”, something to fear and hate, at the same time that some US newsagencies are carrying reports of US factories that have been given a new lease of life as the result of Chinese investment in them. The workers in the plant covered by one news report I saw were anything but hostile to the Chinese involvement in their factory. Obama’s speech writer should have gone and talked to them. He might have gotten a different perspective on “the Chinese threat”.

For much of the world, the main threat – military or economic – is actually the USA. It has far and away the most nuclear weapons, the most delivery systems, the most aggressive posture regarding their use against other countries.

It is the USA that pushes the arms race the hardest, that promotes the manufacture and purchase of new weapons to the economic detriment of recipient countries and the destabilisation of much of the world.

It is the USA that most strongly promotes and campaigns for free trade in areas where it will benefit US capitalists, while riding roughshod over local manufacturing and agriculture. On the other hand, the USA bluntly opposes free trade where it might negatively affect those same US capitalists.

The US economy has been boosted for decades by creaming off the wealth of the Third World, behind a shield of US military muscle and the World Bank. At the same time, it has burdened its economy with an unbelievably huge expenditure on arms and war preparations.

Money spent on peaceful production flows into the community, boosting an economy. Money spent on the military simply stays put – it does not flow through into other production or services: all it boosts is the bottom line of armaments companies.

The US carries the economic burden of tens of thousands of troops (with their equipment) stationed in countries all over the world. It allows US capitalists to strut around the world waving a big stick, true; but it does not add to the USA’s national wealth.

All this military expenditure does is add to the USA’s national debt which is now so high it has other imperialist states worried. And with good reason: what will happen if “the greatest country on Earth” actually goes bankrupt?

Much of the world is already looking more frequently at some form of the alternative economic system, socialism.

More importantly, what will the people of the USA do if the standard bearer for the “free enterprise system” defaults on its debt to the rest of the world? Question the basic assumptions of the system itself?

Probably, and not before time.

Meanwhile, we need to counter the absurd propaganda that the USA is the best of all possible worlds with the sharp rebuttal: No, it isn’t – there is a proven better system that is inexorably spreading around the world.  

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